There and Back Again

And here I was all set to write a nice little post about the Summer Solstice and some preliminary designs for a wood-carving project, when I allowed myself to become impossibly distracted and simply wandered off the trail.

Distractions happen.  Just lately, they seem happen a lot.

Sometimes, when they crop up, I am able to ignore them and force myself back onto the trail.  And then there are those times when I find that the place into which I have wandered is, for the moment at least, more interesting than my original destination.

This time the culprit was a post on one of the Pagan forums I follow on Facebook.

Ahh Facebook, we might have colonized the planet Mars by now, if not for thee!

Anyway, someone posted asking the group if it was okay for him to adapt Native American rituals to his practice because he feels called to spirits from that tradition, this, despite the fact that he has no Native ancestry to speak of.

“Well now, there’s a topic just ripe for debate, “ I thought to myself, “surely there will be plenty of folks who will speak up against the appropriation of First Nations beliefs, while others will urge respectful study of those traditions, and….,”

And I should have known better.

It’s not that kind of board.

“Do what you want.” — “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks!” — “Whatever makes you happy.” — “No one culture has more claim on a god just because they made them up.” — “Pick and choose whatever you want … instead of fighting it, consume it.”


Because the gods are just boxes of breakfast cereal to be pulled down off the shelf on a whim.

Consumer Gods

So as I was about to turn my attention away from this consumer-culture imperialist love-fest, I began to notice something happening that struck me as quite odd.

The primary justification, provided by the majority of the people posting in the ‘Do what thou wilt’ column, was, “You may have been Native American in a past life, so just go with it.”

As I watched this theme appear again and again throughout the thread, I realized just how wickedly perfect this argument is in the hands of those who would prefer to duck any responsibility for their actions and beliefs.

“I’m a rebel.  I’ll do what I want, and I don’t care if you don’t like it.”

“Oh, and by the way, I was the concubine of Ramses III in a past life, and that’s totally why I’ve got that statue of Bast on my alter, and it’s not just because I thought it would look really cool sitting on my purple altar cloth.”

And who can argue with that?

You can’t very well prove that someone wasn’t formerly a priestess of Ishtar in ancient Uruk.  And if you like her statues, or her legend, or even just the sound of her name, who is to say that you are not recalling a past life memory creeping through into the present.

That, my friends, is the kind of circular logic I usually only encounter in conversations about the Bible.

But there are obvious problems with this line of…, thinking (heh, I almost said logic there).

Firstly, as I’ve already stated, the reincarnation argument abrogates responsibility for almost any form of cultural appropriation, and for that reason alone, it should be treated with the utmost skepticism.

If that were not enough, how about this…,

Whenever I have encountered people who believe in this sort of reincarnation, where you could have been anyone from any time or place, this has been coupled with a related belief that we live these lives for a reason, to learn certain lessons from our experiences there, which our souls require to reach a level of enlightenment.

And if that were true of our past lives, it must also be true of our present lives, which means we are, who we are, in the here and now, for a reason.

So why then should who we were in our past lives trump the realities of our present?

The journey, as I understand it, is intended to be a one-way affair, not there and back again.

But let’s say we just forget all of that, and really just focus on that past life.  But instead of using it as an excuse to do what we want in the here and now, what if we instead used this belief as an opportunity to truly empathize with the person we were?

Imagine yourself for just a moment, falling under the guns of the 7th Regiment at Wounded Knee.  As you go down, you die with the knowledge that your family falls with you.  Brothers and sisters, grandparents and toddlers alike, gunned down by men who will be given awards for your slaughter.

Now try to imagine how you might feel about the descendants of the people who gunned you down, raped your women, and stole your land, looting your most sacred rituals…, and then tell me again how your possible past life experience gives you the right to any damn thing.

Yeah, I don’t think so.

The gods are not commodities to be used by just anyone who comes along, and our ancestors, all of our ancestors, deserve better than to have their traditions plundered by those who would ignore ancient wisdom in favor of wishful thinking.

Let’s do the work people.

Let’s be willing to take responsibility in the here and now.

And let’s build upon the past, instead of trying to co-opt it.


Filed under Culture, Philosophy, Religion

8 responses to “There and Back Again

  1. I read this post of yours. And then I went to do something else (trying my hand at wood carving, still not going so well), only to come back and find myself reading it again, and scratching my head. And again, I nod to myself when I read. Nod, and then stop, to shake my head.

    The justification “you might have belonged to that culture in a past life anyway” is one I don’t really buy either. While it may in individual cases be true it is just an argument so easily tossed out to verify just about anything, and it makes me personally feel a little uncomfortable.

    Treating deities as consumables also makes the hair stand up at the back of my neck. It’s such an unpleasant an idea that I can’t even counter it without drifting off into the realm of simply bad argumentation. Faith is not a consumable to be bought or traded, as little as it is entertainment!

    But, and here is a bit but. I can’t reach the same conclusion that you do, despite respecting and to a degree agreeing with your arguments. I can understand frustration and annoyance when outsiders twist a traditional faith into something more modern and more easily digestible, something “cool” and perhaps downright disrespectful. But when there is genuine faith, genuine interest? The idea that someone would come and claim that no, you can’t practice your faith because your ancestry is wrong, makes me want to rip my hair out. It’s not about respect or disrespect of the ancestors. I would like to believe that your heart, your intentions and honest faith matters far more than who your grandparents were.

    And if one wants to look at it from another view. If a god sees fit to call a person to faith, who are we to try to deny anyone the chance to follow that? We don’t see the bigger picture. We can’t know if the person’s faith is genuine or not. We can’t know if the person is called, drawn for a deep spiritual reason, or if it is a shallow and temporary fling with an “exotic” faith. We can’t know, and so we can’t judge. It has nothing to do with previous lives. It has to do with this life, there here and now, who you are and what spiritual connections you end up with.

    • Do I have the right to say yes or no. Of course not. But I have every right (the responsibility even) to judge the ethics of cultural appropriation, and to speak out about such, when and where I see it. I think I’m pretty clear in this piece that I’m not speaking to genuine seekers, those who are willing to put the work and effort in, those who are mindful of the feeling within the living (surviving) communities they are tapping into. But, if you are going on Facebook to ask a bunch of strangers for permission to follow a Native American path, rather than asking the actual people who are trying to preserve those traditions, than you’re doing it wrong. And I’ll say so.

      Thank you for your comments! I too believe that, in the end, spirit is more important than blood (you’d only have to look at last weeks post to see that), but I also believe that the spirit must be tempered with a willingness to empathize with those who have gone before us, and are here still, doing the real work to keep their cultures viable. “Do what you want” is, by itself, never a suitable answer.

  2. Cultural appropriation in regards to religions, especially ancient or less-practiced ones, is a very interesting topic and as you said, ripe for discussion. I think it falls entirely upon how closed or open that religion was, or is. Native American religions are for the most part, at least to my understanding, very closed. They didn’t go around trying to convert people or advertise for followers. So to suddenly decide to incorporate aspects of those religions CAN be appropriation, depending on how it’s done of course. However, Kemeticism was always an incredibly open religion, which is one reason why you see so many aspects of the Egyptian gods in other places. So to say praying to them is cultural appropriation simply isn’t true; the Egyptians were open to anyone of any culture worshiping their gods – and at any rate, that culture doesn’t even exist anymore in that same form. It’s definitely a sticky topic, but I find it funny that so many people seem to use Kemeticism as an example when it wasn’t a closed religion at all.

    • I agree entirely. I’ve always been fascinated by the gods of Egypt, and I’ve put a lot of study into them over the years. I’ve never felt compelled to offer them worship, but if I did, I’d do the work to honor them in as traditional a manner as possible. Why? Because I think it shows the proper respect to do so.

      And it’s the effort and study that are missing in certain portions of our community. Certain if the gods may not care how they are worshipped. But I can’t believe they’re cool with being handled so casually either.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. I definitely agree and I love your celeals meme 😀 I think if there is indeed genuine interest and faith, then the seeker may approach deities of other cultures, but *by all means* be respectful, considerate etc. There are indeed no excuses for treating them like fashion items.

    • Hey thanks! I got the idea for the cereal shelves late in the evening that this post was coming together. Was up until 3am putting the damn thing together and finally had to call it done before I crashed face first into my keyboard. There were a few other boxes I’d wanted to do, but…, oh well. It was enough to get the idea across anyway.

  4. I just started following you.

    It’s very refreshing to find a pagan blog that encourages debate.

    I have some things to say about this.

    My main problem with the term “cultural appropriation” is that it seems to be very selective regarding what constitutes “cultural appropriation” and what is simply “globalization.”

    We all “appropriate” culture. Every culture since the dawning of civilization has selected tidbits from other cultures and incorporated them into their own cultures without much regard for its origin. That includes the Romans, the Celts, the Egyptians, the Greeks and every Native American tribe ever to wander this continent.

    When a California girl tattoos her arm with a Japanese character, it’s “cultural appropriation.”

    But when a Japanese girl puts on an all-American pair of jeans, it’s just a Japanese girl putting on a pair of jeans.

    I spent some time in Beijing, China in my early 20s. That summer, it was popular in urban China to wear t-shirts with English words on them. Random words like “Apple” and “Butterfly.” I will never forget, I saw a girl smack in center of Tianamen Square wearing a shirt that said “Fugly.” I think we all could safely assume she had no idea what it meant. She just liked the way the English characters looked. They appeared exotic and interesting to her, much as Chinese characters appear exotic and interesting to the average Westerner. She didn’t have to become fluent in English to wear that t-shirt, and no one expected her to.

    Now, I’m not comparing religion to a t-shirt. But what I am saying is that religion is no different from any other aspect of culture—it’s subject to interpretation and adoption from other cultures, even if those cultures don’t fully appreciate their original meaning.

    Religion is a private matter, particularly for the solitary, eclectic practitioner. And freedom of religion includes the freedom to interpret and incorporate aspects of any other religion or philosophy into your own spiritual experience. Whether or not the mainstream or ethnically-linked practitioners of that philosophy approve of your interpretation is irrelevant.

    That’s what free thought is all about.

    • Hey, thanks for both your comments and for following!

      I’m glad you appreciate debate, and I hope you’ll take my reply in that spirit.

      When I read statements like, “…freedom of religion includes the freedom to interpret and incorporate aspects of any other religion or philosophy into your own spiritual experience. Whether or not the mainstream or ethnically-linked practitioners of that philosophy approve of your interpretation is irrelevant…” I can’t help but think that this is a belief that comes from a position of privilege.

      We can take whatever aspects of a culture that we like, and the plundered culture has no say in the matter.

      Do you see how that sounds?

      Yes, these things have happened throughout history. The fetishizing and adoption of certain trappings of a dominated culture is one of the classic final stages of imperialism. But I’m not so sure that “well everyone else is doing it” is an ethically sound position to take.

      And your examples of globalization are spot on. And I am by no means opposed to a certain degree of globalization. But there is also the point at which globalization becomes homogenization. Everyone is so busy trying to be unique little snowflakes that we’ve lost sight that we are, in the process, abandoning those things that make us culturally unique. And there are definitely a lot of people who would say that this is a good thing, that a global culture should be global.

      I see dozens of languages winking out of existence every day, vanishing along with folklore and traditions, specialized crafts and medical knowledge, and I am not so sure.

      Closer to home, the T-Shirt example you provided, and I know you didn’t intend it to be taken this way, is, I believe, a reasonable metaphor for what I’ve seen from certain of the more eclectic members of our community. People introducing deities into their practice with no real understanding of the history and context that goes along with the name. You see them walking by with that shirt that says “Fugly” on it and when you try to explain what it means they get angry and accuse you of being dogmatic and infringing upon their religious freedom.

      But nothing worth having comes without a price, and far too many people seem willing to let others pick up the check.

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