Cultural Misappropriation

A Shamanic View

March, 2014

A Shamanic View: Cultural Misappropriation

One thing that has come up a couple times in our local pagan discussion group is cultural misappropriation. Usually when this comes up in the media it’s about stealing fashion or culture.  But what about when it’s spiritual or religious? I think the usual rule tends to be, “ask ten pagans and you’ll get twelve answers.”

I’ve already said some things about appropriating the title ‘shaman.’ This time I want to talk about rituals, ceremonies, healing or divination techniques, and so on.

One example to start with would be the sweat lodge. This made headlines a few years back when people died in one that wasn’t done very well at all. Among First Nations people, this is a sacred ceremony led by people who have undergone lengthy training. Then a white guy runs one as part of a really high priced seminar, presenting it as something it was not. This made the genuine ones look bad and made the Lakota Nation understandably pissed off.

Now, similar purification ceremonies have been done in Scandinavian and Eastern European cultures. Of course, the guy wasn’t portraying it as one of theirs, or even as a “done around the world” thing, but as a Native American ceremony.

The term, “plastic shaman” has come about to refer to people who are using shamanic culture for their own profit. Read up a little on “indigenous intellectual property” rights and–okay, you actually have to read quite a bit to follow it all! It’s being talked about online quite a bit lately.

So here’s *my* individual take on some of it. I apologize in advance to any who might take offense.  I don’t have the space to cover it adequately, so consider this just a sampling and something to meditate on for yourself.

There are some aspects of intellectual property I just can’t find myself agreeing with. One example would be the lore or knowledge of healing properties of plants. I don’t personally believe anyone can “own” that knowledge. Someone could “own” a technique for using it.

But there are a *lot* of things that are common among shamanic cultures throughout the world. Can any of those cultures “own” any of those things? In my experience, most shamanic teachings come from the spirits we work with. I’ve learned far more from my spirit teachers than from the physical ones. If one of those spirits teaches me a healing ceremony, that maybe it also taught to tribal shamans long ago and far away, then that ceremony was given to me to use. I don’t own it any more than anyone else does.

The difference comes in with how I might present it. I’d never say, “I’m going to do an Australian Aboriginal healing ceremony.” I might say, “Australian Aboriginal healers do something similar.” I’ll never do a “Lakota sweat lodge” ceremony. And I’ll always be respectful of other cultures which have been taught some of the same things I’ve learned. Because they certainly learned it before me.

Not to say that I think cultural misappropriation is a myth. Wearing a feather headdress to “look cool” doesn’t work. That headdress has important symbolic meaning to some people. Wearing a priest’s collar because it might look cool isn’t really any different. But when someone tries to claim ownership of knowledge, I have to wonder if they’re defending what they think they are or if they’re getting defensive about something else.

Individually, it means we should all think carefully about the things we adopt. Are we potentially stepping on someone else’s feelings? For any of us who identify as eclectic it’s even more important. When we adopt ideas or beliefs from others are we adopting them for honorable and respectful reasons/motivations?