Magic Outside Empire: Healing the Legacy of Shattered Cultures

THERE ARE A LOT of reasons not to write an article about cultural appropriation, colonization within paganism, and the relationship between non-indigenous pagans and indigenous peoples.

Most of the discussions I have seen on this topic tend to devolve to the point where no one is listening to anyone. One thing that tends to emerge in these discussions is the gulf of subjective experience separating people who know the pain of having aspects of their culture be appropriated by others, and people who cannot know this experience and struggle to draw parallels. The hope is that, as Pagans, we are good at trusting subjective experiences.

Positioning myself here as a white radical Pagan, speaking to a white radical Pagan audience, I hope that what will be conveyed here is a sense of why engaging in the struggle against cultural appropriation will benefit both our radicalism and our paganism. On the one hand, our Paganism raises the stakes of this debate, cutting to the quick of our souls. On the other hand, our Paganism makes us better equipped to transcend the material limits of this debate and to walk a path that is far more powerful, honest and meaningful.

To start with, everyone has appropriated from other cultures. I have, you have, we all have. That doesn’t make it right, but it just means that I am not some authority on how to avoid it. I imagine that, like most people, I started doing it out of a genuine interest in these cultures, out of a disaffection with the overculture. Like most people I stopped identifying with the overculture pretty early on, and began seeking out alternatives, seeking refuge in other cultures and traditions.

colonialismFor many white radical Pagans, identifying with other cultures is a way of “opting out” from the overculture. A lot of times, we carry with us a fantasy world of this other culture that has accepted us, that sees our strengths, and is helping us cultivate them. So it can be a rude awakening when we are told that what we are doing is harmful. That utopia of this all-accepting other culture that we have built up in our minds comes crashing against the reality of actual members of this other culture who are angry at us, and no matter how hard they try to explain it, we have no idea why.

Many of us have experienced the downside of capitalism, have inherited memories of the trauma of capitalism, and we have a long legacy of theorists to draw from to help us better understand our experiences. Even still, we can have a hard time conveying the pain of this reality to someone who does not understand. If you have ever had a conversation with a rich person who honestly does not understand how their wealth corresponds to the poverty of others, then you know how hard it is to convey the pain that capitalism causes to someone who has never directly experienced that pain.

The victims of colonization are in the same position when they struggle to convey their experience. We end up being like that person who wants to get it, but since they have not lived or inherited that experience, they have a hard time believing that this experience outside of them is valid. We become that person who needs evidence, sources, logic, because we do not trust the heart of the other when it speaks to us.

colonialismFaced with this lack of trust, oppressed people resort to tactics that feel safe and empowering, but are not always effective. We all know that the best way to deal with another person’s harmful behavior is to speak to them, person to person, about how their behavior impacts us. The problem is when power enters this equation, it is hard to trust that this vulnerability will not backfire on us (as it often can). If you have ever had to confront a friend or lover about something they have done that has hurt you, then you know how hard this can be. So we turn to more trusted tactics of shaming and ganging up, which, while they feel psychologically safer, can also end up backfiring. What feels like a quest for restorative justice to one side, to the other feels like puritanical mob hounding for a confession.

This is where things get very bizarre, as the person or group of people who were confronted suddenly become very adept at exploiting their very real feelings of hurt in order to avoid coming to terms with their own culpability. They are so horrified that their sense of themselves as a good human being has been tarnished, that they refuse to acknowledge that they too may have caused harm. This can be particularly difficult for pagan “teachers” whose identities, reputations, and livelihoods often rest on the sense that they are flawless conveyers of Truth.

The tragedy is that any accusation of cultural appropriation is bound to come from somewhere else, and to catch us off guard, because most of our traditions don’t have an apparatus to help us avoid stealing from other cultures. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Most of our traditions have some element of stolen or fabricated stuff from another culture woven in there, with our elders telling us it is fine, or like good magicians, getting us to look the other way. It is terrifying and unsettling to acknowledge that something which has nourished and empowered our soul may not be for us, may in fact be stolen, and may need to be relinquished. And it would be wonderful if our traditions began teaching us how to do this, as engaging in the process of spiritual reconciliation will lead us to a more honest spiritual path.

Gods Under Glass

membership_landing

colonialismWe need to start listening, and we need to trust in the validity of subjective experiences outside of our own, something that our Paganism should equip us to do. Because if our Paganism is going to be truly radical and liberating, then we need to understand the impact that colonization, not just capitalism, has had on spiritual practices. This can be tricky because while we have clearly been hurt by capitalism, we were a little bit more complicit when it came to colonialism.

We European Pagans aren’t just the descendents of plucky witches, resisting the enclosures and hexing the factories. We are also the descendents of high magicians: you know, the ones whose “wonder rooms” or “curiosity cabinets” were filled with the pilferings of empire: shrunken heads, ceremonial knives, sacred objects taken from tombs, scrolls in ancient writing.

From a colonized perspective, such cabinets speak to diversely expressed common themes in humanity, as is attested to in this description of the Pitt River museum. Such collections, whether they are in private homes, or museums, tend to be regarded with ambivalence by most white Pagans. Most white Pagans have no qualms about going to see the Gundestrup cauldron and other Celtic artifacts at the British Royal museum, or having other ancient artifacts housed and displayed in museums. Likely because most of us have never seen a living version of our spirituality that was not reconstructed from the fragments in these collections, informed by anthropological studies of other living practices.

colonialismThe way that most white Pagans experience museums or collections is very different from how nonwhite, and particularly indigenous people, experience such collections. For indigenous peoples and other victims of imperialism, museums are where the dead, the gods, and the sacred possessions which have been stolen from them are held by the Empire. A vast indigenous and anti-colonial discussion exists which describes the extent to which collections and exhibitions served to remove sacred aspects of indigenous cultures from their context and hold them like prisoners.

Maori Anthropologist Linda Tuhiwai Smith describes the way that helping her father in his museum work involved:

“the ritual of cleansing ourselves by sprinkling water over us which my mother insisted on when we returned home. My grandmother was not too thrilled with the idea of my being in a museum at all. Many other Maori people, I was aware, were scared of what lay in the cupboards, of whose bones and whose ancestors were imprisoned in those cases.”i

Laguna writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead contains a fictionalized account of a Laguna delegation seeking their deities in a museum, worth quoting at length:

“The glass case that held the stone figures was in the center of the museum’s large entry hall. Glass cases lined the walls displaying pottery and baskets so ancient that they could only have come from graves of the ancient ancestors. The Laguna delegation later reported seeing sacred kachina masks belonging to the Hopis and the Zunis as well as prayer sticks and sacred bundles, the poor shriveled skin and bones of some ancestor taken from her grave, and one entire painted-wood kiva shrine reported stolen from Cochiti Peublo years before.

 

The delegation walked past the display cases slowly and in silence. But when they reached the glass case in the center of the vast hall, the old cacique began to weep, his whole body quivering from old age and the cold. He seemed to forget the barrier glass forms and tried to reach out to the small stone figures lying dreadfully unwrapped. The old man kept bumping his fingers against the glass case until the assistant curator became alarmed. The Laguna delegation later recounted how the white man had suddenly looked around at all of them as if he were afraid they had come to take back everything that had been stolen. In that instant white man and Indian both caught a glimpse of what was yet to come.”ii

Like the white man in Silko’s museum, conversations about cultural appropriation raise in many of us white pagans the fear that we will have to give up everything that has been stolen. This fear is probably the real motivation behind such debates, usually spearheaded by white people, about what exactly does and does not constitute cultural appropriation; whether white people can drum, have mohawks or dreadlocks, or “smudge”, whether they can worship non-European deities or spirits. These how-many-angels-can-rest-on-the-head-of-a-culturally-appropriated-pin debates; replete with straw men holding babies hostage along with bathwater, end up leaving both sides feeling unseen.

colonialismFrom a more materialist radical perspective, a people trying to hold sovereignty over how its traditions are practiced, and who can practice them, can be seen as one group of people trying to claim an aspect of the sacred as their property; an enclosure onto the cultural commons of sacred traditions. Accordingly, white people want to know what exactly is going to be enclosed, how far it will go.

For Pagans in particular, this cuts incredibly deep, as the very land that we stand on has been taken from Indigenous Peoples, and most of the traditions we practice have been informed in some way by anthropological studies of Indigenous cultures. European magical practitioners were the direct beneficiaries of what Tuhiwai Smith describes as the:

“process of systematic fragmentation which can still be seen in the disciplinary carveup of the indigenous world: bones, mummies and skulls to the museums, art work to private collectors, languages to linguistics, ‘customs’ to anthropologists, beliefs and behaviours to psychologists.”iii (28).

Fragments of Shattered Cultures

Mass Grave of Natives after Wounded Knee
Mass Grave of Natives after Wounded Knee

THE RENAISSANCE of European Paganism was in-part fueled by this fragmentation. At the exact moment that European magicians were resurrecting ancient mysteries made accessible via imperialism, indigenous people’s cultural traditions were broken apart and carted off to far away imperial centers. Additionally most colonial regimes imposed outright bans on most Indigenous traditions. In the United States, Native ceremonies and other religious and cultural practices were illegal until the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom act in 1978.

Such bans were enforced with prison time, and also violence. The 1890 massacre at wounded knee – in which 150 Lakota men, women, and children were killed – began when the U.S. Calvary opened fire as a Lakota medicine man named Yellow Bird performed the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance, as well as other practices such as the Sun Dance, were outlawed, and being a medicine man itself was a crime. Thomas J. Morgan’s 1892 Rules For Indian Courts states:

“Any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called medicine men, or who shall resort to any artifice or device to keep the Indians of the reservation from adopting and following civilized habits and pursuits, or shall adopt any means to prevent the attendance of children at school, or shall use any arts of a conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous rites and customs, shall be deemed guilty of an offense, and upon conviction thereof, for the first offense shall be imprisoned for not less than ten nor more than thirty days.”iv

There are Native people alive today who went to prison for practicing their traditional religion. While white practitioners were able to access diluted and decontextualized Native and other pagan traditions made available through museums, scholarly studies, and explorer accounts, Native peoples risked death and imprisonment in order to keep the living version of their culture alive.

The mention of schools in the above passage is important, as Native American children were removed from their families and placed in far away boarding schools where their hair was cut off and mailed home, they were forbidden from speaking their Native language, and forced to convert to Christianity. For an oral tradition, where the survival of culture depends on it being transmitted to children, this had devastating consequences. Today, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are coming to terms with the legacy of abuse which occurred at these schools.

When you read the accounts of the white people who oversaw these schools, what becomes abundantly clear is their very good intentions. In this report from the Training School For Indian Youth in Forest Grove, Oregon, the commissioner for Indian affairs describes how children were used to make shoes, blacksmith, and dig a sewer line, stating that these children “are commended by their instructor for their obedience and industry.” The commissioner and those in charge of the school do not see themselves as destroyers of culture, forcing children into hard labor, but as good people teaching the downtrodden children how to survive under the colonial regime.

This disconnect between one’s self-perception, and the impact of what one is actually doing, is worth attending to. Without realizing it, white pagans claiming to preserve Native American traditions by practicing and teaching them are perpetuating this cycle. Like the boarding school administrators, they may have good intentions, but they are serving the wrong cause. By presenting diluted traditions with important contextual elements missing, such “teachers” are serving to diminish, rather than revive, the power of these practices. This topic is the subject of the 1996 documentary White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men.

Recovering What We’ve Lost

THE HARM THIS DOES cuts both ways. It perpetuates the legacy of theft and lies, and it also hurts us when that legacy of theft and lies becomes a part of our spiritual practice. As pagans, we understand that the power of the sacred operates within a specific context, and we seek to foster such contexts. Most of us are engaged in a struggle against capitalism’s “disenchantment” of the world. What is hard for us to understand is that white peoples’ use of non-European spiritualities has actually served to further that disenchantment.
We need to recognize that colonialism and imperialism were not just about economics, or psychological domination. That there was a very real spiritual dimension that went beyond converting people to Calvinism or Catholicism, but was engaged in neutralizing spiritual traditions, to break apart systems of meaning which had the power to take down empires.

Part of this process was making scraps of these traditions available to white Pagans, with good intentions, who were hungering for meaning in a disenchanted world, and yet who ultimately used these scraps as the raw material to fuel their own egocentric needs to be “chosen”, to lead as “teachers”, and in many cases, establish lucrative careers offering retreats, ceremonies, and sweat lodges. Ironically, the very “off limits” nature of Native traditions can make someone who claims to have come by them authentically seem even more magical.

Just as capitalism renders itself invisible, so does colonialism. The white teacher offering up their own version of Native American shamanism does not recognize the continuum in which they are operating, they see themselves participating in the free exchange of culture. They see themselves as doing what so many Pagans have done before, accessed some kind of knowledge, and used it to build their social and economic capital.

While we as radical Pagans may want to question this practice in general, we certainly want to question it when it comes to using stolen cultural elements to leverage our own spiritual, social, and economic growth. There is no apparatus to check this within the framework of a colonized paganism, within which using the possessions of colonized subjects as raw material for one’s own manufactured tradition is entirely acceptable.

If our Paganism is to be truly radical, then dismantling capitalism is indispensable, but insufficient.v We must also dismantle colonialism. We must recognize the harm of spiritual traditions based on fragments of and fantasies about other living traditions, no matter how “well-researched” those fantasies are, and recognize that these are not for us to use. These traditions must exist on their own terms, not the terms we lay out for them.

We have seen the power of Native-led resistance and spiritual practice in the recent events at Standing Rock. These traditions will continue to gain power, and the best thing that we white pagans can do is to take a step back and critically evaluate the way that we engage with these traditions.

As we do this, one way to grant power to indigenous peoples is to acknowledge them in our practice. Consider starting your next ritual or ceremony by saying,

“I acknowledge that this ritual/ceremony is taking place on indigenous lands, and I acknowledge the strength, resilience and potential of the [names of the peoples] who are the rightful and traditional stewards of this land.”

This is a generally accepted way for non-indigenous peoples to honor the indigenous peoples of their area.

It can be useful to look at disengaging from cultural appropriation as ancestral healing. Clearing our lives of the plundered clutter from the very empires we seek to overthrow opens up the space for a more honest spirituality to emerge.

When we relinquish what has been stolen, it allows our ancestors to come to us with our true legacies and traditions.

colonialismLiving traditions can guide and inspire us to look to our own past and discover our own traditions. Some wonderful things have come from this. Interest in animal totems inspired the Druid Animal Oracle. Interest in smudging led European pagans to rekindle the use of Agrimony, Mugwort and other herbs in smoke cleansing.

In 2002, I was fortunate enough to spend some time at the Swinomish Tribal community, and to talk with an elder there named Ray Williams. I brought up this feeling that, as white people, we have no culture. He told me a story about a delegation from Ireland who had come to them to exchange tactics for cultural survival. The Swinomish people had shared the tradition of the sweat lodge with the Irish delegation. A member of the delegation had asked if they could take this back to Ireland with them. Ray told them that this was a Swinomish tradition, that it needed to stay here, but that if the man looked hard enough into his own past, he would probably find something similar.

The man went back to Ireland, and did some research, and sure enough discovered that there had been a shale construction which had served as a sweat house, called teach allais. The man built just such a building, with a circular pattern corresponding to the sun. When it was finished, he held his first Irish sweat ceremony inside. In that moment, the spirit of his grandfather came to him and said, “you’ve found your way home.”

This is the magic that happens when we engage in the process of teasing out what has been stolen, giving it up, and seeking out that which is honestly for us. In uncovering and revitalizing our own traditions, we cease to grasp at stolen artifacts and fantasies for meaning in a disenchanted world. Instead, we can practice a spirituality which rests on our very real connection to our ancestors. It is not an easy or quick process, it is one that may take us generations and lifetimes to fully accomplish. Yet if we are to have viable traditions that can be passed down through the generations, those traditions must ask us to be honest about who we are.


  • i Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, 2008. p. 11
  • ii Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. Penguin Books, 1992. p. 33
  • iii Smith, L. p. 28
  • iv Morgan, Thomas J. “Rules for Indian Courts” in Documents of United States Indian Policy [Edited by Francis Paul Prucha]. University of Nebraska Press, 2000. p. 186.
  • v This term comes from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press, 2000.

See Also:

  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Penguin Books, 1990.
  • Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Onciul, Bryony. Museums, Heritage and Indigenous Voice: Decolonizing Engagement. Routledge, 2015.
  • Kosasa, Karen. “Critical Conversations: Colonialism, Institutional Change, and Museum Studies in Hawai’i”. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art. Volume 5, 2004, Issue 1. pp 77 – 95.
  • Leeb, Susanne. “Contemporary Art and/in/versus/about the Ethnological Museum”. Darkmatter: In the Ruins of Imperial Culture. November 18, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2013/11/18/contemporary-art-andinversusabout-the-ethnological-museum/

Max Oanad

Max Oanad is an overthinking pagan living on the territories of the Multnomah and Yamhill peoples. He can be reached at everydayempires@gmail.com


Max Oanad’s short story, “A Treatise on the Old Powers,” was published in the first issue of A Beautiful Resistance.

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