Cultural Appropriation in Spiritual Practice, Part Three: The Importance of Reciprocity

Aug 14, 2019

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:
  1. Am I sharing the accurate origin of the practices I am using when I practice them around others?  Am I giving credit and citing my sources? Did I actually learn them from a credible source? Do I need to do more research?
  2. Am I in active and meaningful relationship with members of the culture that developed these practices?  Who will give me feedback if I am using them incorrectly?
  3. Am I engaging in reciprocity by supporting the survival of that culture through activism, volunteering, monetary donations, or other means?  Is this an ongoing practice for me?
If your answer is no to any of these questions, you are probably not using the practices in a way that is respectful.  Because of the power dynamics inherent in colonization, you may feel like your practices are honoring the culture they came from, but they may actually be having a harmful impact.  The line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation takes effort to discern honestly. Remember that your impact is more important than your intent.

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.

Understanding the cultural practices of our own ancestors is a key step in the process of shifting cultural appropriation into cultural exchange. Photo by Kristijan Arsov on Unsplash

In the final part of this series, I’ll share an expanded 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.

Read part four of this series HERE.


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