Colonization – the action of appropriating a place or domain for one’s own use. – Google and Oxford Languages
I’m angry, and I’m saddened. I have experienced what appears to be a growing sense of entitlement in contemporary Pagan circles lately. Perhaps it has always been there, hiding under the surface, but it seems to rear its ugly head particularly when the topic of appropriation pops up. Appropriation, as defined by Google and Oxford Languages, is the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. The common response to this word is an angry “no one owns spirituality” or “if it’s from the Earth, it’s for us to use”, but I would posit that those are just excuses covering ignorance of the real issues surrounding the negative effects of appropriation.
Appropriation isn’t an innocent practice. There have been studies showing the harm done to ethnic groups that are targets of appropriation and I’ll link some at the bottom of this post. People who downplay or play off appropriation as “not a big deal” are perpetuating a mindset of racism, whether intentional or not. There is no attempt to even try to understand They are presenting the idea that stealing and misrepresenting another people’s culture and spirituality, they are doing no harm. Indigenous spirituality was illegal for our people to practice up until 1978. When we see people taking, misunderstanding, and then misusing or misrepresenting something that is important to our identity it is a huge slap in the face to the hardship our ancestor face and that our people still face today. Appropriation does not honor Indigenous people either and that is an argument presented by only those who are doing it to begin with. Indigenous people have been misrepresented for hundreds of years and when we’ve had enough and speak up, we are told to stop complaining. Literally, I’ve been told to stop complaining and playing victim many times. Believe it or not, Native people can also appropriate one another’s cultures and have. For example, tribes that have no tradition of wearing a headdress or making dream catchers making them to sell to tourists or ignorant visitors at powwows.
Spirituality is often deeply tied into a sense of being or belonging to a cultural or ethnic group. I find that many Pagans often first go to their own heritage to see where they “fit” or where they can look to for their new spirituality. But there are those that still say that spirituality is not “owned” by any group of people, all while ignoring the importance of the cultures, lands, languages, etc. of the people in which those beliefs originated. I use “owned” in quotations because applying the modern idea of ownership to ancient practices really doesn’t make sense. While these ethnic groups may not “own” the spirituality, it is strongly tied into who they are as a people. Now of course, there are “outsiders” that have been given access to these traditions and they are those who came respectfully to learn appropriately. What people don’t understand is that many Indigenous spiritualities are not necessarily closed practices, but you have to learn respectfully the correct way just as anyone within the tribe would need to learn.
A lot of the same recycled arguments parroted from people are based on problems or issues made up by people who aren’t even Indigenous. If they took the time to actually speak to an Indigenous person rather than other non-Indigenous people, they could learn a lot about the real issues. Often it seems like its non-Indigenous people talking about Indigenous issues to other non-Indigenous people without a real clear understanding of those issues to being with, meanwhile we are left at the sidelines without a voice shaking our heads. Most Indigenous people are not telling people to not use sage, smudge, or anything like that either. There are over 700 varieties of sage out there and even more plants with the same use and effect. What Indigenous people are trying to get people to understand is that white sage and smudging are very specific spiritual practices and should be treated with respect. The term smudging these days is, especially in Pagan circles, is synonymous with smoke cleansing. Smudging is a form of smoke cleansing, but it is also a ceremony with prayer involved, it’s not just lighting a herb and waving it around. In some tribes these ceremonies even must be led by elders or leaders while in others it may be done by anyone. Smudging is also something that has been spread throughout North and South American Indigenous peoples through cultural exchange. It is not uncommon for people from many different Nations to practice smudging and it may not even involve sage at all. Smudging may not be a traditional practice of every Nation, but through exchanging of culture pre-colonization and even today, it has become commonplace.
My first experience with it was as a young kid at powwows. My mom was a Native American education teacher throughout my childhood and teen years until the program was defunded through the BIA, so it was not uncommon for her to be an organizer of powwows or to be invited to them. I was also very involved with Cherokee Nation youth culture and language programs growing up, so it wasn’t strange for me to see this practice. Once the pandemic slows and we’re able to go back to some sense of normal again, once the powwows start back up, I encourage anyone to go. They are open for anyone and if you watch, I’m betting you’ll see someone, usually a dancer and their family, doing it before competing.
Another issue that comes along with the use of white sage specifically, is overharvesting. Due to the demand of New Age and esoteric shops and now even popular culture, white sage has become overharvested. Traditionally, you wouldn’t dare buy white sage from a store. White sage would need to be harvested yourself with the correct intentions to be an effective medicine. When bought from a store you don’t typically know who harvested it, where it came from, what the intentions of the harvester were, how it was cared for, etc. It could have been sitting in a warehouse in a box for months before it even hit that shelf. Something sacred should be treated as such, but the monetization of the sacred herbs has left respect and proper harvest to the wayside, preferring efficiency to maximize profit. I don’t know about you dear reader, but I wouldn’t want to use something that was disrespectfully harvested with the intention of profit, that’s not medicine to me. Sadly this isn’t the only piece of Indigenous culture that has been stolen and separated from its culture for profit by non-Indigenous people.
This entitled attitude is not unique only to American Pagans either, I’ve witnessed this within those in Britain as well. To me, it appears that this entitlement seems to have roots in a Christian upbringing. To the people of these times, events like colonization and Manifest Destiny were their god given rights. Their god had provided these new lands and places for them to colonize and enjoy, despite the current inhabitants. This same attitude I see reflected in Pagans who feel that it is their right to take anything and everything because it was given by nature. I would argue that maybe this mentality is a lingering mindset of Christian colonialism. Many Pagan folks were brought up as Christians, but maybe they didn’t leave all the baggage behind as they thought. The Christian mindset still can sneak in and influence the way people think. From an Indigenous perspective no, you or I are not entitled to a single thing upon this earth. Creator gave the gift of spirit to all things and we are no different than the opossum on the side of the road or the birds singing in the trees. We are not of a higher importance and we also do not have an inherent right to take as we please. We are taught that we must ask for permission to the plants, trees, animals, etc. before taking anything and to leave an offering in thanks and we only take what we need, nothing more. We do not go out and just take whatever we see, that would be a disrespect to the spirit of that plant or animal, and that spirit being given by Creator and being a part of Creator, is a disrespect to the Creator. Our goal is to experience and become one with the universe.
I would expect Pagan folk to know better than to think that the earth exists primarily for their use as they see fit. I personally couldn’t follow any spiritual path that places humanity at the top of some made up hierarchy of importance at the expense of all else, that is one of many things that didn’t sit well with me in Christianity. It is hard for me to believe that these people revere or hold the earth in any sense of sacrality based upon how they treat it. If I had to assign any role to the human race, it would be steward. I choose that because I feel it is our duty to be good stewards to the land, the plants, animals, our own bio-regions, etc. because they are part of us, and we are part of them. If we truly revere the earth and find divinity within it, we should look after it and treat it as something sacred. All life, every molecule, every inanimate object is sacred.
What I’m trying to say with all of this is that some contemporary Pagans still hold a colonial mindset that they have applied to their own spirituality. Not only that, but they frame it with a privilege that they don’t even realize they have. They often think people are getting offended for no reason because they themselves have never experienced the pain associated with it, so it doesn’t exist in their minds. They take their own experiences and believe that everyone else is the same as them. I believe that it is extremely important that we as Pagans educate ourselves on these issues. This all isn’t exclusive to American Indigenous spirituality either, the same could be said for African traditional religions, South American spiritualities, Asian spiritualities, etc. If we are interested in a tradition within an ethnic group to which we don’t belong, we have a serious duty to really learn respectfully and properly. I tend to see people say they are called to a tradition when in reality they just want to take parts they like and leave the rest behind, much like Michael Harner and his foundation. This isn’t honoring or respecting that tradition or its people, it’s taking it to profit, financially and spiritually.
I’m tired of Pagan circles proclaiming an atmosphere of acceptance all while allowing or even encouraging the complete disrespect to ethnic groups and their spiritualities. I’m tired of seeing the same ignorant arguments regarding Indigenous people when those arguing could take the time to really educate themselves before repeating misinformed opinions. Apparently it is our responsibility to try to educate others, but when we do try, we’re met with disrespect and are told to stop complaining. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t be a Pagan and a respected Indigenous person because one doesn’t seem to allow for the other. I’m tired of people claiming to be Indigenous giving the green light to these people, or people who claim Indigeneity while having no knowledge or experience in their tribes speaking for the tribes they have no connection to, telling people it’s alright to do it. The Pagan community has some decolonizing to do and that will involve educating ourselves on the real issues and struggles of marginalized people, especially those groups from which Pagan folks exploit spirituality from. I understand that not all Pagan folks are like this, but we need more to come forward and use their voices as allies. Until then, it’s going to be difficult for Indigenous people to feel welcome or respected in the Pagan community.