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.
In late August 2018 eight adventurers (including yours truly) set out to spend a year in the Minnesota Wilderness, harvesting all our own food, using canoes and snowshoes as our only modes of transportation, and building Queer Feminist community together in the wild. At least that was the plan... the project lasted about 10 weeks. We were beset with a number of setbacks, from a poor rice crop to the coldest and rainiest autumn the locals could remember, to floodstage waters on the rivers we were paddling up, to a very early Whitefish spawn that started much earlier than we had planned for. Despite these setbacks, our team successfully ate a nutritious and abundant wild diet for the whole time we were together, and were in a pretty good position to meet our food goals for the year. However, by the time we got to whitefish camp, exhaustion was high, morale was low, and we were realizing that creating queer feminist community in the wild requires a lot of skill and wisdom on behalf of all parties, not just a few of the members. We made a consensus decision to disperse to other projects on November 6, 2018. I'm transitioning from this group to a winter of hunting, writing, and planning an alternative 2-3 month canoe adventure that will start next May, building upon the lessons from this project.
The tale of our venture is told below in handwritten, scanned letters that I wrote to the world while I was on the expedition. Enjoy!
THE COMPLETE LETTERS:
Wild Rice and Community Building: Aug 31-Sept 9, 2018
Rice Processing & First Days of Paddling: Sept 11-Oct 3, 2018
Rain & Cold & No Bear Fat, Oh My!: Oct 4-14, 2018
Does, Cold Toes, and Beaver Feet: Oct 15-29, 2018
A Personal Truth & A Hard Group Decision: Oct 30-Nov 8, 2018
Many thanks to April Judd for receiving these letters and sending them out to the world.
A month and a half into the Wild Food Year already. Murphy is in the Minnesota Wilderness with six others, harvesting wild rice, drying fruit and prepping food for a long winter. The next journey will be a 200 mile canoe upstream to Whitefish Camp where they will fish, trap beaver and prep more food for their journey.
Murphy has been prolific in writing letter and sharing her journey. These letters are handwritten, mailed to me, the MSX office Gnome and Mail Maven, to scan and share with the rest of you. Below are PDF's of all the letters Murphy has written to date.
If you would like to get these letters in your inbox, sign up for the Mountiansong Expeditions Newsletter which you can find a sign up button for on our Class and Registration page!
Thanks for following along on the adventure!
In a few days I leave for a year in the Minnesota Wilderness with six other people, eating only wild food we harvest ourselves and using only human-powered transportation (canoes and snowshoes). Read all the detail here. Sign up for our mailing list to get updates in your inbox (see the Trips & Classes page for the signup form).
I've been reflecting lately about how my 5 weeks at Oceti Sakowin Water Protector Camp this winter were some of the happiest weeks of my recent life. Now those camps are gone, the sacred fires have been put out, and I am home. On a daily basis I feel the intense discomfort of trying to fit myself back into a life founded on the basic structures of colonialism. Everything looks topsy-turvy now: Old goals now are burdened with the uncomfortable stink of privilege, and old complaints sound hollow and entitled against the background of my new understanding of the deepest forms of oppression in this country. I find myself at a crossroads, in limbo, floating between an old comfortable identity and a new perspective that shines light upon that which was invisible and casts new and frightening shadows across everything I used to take for granted.
The question that weighs heavily upon me is: how can I, as a white descendant of European settlers, build a life of integrity that boths supports my health and happiness, and also works to redistribute resources to the indigenous peoples and people of color who were brutalized and exploited to build the wealth of my culture? And how can I do this while living on the land that my soul calls home, here in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the union?
My time at Oceti Sakowin left me convinced that the core of decolonization is in how we treat each other. At that camp I experienced true village life: a community where we depended on each other, greeted each other by name, each contributed what we could and took what we needed to be healthy and strong for the fierce ceremony we were creating together. We asked each other's advice and offered help whenever it was needed.
There is no community without friction. Some really terrible things happened at that camp. Water Protectors were assaulted and abused by the police, and sometimes Water Protectors also assaulted and abused each other. People fell in love and people made enemies. Ancestral trauma and despair seemed to rise up from the very burial grounds under our feet and overwhelm us at times. But trouble is inevitable: the true test of a village is how we confront and heal conflict. This process wasn't perfect at Oceti Sakowin, but the principles of indigenous culture that guided us were potent seeds of re-humanization. Whenever emotions were running strong, someone would light sage or sweetgrass or copal, sending cleansing smoke into the space. Each person was welcome to speak in our meetings without limits, sharing what was in their heart, no matter how long it took. When we had big questions, we took them to the sacred fire or the sweat lodge. We took the time to pray and listen to the spirits and listen to our own hearts. We slowed down. When someone was threatened within the community, there was a process of rallying around them, re-affirming bonds: the person we were supporting would shake the hand and look into the eyes of every person in the space, even if it took a very long time, reaffirming her connection with each one of us.
At Oceti Sakowin, everyone had an equal right to be there. All of us were technically trespassing together by camping there, so each of us had no right at all to be there in the eyes of the government... and each of us had chosen to disregard the oppressive laws and listen instead to the inherent right of humanity to gather at the sacred waters. At Oceti Sakowin, I learned that breaking the law is a path to human liberation. While we sometimes invoked broken treaties that had granted that land to the Lakota people, those treaties are also oppressive agreements signed amidst the grief of genocide, and the deeper sentiment was simply that we all had a right to be there just because we are human animals, little different from the bison and the eagles that would pass by our camp.
And so here I sit, on a ridge of land in Vermont where every inch of soil is privately owned, returned to my culture where everyone is on a tight schedule and seldom has time to sit and burn sage and listen to someone speak their heart. I'm living in my little house, alone with my computer. It takes at least five emails to schedule any actual social contact, and then a half-hour drive (isolated in my own private car) to get there. Everyone is working to be independent: have their own income, their own land, their own car. We each strive to never need anyone's help, and then we wonder why we are so lonely. This is White American culture.
In the short term, I've been coping by traveling a lot, putting myself into road-trip and out-of-town-visit situations where other people can temporarily be persuaded to participate in the intensive togetherness that I miss so much. When I'm home, I call a different friend every night. I go on dates and set up community gatherings. Much of the time I feel like I'm a different species from the people I'm talking to, because our basic assumptions about the world are now so different. Sometimes I'm able to slip back into my previous slumber, to perceive my life from that old familiar place of undisturbed privilege, and this does feel like a relief in a way. But then I wake up at night gasping, clawing at the bedsheets, terrified that I will lose my grasp on the heartbreaking gift that Oceti Sakowin gave me: the lived knowledge that what I have always wanted is possible.
Have you ever tried to cut down a mulberry tree? The stump re-sprouts ten little branches, and the roots send up new runners too, and you inadvertently create a teeming thicket where once there was only one tree. I think that the ashes of our sacred prayer fires will be like that. The people have been forced off that land and the fires have been put out, but the fires in our hearts are still burning brightly, and we carry those embers all over the country and the world as we leave North Dakota. All of us are homesick for a camp that no longer exists, and I say, "Be homesick! Feel that grief, feel that love, and don't give up. If we all live our own homesickness hard enough, if we all refuse to forget, we can build this everywhere! We can spread this way of loving each other and the earth. We can spread the generosity. We can spread the way of relating that affirms each person's inherent value."
So, I'm trying to hold this pain as a gift. When I run up against the pain, it is a compass for me. Each time it floods through me, I sink deeper into the questions of how I can help create this transformation. My work already centers on fostering nature connection and empowerment, so I can add this gift to my teachings in the world. As the ashes of our prayers sting my skin like lye, burning me, branding me, my life becomes a firewalk. Each day I must find the courage to set my foot down on the coals. What will I find on the other side?
I pray for the courage to not forget.
This winter I spent 6 weeks volunteering at the Water Protector camps in North Dakota. I was there for one week in November, which was just enough time for me to realize I had to really get my act together if I was to be an effective white ally. That visit was very difficult in many ways, but I felt myself just on the verge of discovering a new way to see the world, and as I drove out of Oceti Sakowin camp on November 13th, I knew I would be back.
I had observed that what camp needed most was funding for more Native folks to join the camps, and long-term volunteers who could take on real responsibilities. I started a fundraising campaign towards those ends. I was quickly able to crowdfund over $4000, and committed to give half of it to support indigenous people in coming to camp or remaining there. The rest I would use to pay my own expenses for driving back to North Dakota, volunteering for 5 weeks, and covering a few bills back home. My friend Molly was my buddy for the trip. We volunteered at Oceti Sakowin Camp from December 22 to January 26.
When I first returned home, the process of reverse culture shock hit me pretty hard. Now that I've had time to adjust and had many conversations with friends about it, I'm beginning to be able to articulate the ways that my time at Standing Rock changed how I see the world. These new perspectives have become my most prized possessions. Every day I feed and tend them, attempting to keep them strong and vivid.
How to Talk about #NoDAPL: A Native Perspective by Kelly Hayes
The Burning Times Never Ended, a conciousness-raising course on decolonization and capitalism by Rain Crowe
Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community. Anthology edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Elwood, and Brandy Williams.
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.