Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Confessions of a Cultural Appropriator

The Mexican Indians allegedly have a story that Jesus visited their land, and where the blood from his wounds fell, there grew the sacred peyote plant.

So why aren’t the Christians protesting ‘cultural appropriation’? Humans have always borrowed shamelessly from other cultures, and made what they want of what they have borrowed. Shakespeare took stories from all over and re-wrote them into his plays and never credited anyone! Nowadays you have someone suing Led Zeppelin over Stairway to Heaven saying a riff in it sounded a bit like theirs. LZ won the case.

I am in favour of what is now, usually pejoratively, called cultural appropriation. I want it on my gravestone: “He was a shameless cultural appropriator.”

Currently, in the world of this thing we call ‘shamanism’, politics and guilt are standing in the way of this natural and healthy process. The idea is that if you are pinching rituals and teachings from a culture that is now in the minority, because your ancestors were brutal to their ancestors, then this is not OK. It is all they have left, and now we even want to take that from them.

I just do not buy this. The reality is a human who is being influenced by the culture of another, as has always happened. The 'cultural appropriation' is just an abstraction, a political layer being added on, telling one person he is a 'coloniser' and so can't do this or that. It's a piece of nonsense. The Tibetans don't seem to have this problem, if anything they are the opposite, spreading their teachings widely (and often in dilute form!) in the hope that some seeds will take.

Of course, claiming that what you are doing IS, say, American Indian when you haven't been trained properly in it is wrong and dishonest and there are valid grounds for complaint there, but maybe you just want to laugh at it instead, depending on who you are. But what I'm principally arguing against in this piece is the people who are going to cry foul almost whatever you do, and their white defenders (who can be cases of 'a little knowledge is dangerous'.) It is suffocating. Yes, there has been and continues to be a ton of pain and suffering. But these teachings and practices, however secondhand, have value, they show us what it is to be human, and what could be more important than that?

Religious fundamentalism gets in the way too. “These are the teachings, you do not understand them, please bow down and worship in front of us, who have been properly instructed.” The thing is, they are right: we usually don’t understand them, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t, in our own modern way, found something profound there.

I think the Medicine Wheel is a good example. Its origins are obscure. You get stone circles in the USA, which were doubtless used for ceremonial purposes. What it has become in the modern west is a tool for personal psychological transformation as well as ritual.

It is a wonderful map of the human mind, rooted in a map of the natural universe. I first encountered it in the late 90s, taught by Leo Rutherford. I’ve always loved it, and I’m also very aware that it probably bears little relation to any tradition in the Americas. But it started there, and via a few Indians of questionable ancestry, teachers and charlatans rolled into one (aren't humans fascinating?) found its way down to us.

And it works, it really does, both as a map of personal development and as a tool for personal and community ritual. I’m slowly creating one in a field right now, and yesterday when I put down the stone of the ancestors in the South East, I felt their presence and power.

Shamanic Journeying is another one. All most of us know is you get these guys in Siberia who bang a drum and it helps them talk to spirits and do helpful work for people in the community. How much relation it bears to our Upper Worlds and Lower Worlds and Middle Worlds and soul retrieval (with its psychotherapeutic perspective) and soul theft and de-possessions, I do not know. How much relation it bears to the idea that everyone can have a power animal, you just need to go on a workshop, I do not know – probably none at all! But this stuff works, it is often a profound initiation for people.

I think we really need to run with these things and re-invent them as we go. And not listen to the voices that are quick to shout cultural appropriation and New-Age (whatever that means) and fake. There will always be these voices in whatever tradition you are in, forever banging on about what is and is not the ‘authentic’ tradition. It is the voice of fundamentalism and it will disempower you if you listen to it, and sometimes our path to personal integrity involves learning not to be affected by those voices.

Indigenous teachers can be fundamentalist just as much as anyone else can, and they can be good teachers at the same time.

A living tradition is always changing.

So let us be respectful to the indigenous traditions, and acknowledge we know little if anything of their ways and the spirit of their ways. But let us grasp with both hands that which speaks to us, in the trust that we too are humans with our own inner means of knowing that can guide us, and make something real out of this mixed bag of teachings and traditions that has, often through a glass darkly, come our way.


CK said...

Yay! I'm with you. All of these things bubble up from some deep source and belong to all of us. And people who get upset because you've borrow elements of their costume or food are trivializing our common humanity

Sara said...

Cultural appropriation. I love that. The Roman and Greek gods became angels and archangels in Christianity, didn't they? What's not to like? Have you ever asked how much Roman temple ceremonies were adapted to Christian ceremonies when Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire?
I think we're all searching for some kind of answer that may or may not be delivered by a Pastafarian deity. What most people miss is that the answers, the temple, the spirit path, all of that - all of it is within you.
Whatever you do is the outward manifestation of Spirit. It does not matter if it's you making a stone circle in your back yard or me raising blue flowers to attract the Faeries and allowing carpenter bees to have their place on the railing of my front steps.
The stone circle, the iron charms on a shaman's shirt, tossing coins into a personal wishing well, dropping a tithe into the plate on Sunday mornings - it's all the same thing, a wish for a connection to Spirit.

LotusLady9 said...

Well said, everyone!! All of us need our connection to Spirit and without it we are lost. Generations build on each other and can't exist without the history and knowledge of our predecessors.