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:
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 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: