Monday, December 14, 2009

Contemporary Pagans: Indigenous or Not?

A kerfuffle over who said what about which flavors of Paganism at the just-concluded Parliament of the World's Religions is summarized over at The Wild Hunt.

This year's parliament in Melbourne listed "Reconciling with the Indigenous Peoples" as one of its key topics.

Some contemporary Pagans have been playing the "indigenous card" since the 1970s, when Oberon Zell and other Green Egg writers argued that Wicca was a form of "indigenous European shamanism."

The same claim has been made by some British Pagans in controversies over the management of megalithic sites in the UK and the treatment of prehistoric remains.

So are today's revived and re-created Pagan traditions "indigenous." I think not—not because they lack ancient roots, but because they are not generally connected to land claims and other current political issues.

In academia, in the world of [Fill in the Blank] Studies, "indigenous" has a more limited—and more political—meaning.  Hang around the people teaching, for example, Native American religion, and you may be told that the descriptor "indigenous" can only be applied to people who are or have been oppressed or colonized.

This claim might seem illogical. After all, were the ancient British not oppressed, and thus not "indigenous," until the Romans came and created the province of Britannia—at which point they were colonized. And then when the Roman legions left, they were not "oppressed" anymore, so not "indigenous."

Forget it. This is all about political issues now.

If you cut through the rhetoric, what is really at stake in discussions of who is "indigenous" is land—and sometimes related issues of political power, reparations, and trying to avoid sharing the guilt for how screwed-up the modern world is.

Most Anglosphere contemporary Pagans do not directly connect following an "earth-based religion" with political control of acreage itself, but in other places that connection is the underlying concern.

Particularly in eastern Europe, today's revived Pagans have made "blood and soil" arguments, saying that their approach is truer to the land than is Orthodox Christianity.

Anglosphere Pagans may invoke a sort of metaphorical or historical "indigeneity," talking about people who followed polytheistic religions a millennium or two in the past. In the West, our connections with our Pagan ancestors are intellectual (based on books) and theological.

We can talk about prejudice and Christian hegemony—but being blocked from giving a prayer at the county commissioners' meeting is not "oppression" in the sense that the Australian Aboriginals suffered, for example.

Islam, too, has its "death to the polytheists!" passages in the Qu'ran. Indeed,  I think anyone who opened a Pagan bookstore, etc., in Cairo or Islamabad would be oppressed in a hurry. Is anyone brave enough to revive the worship of Ishtar in Iraq?

In our religious views and practices, we have much in common with the tribal religions of the world.  In the academic study of religion, common ground is being found between "indigenous" and "Pagan."

In that limited sense, it is useful to show contemporary Paganisms' (that is a plural possessive) roots in pre-modern, polytheistic,  or "indigenous" cultures.

But before playing that card, we have to understand that it is usually connected to issues of land rights, grievances over such issues as removal of children into government boarding schools, and other current political struggles.

In those instances, the typical Wiccan, Heathen, etc., is probably going to be on the sidelines.

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Anonymous Pitch313 said...

What's jostling me about today's Pagans following "indigenous European Paganism(s)" is the difference/distance between Europe and North America. Or other continents.

For instance, what sorts of claims do North American indigenous European Pagans have on lands in Europe?

Maybe I'm a more home-body Pagan than I used to believe myself to be!

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While the word Indigenous does involve the concept of land, if we tweek the definition a little to "Indigenist" then the issue is one of culture and, to that extent, all pagans are "Indigenist" being that their belief systems come from some Indigenous culture...somewhere...:)

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Thorn said...

Chas, I also think the term is problematic for the reasons you mention - as well as others. But I'm severely jet lagged and barely coherent so will leave it at that (and with some random musings on the subject that I wrote over the weekend and posted at the Pagans/Parliament blog.)

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Thorn said...

OOps! did not see your comment over there before posting the previous.

I mentioned land issues in one of the posts...

anyway, nice thinking.

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

This is one of those issues I can't make my mind up about. I don't think that European neopagans (let alone white Americans) can uncontroversially, claim to be practising their indigenous religions, except for a few Lithuanians or Saami, perhaps.

However, I also don't think the land-rights/reparations issue is absolutely irrelevant in Europe. Most urban working-class people are the descendants of dispossessed peasants, from the Enclosures, Highland Clearances, etc. Trying to recapture a connection with the land cannot be totally divorced from the circumstances in which one's ancestors lost that connection.

There are also a few relics in England of the system of overlapping land rights that obtained before clear ownership was introduced, such as public footpaths (rights to walk, eg. across farmland), and allotments (a bit like community gardens). One recent expansion is also the right of access to all uncultivated land (mainly moors), which was introduced about 15 years ago. I have heard people argue that asserting such rights is a pagan duty.

You might be interested in this website:

5:41 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Rombald: Indeed, I have heard of some "indigenous rights" arguments coming from the Saami.

Most indigenous-rights claims involve people within at least three generations of the present, however.

By contrast, the Highland clearances, to name one instance, were more than 200 years ago--within historical memory, certainly, but too far in the past to make a sort of quasi-legal claim about.

I know about the UK footpaths issue too--been there--but I never heard it described as capital-P Pagan issue before, just as one of common right. But, hey, why not?

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Riverbend said...

Thanks for articulating this so nicely, Chas. I like the idea of focusing on "finding common ground" much better than trying to claim the label "indigenous" for ourselves. Too bad there's not a shorter and less-clunky way of saying "inspired by our fragmented knowledge of indigenous practices from thousands of years ago, which have survived only in bits and pieces, and we're not even too sure about THAT" that we could use! :)

10:33 AM  
Blogger Denis said...

Chas et al.,
you seem to misrepresent the meaning of the word "indigenous".

Britannica on-line dictionary provides a synonym for it: "native".

Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary says indigenous means "1. having originated in and being produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment. 2. innate, inborn. Synonyms: native".

If I grow tomatoes in Europe, it doesn't prevent them from being indigenous to South America.

If a North American follows a Celtic polytheist tradition it doesn't prevent the tradition from being indigenous to Europe.

The definition doesn't have any land rights in it. It isn't about the right to a land, it's about the origin of the concept.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...


Your dictionary may say all that, but I am talking about the way that the term is employed today, which is highly politicized.

When you are dealing with native land rights, for example, bringing up the issue of tomatoes will just get you laughed out of the room.

One can strive to become indigenous, and I am all for that, but it will not change the current political and rhetorical usages of the term -- not right away.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Denis said...

Thanks for the link, the article does provide some insights into your idea of paganism. However, I still would like to clarify something.

Could you, please, specify, in the situation of certain pagan religious traditions being recognized indigenous to Europe, who will claim what land from whom?

11:51 PM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I prefer the concept of "autocthonic" to "indigenous". Autocthonic religions are situated in their cultural and local context, and don't make much sense outside it. Revealed religions can be exported anywhere.

2:38 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Denis, I am not aware of land claims in Europe, but I could imagine some being attached to "indigenous" status among the Siberian peoples now in the Russian Federation.

Under the Medvedev-Putin government, I would not hold out much hope for them.

Land claims are more of an issue in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand in particular.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...


At the AAR meeting on Indigenous Traditions, the francophones present noted that they prefer the term "auctothone" for when English uses "the native" [people] or "indigenous."

All one big circle, eh?

8:24 AM  
Blogger Denis said...

"I could imagine some being attached to "indigenous" status among the Siberian peoples now in the Russian Federation"

They have had this status for quite some time since the Bolsheviks attached it to them. Actually almost every ethnic group in Russia have a sort of autonomous unit, except ethnic Russians, of course. They are not supposed to exist.

The existing "assymmetric federation" is a time bomb prepared by the Bolsheviks. Medvedev and Putin are trying to please/bribe every local ethnic "prince".

So, you see, we have nothing to lose here.

But I still don't see how religion is connected with land claims. If I covert to Native American shamanism, can I claim land in the USA?

9:03 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Denis, "converting to Native American shamanism" is a nonsensical concept.

Research what it means to be an "enrolled tribal member" in the United States -- and how some tribes have used the courts deny that status to some people, even when they had historic claims to it.

Hint: It's about land -- or money (royalties from casinos, oil production, etc.)

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Christopher said...

I think there's a duality within the issue of "indigenous" that's not getting looked at. Indigeneity is linked to two very important things: a people, and a land. I don’t think the issue of ancestry or ethnic identity ought to be just brushed off because someone isn’t living on their ancestors’ land, or because there’s no land-right dispute. Indigenous religions often have myths about where their particular people came from, why they have the unique relationship with the gods that they do. The gods are *their* gods. The indigenous religion speaks to their entire culture and their shared customs and way of life. Because of that, I think a lot of the American Neopagan crowd is looking to their Celtic or Germanic roots to rediscover a sense of themselves and where they came from, and thus have turned to the gods they believe their ancestors worshipped, at least those for whom Paganism is about religion and not spellcraft. This isn’t nothing, and I think a genuine ethnic religion can be exported beyond othal lands and remain genuine. Has no one heard of the Jewish diaspora?

However, as is being pointed out here, an "indigenous" religion is tied just as closely to the land as to the people. The connection between ancestry and ancestral lands seems hard-wired into people. Even Christians of Irish ancestry seem to pine about Ireland like it’s the Holy Land. But moreover, even if you can export a religion, can you export the gods? Are they like ghosts and tied to a place, or are they as omnipresent as the Christian god? Can you pray to Thor for rain in Florida just because you could pray to him for rain in Norway? Did the heathen Norwegians of the 8th Century believe you could? If you truly believe in the gods as real beings and not as archetypes or metaphors, you have to ask yourself the question of their domain and how far their authority extends.

But beyond that, it simply seems strange to me that, in my experience, so many Americans, drawn to an indigenous religion because of its indigeneity, neither usually seek to live on their ancestors' land and emigrate to Europe, nor feel any draw to an indigenous religion of the Americas, their current land, and the land of their much more recent ancestry. I find it odd that so many of the Neopagans I've known who claim the title "earth-based religion" don't really feel a connection to the North American earth they live on, but to the European earth their ancestors haven't treaded in 400 years.

Ultimately, however, my issue with the concept of "indigenous" in regards to Paganism is an issue of scholarship. Even if it’s not connected to land rights, the fact is that Europe did have indigenous religions like Shinto or Hinduism, and I think if you’re practicing one of them the way they practiced it, you’re practicing an “indigenous” religion. The issue is, I don’t think anyone can really claim that, which is I think what Mr Corben-Arthen was trying to get at. You have a lot of Wiccan and related sorts going about talking about their practice of the "Old Religion" or an "indigenous European" religion when Wicca and the like are not really anything of the sort. There was a popular idea that Wicca and Wicca-influenced systems were based off some authentic European pre-Christian religion or practice, and I think current scholarship has shown that this is simply not the case. As Yewtree points out, even the most scholarly of Reconstructionists has so little to go off of that few practices indeed are securely reconstructible, including almost all of the ones most important to the reconstructionist systems. This is a problem.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Yes, Andras attempted to use "indigenous" to clarify our positive use of "Pagan" and to provide a context for it.

The problem, as I see it, is that the terms "indigenous" and "indigenous people" in the cultural-political realm are restricted to certain defined groups, such as Australian Aboriginals, Canadian capital-N Natives or First Nations, and so on.

So we are just jumping up and down, waving our hands, and saying "Hey, we are indigenous too."

Sometimes, we are told by these others, "No, you are the oppressors and colonizers."

Then we say, "But the Christians oppressed us a thousand years ago."

And the First Nations folks say, "Yeah, big deal. My dad was put in a government boarding school because we were 'savages.'"

And what is the comeback to that?

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Christopher said...

The comeback to that is that labelling all white people "oppressors and colonizers" is just as racist and bigoted as calling all Natives "savages".

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Maybe it is racist, but this is one of those "the victims make the rules" situations, eh?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Denis said...

""converting to Native American shamanism" is a nonsensical concept."

I know, I was just being sarcastic. Maybe I should have put a smiley next to it.

You seem to think that indigenous is a word reserved for specific ethno-religious groups in the politically correct language in your country. So be it, you are a pagan scholar, you know what you are talking about. I think I understand your position even though I disagree.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Evidently you missed this paragraph in the original blog post:

In academia, in the world of [Fill in the Blank] Studies, "indigenous" has a more limited—and more political—meaning. Hang around the people teaching, for example, Native American religion, and you may be told that the descriptor "indigenous" can only be applied to people who are or have been oppressed or colonized.

Ah well, no one reads closely on the Internet.

6:18 PM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

Chas: You're very emphatic that "indigenous" implies being a victim of recent wrongs. I'm not sure whether that's because you're American or academic, or both, but it simply isn't the case in my experience. My impression, in England at the moment, is that the usage is exactly the opposite. For example; there was court case recently over whether the BNP (a far-right party) could legally restrict its membership to "indigenous British" people.

I don't mean any of this to belittle the sufferings of Native Americans, or to equate them with sufferings of pagans 1500 years ago in Europe. I just think that people should refer to "wronged peoples", or some similar term, if that is what they mean. Maybe this is a European thing, though; the two most clearly wronged peoples in 20th Europe were the Jews and Gypsies, who were definitely not indigenous, and were often wronged by indigenous peoples.

3:29 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

Denis: "The existing "assymmetric federation" is a time bomb prepared by the Bolsheviks."

Asymmetric federalism is not unique to Russia - it also exists in Spain and the UK. It is always a bad thing, and it is going to be dificult to resolve in the UK. There is an analogy to be drawn with Chas' main point, in that it relates to how historically wronged peoples should respond to assertions of ethnic identity on the part of historic oppressors (eg. Russians, English, Castilians, white Americans). I think that assertions of white-American (in the USA) or English (in the UK) ethnic dignity and traditions are a GOOD THING, but that is a hard sell to historic victims.

As a disclaimer, I know that many white Americans arrived as bonded labourers, etc. The crimes of Eizabeth I, Cromwell and William of Orange in Ireland should be seen in the context of the 30 Years War, say, which was not ethnic, but still more brutal. The historic Scottish question is complicated by whether one is talking about nation states or ethnicities (Highlanders vs. Lowlanders). However, I'm speaking in broad brush strokes.

3:55 AM  
Anonymous Chas Clifton said...

Rombald writes,

"Chas: You're very emphatic that "indigenous" implies being a victim of recent wrongs. "

No! Read carefully! I am saying that is the dominant meaning in "indigenous studies" and the social sciences.


9:18 AM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

RE: "I am saying that is the dominant meaning in "indigenous studies" and the social sciences."

OK fine, great.

But are you also saying that you agree with this meaning and as far as you personally are concerned, it is the only correct meaning?

Something about your post comes across that way. Might want to clarify the difference (if there is any) between what academia says and whether or not Chas himself agrees with this.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Some people confuse the messenger with the message.

I'm in history of religion, whereas the "indigenous traditions" people include more anthropologists.

Anthropologists and ethnographers have a long tradition of advocacy for "their people." Consider Frank Cushing.

Unfortunately, when you attempt to unpack how different groups employ a term like "indigenous," careless readers assume that you are taking a position.

10:09 AM  
Blogger fannyfae said...

It really rather annoys me and has annoyed me for a number of years that Contemporary Neo Pagans want to claim the word Indigenous. Apparently it's the new in-word.

I grew up in an Indigenous culture. I have relatives on two reservations, I have an aunt that was sterilized by BIA policy. Let's just put down the "hey, my ancestors were oppresed, too!" whining and look at the facts.

If you are white, chances are you were not refused a job on the basis of the colour of your skin. Chances are you were not asked to move because your skin was the wrong colour. You were not asked on a continual basis if you lived in a tipi, how many scalps your grandfather had and whether or not English was your first language.

Pagans have latched on to the idea that in order to be repected as a viable religious movement, in order to have validity, they now have to lay claim to the word indigenous so that they can feel secure in their earth based faith. And whenever a First Nations person brings up the facts that just because you burn sage and just because you honour the Earth does not give you any sort of stamp of approval by First Nations Peoples. We are damned tired of the cultural misappropriations and overall sense of entitlement that some of you think waving an illegally gotten feather from a bird of prey over some smoldering sage in an abolone shell on a full moon "deserve" just by virtue of your personal spiritual convictions. Get over it. If you are not out there in the culture, don't expect to insinuate yourself into the culture. We don't care. You haven't been here getting your heads kicked in or shot at before it was cool to be Indigenous and you are not going to be accepted just simply because you decide to make nice and you want to now lay that word around your other garnered titles. This is ridiculous and it goes on and on because of the insecurities of so many within the Pagan movement and their ceaseless envy of what having Indigenous culture is about. So many within those ranks don't understand the complexities because they were not raised in an Indigenous culture. They cannot know what it is like - and nothing they read in a book or bang a drum and howl unintelligibly at a weekend seminar is ever going to get it for them. Sorry.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

RE: "Can you pray to Thor for rain in Florida just because you could pray to him for rain in Norway?"

Yes, but Florida really is blessed by the Vanir anyway, so better to pray to Freyr if it's rain or sun you want.

That, and doing runic magic works perfectly fine here. Trust me on this one; it was all I had available to me to protect my apartment and my car during the 2004 hurricane season, when three hurricanes (Charley, Frances & Jeanne) blew right over central Florida (which very quickly became known as "The Plywood State"). It was a terrifying season, but put enough nyd into your galdr and it seems to work no matter where you live and regardless of whether or not one is considered "indigenous." Whether or not I or anyone else was "indigenous" or "of an indigenous path" didn't matter when facing down a Category 2 hurricane. I think a lot of pagan people here were doing whatever magic they could to preserve life and property, and it seems that the Divine powers also didn't care whether one was "indigenous" or not; They responded.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

By the way, there is the concept of "blood and bone" - that, when land is paid for with blood sacrifice, such as during the Revolutionary War for example, and when someone's kin are buried on that land, it BECOMES odal land.

So for those of us who have ancestors who did fight and shed blood upon this land, and for those of us whose forefathers are buried on this land, on that level, yes we most certainly CAN claim to be indigenous to this nation.

I say compared to that, academia can go hang.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

My partner Joe (an Odinsman who used to live in Arizona) pointed this out:

If the First Nations people really want us European descended people to leave, we can do so.

And take all of our infrastructure with us. The infrastructure that our people developed.

Would that be preferable?

11:34 AM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

RE: And the First Nations folks say, "Yeah, big deal. My dad was put in a government boarding school because we were 'savages.'"

And what is the comeback to that?

Easy. Just because our oppression happened centuries ago, that doesn't invalidate it.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

This post has been removed by the author.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

Let's say we accept that "indigenous" means "people, mainly tribal, currently or historically oppressed by colonists", as Chas assures us is the case in acadaemia, and fannyfae certainly takes to be the case. OK, then, we still need a word to describe "indigenous" in its dictionary sense. Someone suggested "autochthonous", but I would prefer something like "earth-born" or "place-sprung".

12:30 PM  
Blogger fannyfae said...

I must have hit some hot buttons today with my having the temerity to say, No. You may not call yourselves Indigenous by virtue of your Pagan religion. Such stamping and jumping up and down really shouldn't surprise me by now, but I am ever an optimist. I keep thinking that someday people will be ok with and satisfied with who and what they are and stop trying to foist their definitions on others or lay claim to things that have nothing to do with the core issues at all.

No one disputes the sacrifies of anyones akhu or ancestors for the sacrifices they made. - and some continue to make. Oppression is not dead in the world by any stretch of the imagination. Just because I have the audacity to say, no, if your people are Transplants and immigrated here from somewhere else less than a thousand or more years ago, then no, you are not considered Indigenous does not make me a racist anymore than the fact that my Anayunwiya/ Cherokee ancestors owned African slaves does makes me responsible for the sins of my ancestors. That kind of argument is ridiculous. and really is not addressing the discussion in any fashion whatsoever.

12:40 PM  
Blogger fannyfae said...

The issue is that the Pagan movement, which most people within it are converts, they are NOT from a Fam Trad, they do not have an uninterrupted line where one of the big three religions did not indoctrinate their ancestors. I am very sorry if saying this is an issue for you, but that really is not my problem.

I refuse to turn this issue into an "my ancestors suffered more than your ancestors" type of pissing contest. I refuse to say that anyone is more or less legitimate by virtue of their ancestry or chosen faith or skin colour than anyone else is. And having said that, let's leave it out of the argument. The fact remains that those who have suffered FOR their indigenous ancestry have really been exploited not just for land, not just for bingo benefits or anything else you care to name. The exploitation comes when someone wants something from someone else. Right now, Pagansism as a movement wants to label themselves as "Indigenous" because somewhere, someone got the idea that it would somehow legitimize their religion all the more apparently. We are ALL indigenous to the Earth - that much we can all agree upon I think. However, the idea that Pagans should be allowed to co-opt the term Indigenous in a way that kind of alludes to some history and an unbroken lineage with a connection to Earth Based religions is kind of a shell game. It really is. Most First Nations - all 700+ of them in the Americas alone - are pretty much NOT Pagan. Many of them were monolatrous. Please note that I did not use the word monotheist - there is a definite and distinct difference. And some of these same First Nations People will absolutely come unhinged if you so much as utter the word Pagan to them about their personal and cultural practices. Using that term on the rez is often NOT a good thing. Now all of a sudden, the word 'Pagan' isn't good enough and they need to add the word indigenous so that it again, adds just that much more legitimacy.

Paganism is legitimate. Wicca is legitimate. Druidism is Legitimate. Asatru is Legitmate. African Traditional Religions are legitimate. My converted to Catholicism relatives in NC and OK on the Reservation is also legitimate. What is the issue with Pagans just saying, they are what they are and why can they not just stop trying to couch it ways that infer something else? Can someone calmly and reasonably point out why this might be the trend? I am truly interested in where this need comes from. I am honestly trying to understand the why's of it.

And for the record, I am not Pagan and I don't practice the religion of my Indigenous ancestors, who are mostly converted to Christianity. I practice an African Traditional Religion - but I cannot say by virtue of my worshiping the ancient Kemetic religion that I am Indigenously African no matter how much I might wish it to be so, studied the language or if I adopted the term. That isn't racist. That's the simple truth. It is another simple truth that we can stand here and argue what we are and that still doesn't solve the problems that we face on this planet as human beings. That to me is far more important than co-opting a label to insure some sense of 'legitimacy'. You legitimize or illegitimize yourselves. That's all. It begins and rests with you and nowhere else.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

Hey, that's great, esp. considering that (if I understand the history correctly) the so-called First Nations people are descendants of Asiatic people who crossed over into what we now call North America anyway...

1:56 PM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

RE: "We are ALL indigenous to the Earth"

That's great too! So that means NO ONE, not even the First Nations people, can make ANY kind of land claims ANYWHERE.

ALL the earth belongs to ALL human beings.

So therefore, I am indigenous to North America, because I am a human being, I am a child of Mother Earth, and I was born in Washington DC and not in Germany or Ireland or Scotland, etc!

Yay for universalism!

1:58 PM  
Blogger Tracie the Red said...

Now, if we could just convince the Jews and the Palestinians of this (all the earth belongs to all human beings, no matter their tribe or creed or whatever), we'd have peace in the Middle East inside of ten minutes.

2:03 PM  

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