To understand how cultural appropriation shows up in our environmental movements and spiritual life, we need to look at the backstory, or how cultural appropriation came to be. About 50 years ago a strange phenomena began to happen. In mainstream society young white people were rebelling against the imperialist machine, while in a much less visible sphere, First Nations were just starting to recover from the dark ages of genocide, oppression, residential school displacement and segregation. In the dominant society of the mid-20th century, ties to a genuine spiritual life had been broken, organized religion was on the decline, and all of a sudden young white people were reconnecting with nature. This was a wonderful thing (!) but they had no role models to follow. So they turned to First Nations, freely adopting their cultural tools and spiritual traditions, and some going so far as to create a whole new Indigenous identity for themselves. Without proper boundaries, the whitewashed genre of "Native Spirituality" was born, and cultural appropriation became imbedded in the flourishing New Age Industry.
Of course we owe a huge debt to the original rebellion of the hippies and the counterculture that gave us the alternative choices, sexual freedom, new spiritualities, holistic self-care, and healthy life-sustaining practices we enjoy today. These are features of society we take for granted, but unfortunately within the massive self-help, transformational and New Age marketplace the genres of “Native Spirituality” and “Shamanism” have been normalized. Being exposed to this material for so long, many New Agers and Pagans are shocked to find these genres being questioned, yet an interrogation is exactly what is needed. Not only are the white practitioners of "Native Spirituality" on shaky moral ground, First Nations have made it abundantly clear that they are completely opposed to any theft of their cultural and spiritual property.
Today, cultural appropriation occurs on a continuum from relatively harmless practices, to serious mental disorders such as identity theft found in the worlds of entertainment, literature, self-help and spirituality. Having moccasins, native jewellery, native art, or a drum in the privacy of your own home (acquired from native artisans) can be considered good Allyship by supporting the livelihood of First Nations. But on a larger scale, in mainstream industries like fashion, fine art, entertainment and home décor, items like dreamcatchers and headdresses are big business, and these cultural signifiers are casually and carelessly used by white people for fun and self-expression. Many of these symbols, often products made in China, are the sacred property of First Nations! We can just imagine how deeply hurtful this must be.
At the far end of the cultural appropriation continuum, identity theft is by far the most serious problem. White people who have a superficial understanding of traditions held by Indigenous people for millennia create a fake native identity for themselves, and then offer spiritual services and ceremonies following the business model of consumer capitalism. Spiritual guidance is not part of the economic structure within traditional First Nation societies, so this is the first boundary (among others) to be breached. The phenomena of the self-styled "Shaman" charging big bucks for ceremonies and other quasi-native experiences, is shockingly reprehensible and morally wrong.
Contemporary Shamanism was first adopted by the early anthropology and New Age communities, and as we unpack these movements today, we see that the contemporary "Shamanism" genre is based on intrusive and homogeneous European interpretations. And yet the title of “Shaman” to describe one’s practice is now so widespread, it is no doubt impossible to send it back to the Pandora’s Box from whence it came. The origins of the term “shaman” first appeared in the 1914 reports of American ethnologists to describe the practices of the Evenki-speaking Tungusian and Samoyedic tribes of eastern Siberia, and it can be argued that only practitioners from those specific societies have the right to use the term.
Fabricating a fake native identity is a continuation of Settler-Colonialism, which (1) seeks to eradicate indigenous people, (2) seize the land and resources, and (3), erase the cultural identity of the indigenous people themselves. And when we consider the phenomena of cultural appropriation on a deep level, we see that the activity of white wannabees or pretendians is not harmless or “spiritual” – it is an act of the deepest racism. The cultural markers white folks are drawn to, like drums, pipes and sweatlodges, are the very same things that were outlawed by the colonial powers. What white people freely use in their everyday lives are objects First Nations could be killed for using, not that long ago. What could be more macabre?
Cultural appropriation is an enormous widespread problem that interferes with First Nations resurgence and sovereignty. More than just the lifting of ideas, practices and physical objects, cultural appropriation dominates how oppressed groups present themselves to the world, and undermines their efforts to preserve their own traditions. Not to mention the disempowerment and loss of basic human dignity this suggests, Indigenous people no longer have their own autonomy or control over how they are represented in the public domain, which is a fundamental right for every human being. When white academics, scholars, writers, New Agers and Pagan practitioners (those with advantage and power) appropriate, write or teach about the cultural and spiritual traditions of indigenous societies, they are in fact dominating the original indigenous knowledge (IK). Their versions of IK become the valid narratives, fabrications that are sold back to the white majority, and even to Indigenous peoples themselves.
In response to the white seeker's claim of having "permission" from one First Nations person to use their spiritual or cultural property, it doesn't follow that the rest of that FN community agrees. By going ahead and using FN spiritual or cultural property as a non-native person, you are (a) still going to look ridiculous, (b) appear to be "tokenizing" by separating out one FN's opinion from their wider community, (c) are still indulging in racist and colonizing behavior, and (d) are showing that you have no clue what your own cultural identity is. Beyond the universal tools found in nature to make fire and shelter, and regional wild foods that are going to be similar whatever culture you belong to, it is best to recover the indigenous practices of your OWN ancestry.
There is one simple Rule – ask yourself if the cultures are on a level footing, and if one culture is freely sharing with another, or is there an oppressor/oppressed relationship, and is the oppressor taking from the oppressed? With the history of Settler-Colonialism on Turtle Island, identity theft is the final link in the chain of cultural genocide. Cultural appropriation is made possible by white supremacy and systemic racism.
What does cultural appropriation say about our own identity as white people?
In the massive Empire-building project on Turtle Island, our ethnocultural identity was stripped from us as we joined the homogeneous nation-states of Canada and USA with whiteness as the default. Colonized for centuries now, white people have forgotten why having an ethnoculture is important, yet we yearn for it at the same time. This collective soul loss is at the root of our attraction to Indigenous societies and the exotic "other." We may exist in the cultural vacuum known as Settler-Colonialism, but Turtle Island Indigenous Knowledge is not our culture!
The popularity of New Age Capitalism has allowed us to use the spiritual property of Indigenous people without realizing that it is cultural appropriation. Boundaries should have been in place years ago, but the timetable of healing from genocide and slavery did not enable people of color to be empowered to speak out on this serious issue until recent times. Now that white people are aware of the problem, we are obligated to educate each other and stop these harmful practices.
Even if the false “shamanic” identity has been perpetuated for years and the practitioner has an established business, they need to stop aligning with the racist policies of colonialism and white knowledge domination. Shifting to the authentic earth-connected wisdom traditions of one’s own ancestors and offering that European Indigenous Knowledge (EIK) to one’s cultural group is not all that difficult, 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 own 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 authentic EIK teachings to others!
When First Nations people are telling us over and over that cultural appropriation is demeaning and disempowering (as well as a continuation of Settler-Colonialism), we really need to rearrange our ethical maps and stop this offensive behavior. In grappling for the shiny treasures we lack in our own lives, we have forgotten the basic values of honour and respect.
MEGA-RESOURCES FROM A-Z
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Pegi Eyers is the author of "Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community," an award-winning book that explores strategies for uncolonization, rejecting Empire, social justice, ethnocultural identity, Apocalypse Studies, building land- emergent community & resilience in times of massive change.
Sections workshopped on Canadian Ecopsychology Network
(CEN ~ March 23, 2017), and published on
Unsettling America ~ April 26, 2017