Cultural Appropriation in Spiritual Practice, Part One: Understanding The Problem

Aug 14, 2019

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.

Read part two HERE.


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