Syncretic Electric: A Brief Examination of Cultural Appropriation

Indian Encampment, Albert Bierstadt

Indian Encampment, Albert Bierstadt

Cultural appropriation is something of a hot button issue in Paganism, but I personally believe that more often than not it remains largely misunderstood. Accusations of cultural appropriation abound, both from within Paganism and from the outside. However, I feel that frequently these accusations serve more as a means of shutting down conversation than of coming to an understanding of the actual appropriateness and legitimacy of cultural borrowing. To that end, I am setting out to explore the presence and impact of cultural appropriation within the Modern American Pagan community.

One of the real difficulties in understanding the ramifications of cultural appropriation for many Pagans, I believe, derives from Contemporary American Paganism’s demographic breakdown. According to Sarah M. Pike,

… the colorful diversity of Neopagan festivals and rituals masks the cultural uniformity of its members. Most Neopagans are middle class European Americas who are seeking alternatives to the Christianity, Judaism, or atheism of their parents … (2001, p. 123)

My own personal experience of Paganism–from meetups, rituals, and conventions, as well as online interactions–definitely seem to support this charge. While in many places across the United States, Pagans are repressed minorities, and therefore suffer at the hands of the larger culture, the majority of us still profit from our privilege in other areas of our life. We do need to be aware that while on the one hand we may suffer religious discrimination, we are still capable of exercising the privilege that we are awarded as a result of socio-economic, racial, and gender positions. Simply suffering from one form of oppression does not automatically allow us access to other oppressed groups and cultures through the bond of oppression. For many other minority groups, Contemporary American Pagans simply do not read as an oppressed group, but as members of the larger European American community that is the source of oppression and exploitation. The diversity of Pagan ritual and religious practice is often simply not reflected in the demographic breakdown of Modern American Paganism.

“The notion of a “global tribal culture” clearly expresses Neopagans’ desire to include diverse individuals and cultures in one community” (Pike, 2001, p. 35). Many Pagans seem to believe that all religious or spiritual techniques are available to them as spiritual seekers, partly as a result of the framing of Paganism as global tribe. Furthermore, the capitalistic nature of American culture often exacerbates eclecticism and cultural borrowing.

The approach to cultural eclecticism practiced by postmodern-styled Wiccan practitioners characters culture, rituals and artifacts as commodities. There is little or no relationship between the source of the material consumed, and the recipient who uses and interprets the material. The connections between the source of the material and the consumer is dissolved upon completion of the transaction. (Waldron, 2005, p. 42)

The risk in inherent in this type of thinking, despite the advantages that it may offer to the Pagan practitioner, lies in the hidden damage that it can do to the minority cultures from which Pagans borrow. This type of borrowing is also only possible because of the degree of privilege that many Pagans can exercise despite their own status as members of a minority religious movement. For example:

When non-Indigenous individuals and businesses reinterpret, reinvent and market culture for the benefit of New Age movements they place themselves in competition with Indigenous communities’ capacity to represent themselves to the broader community. (Waldron & Newton, 2012, p. 70)

The difficulties inherent in cultural borrowing emerge when minority voices are ignored or silenced even by well meaning members of the dominant group. By borrowing from Indigenous and Minority cultures, many Pagans are not only trading on their own cultural cache, but often also making it more difficult to actual members of those cultures to express their views. “Critics’ concerns over issues of cultural representation (or in this case, misrepresentation  stem in part from their response to the broader culture that challenges the life and significance of their identity everyday through the mass media” (Pike, 2001, 137).   Members of the Pagan and New Age communities need to be mindful when engaging in cultural borrowing that they are not eligible to speak for or represent those cultures. However, the act of borrowing itself, particularly when incorporated into a public  spiritual space or ritual practice can overshadow the source of the borrowed material.

While, I do believe that the vast majority of legitimate cultural appropriation that occurs within the Pagan community is well intentioned, this does not erase the effect that it has on Indigenous and Minority communities. Cultural appropriation often reflects this in an almost good natured romanticism.

When Neopagans reject what middle-class white society has to offer, Native cultures come “to stand for authenticity and redemption.” Neopagans often assume, for instance, that most Non-Europeans cultures have more positive views about the body than Christian religions and that they value “feminine” qualities such as nurturing children more highly. (Pike, 2001, p. 146)

Many Pagans view Indigenous cultures in particular as representing and ideal sort of existence in close relationship with nature and the spirits. However, this view does not originate from within these Indigenous cultures, and is applied from the outside often as a form of critique of the dominant culture. This romanticization is hardly unique to Paganism, and has been present in European culture for hundreds of years.

What we may call romanticist idealization of Indigenous cultures as a model for utopian ideals, rituals and symbolic configurations has a long history in Western culture. Seventeenth-century cultural trends described the “noble savage” as evidence of the innate goodness of humanity in the perceived state of nature. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers such as Gabriel de Foigny (1630-1692), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Denis Didérot (1713-1784), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) commonly utilized primitivist and utopian notions of ‘natural Man’ based on descriptions of pagan societies living close to the earth. (Waldron & Newton, 2012, p. 68)

We, as Pagans, need to be aware of the cultural baggage that we carry with us from our presence in the larger American cultural community. Simply because we are Pagan does not mean that we have entirely removed ourselves from the effects of the larger culture. We need to be aware of the sources of our practices as well as their original contexts and meanings. Often times well meaning people borrow from other cultures in a way that strips the borrowed artifacts of their original purpose and understanding.

Cultural appropriation is a complex and nuanced issue that I intend to explore further. I hope, however, that this initial post has provided a foundation for a basic understanding to be further built off of. For the time being, I believe that it is of utmost importance that we, as Pagans, remain aware of the exercise of our privilege and of our own cultural background when we approach Indigenous and Minority cultures, particularly when in search of new spiritual techniques.

References:

Pike, S. M. (2001). Earthly bodies, magical selves: Contemporary pagans and the search for community. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Waldron, D. (2005). Witchcraft for sale! commodity vs. community in the neopagan movement. Nova Religio, 9(1), 32-48.

Waldron, D., & Newton, J. (2012). Rethinking appropriation of the indigenous. Nova Religio, 16(2), 64-85. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/nr.2012.16.2.64


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About Julian Betkowski

Julian Betkowski is an artist currently living in Washington State and has been a practicing Pagan for the last ten years. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, with the intention of setting up a private counseling practice to serve the Pagan and Queer communities.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    You raise some good points here, things we need to be mindful of in our explorations. For me, the issue of cultural appropriation comes down to three simple points:

    1) Don’t pretend to be something you aren’t.

    2) Credit your sources.

    3) Steal from the best.

    You’re right that we should be sensitive to oppressed minorities – that leads to #1 and #2. But humans have been borrowing and blending religion and culture ever since the first village visited the village down the river and we aren’t likely to stop any time soon – that leads to #3.

    I’ve also heard someone (can’t remember who, but it wasn’t me) say “tech is transferable, culture is not”. Spiritual practices that work well in a tribal culture may not be helpful to contemporary urban/suburban Pagans.

    • rhyd wildermuth

      I like your 3 points here, John, but is it possible that, with your justification of 3, you may be ignoring the imperialistic influence of our “theft?” That is, we’re not just visiting another village, we’re living in what used to be their village before our ancestors came and slaughtered most of them, sent some of them off to reservations, took their children away and gave them european names, etc.? Or brought them over as slaves, or bombed their countries…whether or not we consented to the original oppression or are actively consenting (tacit consent is also a problem) to the continuous destruction, we are, in almost all cases, taking from not just minorities, but politically oppressed minorities.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

        Rhyd, your concern is valid, and if in doubt I recommend extreme sensitivity to the concerns of oppressed minorities.

        But as an example: the use of heat and humidity to facilitate a spiritual experience is a proven technique (thought it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2011/06/james-arthur-ray-convicted-in-sweat-lodge-deaths.html). It’s “tech” – it’s something that can be borrowed/stolen and adapted to your own situation.

        But if you call your adaptation a “sweat lodge”, if you add in face paint and feathers and buckskin, if you add in readings from Native American traditions – now you’re starting to pretend to be something you aren’t. Charge money for it and you’ve clearly crossed a moral line.

        • rhyd wildermuth

          I think I’d draw the line a lot earlier than that, perhaps? Particularly insofar as there are still First Nations peoples who practice sweating (particularly in the Northwest, still relatively a battle-ground of colonialisation) and who invite outsiders to participate. As such, adapting it to our own needs and situations ultimately takes from them the right to teach their tradition.

          Perhaps a fourth point on the three you posited: if it is still practiced as part of a continuous sacred tradition, it should be the right of that group to pass on this knowledge. Taking the tech outside of the culture is a very good definition of the worst kind of theft–I suspect we should submit not just to their tech, but also to the cultural teachings which place it within a sacred context and respect their right to teach it themselves.

          Maybe another maxim: Reconstruction for what we’ve destroyed, and submission to that which we have not yet destroyed?

          • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

            It’s rare for techniques to appear in only one world culture, because they can be arrived at through independent experimentation. I think granting a particular culture intellectual property rights to something as simple as “a sauna-like environment assists in creating altered conscious” isn’t really feasible, any more than it would be right to try to restrict video game development to Japanese companies, simply because the first console games were Japanese. It’s when we get into what a given technique means to a particular culture and specific traditions around it that appropriation is more of an issue.

            • rhyd wildermuth

              You’re certainly right on this, Christine. My greatest concern (and as Julian points out, I’m a “card-carrying [anarcho-] socialist”) is the economics and power differentials. When still-living traditions are practicing spiritual techniques, and we borrow them for own spiritual practices, as part of a dominant culture (whether we want to be or not, as white european-descended folk, we function as such), an extra concern must come into play. That concern is what starts to delineate the differences between Syncretism and Appropriation.

              When we adopt other cultural practices in our spirituality, it seems essential that we allow the meanings of that practice within the culture to teach us as well (and if there are teachers of that practice, we should defer to them). As part of a dominant culture (sustained by economic, political, and mediated force)–whether or not we wish to– we can end up inadvertently contributing to the oppression of those cultures in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.

    • Bianca Bradley

      I’m going to disagree with your assertion we need to be sensitive to “Oppressed”(debatable) minorities. The premise is insulting. It makes minorities into children. How bout we change that to lets not act like dicks, if we can help it.(religious, political and some debates can turn us into that)?

      • Julian Betkowski

        What exactly do you mean by “debatable” and putting oppressed inside of scare quotes? There is little to actually debate when talking about the oppression of, say Native Americans and African Americans in the United States. The recent Lone Ranger movie is a good example of the kind of systematic oppression of Indigenous cultures. Despite the objections that Johnny Depp was adopted into a First Nations tribe, it is still problematic that the institution itself decided that a white man was better equipped to perform a Native American experience than an actual Native American. The Caucasian can do anything better than the Native, even performing Native-ness, by the frame of majority culture.

        While it’s true that this, in itself, may not be entirely negative, and even reflect a positive romanticization of Indigenous cultures, it still prevents the cultures themselves from being able to speak for their own experience. Only the white man may speak for Indigenous experience, because only the white man is worth listening to.

        • Bianca Bradley

          I meant what I meant about it being debatable. This is 2012 now, not 1812. The Lone Ranger is a bad movie, with a hot actor, that does not mean it’s further suppression or Oppression.

          Those cultures are quite capable of speaking for themselves and do often enough. AIM is one such example. Those cultures have learned women and men, who fight their cultural battles both in Public Relations and in legalese. They are quite capable of speaking up for themselves without anyone white knighting for them.

          The lone Ranger is a bad movie, based on a 1930′s radio program, turned 1950′s sit com. Did you complain as much about the Green Hornet and his Asian side kick in the new movie?

          Your article, has some issues, beyond your political bias. You could summarize what you wrote in a paragraph or two. Your terms are to specialized. I would consider using examples of what you are talking about, examples that are memorable.

          • rhyd wildermuth

            I would hope that all the FBI surveillance and the massacre of AIM activists would help prove that the First Nations still suffer oppression. Also, speaking of AIM, they signed on to the “Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.” Exploitation and oppression still occur. And just because “they are quite capable of speaking for themselves,” our responsibility NOT to appropriate their culture, artefacts, and spirituality isn’t abnegated. When they speak, we probably should consider listening, and help spread the word.

            • Bianca Bradley

              http://rezinate.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/new-age-sundance-shaman-2/

              Found this interesting.

              A.I.M has FBI surveillance the same reason that Earth Liberation Front does. And the same reason that apparently many other people who speak out against the govt do(yeesh, starting to sound like a Liberal again, there goes my evil republican pagan tag)

              As for the when “they” speak, we should listen. I have. One of the people I first learned about white coyotes and plastic Shamans was by a Native American(not sure on the tribe) who went to Pow Wow’s and did some type of dancing(he twirled in a circle, in a hand made costume. Dervish, but it has a Native AMerican name that escapes me)who owned a store. He was also learned in the occult.

              He was a nice guy, with an interesting history. He was the first person to make me aware of this. I make it a point to look carefully where I buy stuff from that has a Native American bent. (I like sage and copal and feel drawn to native herbs and they have great teas and I admit I like the leather work). I try really hard not to get too many spiritual shinies and look more to my Germanic ancestry when it comes to things that are similar.

              So I have listened. Doesn’t mean I’m going to there there people, who have different cultures then mine.

          • Julian Betkowski

            What political bias do you see here?

            I think it’s a bit odd that you assume that I only care about the Lone Ranger movie because it is about a Native American and that I would not care about examples of cultural appropriation against Asians. However, the Green Hornet movie at least cast an Asian man to play an Asian man. The issue isn’t that the Non-Caucasians are sidekicks, the issue is that in this case, a White man was cast to portray an Indigenous character for no particular reason other than box office name recognition.

            It is suppression because the character was not played by a Native American actor. The voice and presence of Native Americans is suppressed in our popular culture. And yes, it is 2013, and that makes these trends all the more troubling. Waving your hands doesn’t make them go away. It is unpleasant to think about, but we need to address these issues regardless.

            Yes, the First Nations have fought hard to gain what little foothold they have in American culture and politics, but that doesn’t give us the right to ride roughshod over them because they are in a better place now than they were a hundred years ago.

            Consider the relevancy of Carlos Castaneda and core shamanism regarding the current shamanism trend in contemporary Paganism. Work that has been disproven is still being passed around because it reinforces our romantic ideals of Native life.

            It’s true, as well, that I am, in this article, really only talking about eclectic Paganism, and that most of the discussion simply doesn’t apply to recon faiths. We still have a responsibility to be aware of these trends and to act accordingly.

          • Allec
            • RedTail Coyote

              To be fair, remember that all the Native tribes don’t agree and get alone. So when it’s the Comanche being portrayed, and the Comanche are happy with it, it may not always be the best to listen to commentary written by other tribal people.

              It’s like asking a Kemetic if The Wicker Man was appropriate.

        • Bianca Bradley

          I had replied, with something else, but Patheos ate it.

          Basically I was saying, that you are focusing on the Wiccan Eclectic movement, when the New Age one is where this began. Some foggy memory of something I read long ago about New Agers being jerks on some Native AMerican sacred space, telling a Native he was doing it wrong and should be using some crystal rays of love or something, but I can’t remember where I read it to share it.

  • rhyd wildermuth

    I’m utterly pleased to see Capitalism mentioned in your discussion. The commodification of religious traditions, relics, and beliefs seems always under-represented, if not utterly dis-acknowledged. Since we’ve come to view the whole world as one great “marketplace of ideas,” it’s easily lost on us that traditions aren’t something to be picked off a shelf, used, and then discarded when they don’t fit.

    How much do you suspect the de-sacralizing affect of capitalist exchange affects our appropriation? Is this not perhaps integral to the “post-modern” ethic of our paganism(s): having seemingly forfeited our own sacred traditions as (economically) displaced descendents of colonialism–both un-landed refugees from ancestral lands and inheritors of brutal thefts and destructions (of land, peoples, cultures and religions)– we try to scrap together something sacred from whatever is at hand, inadvertently continuing the very process which caused us to be displaced in the first place?

    Or, restated–Capitalism ripped our ancestors from the land (either willingly or unwillingly), alienating us from what was sacred, and we internalized Capitalism’s ethic and have taken refuge in its consolation (the world-market where everything is for sale and nothing is sacred). The process continues in our search for meaning, authenticity, and the sacred, and because we forget what was done to us and what we lost, we plunder what still may have a bit of sacred-ness left in it, thinking everything must be “for sale.”

    • Julian Betkowski

      I had intended to explore that element further, here, but I am trying to keep these articles to about a thousand words. I may go into the economics of cultural appropriation in my next post, but there is honestly so much that I want to talk about that it’s hard to plan too far ahead.

      I wouldn’t make nearly as strong a set of claims as you are, but I do think that our capitalist culture exacerbates cultural appropriation in an effort to normalize and level down individuality. And, I would not, as you, sir, a good old card carrying socialist, blame capitalism for all the great evil in the world (Capitalism is just a red herring…).

  • Allec

    I am very glad to see this discussion being brought to a larger audience than the corners of the internet I roam. This is an excellent introduction into the issues. I know that when I was first introduced to what cultural appropriation I was shocked and appalled by how much of what was taught to me fell into the category. It is too complacent of an issue within our community.

    Let me know if you need any first-hand sources for help. I have a bookmark of references when it comes to cultural appropriation from people in oppressed cultures.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    This is very much written from the point of view of American Paganism.

    As a European, I feel that (white) America has been a political and cultural entity long enough to say that a lot of the appropriation going on is from European sources.

    I am one of those annoying people who believes that cultures belong to the land (as do the spirits/gods). Cultures arise when mankind interacts with its environment.

    To me, I find it very bizarre that more American Pagans are not attempting to assimilate into the culture of their land, rather than trying to imprint a foreign culture onto it.

    If nothing else, doesn’t it make sense to find out about the local spirits/gods?

    • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

      This is a thorny issue, particularly in North America where invaders from Europe conquered and essentially wiped out the vast majority of Indigenous civilizations. It will not do to simply ‘find out about’ and then appropriate Native traditions, nor can it be expected that practitioners of indigenous faiths warmly welcome pagans of European descent into their circles. There is still a lot of mistrust.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        But, at the same time, Americans are not European. Not any more.

        • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com/ Soliwo

          I also feel a bit strange qhen Americans describe theit practices as indigenous European paganism. I find that the latter term is more often used by American Pagans then Europeans. It also shows how the blogosphere remains largely American in focus.

          • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com/ Soliwo

            Yet we have never been repressed and killed by the Americans as the native peoples of that continent have been. If you are inspired through European myth … all great.

            There are a few American pagans who see themdelves as much more European than they are. Present-day Romans and German will likely have more in common that German Pagans and Americans who worsgip Germanc gods.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            It’s like I said, cultures cannot really be separated from the lands that shaped them. Try to transplant them and they lose context.

        • Wolfkat

          That’s presumptuous. What are Americans then if not products of their ancestry? So your ancestors stayed put while others skipped the pond, it doesn’t make anyone’s heritage less relevant.
          As Andrea stated, you can’t expect pagans to adopt and appropriate Native traditions, but now “American” pagans aren’t allowed to follow their roots in European/international traditions either? Sounds like an uncompromising no man’s land.
          I imagine that would put all of the Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religions that happen to be present in America in a bit of a situation as well.
          This bespeaks bigotry, and it’s always disappointing when a divide in a conversation doesn’t occur because of intellectual differences or varying viewpoints, but rather “white American pagans” (?) vs. European pagans and who should be allowed to practice what.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Honestly, I don’t think that the Abrahamic faiths have any place outside of the Middle East, so yes, it could put all the Christians, Jews and Muslims in a bit of a situation as well.

            What are Americans? American. They are the product of their culture, just like everyone else.

            I don’t expect anyone to appropriate anything. I expect them to act with respect.

            If I was drawn to the gods of another land, I would head to that land to meet them. And I’d try and find people who already know them to make the proper introductions.

            • Wolfkat

              You have a habit, sir, of skipping the parts of posts that make sense against your point of view and only highlighting facts that support your own. I can only assume its youth and refuse to argue against a young man or women, as it’s as useful as trying to pipe water through a brick wall with a plastic straw. Good luck!

              • Lēoht Sceadusawol

                Wow, that was offensive. Not to me, perhaps, but to youth in general.

                I am older than some, but younger than others. Age is pretty irrelevant, however. I’ve known people twice my age act far younger, and people half my age act significantly older.

                Which part of what you said did you want me to address?

                • Wolfkat

                  Not offensive, simply fact. Up until one reaches a certain age, the prefrontal cortex remains undeveloped, thus making certain levels of reasoning with this age group next to impossible. I could say a great deal, but choose not to fuel a futile conversation.
                  I’ve said my piece, and refuse to argue further as my reasons were made clear already. Thanks again, good luck!

                  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

                    FYI, I am mid thirties.

    • RedTail Coyote

      The problem with finding out about the spirits/gods of the land is that there are SO many different aspects. Unless a Pagan chooses a particular tribe to learn about, there is a seemingly unending list of entities.

      The other half is that many of the NDN communities don’t want people learning about their spiritual practices. See someone bastardize your cultural practices long enough, and you want to avoid teaching them like you avoid the plague. Most of the books and teachers out there; such as Carlos Casteneda, Lynn Andrews, Mary SummerRain, and Sun Bear; teach gross inaccuracies. This further stresses the possible communication between NDN people and those of European descent.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        But this can only be resolved through communication and education, surely?

        • RedTail Coyote

          As someone who works in a Native museum and part of my job is education and communication….that job is harder than what it may sound for a wide variety of reasons.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I’ve worked in retail, I don’t think it sounds easy at all.

  • Ambaa

    I’ve just been exploring this same issue on my blog this past week! I appreciate your perspective and the way you’ve made the issues easy to understand.

  • emrdoc

    Point well-taken. — physical therapy management


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