Appropriate Stories

Elinor has written here about the nature of displacement in modern Paganism. Displacement is one of the factors in cultural change and cultural borrowing. It can also lead to ugly cultural appropriation. For someone who is concerned about cultural appropriation, sometimes it can be hard to know where the line is between borrowing and stealing. Other times, you have no choice but to adopt something as your own because it simply speaks so deeply to your soul. What else could you do?

“I wanna show you the stars! So substitute the ignorant oppression with guilt and depression and it’s yours, it’s yours!” – Grippo by Saul Williams

The two stories of Mount Diablo that I shared in February come from two cultures that are not my own. I am not Chochenyo. I am not Spanish or Catholic. However, both of these stories have some meaning in them that relates to my personal experience of the place. I’m not even sure how to describe the way that Coyote, Eagle and Hummingbird drew me back to Chochenyo country over the course of several months in late 2011 and early 2012 after a long time away. It is a strange and long story that sounds like a folktale all its own. I have also experienced something terrifying and mysterious at the foot of the mountain, like the Catholic priest’s Devil.

I balk a little at the idea that someone might think that I am “stealing” the tale of the people who lived in Oakland before it was Oakland to explain and describe a piece of my own life, but what else can I do? No one would think to say that I’m “appropriating” the story of the priest. Perhaps some might tell me that I’ve “assimilated” that tale, but that doesn’t have the same nasty ring to it, or the notion that I’m hurting someone else in the process.

How can someone from a dominant culture share the ways in which another culture has helped them without seeming to be a cultural colonist? I have no good answer for that, only an assortment of incomplete solutions to the problem. And yet, I still learn every day by being the eternal outsider and borrowing folklore from everyone.

About Sterling

When Sterling was 3 years old, her parents packed everything they owned into storage, put a roof rack on their ‘66 VW Bug and spent three months driving with her across the US and Canada. She’s been a nomad ever since. She’s lived in El Salvador, Guatemala, Canada, England, Scotland, Israel and several states in the US. Every place is a new spirit to get acquainted with, fall in love with, or struggle with. Her path within Druidry is a spiritual dance of learning the relationships of all the people, human and otherwise, in the context of place. She has a collection of short stories, The Imaginary City and Other Places, which you can read on Kindle or in paperback.

  • Clementine

    I’ve had to struggle with this a lot too. As a Chinese-American, I have never felt like I was Chinese, nor like an insider to American culture. I don’t feel like I can draw from my heritage because my family and a lot of Chinese history and culture are deeply, deeply sexist and feminism is very important to me. I have found that I draw most of my spiritual insights from the Western feminist movement, which I recognize is deeply problematic in a lot of ways, but I find the most power in studying my own culture deeply and enacting change and making progress with the wisdom that the (often imperfect) people around us have to offer (rather than plumbing other cultures for sometimes superficial knowledge).

    I find that a lot of borrowing of Eastern concepts to be really weird and problematic and Orientalizing, like the borrowing of Guanyin or things like qi and yin/yang. That said, I have seen cultural appropriation done right (for example, the TV series Avatar the Last Airbender, which I ADORE), but not often.

    • Shen Hong

      I’m always excited to meet other people of Chinese descent who are interested in their heritage, and also have a social critique. Yeah, there are a number of things in Chinese culture and history that I don’t relate to. Within the larger Chinese culture, there are so many different strands and traditions…on the one hand, if you or I had grown up fully within that context it wouldn’t be likely that we could “pick and choose” which aspects of culture to embrace and which to reject; on the other hand, there were certainly people who did carve out their own space on the margins. If you’d be interested in continuing this conversation, you could send me an email at shenhong at gmx dot com.

  • Jeannine

    That’s a question that I’ve asked myself many times.

    We’re all humans from Earth. We share stories. Shouldn’t we be transformed by the stories we hear? What’s the line that shouldn’t be crossed? If respect the best criteria to determine what that line is, then there has to be agreement about what is respectful.

    Does cultural appropriation interfere with a people’s attempts to preserve and pass on their culture? What else does it do?

    Cultural appropriation is pretty obvious when white people say they know tribal teachings better than members of a particular tribe, when they invent “Native Teachings,” or when they make a profit claiming to be experts. (Or when they’re irresponsible idiots– I mean, how to do you kill someone with a sweat lodge?)

    A less obvious example would be Christianity’s co-opting of the Bible. Everyone is used to that. Christians had to reinterpret and often denigrate the Bible to justify creating a new religion. Many modern Christians don’t even recognize there’s a contradiction when they say, “We love Jews. Why won’t they accept Yeshua?” They are appropriating a religion by saying they know better how it’s adherents should believe and act.

    For two thousand years, the Christian god was Jesus the Gentile. After 1948, some Christians started thinking of him as Yeshua the Jew. To me, that is cultural appropriation.

    Cultural appropriation may not have prevented many Jews from preserving and passing on their culture, but it certainly affected them in other, major ways.

    The dominant culture may not be the only culprit. Is it cultural appropriation when the descendants of slaves claim to be the “real Jews?” I’m offended, but I’m not sure that I should be. As you say, it speaks to their souls. That story empowers them, and stories should empower.

    I feel lazy for failing to answer the question “what is cultural appropriation.” I’d like to assume that I know how to be respectful because I want to hear other people’s stories and I want those stories to speak to me.

    • Sterling

      “Is it cultural appropriation when the descendants of slaves claim to be the “real Jews?” I’m offended, but I’m not sure that I should be. As you say, it speaks to their souls. That story empowers them, and stories should empower.”

      Ah, yes. This is one that has stuck in my side a few times. I don’t have trouble if the idea of being “also Jewish” speaks to someone. I get offended when some group claims to be the “real Jews” and that those who claim Jewish heritage today aren’t *really* Jewish. When people start saying “real Jews are…” (black, arab-looking, straight nosed, red haired, whatever) I just roll my eyes and shut down. If you spend any time in Israel, you find out very quickly that you can’t tell the Jews from the non-Jews, and that both Jews and non-Jews come in all sorts of flavors.

      You see that same kind of cultural appropriation with Native Americanness. Some white people actually have the gall to say that they know more about what it means to be Native than the Natives do. What’s up with that? It’s just another form of colonization, really. It’s another form of taking power for ones self while denigrating and disempowering the other.

      Perhaps that’s where the line is — the line of power. If we can ask the question “Is this power stealing or power sharing?” and the answer is not “sharing” then we know we have appropriation.

      • Jeannine

        Ah! I think that’s it, Sterling. Thank you.

        (The first time I arrived in Israel, standing in customs, I looked at the lines of Israeli passport holders, people from seemingly every race in the world, and remembered the line from Psalms about all the nations of the world going up to Jerusalem. At the Kotel on Tisha B’Av, the other women who spent the whole night there were of greater racial diversity that I’ve seen anywhere else.)

  • John Beckett

    I have three rules for this:

    1) credit your sources
    2) don’t pretend to be something you’re not
    3) steal from the best

    I also like something I heard from Sam Webster: “tech is transferable, culture is not.”

    • Phaedra Bonewits

      I would add to that, John,
      4: The Gods choose who they choose
      5: Respect the perspective of the source of the culture.

      Native Americans have very strong opinions about cultural appropriation. Yet I have more than once heard Africans quoted to say the equivalent of *shrug* the Orisa chose who they chose, cool. Note, I am talking about Africans, not necessarily Africans of the diaspora, who generally have quite strong feelings on the subject.

      Humans are a storytelling species, and stories can speak to us very powerfully from remote times and places. But resonance with a story does not place you in the cultural milieu from which it came, and acting as if it does, well, that way lies danger. Diving deeply into that culture will generally work best with a guide from that culture, but it’s a long, long journey before one can be of it (which would not be your call but their call) rather than a thoughtful tourist. And if the culture has long disappeared, well, no matter how deeply we resonate with the story, most or all of the rest we’d better admit we’re making up as we go along.

    • thalassa

      For me, it comes down to 1) giving credit where credit is due, 2) not claiming one’s self as an authentic _____________, 3) using the idea as inspiration for one’s own personal interpretation and incorporation.

      • thalassa

        …and the emphasis is on personal there. For example, the myth of Senda speaks to me quite loudly, but I would never dream of claiming that I was part of the culture from which she originates because of that. Were I ever to take my beliefs on the road, my personal relationship with a particular deity that belongs to a living culture should not have anything to do with the public belief that I teach, because it isn’t mine to do so.

        …I think that makes sense?

    • Soliwo

      It depends how you define culture. I would say that culture IS transferable but not possible without changing the culture which you intend to transfer.

      • Soliwo

        Sorry, this was directed mainly at John. We pagans sometimes tend to speak (and write) of cultures as separate objects. This tendency is even greater when we feel a culture is under threat and needs to be conserved, or is dead and needs to be resurrected. But apart from ‘a culture’, there is also culture. And creating culture, cultural innovation happens exactly when cultures travel. When we adapt to it and change it. This is what happened when Christianity came to the west. Yes, from our pagan perspectives, it was very damaging to native cultures. But at the same time, Christianity itself also changed. I have even heard my professor’s state that Christianity was Judaism made ready for export.

        The problem is that if cultures want to survive, they need a certain amount of change. It is like language. This summer I went to Wales, and even though the language is still much-spoken in the North, no new words come to life.

        Teaching is transporting culture. Travel transports culture, but never in its entirety, and never unchanged. Borrowing stories mean making them our own. Yet our interpretations need not drown out the old ones. Yes, we need to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, and make sure their voices are heard. But we do not have to remain silent. Culture travels, and culture is everywhere. It is impossible to stop it. It wishes to flow where there is need of it.

      • Sterling

        I second this!

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