Here are my journals from the Maine and New Hampshire sections of the NFCT, which I canoed with many different friends (and some of it solo). Enjoy the tales!
What have we learned?
To sum up, here are some things to think about when assessing your own use of practices from cultures other than your own:
Always remember: the power of your magic is created by your integrity. Be as impeccable as you know how to be. We are all figuring this out together, and we’ve all made individual and collective mistakes in the past. Don’t get bogged down in guilt and shame, but once you know better, do better.
Johnson, Lyla June. “The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe.” https://whiteawake.org/2018/01/31/the-vast-and-beautiful-world-of-indigenous-europe/
Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012, pp. 1.40. https://www.latrobe.edu.au/staff-profiles/data/docs/fjcollins.pdf
Federici, Sylvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. 2004.
For training in open-source priestess/priestx/priest skills in a culturally aware setting:
The Way of the Weaver, a spiritual training taught by Murphy Robinson and Jamie Waggoner:
Asking Good Questions
In part one of this series we examined the nature of cultural appropriation, and in part two we explored how the capitalist context we live in limits our ability to share ideas freely, and can even inhibit our ability to ethically act upon knowledge and guidance we receive directly from our plant allies. In this third part of the series, we’ll look at some helpful questions for the constantly evolving process of navigating these tricky waters in a good way.
This teaching I received about cultural appropriation was from my friend Jude, who is a white pagan priestess of Jewish descent. She told me that facing cultural appropriation is not about learning one clear set of rules and sticking to it, because nobody agrees on what those rules should be, and often each situation is unique. Facing cultural appropriation is always going to be an ongoing conversation and self-inquiry about what you are doing, who it is impacting, and what is ethical. The three sets of questions she recommends asking are:
A complimentary insight that I received was from Darcy Ottey, a white woman who has spent most of her life leading land-based youth rite of passage experiences. Darcy was one of my teachers in a class called “Before We Were White: Ceremony and Ancestral Recovery for Anti-Racist Action,” taught through an organization called White Awake. Darcy has spent years uncovering the history and practices of her ancestors in Eastern Europe, and she gave me an eloquent understanding of cultural exchange. She explained that cultural exchange is possible only when both parties arrive at the table with gifts to share. When a white person with no understanding of their own lineage goes to a pow-wow and comes home with lots of sage sticks to burn and native chants to sing, that is not cultural exchange, because the transmission of culture only goes one way. You cannot participate in exchange if you are a beggar with nothing to give, that is just cultural taking. Once you have put in the hard work to research your own ancestral earth-based traditions, you come to the table with something to share. When an indigenous person offers to show you one of their practices, you can offer to share one of your ancestral traditions in return, and that is an actual exchange. It’s the difference between arriving at the potluck with a big hot casserole to share and arriving starving with only an empty bowl.
Now, reconstructing the practices of your indigenous European ancestors is a whole lot harder than finding someone (indigenous or not) who is happy to teach you some version of North American earth-based traditions. That is because traditional place-based European cultures have been repressed since the rise of the Roman Empire and violently enforced Christianity. Our practices have been suppressed for over two thousand years, so the trail of breadcrumbs is scanty. However, there are many people, both in Europe and around the world, who are reconstructing these traditions from the scraps of lore and archeological evidence that have come down to us. If you are prepared to do your homework, much can be discovered. Learning about relatively intact earth-based spiritual practices from non-european cultures can help give us the skills of pattern-recognition we need to comb through our own ancestral traditions and see what is hiding in plain sight. This is different from taking indigenous North American practices and pasting Europeans words or deities on top of the Native ones. What I’m talking about is familiarizing yourself with the spiritual technologies that seem to be universal to our species so that you can recognize their unique manifestation in your ancestral culture as you do your research.
In the final part of this series, I’ll share an explanded checklist of questions to ask yourself about any cultural practices you are using that might be culturally appropriative, and share some key recommended reading for deepening your understanding of this topic.
Capitalism and Animism Collide
One of the more interesting ideas I’ve encountered about cultural appropriation focuses not on spiritual practice directly, but on the effect of our economic system on the way we share ideas. This insight relates specifically to the argument about whether white people are allowed to use certain healing or ceremonial plants that are sacred to indigenous North American cultures. The argument is that cultural appropriation is only possible within capitalism, where everything from plants to medical knowledge to spiritual practices are commodified, bought, and sold. Within capitalism we have “intellectual property” and that becomes something you can buy, sell or steal (when you culturally appropriate, you are stealing it). In contrast, within an intact animist culture, each person is in direct relationship with the spirit of the plants and animals and elemental beings around them. If you are in direct relationship with White Sage and it tells you that you should burn it for purification, then that matter is between you and the plant, and no one else in an intact animist culture is going to try to mediate or gainsay that relationship or that knowledge.*
This insight is a slippery one, because if you aren’t paying attention it can seem to give you permission to do whatever the plants tell you to do. But you have to remember that we do live in a capitalist culture, and no amount of personally recusing yourself from that philosophy can actually extract you from that context. You must be accountable for your actions within that context, even if you object to the system. We can work to build a less commodified, more ensouled world, but ignoring the harm that cultural appropriation causes in our current context undermines that restoration rather than enhancing it.
A common pitfall is the issue of being given permission by indigenous people to use (and in some cases even to teach) their practices. For example, I’ve been given permission to burn sacred purifying herbs such as sage and sweetgrass by spiritual leaders such as Candi Brings Plenty (Lakota) and Sherri Mitchell (Penobscot), but that doesn’t mean that all Lakota or Penobscot people agree with them. I’ve also been gifted with sweetgrass by an indigenous woman who harvested it herself using traditional practices. So do I burn these herbs? Here’s what I’ve worked out over time for myself: If an herb from their culture is gifted to me by an indigenous person, I will accept the gift with gratitude and use it in my private personal spiritual practice. In the past, I would also use the gifted herbs in ceremonies while I was teaching students in my wilderness skills school, but only after explaining to them how it was gifted to me and what culture it came from. After a while, I realized that this probably wasn’t ethical due to the fact that I am making money from these classes. Also, I am not trained in the deeper traditions behind the use of these herbs, and wonder if I will represent them inaccurately.
Through research and discussions with friends I’ve learned that my Gaelic ancestors burned mugwort and blue vervain as sacred herbs, both of which grow well where I live. I’ve planted both of these perennial herbs on my land, and found other places I can harvest them locally to make my own dried herb bundles for ceremonial use. My current practice is to use only these and other European-based plants when I am teaching, as well as integrating them into my personal practice as my default plant allies for offerings and purification..
I don’t buy White Sage or Sweetgrass. If I for some reason I needed to buy some, perhaps as a gift to honor an indigenous elder for their teachings, I’d only buy from a indigenous owned and operated company that sourced all the herbs from indigenous harvesters and was committed to ethical harvesting practices, and I haven’t been able to find one. The sage bundles being sold in your local New Age store are likely profiting white settlers, not native people. Perhaps the reason I can’t find a native-owned commercial source for these plants is that many indigenous people consider them too sacred to exchange for money. Hint: that probably means you shouldn’t be exchanging money for them either! Try growing your own instead, and donating half your crop to indigenous-led ceremonies.
Lastly, the most confusing complication for me in figuring out cultural appropriation is that I do actually believe that spiritual energies are real. I believe that White Sage has a unique healing and cleansing property that can’t be entirely reproduced with substitutes. I believe that the gods of all cultures are real beings that can independently decide to contact you and invite you into relationship and service, regardless of your bloodline. If a plant or a god or a sacred site asks something of you, you are still responsible for the personal ethics of how you fulfill their request (and you can always decline the request if you need to). I think it’s a good idea to ask the being about your concerns about cultural appropriation directly, but in my experience the subtleties of this are sometimes lost on these Elder Beings, whose experience of time is much more expansive than our own. In that case, it’s up to you to do the research, relationship-building, and service that you need to do so that you can ethically engage in the work that’s being asked of you. It could take years, and that’s okay. Part of rejecting cultural appropriation is taking the time to do things well, no matter how long that takes. Our culture of instant gratification is what made us sloppy in the first place.
*This idea about animist and capitalist contexts was first shared with me by the herbalist Sean Donahue in June 2018, on an ancestral pilgrimage we led together in Ireland. In the time since we taught together, Sean has been confronted with serious accusations of sexual misconduct with women who were his students in the past. I send earnest prayers for healing to all parties, but still thought this particular idea was worth sharing.
At Standing Rock, I begin to understand...
I’ve found cultural appropriation to be one of the most slippery topics to understand in the fight against racism, and I want to share what I’ve learned now that I finally feel like I have a firm grasp on how to understand it and avoid it. I’m a white person of European descent practicing earth-based spirituality in North America. I’ve worked pretty hard to understand what cultural appropriation is, how it impacts the people whose culture is being appropriated, and how to practice in ways that are less likely to cause this harm. This article focuses mostly on the appropriation of spiritual practices from cultures based in North America, but the principles also apply to practices from native cultures elsewhere in the world. This essay assumes you have a general understanding that appropriating oppressed cultures materially harms those oppressed people. It contributes the erasure of authentic culture, exoticization of other cultures, the breaching of consent by stealing sacred traditions, and many other dynamics. Cultural appropriation is subtle but pervasive.
My first big awakening about cultural appropriation came in 2016 and 2017 when I volunteered supporting the indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. As the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from threatening tribal lands gained momentum, there was a huge surge of non-indigenous people traveling to the water protector camps to support the struggle. Often these people didn’t know how to interact with indigenous people respectfully, so a group of anti-racism educators called Solidariteam worked closely with the indigenous elders of the movement to create an orientation for newcomers that would help them avoid common mistakes and be genuinely helpful to the cause. Over the six weeks I spent at the camps, I eventually became one of the trainers that presented this orientation to new arrivals, and that experience has profoundly impacted how I understand colonization and cultural appropriation. Ongoing study, reading, and conversation with anti-racism activists and indigenous people have continued to refine my understanding.
At Standing Rock there were countless ceremonies and prayers that were open to anyone. Non-indigenous people were invited to participate, but they were also asked not to take these ceremonies, songs, or sacred practices home and use them for their own spiritual practice. This was hard for many people to understand, but Solidariteam’s handout explained the significance of this very well:
“Being in this space can be life-altering, especially if you are not grounded in your own spirituality, ritual, healing traditions, ancestors, or connection to the earth. If you feel the pull to take on indigenous people’s spirituality, customs, and lifeways, know that it’s been a central feature of colonial oppression for non-Natives to help themselves to Native culture without building the necessary relationships, asking permission, or supporting indigenous survival. Although it can feel like respect or honor, this dynamic is inseparable from genocide and colonialism…. Own your own history. European settlers came bearing the traumas of violence, lost connection with the land, and severe repression of their spiritual traditions…. Being around indigenous people who still have those connections can bring up feelings of longing for white people, or the illusion of having found a “home” in Native culture. It’s important to face our own historical losses, and draw on our own roots, rather than trying to claim the cultures that Native people have fought so hard to preserve. If you feel this pull, make space to grieve lost connections and knowledge. Learn about your own ancestral traditions, and develop a spiritual practice rooted in them.”
Some of the people I oriented were stunned by these concepts, and struggled to take them in, reacting in a panic to defend their own access to spiritual practices that had great meaning for them. Perhaps I had an easier time embracing the instructions than most white folks, since I had been developing a European-based pagan spiritual practice of my own for 16 years before I arrived at Standing Rock. I had not intentionally set out to reclaim the traditions of my own bloodline as a political act, but rather felt intuitively drawn to the practices of my Gaelic and Norse ancestors and studied them for their instinctive appeal. I had my own Nordic prayers to say at sunrise and sunset while the Lakota people were saying theirs. I had my own restorative practices with the runes and my European gods to practice while my indigenous friends were in the Lakota Inipi (sweat lodge). Through a combination of luck and instinct, I had a big head start on this homework assignment. The advice of the Standing Rock elders reframed my practice for me as an act of decolonization.
However, I’d learned my spirituality in many circles and communities across America, and many of these circles blended together indigenous practices from Turtle Island (aka North America) alongside the old European practices: we sometimes smudged ourselves with sage for purification, sang chants in native languages we didn’t understand, and offered tobacco or cornmeal in our ceremonies. No one ever stopped to think about whether we had permission to cherry-pick these traditions from another culture. Slowly, I began to tease apart what practices I could continue in good conscience and which practices were not mine to use. Several teachings I encountered along the way helped me puzzle it out.
In the next three parts of this series, I’ll share what I’ve learned.
Murphy has been writing about connection to nature since they were a teenager. Their work has been published in Communities Magazine and Stepping Into Ourselves: An Anthology on Priestesses. Murphy is a huntress, wilderness guide, Tiny House dweller, and the founder of Mountainsong Expeditions.