Let's face it, for all the wondrous diversity in reclaiming an earth-centered path and the magnificent flourishing of Pagan gatherings, groups and scholarship, modern Paganism is a very recent development here on Turtle Island. Considering that many of us were born into the industrial-growth post-war materialistic aspiritual culture of the 1950's (yes - we are that old!), moving into our current era of earthwise ethics and spiritual expression is an incredible achievement, and a paradigm shift indeed.
When the first beatniks, hippies, transformational gurus, New Agers, Wiccans and Pagans got going in the sixties (!), sourcing models for earth-connected community was definitely a challenge. Finding new templates from our original culture and spiritual roots in Old Europe was one direction, and in the enthusiasm of rebellion, looking to the cultural and spiritual property of Turtle Island First Nations was another. Unfortunately at the time (let’s refer to it as the “dark age of colonialism”) First Nations did not have much to say on the matter, but it has become cohesively clear over the years that the practices of cultural appropriation (that still continue today) are an extension of racism, white privilege and the hierarchy of the oppressor/oppressed relationship in the Americas. And as the descendants of the first Settlers (or those more recently emigrated to the Americas), guess which side of that dynamic Pagans are on?
Our values as Pagans in should include a serious examination of how our spiritual traditions have come to be. Without being aware of it, belonging to the dominant society has allowed us to be oblivious to certain facts, and those in the Pagan community who are descended from the original Settler Society do not exist outside of the rubric of Euro-dominance. This entitlement, and the white privilege that we hold, has meant that Turtle Island First Nations have been invisible to us, and has allowed us to appropriate elements of their culture and identity as a normalized and unchallenged practice. Elements of cultural and spiritual property that have been lifted from Turtle Island First Nations are found in Pagan rituals for creating sacred space, four directions petitioning, smudging, talking stick circles, drumming, “featherwork,” vision quests, sweatlodge recreations, sacred fire gatherings, initiation rites, and the aesthetic delights of Indigenous material culture such as headdresses, wardrobe, jewellery and décor.
Not only are these practices carried on without permission from the originating Indigenous peoples, but First Nations have made it abundantly clear that these acts of Euro-imperialism interfere with the very real process of cultural recovery, healing from genocide, sovereignty-seeking and reclaiming of tribal lands that is still going on in Indian Country. Also, from a Pagan perspective, the tokenizing, objectifying and voyeuristic presence of First Nations (the “other”) in our spaces is just as disempowering as exclusion, and these practices should be reprehensible to the values that we hold.
On another note, the vast majority of Turtle Island First Nations are strongly opposed to the use of the term “shaman” by any white person, and anyone self-identifying as a “shaman” is immediately perceived to be lacking in authentic cultural connection. “Shaman” is never used in genuine Turtle Island community to describe wisdom keepers, medicine holders, healers or other Elders, and First Nations view the promotion or marketing of “shamanic healing,” “core shamanism” or “universal shamanism” to be egotistic, a hubristic gesture of elitism and a sign of disrespect to the original knowledge keepers, the Evenki-speaking Tungusian and Samoyedic tribes of eastern Siberia. In my opinion, the contemporary over-use of the term “shaman” (or “shamanic”) to describe a vast array of practices, attitudes and mystical experiences has rendered it almost meaningless (!), and as a highly-charged identity marker, the use of “shaman” is becoming more and more problematic.
Pagans need to understand that in today’s hopeful climate of Turtle Island First Nations resurgence, it is considered an act of racism, aggression and domination when a "pseudo-shaman” refutes or ignores the requests or demands from First Nations to stop with their cultural appropriation. Even if a false “shamanic” identity has been perpetuated for years and the practitioner has an established business, they need to stop aligning with the racist agenda of colonialism. Shifting to the authentic earth-connected wisdom traditions of one’s own ancestors and offering that to one's cultural group is not such a difficult thing, and would be a blessing to all involved! So-called “shamans” have re-created themselves once, and can do it again (!), this time using their true identity and ethnicity, and their followers will love them for it. In fact, with the millions of spiritually-starved and culturally-alienated diasporans in the Americas, it is inconceivable that those focused on spiritual and cultural renewal would not see the value in offering their own European Ancestral Teachings to others.
As Pagans, our exciting journey of revitalization continues, but we can certainly learn from our mistakes, and do so much better. As we travel along our earth-centered paths and refine our values as contemporary Pagan people, mending our fractured relationship with First Nations (who are the original holders of all earth-centered paths here in the Americas), and social justice should be our first priority.
This article was originally submitted to the "Pagan Values Blogject 2015" with the theme, "How our faiths impel us to react to situations of injustice or entrenched classism and racism and sexism."