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[Un]Conscious Colonialism – Why is “Native Spirituality” a Pagan Genre?

In today’s hopeful climate of Turtle Island First Nations resurgence and healing, and in alignment with anti-racism, social justice and decolonization efforts everywhere, the interrogation of the “Native Spirituality” genre under the Pagan umbrella is long overdue.

From Pegi Eyers

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Entrenched definitions and genres are incredibly hard to dismantle, even those created in the early days of modern Paganism. And yet what if those original definitions were blind spots rooted in an [un]conscious colonialism? Being placed within Paganism for quite a few decades now, the genre of “Native Spirituality” has been a convenience entirely directed by white people. In today’s hopeful climate of Turtle Island First Nations resurgence and healing, and in alignment with anti-racism, social justice and decolonization efforts everywhere, the interrogation of the “Native Spirituality” genre under the Pagan umbrella is long overdue.

I’ve been noticing for quite a while now in Pagan spaces the careless use of “Indigenous Spiritualities,” and as a prime example most recently with the Canadian Pagan Declaration on Intolerance, a document that certainly deserves our support. And yet what does their reference to “those practicing Indigenous spirituality” actually mean? It certainly excludes any specific Indigenous communities here in Canada, on or off-reserve who refer to themselves as “First Nations,” and who do not separate the “spiritual” out from the cultural. Does it mean those still practicing their Indigenous Knowledge (IK) in other parts of the world, or in Europe? Then why doesn’t it say so? And pardon me for noticing, but the term “all those practicing Indigenous spirituality” leaves the door wide open for the countless “pretendians" and frauds who have created native (or “shamanic") identities for themselves but are actually white people. All in all, the wording here is either (a) wrong or (b) seriously ambiguous.

I’ve also been hearing from First Nations how the term “Pagan” has toxic associations for them, and how “Native Spirituality” as a genre is offensive. White folks have been able to reclaim the term “Pagan” in healthy ways from the oppression perpetuated by the European religious powers, and yet “Native Spirituality” has become a subgenre without permission or consultation with First Nations, or asking them how they feel about the matter. Of course, pre-colonial worldviews all over the world share values of animism, nature stewardship and right relationship with Earth Community, but who has decided that these timeless traditions are “Pagan?” Right up front, let me say that this inquiry is not about inclusion or exclusion, or an attempt to control or police anyone who finds their home in contemporary Paganism. It’s about the fact that we in the dominant society who are white (yes - even Pagans belong to the dominant society!) have a lot of nerve assuming that the very same label used to attack First Nations with genocide, oppression and assimilation would be acceptable today. And in terms of my own positionality as a white anti-racism educator and scholar-practitioner of the Ancestral Arts, may I also say that I do not speak FOR First Nations, but that everything in my critique is readily available in the public domain. And I would encourage any person from any ethnic background to join in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy and racism, wherever it is found. Right now, we need all hands on deck!

So let’s examine how this neo-colonial assumption got going in the first place, by looking to early Pagan books and publications. Shockingly (or maybe not) countless mentions of “indigenous tribes” in the early days of Paganism reinforce the white supremacist and racist views held by the overculture. What are we to make of these references from the Pagan classic Drawing Down the Moon (1986/2006) for example?

“Pagans retain rituals and ecstatic techniques used only by small and forgotten tribal groups”

“Neo-Pagans are reclaiming sources such as the teachings and practices of the remaining aboriginal peoples”

“monotheism exists in some form among all primitive peoples”

“all wholesome Pagan ways, such as the American Indians, have influence”

Also, we find in Drawing Down the Moon an entire section on the Haudenosaunee newspaper Akwesasne Notes (1968–1996, now defunct) that conflates Indigenous philosophy with white Paganism, without once speculating whether First Nations would want to be referred to as “Pagan.” And why the intense focus on one particular Indigenous publication? I would venture to say that this inclusion has been normalized and never questioned, and yet is a blatant example of what has come to be known as tokenism.[1] One or two “comfortable” teachers or publications cannot be cherry-picked out as an accurate representation from the entire Indigenous collective, especially if the vast majority are just beginning to recover from the “dark years” of residential schools and cultural genocide.

Looking back, we can certainly see that the rise of Paganism in the Americas was a middle-class white phenomena, and that the quotations from Drawing Down the Moon exhibit subtle racism, implicit bias and microaggressions, as well as being colonial statements that deny Indigenous peoples the capability to survive and thrive. The notion of “disappearing” or “lost” or “few remaining” are hard to apologize for, in the face of the contemporary population explosion of Turtle Island First Nations and the resurgence of tribal sovereignty and IK. Did the early Pagans really think Indigenous peoples were a thing of the past? The mind boggles at the tiny bit of research they could have done for themselves, to find out what was actually happening inside First Nations and refute the colonial agenda.

In terms of both the past and recent history of Settler-Colonialism, both mainstream and Pagan defenders of our “grand and glorious civilization” are fond of saying “that’s all in the past,” and “what can we do about it, anyway?”[2] They also like to point out that the worldviews and ethics of people “back then” were “different” from modern folk and leave it at that. And yet this statement is in itself white supremacist, as it is clearly only referring to the morality of white people! Black people always knew slavery was wrong, and Indigenous people always knew residential schools were genocidal (!) so this argument becomes yet another derailment to protect white privilege.

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As the growth of “Native Spirituality” over the years consolidated as a genre under the Pagan banner, let’s examine some key issues of PanGaia Magazine (BBI Media) that focused exclusively on “Native Traditions” and “Traditional Cultures.” In the Winter 1998-99 Issue entitled “Who Shall Honor the Land? Paganism and Native Traditions” we find two good articles on pursuing European Reconstructionist paths as an alternative to cultural appropriation, and much to her credit (!) a progressive statement by Elizabeth Barrette, “If you want to worship in the Native American way, you should stand up for the rights of Indigenous people.” Otherwise there is only the briefest allusion to oppression or the living conditions experienced by First Nations, a whole lot on earth connectivity from the white perspective, and of course the ubiquitous tokenization of traditional shamans, in this case the Ulchi of Siberia and the Orisha of Brazil, with ample “direct transmission” reinforcing the idea that any white Pagan can embrace Shamanic or Umbanda traditions should they so desire. Only one (!) First Nations writer makes an appearance, with a great column on her own decolonization by Harvest McCampbell. At the end of the issue we are hit by an op-ed from Peter Langevin, publisher of the now-defunct Magical Blend, who critiques cultural appropriation but ends with “we are all one” and the statement that he “will continue to print material on white-directed shamanism, as knowledge will set us free.” He actually apologizes in advance to First Nations for this hypocrisy! But in reality, his sidestep is typical of the white neo-liberal impulse to make some small gesture of respect, when all they care about is their own privilege and access. Overall the issue offers white entitlement, white positionality, white fantasies on being “adopted in,” and questionable boundary lines. Ideally any publication with the theme of “Paganism and Native Traditions” would include content on the impact of colonization on First Nations, current FN resistance and survivance efforts, how to take responsibility for our white privilege and implicit bias, and what white folks can do as allies and accomplices. Obviously these essential issues were too challenging, not only for BBI Media as publishers, but for their Pagan audience. The meme floating around Facebook that says, “Everyone loves the Native who talks about peace, love, forgiveness, nature and spirituality, but no one loves the Native who talks about genocide, racism, poverty, injustice and colonialism” is the perfect description of this dynamic!

Keeping the trendy attraction to “Native Spirituality” going, the Summer 2000 Issue of PanGaia Magazine hit the stands with the leading title “White Questions, Red Answers: Can Traditional Cultures Save the World?” Highlights include an editorial page that asks some key questions, the seminal essay by Myke Johnson “Wanting to be Indian,” and a column by Samuel Wagar that engages with the debate on “transplanting European practices to the Americas” in a thoughtful way. Other than that, articles on the typical white “spiritual tourism” spectrum make an appearance, with forays to the Huichol of Mexico and the Ingano of Colombia; coverage of a recent Papal apology without one mention of First Nations or the 1493 Papal Bull, Manifest Destiny or Doctrine of Discovery that made the slaughter of millions of Indigenous people possible (oh well!); columns from white-passing folks who express confusion and wish to claim native affiliation (or did they imagine it?); the obsession with Indigenous pain and survivor’s stories (or “genocide porn”) by well-meaning Pagan “salvationist" types who talk about FN trauma but don't see the solutions - or themselves as part of the solutions [3]; and finally, a review of the most commercially successful FN musician Carlos Nakai (of course). There is an attempt to include Indigenous voices, but activist David Seals, who pleads with white folks to examine their own privilege and join the Indigenous struggle as allies and accomplices, has been subsequently outed as being non-native, and Terri Howell, an “eclectic spiritualist with Welsh, Cherokee and Blackfoot heritage,” loses all credibility when she quotes from the well-known fraud Brooke Medicine Eagle.

All in all, this issue is a major display of unexamined white privilege and perspectivism, but as a prominent editor of Pagan publications once said, “My readers are *barely* liberal. I wouldn't call them ‘radical’ in any way. My readers are Super Mainstream, for being Pagans. Seriously, I mean it. Most of them probably believe that not telling n-word jokes means that they aren't racists.” Without going on to dissect the much-missed Circle Magazine (Circle Sanctuary) in quite so much detail, turning to a random sampling of issues entitled “Sacred Feathers” (2008) and “Shamanic Voices” (2013), we see that the genres of “Native Spirituality” and “Shamanism” as part of Paganism have truly taken root. In these issues the usual push-and-pull between boundary lines makes an appearance (don’t worry - if First Nations are too protective of their ways, there’s always shamanism!), and again a serious lack of FN voices, or any discourse on the fallout FN are still experiencing from Settler-Colonialism. On the one hand we find prominent Pagans decrying cultural appropriation and the use of “Shaman” as a self-identifier (way to go, Andras Corban-Arthen!) but then there are pages and pages of white folk who are doing exactly that. And the cover of “Sacred Feathers” is a disgrace with its stereotypical depiction of a Poca-hottie hypersexualized FN woman. In the face of the ongoing violence directed toward BIPOC with racist attacks, erasure, objectification, rape and murder (MMIW - Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women) this magazine cover reinforces racist stereotypes, and eliminates any hope for cultural sensitivity or (heaven forbid!) Allyship with First Nations. Looking through a decolonized lens, these magazines primarily serve our Pagan obsession with the “exotic other” that has morphed into commodification, objectification, and the fetishizing of all things “native.”

A commonly-held stereotype that came out of early Pagan activity was the belief that wise medicine men and mystical elders were just waiting around on Indian reservations for the non-native spiritual seeker to show up. They took the white person under their wing, performed some magical rite, dispensed cryptic wisdom, gave them their native name with an eagle feather, and bestowing on them all the blessings of a newly-adopted “lineage” set them off with new tools to blend in with their Pagan ways. It would take some delving to uncover the exact source of this myth (Carlos Castaneda and Lynn Andrews come to mind), and how the alarming number of white folks seeking spiritual guidance from FN led to the beginning of spiritual tourism and the “Indigenous Industry.” In another twist that continues to privilege white Pagans, First Nations were forced into poverty by white imperialism in the first place, and by participating in the capitalist rush on “Native Spirituality,” white seekers are taking advantage of colonization and forging yet another link in the chain of cultural genocide.

The stereotype of the “good-hearted holy man,” “sacred knowledge holder” and “wise medicine man” appears in too many Pagan spaces and publications to mention. And yet, when a genuine FN person is not available for many polytheistic or “multifaith” Pagan gatherings, we find that the “representative from Indian Country” turns out to be a white stand-in. Another FB meme, “They want our culture but not our struggle,” can rapidly become macabre when we consider the rate that white people are replacing Indigenous people, and “doing it one better” as there is no unsavory talk of poverty or genocide. As just one example of this mass phenomena, in the key 2005 anthology on Pagan perspectives Celebrating the Pagan Soul: Our Own Stories of Inspiration and Community we find a description of a multicultural circle exchanging winter solstice teachings, and the ostensibly FN piece is offered by “Kurt Talking Stone,” who with a little digging online “came to Earth Religion through a rather circuitous route, via Zen, Shinto and martial arts, and an extended foray into eclectic Paganism, eventually settling in the Native American practices of the Lakota people.”[4] Well all-righty then! Paganism is riddled with frauds who claim they have the right to represent FN, and instead of being normalized, this behavior should be vehemently called out for (gasp!) the racism, erasure and spiritual colonialism that it is.

And lastly, and possibly the most reprehensible example, in 2008 we see how “Native Spirituality” has become entrenched as a Pagan category with this gem by Druid Brendan Myers, in his book A Pagan Testament: The Literary Heritage of the World’s Oldest New Religion. He runs through a variety of stories from all over the world, but sandwiched in between the Venus of Willendorf and Inanna of Sumeria at the beginning of the book, appears the origin myth of the Anishnaabe of the Great Lakes Region, “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky.” Without any preamble whatsoever (“anthropological” or otherwise) it’s not clear why this particular narrative is even included, or why it was hand-picked by Myers from thousands of other First Nations on Turtle Island, each having their own unique language and sacred knowledge. And how can anyone determine that one story lifted from the epic, all-encompassing worldviews of the Anishnaabe, equivalent to any religious system in the world, should be included in a Pagan anthology? Like all Indigenous Knowledge, the epistomology of the Anishnaabe is a cultural treasure, an irreplaceable part of the ethnosphere - the collective human legacy and the web of cultural diversity on planet Earth - and can hardly be reduced to one story. The attitude of white entitlement here is astounding, the ignorance regarding baseline definitions appalling, and the lack of responsibility highly offensive to First Nations and their allies everywhere.

"What offends me is the categorization of Indigenous Spirituality as a genre, an option, for those shopping around for earth-based spiritual practices. The heart of our traditional teachings and ceremonies, even the more contemporary practices, have been here for as long as we have. Our Ancestors walked this life path here on Anishinaabe Aki long before New Agers, Wiccans and modern Pagans." [5] G. Horton-Baptiste (Saulteaux Anishinaabe)

“My spirituality is very much tied to the land, as it is for many First Nations, and I have a hard time calling it "spirituality," as it is an English word. As Indigenous people we have our own words, practices and societies that facilitate our communication with the land and our Ancestors. And I don’t think “Pagan” is a word that can describe what I feel, or practice on the land.” Kirk Brant (Mohawk, Bay of Quinte, Tyendinaga Territory)

To come full circle, and examine why placing First Nations under the Pagan umbrella is such a massive mistake, let’s look at how the label of “Pagan” fueled genocidal policy directed toward FN in Canada until recent times. From his memoir in Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential School, Fred Kelly (Anishnaabe) reminds us that the Residential School system was set up in the first place by Settler-Colonialism (our white ancestors) to “convert wretched pagan souls, and take children away from the pagan influence of their parents, far away from their homelands to reserves in other regions. Pagans had no rights, were not defined as persons under the law, and were the wards of the government. Churches had legal custody of every Indigenous child, with their care and treatment at the total and unquestioned discretion of the churches and their personnel. Being subject to brainwashing, punishment and forced assimilation, children were beaten and humiliated OUT of their own culture and spirituality (which was pagan and of ‘the devil’) and punished for speaking their own language. Their traditional clothing was taken away and replaced with uniforms, they were in a constant state of fear, and crying was met with more punishment. Children no longer had any access to family, clan, traditional teachings, lifeways, their own spirituality, or the Elders.”

“Their role models were the same priests and nuns who were the sexual predators and perpetrators. The psychological shame of sexuality was implanted for life, and their self-esteem was ruined forever. This was the horrific treatment of PAGAN sinners. The horrible ideology of “going to hell” and eternal suffering for transgressions and sins (which were multiple) ruled every single aspect of existence. Indigenous children were not allowed to analysis the bible, argue or ask questions. There was only “one true faith” and rigid blind belief, and they were beaten for any insolence or resistance to dogma. At first contact, usually the initial exposure to white people was to toxic religious folk and their agenda of brutalization. Indigenous children were trapped in schools like prisons; hair cut off; forbidden to speak their own language; punished; given white names or even worse – numbers(!); indoctrinated with religious theology and ceremony; having to live on bread and water, strict rules and bad food; stolen from their parents; terrible living conditions; dark dreary classrooms; beaten, spanked, assaulted, molested, raped and killed - ALL BECAUSE THEY WERE PAGAN. To this day, residential school survivors carry PTSD, and are unable to express or receive affection. The nightmare finally ended in 1998, when the last residential school was shut down.”[6]

As we let Fred Kelly’s searing testimonial sink in, and resonate with what it means for Indigenous people to be called “Pagan,” it’s time we stopped the colonial habit of assuming or labelling African Diasporic Religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism or any other entity as “Pagan.” The original Earthkeepers of Turtle Island have their own self-identifiers that pre-date colonial overlays, categories and labels. And all groups have their own names for paths, tribes, communities and social organization, and are probably not interested in being referred to by yet another European classification. Gratuitously calling non-western groups “Pagan” is NOT benign but a colossal mistake, a sad reminder of the nationalist capitalist western thinking of Settler-Colonialism in the Americas, and representative of the toxic worldview our white forefathers and foremothers created. Time to let it go! Of course there is a huge movement toward anti-racism, social justice and decolonization within modern Paganism today, but many are still stuck in the [un]conscious attitudes of the overculture. Even in our times of widespread cultural pluralism, holding aspects of Paganism as the “objective" and official narrative can still replicate colonial behavior. In terms of action points, I would ask that as you look at Pagan material in reference to First Nations over the years, determine if there has been an attempt to simplify, derail, essentialize, appropriate, romanticize, glamourize, misinterpret, trivialize, whitewash, move to innocence, make a colonial alibi or perform a Settler Sidestep. And then, think deeply about how these misconceptions can be corrected going forward. And please, go ahead and ask your First Nations friends and acquaintances (and I don’t mean the white pretendians or “shamans” in your circle!) if they consider themselves to be Pagan. I think you will find in those answers an overwhelming need for change.


NOTES

[1] Tokenism is the policy of making only a symbolic gesture or perfunctory effort toward a goal, such as racial integration. Also, it is the practice of hiring or appointing a token number of people from under-represented groups in order to deflect criticism and comply with affirmative action.

[2] For a full description of this phenomena, or the “progress narrative,” see the excellent essay on colonialism “Blood Cries out from the Soil” by Rhyd Wildermuth, The Wild Hunt, August 9, 2014. https://wildhunt.org/2014/08/blood-cries-out-from-the-soil.html

[3] “Genocide porn refers to the white obsession with survivor’s stories; indigenous pain as fetish, and reconciliation as fetish.” Barbara Low (Mi'kmaq), Facebook comment, 2016. Put another way, “Settler scholars who study Indigenous trauma trade in our most intimate, vulnerable stories. And while you get to walk away at the end of the day, these are OUR lives. We must discuss how Indigenous trauma is a form of Settler capital.” Zoe Todd PhD (Métis), Carleton University, Facebook comment, December 16, 2017.

[4] Kurt Talking Stone, “All Related,” Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, August 26, 2010.

www.4qf.org/values/earth-spirit/expressions-of-spirit/167-all-related

[5] Georgie Horton-Baptiste (Saulteaux Anishinaabe) has ancestral roots in the Manitou Rapids Rainy River area in Treaty 3. She grew up in the Bancroft-Peterborough area and has been a part of the local urban Indigenous community for the past 17 years. Georgie is a leader in the Water Awareness Walks movement in Canada.

[6] Fred Kelly (Anishnaabe), from his memoir in Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential School, selected readings by Shelagh Rogers, Mike Degagne and Jonathan Dewar, Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2012


Pegi Eyers

Pegi Eyers is the author of the award-winning book Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community, a survey on the interface between Turtle Island First Nations and the Settler Society, social justice, rejecting Empire, and the vital recovery of our own ancestral earth-connected knowledge and essential eco-selves. She is a member of the Celtic Helena Clan with more recent roots connecting her to the mythic arts of England and Scotland. She lives in the countryside on the outskirts of Nogojiwanong (Peterborough, Canada) on a hilltop with views reaching for miles in all directions. www.stonecirclepress.com