Saturday, October 10, 2009

Who Cares about 'Cultural Appropriation'?

Some of the reaction in the Pagan blogosphere to the "shamanic" casualties in Sedona have trotted out that old horse named Cultural Appropriation.

A couple of months ago, one of the Pagan lists in which I participate had a whole discussion of "cultural appropriation." Cultural Appropriation was led by the halter and trotted around the ring, and all the usual arguments were made:
  • All our ancestors were tribal once.
  • I can understand Native Americans being upset.
  • All the spiritual leaders I know and who have been teaching their spiritual truths for decades welcome students, and their interest is what is important, not what their culture is, nor what they do with the teachings.
  • Now, I follow Celtic dieties because THEY came to me. I didn't go seeking after them. They spoke to me in English and have never demanded that I learn a different language to speak with them.
  • And of course someone brought up the new Pagan book on the topic, Talking About the Elephant.
Eventually that discussion thread wore itself out. Not two weeks later, someone posted an announcement for a Sun Dance:

The Sun Dance is a ritual of community and praise for the sun and the great spirit that the natives of this continent felt drew them together. Regardless of our faith, everyone can appreciate the sun's power and importance to all life on Earth. So this will be an upbeat celebration of the sun, the summer we have just had and community. It is also a ritual praising the sun and saying farewell for another year.

Since there is no one ritual for the Sun Dance, and so many tribes viewed and practiced this event differently, we will have a blending of many traditions in our Sun Dance. Please bring drums, bells, noise makers, whistles, rain sticks, musical instruments, or anything else you'd like to celebrate and make a joyful sound with. This event will be outdoors so please wear appropriate clothing as the weather dictates. Also, as part of the ritual involves body and face painting, if possible please wear something that gives you access to your collarbones.

And ol' Cultural Appropriation stayed in his stall. No one said a word online.


In the long run, religious creativity will always trump the kind of finger-pointing accusations that you hear about "cultural appropriation" — even before you come to the theological argument that "the gods choose whom they will."

We have freedom of religion. You cannot stop someone from holding a Sun Dance and calling it such unless you show up and threaten bodily harm. You can threaten other sorts of consequences—that it will offend the spirits or the Grandfathers and someone will suffer—but you cannot guarantee such threats. What if the spirits like the other person better?

As Shawn Spencer, the fake psychic detective, says in the TV series Psych, séances—or in this case, Sun Dances—are like garage sales and plastic surgery: Anyone can have them.

Pagans are well-placed to realize that religion is a creative activity. Writers incorporate the influence of other writers, musicians "steal" from other musicians, actors learn from other actors—why should religious practitioners be any different.

I have complained about some "plastic shamans" in my time too, but to what effect? Just do it. See what happens.

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Anonymous Rombald said...

I suspect that the specificity of the appropriation is important. If a lot of people get together to hold an outdoor dance in celebration of the dying Sun, that's OK, but if people closely mimic an extant tradition, that's much more objectionable.

Although I don't know about this sweat lodge case in detail, it doesn't sound to have much to do with appropriation. It sounds like greed and stupidity. It reminds me of some horrible corporate team-building / hazing ceremony.

I generally distrust anything with the word "Celtic" in it, except in a linguistic context.

1:53 AM  
Anonymous Pitch313 said...

One of the things that discussions of "cultural appropriation" involve is legitimacy. Often, legitimacy of a practice, trad, or world view.

Certain sorts of links to a "home" culture or to some of its culture bearers grant legitimacy. Other sorts of links, or no links, fail to grant legitimacy.

Then, making things a bit more complicated, each of us takes up our culture as we find it. We find ourselves adapting to a growing and changing cultural landscape that incorporates plenty of introduced, naturalized, and invasive cultural elements.

But I have discovered that it really is not possible for us to halt, or even impede very much, the processes through which we adapt to our culture or through which cultures adapt to each other. Even when we call it "cultural appropriation."

Thanks to historical circumstances, my own practice has little borrowing from my home town Native American cultures. But it does have a good deal of borrowing from other Native American cultures--because American culture took up plenty of it.

I say "raccoon," so I guess that I'd go to a Pagan sponsored "Sun dance." That's living, for a culture bearer.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I think what offends people about cultural appropriation is taking the practice out of context and cheapening it. Also if the appropriating group has a history of persecuting the group they are stealing the custom from, it is kind of offensive. How would we feel if born-again Christians started reciting The Charge of the Goddess? (unlikely, I know.) How do Jews feel when Christians start doing Passover Seder (this actually happens)?

4:45 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Hurt feelings, however, are not enough to justify sanctions.

Religion has always caused hurt feelings. Much of the old Chinese opposition to Buddhism (when it first arrived) was because it allegedly violated Confucian filial piety and turned child against parent. (Jesus said something about that too.)

When people change religion, someone's feelings are always hurt.

But if you truly are going to have freedom of religion, than someone's hurt feelings are part of the package.

8:51 AM  

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