Beyond Native American Appropriation: Cultivating a Personal Nature-Based Spirituality

We were explorative and curious and we were also inspired by a lack of depth or authenticity in the culture from which we’d sprung. We sought something that western imperialist culture can not offer. The thirst for something more meaningful is a natural response to a world that cultivates deception, destruction and spiritual debt. (Cultural appropriation: beginning reflections from a settler standpoint)

They (white americans) are discontented with their society, their government, their religion and everything around them and nothing is more appealing than to cast aside all inhibitions and stride back into the wilderness, or at least a wilderness theme park, seeking the nobility of the wily savage who once physically fought civilization and now, symbolically at least, is prepared to do it again. (Vine Deloria, as quoted in Chief Seattle, er, Professor Perry speaks: Inventing indigenous solutions to the environmental problem

When I first heard the term “Plastic Shaman” I felt bemused, validated…and more than a little bit ashamed. I sat back in my chair, and immediately knew that I wanted to write about it. However, it’s taken me over seven years to sit down to do it, and even now, my heart is beating so hard that it’s hard for me to think. The issues involved in white privilege are often blindspots, especially in New Age communities, and they bring up a strong emotional charge, regardless if you are on the side of the oppressed or oppressor. As I write, I am trying to choose my words carefully, and I realize I’ll just have to assume I’ve failed before I’ve even begun. What I say is bound to piss someone off, perhaps someone that I know in real life (as opposed to the blogsphere) and even more likely, one of my colleagues. But it is precisely because spiritual beliefs are infiltrating my profession that I want to speak up. As well, connection to nature and non-human others is our birthright. As an ecopsychologist, my hope is that I will help others discover their love for life on earth, because what you love, you protect. But it is the responsibility of those of us who are pushing a sustainable world vision to leave behind many aspects of the crumbling dominant paradigm, and that includes cultural and spiritual theft…even if those things are good keys to unlocking nature connection.

Ecopsychology, because of its premise of respecting our place as participants in an ecological whole, tends to attract folks from both the fields of environmentalism, as well as the ecospirituality edge of the New Age spectrum. As ecopsych becomes a system with applied techniques, as opposed to the theoretical framework proposed in the ’80s, some of those techniques are a fusion between holistic psychological concepts and new age practices. There’s nothing immediately wrong with this. However, people in western culture, as a hyperbolical rule, do not have an obvious path towards relating to nature as a Being. There tends to be a casting about with a wide spiritual net, and much of what is gathered is based upon decades of misinformation. So many of the “native” or “indigenous” beliefs and practices that have been put forth to connect self within the web of life have their unfortunate beginnings in fraud. There is a folk element to New Age spirituality, and beliefs/practices are often passed along orally, from one friend or mentor to another. This is problematic when “truths” come from unreliable sources, such as Carlos Casta-neda, Jamie Sams, Black Elk, Ted Andrews, Sun Bear or Hyemeyohsts Storm. When a faulty spiritual foundation becomes mixed into a field of psychology that is still trying to gain respect in the conventional ranks, I am concerned that this will only serve to cheapen, rather than authenticate, The Voice of the Earth.

There has already been many excellent articles on Native American cultural and spiritual appropriation, plastic shamanism, and the problems inherent in selling spirituality. I am not going to attempt to exhaust the subject in this post. Please check the end of this post for further reading and links. I will briefly say that I consider cultural and spiritual appropriation to be racism, but that it is not the same as learning or sharing about other cultures when it is done in deference (with reference!) to that culture. Specifically around the topic of New Age spirituality, one of the tenants of appropriation is when a dominant culture uses another culture for egoic or monetary gain or to authenticate one’s beliefs, in order to convince, or have power over, others. But before we continue on, let’s try to put some basic definitions out there, as written by others:

Cultural Appropriation

Hipsters wearing headdresses is cultural appropriation because it is a commodification of indigenous culture. It takes something from someone else’s culture without any context or respect and turns it into something marketable and profitable. It reiterates the very techniques of colonialism by objectifying someone else’s culture and turning that culture into something available for consumption. It has the effect of making indigenous culture as something belonging to white people by turning indigenous-looking clothes into fashion accessories. It also helps to perpetuate essentializing stereotypes of what indigenous culture is by removing indigenous clothing from its historical specificity and context.

Plastic Shaman

Plastic shaman is a pejorative colloquialism applied to individuals who are attempting to pass themselves off as shamans, holy people, or other traditional spiritual leaders, but who have no genuine connection to the traditions or cultures they claim to represent. In some cases, the “plastic shaman” may have some genuine cultural connection, but is seen to be exploiting that knowledge for ego, power or money.
Plastic shamans are believed by their critics to use the mystique of these cultural traditions, and the legitimate curiosity of sincere seekers, for personal gain. In some cases, exploitation of students and traditional culture may involve the selling of fake “traditional” spiritual ceremonies, fake artifacts, fictional accounts in books, illegitimate tours of sacred sites, and often the chance to buy spiritual titles.

Even the most well meaning person, with every intention of being respectful, is often blind to their own participation in cultural appropriation. An example of this is when platitudes are given about “the indigenous way of life” or “indigenous practices”. The problem here is that a vast and diverse group of people are lumped together in a singular identity. A good question to ask if you hear something like this is to say, “Do you know which tribe specifically?”. Another example, that I heard A LOT prior to the 2012 doomsday was “What Native American elders say”. Apart from the fact that this puts individuals into the pigeon hole of “the noble savage”, Native America is huge, consisting of 566 tribes…and those are just the ones that the federal government recognizes. There isn’t a secret group of “elders in the know”. Furthermore, the term indigenous in definition pertains to a person or species that originates from an area, environment or place. The root of the word in Latin is indigen, meaning native. This is not a term to throw around casually, when less exotic words like innate or inherent could work just as well.

I am thankful for New Age spirituality and the holistic health movement for the path offered through otherwise confusing and intimidating terrain. When we are talking about an entirely different way of understanding the world, this is a difficult task to complete with out some kind of guidance. Those who were fortunate enough to be raised with a solid foundation in a practice of true compassion or mindfulness, or body based knowing, at least have a jumping off point. But what about the refugees from religion, from dogma? Not only is it a question about how to begin, but there is also the matter of repair, the allowing (and healing) of wounds from an abusive religious uprbringing, on top of understanding the world in a new way. Even if it is about reclaiming the part of the self that does understand, it can be a monumental task to stand beside that authentic voice and not feel paralyzed by outer naysayers or inner critics. Of course you’re going to want to shove your shamanism book in the face of negation and say Because it says so RIGHT HERE.

It is natural to seek out a teacher or mentor. However, most of the teachers claiming to be shamans, or from Native America, often are not and have not garnered the approval or respect of the cultures they purport to represent, even ones that seem so trustworthy or appear to have tribal credentials. A further difficulty is in languaging. How do we even begin to describe experiences such as connection with non-human others, non-ordinary states of consciousness, intuition or telepathy without unconsciously adopting words that perpetuate oppression?

Well gee everybody, that’s why I’m here! If you’ve been with me for a while (and I think you have to have been to get that self-rerferential joke), you’ve probably guessed by now that this is what Terrallectualism is about. Ultimately, my own process has been one of exploring, discovering, adopting, discarding and then authenticating. Above all else, cultivating my own personal, nature-based spirituality has been one of becoming my own authority, of letting the still, small voice lead me in thought, speech and deed. It has been excruciatingly difficult and not very egoically rewarding. I often feel one-upped by others who flaunt spiritual prowess, and my authentic self aches to be truly seen.

Which is why I have a blog! The end!

But seriously folks. We will continue this discussion on Wednesday by taking on one of the glaring obscenities of Native American spiritual appropriation…that of animal medicine, or The Power Animal. I’m going to share some of my own journey in regards to my spiritual connection with animals, getting sucked in by Jamie Sams (pre-crystal skull era, thank goodness). I will also give suggestions for how to deepen into connection with animals without ripping off Native culture. Finally, on Friday, I am honored to begin a guest series of posts on special encounters and relationships with animals, from some of the ladies that knock my socks off in the blogosphere.

For further reading:

New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans

Plastic Shamans and Astro-turf Sundances

The Plastic Medicine People Circle

A Much Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation

Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation

The Selling of Indian Culture and A Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Dakota Spirituality

Black Elk Speaks, Sort of

Selling Native Spirituality

Chief Seattle, er, Professor Perry speaks: Inventing indigenous solutions to the environmental problem

Native Appropriations

My culture is not a trend

“Authentic” Indians

Notes on how not to write about Native Americans

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11 thoughts on “Beyond Native American Appropriation: Cultivating a Personal Nature-Based Spirituality

  1. I love this so much, and so appreciate your refreshing and open minded perspective; with your usual grace and clarity you tackle such a troublesome subject and find a beautiful place from which to go forward. I took a class from Dr. Annette Reed (whom I believe was the first native woman in California to receive her PhD) and we watched a documentary on plastic shamanism. As my first introduction into the subject, it was infuriating and disconcerting and provocative. And not surprising. Having worked in bookstores so many years I have seen the titles and (mostly) cringed…but then again I’ve also read Carlos Castaneda! Among others, I am sure, but always with the approach that it is a book, a story, and not some guideline to a more meaningful way of life. I do wonder at your inclusion of Black Elk in the list of faulty spiritual voices, or are you referring to Neihardt’s translation and presentation of the story, conversations and vision? Maybe you know something I don’t know … I always thought Black Elk was a respected Lakota voice, and even Neihardt’s book felt, for lack of a better word, authentic to me. It was fascinating to visit Pine Ridge Reservation and talk to native Lakota people there about their history and in particular about Wounded Knee. What a fraught and haunted landscape.

    I am eager to go read some of your links, and can’t wait for Friday’s post! Thanks for taking the time to so thoughtfully tackle this topic. It seems to come at a vital time what with the “gifting circles” and all!

    1. good on you for catching the need for clarification heather! that sentence may not be a good place to lump in black elk, but like you pointed out, black elk is a romantic persona put forth by neihardt. it’s problematic.

      i’ve watched some of that documentary, much of which i appreciate now for the kitsch factor. 😉

      love to you dear, and i do hope you’ll add your voice to the guest posts!!

      p.s. here’s a good link to the issue with black elk http://lisa.revues.org/2937

  2. Hey Mary, long-time reader, first time commenter here.

    I’m working on a podcast episode about narratives of hunter-gatherer/paleolithic people and this is great food for thought — thank you!

    Two sticky terms for me are “genuine” and “authentic”:

    “Plastic shaman is a pejorative colloquialism applied to individuals who are attempting to pass themselves off as shamans, holy people, or other traditional spiritual leaders, but who have no GENUINE connection to the traditions or cultures they claim to represent.”

    How do we judge whether a connection is genuine or authentic? Is it exclusively those who have been raised in the tradition since childhood? Is it based on having studied with a shaman in the tradition or culture and being given authority to teach? What if someone took some CIIS public program classes and they were the most moving, transformative experiences they ever had in their life — now they want to share the applied practices with others as ethically as possible?

    When I was 24, at Tassajara Zen Monastery, a woman asked me if I wanted to do a “shamanic journey”. I never heard the term but I said yes. She took me to the treehouse and played me a CD recording of shakers while she guided me through a visualization. It was all unusually vivid and imaginative. She didn’t say anything about how she learned the practice and I didn’t assume that it was a “genuine” shamanic journey. It was something though. It did plant a seed around the powers of guided imagination and I still give value to the experience. How could she have framed the experience acknowledging her limitations? Maybe locating where she got this practice and making visible her history with the practice?

    I think there are a lot of people who have been exposed to some kind of culturally appropriated, “watered-down”, “impure”, indigenous-influenced, nature-based practice that is actually really precious to them. They often do not share it with others because they fear they will be called out for misappropriation.

    Last week I was at an early childhood conference in downtown San Francisco. I took my lunch break in the cacophony of Union Square and I know how easily it is for me to feel drained and bleak in that environment. I took off my shoes and socks and ate my lunch with my bare feet touching the ground. It gave me so much resilience to handle it all. I did feel a connection to my ancestors who had their bare feet on the ground a lot. I wondered about what life would be like if we all had our feet on the soil most of the time. Doing this regularly, I’m starting to enlarge my story about soil and think about it beyond “dirt” that gets you “dirty” if you step on it. However, I did have some fear of judgment that others would see me as weird, trying to be some kind of nature-paleo-tribal guy. And in some ways I am, I do want to be a guy who is connected with some of the traditions of my ancestors that were awesome!

    Thanks for starting the conversation about the complexities of all this!

    1. Will! I didn’t know you were a reader! Sneaky. 🙂

      I am very glad to have your eloquent and thoughtful voice added to the conversation. The points you offer, in regards to the ‘sticky’ terms and also your own experience are perfectly illustrative of why culutural/spiritual appropriation is so hard to disentangle ourselves from, especially when it previously has been the doorway into personally deep experiences, especially the one with our own heart. This is why I want to talk about going BEYOND the appropriation and cultivating a personal earth based practice and spirituality that isn’t reliant on misleading or fraudulent information, stolen terminology, or ‘playing native’.

      Honing in on the word “genuine” is so insightful, thank you for that. To clarify in general, steering away from cultural appropriation DOES NOT preclude being a human animal that has an innate connection to being alive on Earth, to having, as you say, a connection with our ancestors that had their bare feet on the ground a lot. I actually teared up at that sentence. So simple and true. But I also have read in researching this topic that one of the biggest come-backs from people who want to diminish the issue is to say, “But I’m Indian at heart” or “Inside we are all the same”. I would adamantly agree with the last sentence, since it is one of the tenants of buddhism and a bodhisattva path. And it still doesn’t give us the right to claim a spirituality that has not been handed down to us by the holding members of that intellectual property. So how can we talk about all being the same inside, and still be respectful to the trappings of culture? I hope to offer (with any luck) my own insight to that on my next post. I think a mindfulness practice is key to hearing one’s inner wisdom when it comes to connection with the earth…I bet you have some thoughts about that too.

      I think the boundary between “genuine” connection and plastic shamanism is crossed when 1. native culture is used to prop up one’s practice (“because this is what they did in indigenous (noble savage) cultures”) 2. when a practice is done for money and promoted with the mystique of being “native american” 3. when one’s purported connection to tribal practices is used to one-up others, or seem “wiser-than”. I mean, geez, that last bit is just a bad idea anyway, and pretty counter-spiritual IMO, but I have witnessed it as being rampant in Bay Area new age communities.

      In regards to your experience at Tassajara and the journey you went on…that absolutely is your own valid experience, nothing need diminish that. I think the woman who offered the practice to you was not offensive and definitely not overtly being appropriating. She called it ‘shamanic’, which is what that practice has been called ever since the Harners started doing workshops on ‘core shamanism’. I offer this type of guided meditation/visualization in my own practice, and I have gone back and forth over the years in calling it shamanic. At this point, I just call it ‘journeying’. Sometimes I tell clients that the practice was initially introduced to me as being native american in origin, but that I am skeptical of the validity of that claim and that I am not claiming to be practicing native american religion. An avenue for me is to explain some of the mechanics of it…that the drumbeat helps slow down brainwaves and induce a light trance state, where we can enter non-ordinary consciousness, bypassing the cognitive brain. Although this sounds technical, I have found it puts clients at ease and takes off the pressure to have some kind of magical Narnia experience. 😉

      And hey, Will? In my opinion you ARE that guy that is connected to his ancestral traditions. I will take my shoes off and be awkward with you in a city park, anytime. Thanks for chiming in. xo

  3. Wonderful post! I’ve been reading a lot about cultural appropriation in mainstream media and clothing, but had not yet thought about it in relation to “new age” and eco-spiratualism.

    This was SO interesting, educational, and thought-provoking. Thanks for opening my mind, and for always reminding me of how I want to put more nature back into my life.

      1. Someday, we’ll have a some kind of secret mission and the “code word” will be myrtleslavenuebretblenner.

  4. Dear Mary, as you can imagine and probably know these issues are really real and close to us right now. You’re so right about the height of the emotions associated with them. Certainly I can relate to the shame of not always having been on the right(eous) side of appropriating a culture. At the same time I feel like only by treading into this sticky mess can we sort through it and figure out where we stand on these issues, as people, as communities and as countries.

    So much of cultural appropriation is such new territory for me, having grown up in a predominantly VERY white culture and yet looking at the Sami or the Romani and their treatment in that culture I see the shadows of these selfsame issues.

    Of course, with what’s happening in our lives right now this is a topic I keep coming back. So much of the culture that my community has made for itself (see like I don’t want to say made because it implies that they/we came up with it solely) borders on these issues, yet for the most part, I feel it stays on the absolutely human and respectful side of it. Anyway, that’s probably something you and I need to talk about in private, so I guess what I’m here to say is: HECKS YES! THANK YOU!

  5. First time reader and first time commentator.
    I stumbled on this website after googling up “Cultural appropriation spirituality” and I must say you are spot on.
    I’m of Indian heritage (from India) and the sort of cultural appropriation which you write off with respect to First Nations groups, their cultural artifacts and worldview is also likewise being hijacked by the white yoga crowd in North America.
    I wrote about on my blog post called “Why I left Yoga (and why I think a helluva lot of people are being duped) and you can’t imagine the blowback I received.
    You’re also quite correct in saying that cultural appropriation is a form of racism. Furthermore it is intimately tied to colonial expansion and imperialism, a chapter of history which unfortunately, many people still don’t want to talk about, particularly in the conquest of North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and the colonial experience in places like India, the Middle East and Africa.
    Thanks again,
    EER

  6. Just found this today, as I was working on my own blog posts on appropriation. Years ago I did a lot of work on this issue–workshops for those involved in feminist spirituality, where a lot of appropriating was going on… and still is. I wrote an essay called “Wanting to Be Indian.” Now I am a minister in a UU Congregation–and UU’s too wrestle with this.
    I am going to follow your blog, and invite you to mine–I think we are on the same wavelength–on a journey to create authentic earth-connection in our lives and sharing what we can of the path. My blog is Finding Our Way Home: Spirituality for Searchers, Skeptics, Activists, Mystics, and All Broken-Hearted Lovers of Earth, at https://findingourwayhomeblog.wordpress.com.

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