If we’re gonna talk about the carelessness with which we deal with valuable artifacts, we must also talk about how we attach value to those artifacts, and the undeniable Ethno/euro-centrism involved in that process.
“It’s a National duty to rebuild it from the ashes, even if it is not the original it will forever be a memory of the royal family that gave us our independence.” (Marcelo Crivella, Rio de Janeiro’s Governor)
It’s safe to say the whole country of Brazil was dumbfounded watching the National Museum literally go up in flames, as if it was our turn to be destroyed by the aliens from Independence Day. When it was over, we were all left oscillating in the range of emotions between rage and sorrow, mourning the loss of irreplaceable objects, and 200 years worth of people’s work.
We’ve been careless with our material History and irresponsible in preserving memory for as long as this Museum existed, why are we so upset now? Our indignation seems to come from shame for not living up to an European standard of possessing History.
Ten years ago there was a criminal fire that destroyed an indigenous community not far from where the Museum is, and virtually no one took to the streets. We talk about all the records of Indigenous languages that were lost inside this Colonial building, but what are we doing to the Indigenous people alive here now? We don’t see them as having history, we see them as obstacles for development. This is what truly makes me oscillate in the range of emotions between rage and sorrow, year after year.
Part of the fascination we had with that Museum wasn’t necessarily all the valuable objects that were inside, it’s about who attaches value to these things. The royal atmosphere of the space comes from it being one of the few places with authentic European style architecture in our country. One of the people in their fundraising video from last year said that when you walk up the stairs of the museum you can easily imagine walking into a Gala from the Royal Family, which is why she fell in love with the place.
The National Museum is the oldest scientific institution of Brazil. Let that sink in. Academia, alongside the Monarchy, and the Catholic Church, were Medieval institutions introduced to us hundreds of years ago, that today we still feel the desperate need to preserve without properly accessing the genocidal role they’ve played in our lives. While I see the tragedy of the event and feel the horror of the loss, I think it’s important to address our internalized Eurocentric views that lead us to believe Europe and European institutions are the havers and holders of History.
The concept of what it means to be a Human being, as developed in Western Europe in the 16th century, was very much tied to the idea of Having history, and therefore of being civilized. The loss of this “History”, these artifacts, brings up from our colonized idiosyncrasies the feeling of being less human. Tragic is how we still treat our Indigenous and Quilombist communities as less human, as not really having History, or not worthy of having their land and their homes preserved.
Haven’t we seen what happens when we leave History in the hands of European Institutions? They steal, then whitewash, distort or destroy. Egypt, for instance, has wanted its treasures back for years. They were colonized and Europe has profited from what they stole ever since. We as a society are still struggling to unlearn the teachings of an ethnocentric campaign that created the idea that Africa has no History. We learned that the evolution of humanity has been Northwards and Westwards, and we conveniently forgot that Egypt is black and African, not white and Northern Mediterranean like Greece.
Brazil also had its memory distorted, and we go along with it. Indigenous peoples were massacred and portrayed in Europe as savage animals. To this day European museums proudly display the works of white men who painted naked Indigenous women alongside made-up animals and plants. Here we internalize that rhetoric, we whiten ourselves, and reject all other ancestry.
If we’re gonna talk about the carelessness with which we deal with valuable artifacts, we must also talk about how we attach value to those artifacts, and the undeniable Ethno/euro-centrism involved in that process. As, if not more, important than rebuilding this institution is combating epistemic-genocide which has been annihilating our people and our History for hundreds of years.
is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.
A tragédia do Museu Nacional começou muito antes do incêndio
O país inteiro ficou perplexo ao ver o Museu Nacional literalmente em chamas, como se fosse nossa vez de ser destruídos pelos alienígenas do Independence Day. Quando acabou, oscilamos entre emoções de raiva e tristeza, lamentando a perda de objetos insubstituíveis e 200 anos de trabalho de muitas pessoas.
Fomos descuidados com nossa história material e irresponsáveis com a preservação de nossa memória desde sempre que este museu existe, por que estamos chateados agora? Nossa indignação parece vir da vergonha de ter falhado em alcançar um padrão europeu de possuir História.
Dez anos atrás, houve um incêndio criminoso que destruiu uma comunidade indígena não muito distante do Museu (em Camboinhas), e praticamente ninguém foi às ruas. Nós falamos sobre todos os registros de línguas indígenas que foram perdidos dentro deste edifício colonial, mas o que estamos fazendo para proteger os povos indígenas vivos aqui agora? Nós não os vemos como tendo história, nós os vemos como obstáculos para o desenvolvimento. Isso é o que realmente me faz oscilar entre emoções de raiva e tristeza, ano após ano.
Parte do fascínio que temos com o Museu não é necessariamente todos os objetos valiosos que estavam ali dentro, é sobre quem atribui valor à essas coisas. A atmosfera Real do espaço vem do fato de que é um dos poucos lugares com arquitetura de estilo europeu autêntico em nosso país. Uma das pessoas no vídeo de “Campanha para a requalificação do Museu Nacional” do ano passado disse que quando você sobe as escadas do museu pode-se facilmente imaginar um baile da família real, e é por isso que ela se apaixonou pelo local.
O Museu Nacional é a instituição científica mais antiga do Brasil. A Academia, juntamente com a Monarquia, e a Igreja Católica, foram instituições medievais introduzidas aqui centenas de anos atrás, e que hoje ainda sentimos a necessidade de preservar sem analisar adequadamente o papel genocida que elas tiveram em nossas vidas. Embora eu veja a tragédia do evento e sinta o horror da perda, acho importante abordar nossas visões subconscientemente eurocêntricas que nos levam a acreditar que a Europa e as instituições européias são detentoras da História.
O conceito de o que significa ser humano, desenvolvido na Europa Ocidental no século XVI, estava muito ligado à idéia de ter história e, portanto, de ser civilizado. A perda desta “História”, esses artefatos, traz de nossas idiossincrasias colonizadas a sensação de sermos menos humanos. Trágico é como ainda tratamos nossas comunidades indígenas e quilombolas como menos humanas, como não tendo realmente história, ou não dignas de ter suas terras e seus lares preservados.
Não vemos o que acontece quando deixamos a História nas mãos de instituições europeias? Roubam, depois embranquecem, distorcem ou destroem. O Egito, por exemplo, quer seus tesouros de volta há anos. Eles foram colonizados e a Europa lucrou com o que eles roubaram desde então. Nós, como sociedade, ainda estamos lutando para desaprender os ensinamentos de uma campanha etnocêntrica que criou a idéia de que a África não tem História. Aprendemos que a evolução da humanidade foi em direção ao norte e ao oeste, e convenientemente esquecemos de que o Egito é negro e africano, não branco e do norte do Mediterrâneo como a Grécia.
O Brasil também teve sua memória distorcida, e aceitamos. Os povos indígenas foram massacrados e retratados na Europa como animais selvagens. Até hoje, os museus europeus exibem com orgulho as obras de homens brancos que pintaram mulheres nativas nuas ao lado de animais e plantas inventados. Internalizamos essa retórica, nos embranquecemos, e rejeitamos nossas outras ancestralidades.
Se vamos falar sobre o descuido com qual lidamos com artefatos valiosos, devemos também falar sobre como atribuímos valor a esses artefatos, e o inegável Etno / eurocentrismo envolvido nesse processo. Tão importante quanto, se não mais do que, reconstruir esta instituição é combater o epistemicidio que tem aniquilado nosso povo e nossa história por centenas de anos.
é militante anti-fascista/decolonial, e feminista interseccional. Edita o site de Gods and Radicals, é filósofa e professora.
“Mother earth will go on without us, one way or another. So get your shit together fellow earthlings because unless we collectively come together, there may not be another option to avoid becoming fossils like our Dino-brethren.”
From J.D. Lee
Whether you are a Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Jain, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, or any other practitioner under the sun, you may acknowledge the fact that a portion (if not all) of what you have been taught was corroborated, co-opted, or used for malicious purposes. We’ll I’m here to tell you that it’s both okay, and not okay. Whatever you may believe, someone, somewhere started it all. Whether it was an oral tradition that was later written and collected into a book, or possibly chronicled as it was happening, chances are it was used as a manipulation tool at some point. But it doesn’t have to be that way more.
I grew up being preached at, with the southern Baptist gospel. Hellfire and Brimstone for those who disobeyed God, and a reunion with family and loved ones as a reward. As I aged I took an interest in learning about other religions and their effects on people. My grandparents thought I’d be a new age preacher, or a politician. Well, today I’m neither. And for damn good reasons. Although I quit going to church (going on 6 years now), I can’t help remembering the beautiful glass panes in the Lutheran church I attended for 2 years, or the Catholic Church I would visit later with it’s magnificent artwork and seemingly kind people. I still feel for those old bluesy hymns from that vitriolic Baptist church from so long ago. But as I learned about my heritage, (Cherokee, Inuit, Aleutian, Siouan, and Norse) I came to a realization. What if everything I’ve been taught in Sunday school and Mass was bullshit? Of course, not all of it was but if you look hard enough, there are overlapping features of all religions, good and bad. I could just no longer believe in something that I never really felt was true and full of so many contradictions. I don’t believe in A god. I believe in forces of nature which I cannot, and should not have to fully explain. To me, they are the ghosts, the energies, the surge of the wind after an incantation in the graveyard with a coven. They are what bind our reality together. The energy that leaves the body after death has to go some where. But where? That’s for you to decide!
Promises of an afterlife full of freedoms in exchange for your earthly life’s happiness sounds all fine and dandy. But why not be happy now, and when you’re dead? No matter your creed, each individual should be free to choose their own path. If the key to life and the afterlife is happiness, then why should we suffer now or later? I’m not going to claim that any religion or spiritual path is not worth pursuing, because I understand that each individual will find their own contentment in some form or another. I will say however that forcing a belief upon anyone will land you in the fire, so to speak. As with current conservative modes of thought, forcing people to give birth to a child which they either cannot take care of, do not want, or could possibly cause life threatening complication is very much wrong. Keeping people from accessing birth control, and other contraceptives aimed at decreasing STI’s is also WRONG. Telling your neighbors that they are an “abomination in the eyes of the lord” is not helping your standing in the community, no matter what your local corner preacher is telling you about butt sex.
My biggest qualm with organized belief systems is that of it’s automatic need to sustain itself and it’s order. Tithes and offerings are part of it, but so is obedience to authority. What human needs an authority figure to pass judgment? Are we not all our own masters? If I so pleased I would go against all teachings of the Christian religion, and nothing would stop me. Would an almighty god not smite me for even thinking of such things and threatening to disobey? The answer is no. One might argue this is the concept of free will, that the consequences of my actions would be on me and me alone. But how would this argument play out against God’s will? If he is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, he would know of my life and how it plays out regardless of my actions. I would end up in the same place no matter what choices I made. We all should know that this is false, we make our fates with our individual choices.
Suppose for a minute we are alive because the universe itself was alive and experiencing itself through all living beings. Would the actions you committed be an experiment? Or something necessary to the butterfly effect? The great spirit as some of my ancestors might say, is all around, or that God is all around professed by my family. GOD is in you, me and everyone and everything. It is everything and nothing. Even the vastness of space is filled with unique surprises, celestial beings, and massive unknown energies. The unknowable cannot be claimed to be known by anyone. So while the annoying atheist in the back of my head screams that there is no creator, no puppet master, no god; the preachy agnostic in me says to keep looking, observing, and learning. We are social creatures, looking to related and confirm ourselves. But more than that, we are dynamic, and more than capable of changing our circumstances to make things easier on ALL of us.
The supposed masters of our fates are in public office, employed as CEO’s, or behind the pulpit in front of a congregation. They give us the false sense of choice, they decide what we get to choose from. With all disrespect, I say FUCK THEM! We are free to choose however we want, whether that be what food we eat, our source of income, or our individual spiritual journeys. New England was formed by Puritans and Calvinists who we know burned suspected witches at the stake but had achieved more democracy than any prior European style government at the time. Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers, overran by Scots-Irish Catholics and Protestants alike, and ultimately ended up as a tolerant place for Christians of all stripes. Maryland was originally occupied and ran by Catholics. Even Salt Lake City was founded as a Utopia for the much hated Mormons who could not help but be chased out of every city and county they occupied for fear of ending up like their founder. People have been trying to practice their spiritual learnings freely without reprisal for thousands of years.
This Nation was founded on ideals that were not equally agreed upon at the time of it’s inception. For example, the dutch colony of New Netherlands had a policy to allow freedom of religion, so long as it’s inhabitants did not cause a commotion in public. That colony was since overtaken by the British, but the people in charge kept this policy as to keep the peace. The Puritans on the other hand mutilated Quakers as to distinguish them from “their own”, and were deeply opposed to this kind of tolerance. Whether or not our course of action should be to dismantle prior belief systems, or move into the woods and find our own beliefs with fellow spirituality seekers, I do not know. Do we form our own sects within pre-existing religions? Should we accept Scientology’s ghastly forms of social control? I say do what you will without forcing it onto other people.
While the practices, traditions, and perspectives of these religions has changed (or remained the same in the case of fundamentalists), we should not forget that many times religion has been pushed onto conquered peoples or mandated by a central authority figure. This was most definitely the case for Native Americans whose varied belief systems were thought brutish by European colonizers, and for the subjects of the Roman Empire during the transition period under Constantine. We have been systematically educated to believe what we are told and that if we don’t there will be consequences doled out by either the government or by God. Enough is enough of these laws of morality. Who is to say that premarital sex, homosexuality, idolatry, lying for a good reason, or killing in self defense is immoral? Our oppressors surely do not have the right to claim what is divine and good in the world, we as individuals must decide for ourselves.
I respect the various pagan religions more than any monotheistic religion simply because the gods spirits are supernatural representations of the physical world. Vikings may have raided, plundered, and murdered but they are no more evil than the Anglican church. Norse tradition is filled with tales of splendor, the people were gracious, and the drink was plenty. Native Americans may have warred, stolen from and conquered other tribes, but it makes them no more immoral than the Christians who enslaved, massacred, and raped the first nation peoples. Native tribes were much less savage than Europeans thought previously, having an Anarcho-Communist economic system with communication, trade, and a rich history of peace making. No religion may claim superiority over another simply because all religions are based in concepts which seek to explain things that which we have no other explanation for. The Cherokee myth of creation bears resemblance to the Christian myth of creation in that the earth was created in 7 days, but that is where the similarity ends. In my limited understanding of Islam, Jesus was a prophet like Muhammad. He may not have been considered the son of god but the religion still has ties to Abraham, whom Judaism reveres just as highly. So how is it that these 3 mainstream religions still hold resentment for one another? While those practicing Judaism are still awaiting the messiah, the other two hold onto their beliefs that the savior has already came. The big 3 are certainly plagued with their own mishaps, and draconian laws. While I do not claim that less organized religion will make the world a more peaceful place, I still cannot help imagining that it would the case. If we were to abandon all traces of control from these preordained religions and cast aside all the new cults in favor of personal spiritual exploration, we would be better off. All attempts of recuperating for power under these existing structures should be thwarted by any means. Then again, that is just my BELIEF.
So what is the point of all this? I simply want to show that no matter what your beliefs, no one truly knows what happens after death. Whatever path you take, I hope that you come away with a sense of skepticism towards all organized religion (read as cult) and follow your inner being instead of blindly following a higher power. We all have conscience which tells us what to do, we all have that intuition. If yours, like mine, tells you we are all connected to each other and the universe around us through a shared consciousness, then that’s fine. If you think we are all separate entities fumbling around trying to find meaning in a possibly meaningless world, then you are not alone either. We must each blaze our own trails and hopefully we’ll all find intersections that correspond to our own at some point instead of just running parallel to each other all the damn time. These seemingly irreconcilable differences we all experience are just an illusion and we must recognize that before we wipe ourselves out. Then again, mother earth will go on without us, one way or another. So get your shit together fellow earthlings because unless we collectively come together, there may not be another option to avoid becoming fossils like our Dino-brethren. Go smoke a joint, take some LSD, pop some molly, go drinking with some friends, or read a fucking book for Christ’s sake. Just do something which fills you with happiness and brings you closer to an understanding with your fellow (wo)man. There is a thin line between life and death, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, eh? I’ll see you on the other side, wherever that may be.
A Carolina Native who seeks to inform the community and world at large of the mass manipulation we face. This an-com hillbilly is not your run of the mill, bootlickin’, shitstain. Sure, sometimes he’s an asshole, but you’ve got to be when you’re literally surrounded by Klansmen. When he’s not trading his time for money, you can find him burning a sage stick and/or blunt while praying to mother anarchy to show all her children the way.
Tribes which hadn’t spoken to each other in decades gathered together on frigid northern plains to face down hired mercenaries, police, infiltrators, and their army of bulldozers.
At the same time on the other side of the planet, mothers raged and fathers wept to Allah as their children were shot dead for throwing stones at other bulldozers and other mercenaries called “soldiers.”
A few hundred years ago, women laid their children in graves dug shallow into peat. Beneath threadbare cloaks clinging to shoulders laden with what little they could carry, they cursed landlord and king while boarding ships to take them across a cold sea into servitude.
At almost the same time in the land to which those other women traveled, other women clawed into dry hard earth with nails made brittle from famine. There they buried their own dead in their own shallow graves–all those who died on the march from the fecund swamps that were once home along the trail of tears.
As you read this, undocumented refugees and artists hide behind barricades in a forest, shouting and jeering at and sometimes fleeing police armed with grenades and truncheons. The police advance and with sledgehammers smash homes where children were born and lovers held each other in desire; then they retreat to their own homes in time for dinner before sleep to begin the destruction the next day.
In high mountains a village mourns a shaman whose songs led them and many others into the arms of the goddess of a sacred plant. Her body riddled with bullets, like so many others murdered for the sole crime of being in the way of those who wanted the land upon which she lived for something more profitable.
The brutal repression of the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the violent oppression of Palestinians, the Irish famine, the forced marches of indigenous people and the murder of their leaders, and the French government’s violent eviction of the Z.A.D. from Notre Dame des Landes: these are the stories of capitalism, the blood and sorrows of millions soaking into the land under our feet.
Today’s Mayday. It’s Beltane.
It’s a day of celebration. It’s a day of revolt.
For anarchists and communists, it’s a sacred day, marches and riots to remember martyred workers. For Pagans and witches, it’s a sacred day, when forest and sun dance like sex and the life it breeds and the meaning it gives.
One chants of resistance, the other sings of joy, and under both is the land under our feet.
Capitalism began only a few hundred years ago with the forced expulsion of peasant from land in Europe and the forced expulsion of colonized from their land across the waters. Evictions, massacres, enslavement, settlement and re-settlement: without these things there could have been no Capital, no factories and what they produce. Marx called these acts “primitive accumulation,” theft of wealth and labor and most of all land by force and law.
But this is not just our history, this is our now.
The money funding the bank which forecloses on a poor Black family’s home is the labor stolen from Africans enslaved and land stolen from commons enclosed.
The investment capital that gentrifies a white neighborhood is the alchemical product of cheap labor and the forests in which First Nations hunters stalked Elk and Bear.
The bulldozers used to demolish the homes of Palestinians are the bulldozers that tear down homeless and refugee camps, that move the rubble of bombed homes and move the dirt into mass graves.
The guns used to shoot the child throwing rocks are the guns pointed at the Black kid just trying to walk home from the store, the guns which kill American kids in their classroom are the same guns used to subdue Mexican teachers demanding better pay, guns hoarded and wielded by police and soldiers everywhere to prevent us from taking back our collective birthright: the land under our feet.
Under all of this is land. Humans live only because of land, we eat and drink and breathe because of land. Without land our gods are naked and cannot speak, our children are hungry and cannot live, our ancestors forgotten and cannot be heard.
Paganism is about that land. Anti-capitalism is about that land.
Colonialism, Capitalism, Empire: these are the names of the story of how humans are ripped from land, severed from the gods and each other and themselves.
Now in the crush of cities we rush from rented space to work, from work back to rented space. Now in towering tenements we open foil packets into boiling water as children cry, sirens wail and televisions declare the future is now and capital always.
Now the forests die.
Now species older than humanity breathe their last.
Now the oceans rise and storms rage.
Now backlit screens become our society, likes and retweets our comfort, all because we have forgotten we are also the land under our feet.
Today is Beltane. Today is Mayday. People are dancing. People are being shot. People are shouting in rage. People are fucking each other, people are sighing at another day of wretched work.
Gods&Radicals exists because they are connected by the same thing. We write because we remember the land, remember each other, remember ourselves. We remember our gods stolen from us by sword and cross and dollar, springs and forests taken from us by fence and judge and profit, ancestors and offspring asking us when the cruelty of Empire will finally end.
We are witches, heretics, dreamers and bards. We are guerrillas, organizers, rioters, saboteurs.
We long for the liberation of others and for the liberation of ourselves, the coming time when around burning barricades or crackling hearths we can be ourselves again. No longer laborers for others, no longer criminals under the tyranny of law. No longer illegal and refugee, no longer colonized and conquered.
No longer anything but the land under our feet, and those who live upon it.
Happy Beltane. Happy Mayday.
Rhyd is one of the founders of Gods&Radicals. He lives everywhere, but mostly in Rennes, Bretagne. Follow his newsletter here.
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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.
For 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.
Faced 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
We 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.
The 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.
From 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
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.
Living 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.
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.
(As a “manifesto” addressed to white folks in Pagan Community, my sincere apologies to people of colour or mixed heritage who may feel excluded.)
The diversity in Pagan Community in the Americas is astounding, and as a much-needed alternative to outdated religions in decline, an ongoing source of wonder for our collective re-enchantment and inspiration. Every conceivable genre of paganism is thriving, and this healthy diversity has meant the suspension of “togetherness” or “unity” narratives in recent times (which is probably a good thing). As with all human societies, the idea that we need to be homogenous or come to any kind of agreement as a movement or a subculture is not a realistic expectation. Yet there are some social dynamics that transcend mere “opinion” or “belief” such as the consequences we live with from historical actions, and the overarching truth of our own positionality. “Who am I? Why am I here? What do I remember? Where am I going?” These timeless questions continue to underscore our complex lives here in at the end of Empire, and we encounter a similar self-searching at the heart of Pagan Community.
Moving past the brilliance, innovation and miraculous achievements of leaders, groups and solitaries alike, we come to a dire and complete disconnect between those who are schooled in social justice and those who are not. Delving into this great divide there is one question that immediately comes to mind. “Are Pagans progressive, or are we stuck in the webs of our own conditioning?” If the answer is the former, there are a few simple (and relatively painless) adjustments that we can make on how we understand reality. After all, a wider circle of wisdom can change our worldview forever!
Like so many who have been the frequencies holders (or vicious derailers) in the recent public debates on issues of white supremacy and racism, we have been shocked to witness the dialogue having real consequences in terms of personal identity, well-being and finances (not to mention ideological platforms). The initial flares have settled into a somewhat more nuanced conversation, yet blind spots remain, and these glossed-over themes are still being justified in a thousand inventive ways. By far the greatest mistake and major sidestep from accepting the truth about our own positionality, has been the ever-popular “Pagan Passcard.”
Like the One Ring of hobbit fame, or Excalibur the legendary sword of King Arthur, the schooled activist can’t help but feel an obligation to present “the click” that would right the wrongs of this erroneous thinking. So in the spirit of mutual understanding, activating a personal and collective moral compass, and initiating the equity that could lead to equality in our time, here are a few basic points on positionality (with key resources) that Pagan Community needs to know.
(1) If your ancestors are from Europe you are white. Yes, we know that the theory of “race” is a complete fabrication, and “whiteness” and the Caucasian myth need to be dismantled along with the appellations of “black” “brown” “red” and “yellow.” But until all people of colour are free from discrimination based on skin colour in a post-racial world, we who fit the “white” bill have no right to reject the term. After all, that would make us “exceptional” once again, and our cultural group has already tried that, what with dominating, oppressing and trying to get rid of people of colour through white supremacy. (Key resource ~ “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter)
(2) If your ancestors are from Europe, you belong to the colonizer class. If you have Anglophone roots your people believed themselves to be “the masters of the universe” and if you are Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Nordic or another European ethnicity (which evolved into “nation-states” yes we know), then your parents, grandparents and other Settlers (if applicable) joined the “white club.” Except for a few isolated groups such as Amish, Mennonites, Pennsylvania Dutch or Doukhobors, without exception all light-skinned Europeans jumped on the irresistible bandwagon of building Empire as governed by Anglophone worldviews, beliefs, memes, and lust for profit. (Key resource ~ “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter)
(3) Therefore, if you are part of the colonizer class, to this day you benefit from the subjugation of the colonized. All the amenities, luxuries and benefits you receive and enjoy today come directly from the enslavement of people of colour who provided the labour to build Empire in the Americas, and from the theft of indigenous lands. If not subjected to genocide, people of colour on Turtle Island were colonized, and in these post-colonial times, we who are the descendants of the colonizers should accept the responsibility to right this wrong. (Key resource ~ “The Colonizer and the Colonized” by Albert Memmi)
(4) White privilege is not a figment of a crazy SJW’s imagination. Even if you have been raised by those at the very bottom of the economic, gender, sexual orientation or disability ladder(s), by virtue of your white skin you have huge privileges as compared to a person of colour. Do you see your own ethnicity reflected in the majority of media programming, advertising and publishing that surrounds you? Do you have any other barriers (other than economic) to renting in any neighbourhood you chose? Do you have relative freedom when going about your daily business? Do you have to worry about your teenage son being killed when he goes off to the store? In every single one of your activities or ambitions, your whiteness puts you ahead of people of colour. (Key resource ~ “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh)
(5) Newsflash! Self-identifying as Pagan, Neo-Pagan, Eco-Pagan, Devotional Polytheist, Anderson Feri, Eclectic, Kemetic, Faerie, Wiccan, Feminist Witch, Goddessian, Thelema, Hellenismos, New Orleans Vodoun, Shamanic, Neo-Shamanic, Druid, Neo-Druid, Sinnsreachd, Avalonian, Reconstructionist, Restorationist, Traditionalist, Norse Heathen, Forn Siðr, Ásatrú, European Indigenous or Animist does not give you a passcard from being a member of the colonizer class. The reason that so many in Pagan, Transformational and New Age Community are mainstream, non-liberal and non-radical folks in the first place is that they are the generational inheritors of the predominantly WASP suburban middle class. (Boom.) Also, i.e. being a good and caring person, participating in the paradigm shift, living in alternative community, belonging to the “Rainbow Tribe,” mastering oracles and magick, having an intimate connection with a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, dwelling in an animist universe, recovering the Bard Tradition, doing community service, building a Wiccan Church, learning to speak Gaelic, or creating Pagan curriculum in school systems where none existed before – all these and other “spiritually awake and aware” activities and belief systems also do not give you a passcard from being a member of the colonizer class. (Key resource ~ “Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community” by Pegi Eyers)
(6) Being marginalized, shamed or persecuted for being a Pagan does not give you a passcard from being a member of the colonizer class. Certainly as a new religion in the Americas, Pagans are extremely familiar with oppression along religious lines and the struggle to claim equal rights and civil liberties. But even as we celebrate and honor the freedom fighters among us, we still have white privilege, and belong to the colonizer class (see points 2, 3, 4 and 5). Without learning the truth about our own positionality and the intersectionality of oppressions, we may continue to perpetuate white supremacy and racism. (Key resource ~ “What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy” by Robin DiAngelo)
(7) White guilt is not necessary (well, maybe for a couple of days). Instead of white fragility and an endless array of inventive justifications, the best response to all this challenging new information is to take responsibility to right the wrongs of history, and to correct the horror show created by white supremacy here on Turtle Island. Good examples of this work would be activism and allyship for the rights of POC, LGBT and other marginalized groups, undoing the implicit bias or explicit racism in ourselves, and the abolition of white supremacy. (Key resource ~ “White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son” by Tim Wise)
(8) And last but not least, our final point is the one most likely to enrage. To be extremely clear about history in the Americas, the memes and methods of Empire were created and enacted by European patriarchs, the rich, rapacious, entitled, racist, privileged, greedy, misogynist, bloodthirsty, warlord, bible-thumping, immoral, power-mad and dysfunctional white men who imposed their will on our bodies, minds and souls, and dictated the destruction of our world. White men – not any other group – have monopolized the reality of our ecosphere and ethnosphere for centuries with their manipulation, lies, justifications, fear-mongering, economic traps, silencing, peer pressure, brainwashing and lateral violence. Unfortunately, even as a subordinate group white women are not off the hook, as in the total supremacy of a “man’s world” we were the supporting cast and game players who internalized the values of the patriarchy, and were complicit with the Settler-Colonial directive. And as much as white women have achieved emancipation and empowerment today, we need to realize that the benefits and privileges we experience are the direct result of Euro-supremacy, and the near-annihilation of both indigenous cultures and the land. Both white men and white women hold equal responsibility to dismantle the systems of oppression. Simply put, with their humancentric worldview of entitlement, dominance and psychopathy the patriarchal founders and robber barons of Empire were wrong. (Key resource ~ “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege” by Robert Jensen)
“In addition to the movements of the soul, deep group loyalty is actually what many human beings have used as their barometer for good and evil, and this group census and support actually serves as a collective conscience. Many of the horrible (and heroic) acts of humanity have been supported by some form of this group conscience. The genocide of Native Americans in the United States, and the slave trade, were both approved within a group.”
(Francesca Mason Boring, Connecting to Our Ancestral Past: Healing Through Family Constellations, Ceremony, and Ritual, North Atlantic Books, 2012)
Subtle and systemic, the racist values, stereotypes and microaggressions of the white patriarchy have been part of the education of every person born in the Americas, and it is this web of conditioning we need to unpack in our adult lives. Even as members of Pagan subculture(s) and communities, the inconvenient truth is that we benefit from being members of the dominant white supremacist society. Coming to terms with this fact is definitely a turning point, and staying grounded can be hard when the world we thought was real turns out to be an elaborate sham. Yet absorbing this new information takes absolutely nothing away from our self-identity or ongoing life purpose, but adds another layer of meaningful engagement with the world. In addition to our ongoing work in the realms of magic, spirit and culture, the best response is to shift to a social justice awareness, as every action (whatever the scale) can add to the impact of anti-oppression. With all the connective and educational tools available to us today, there is no shortage of information on engaging with protest, grassroots organizing, solidarity with marginalized groups, and effective allyship.
As Pagans we want to live in a world that reflects our egalitarian values, a world free of racial stratification, and where everyone has the right to realize their potential. And we want to believe that this equality will happen in our lifetime. There is a very real possibility that it is our generation – the most privileged and wealthy in human history – that has the most work to do in dismantling the systems that oppress both humanity and the earth. Trying to make amends is part of our own search for wholeness, and together we can co-create solidarity cultures of love and mutuality. To support and nurture each other across cultural or color lines, we need to be tough on issues yet compassionate with people. And as dismantling the toxicity of racism may take a long time, we need to celebrate our successes, value our contributions along the way, and be nurtured by our own earth-connected and Pagan spiritual practices.
Walking the labyrinth of personal introspection and interracial competency can be painful and convoluted at times, but based on a diversity of social justice paths there is one overwhelming guideline we all share. Regardless of lingering questions, the amount of “inner work” we have done, or the lack of approval from our peers, community, the wider world or people of color themselves (!) we perform the work on principle, with the profound belief that racism is wrong. The false system of racial hierarchy imposed in the Americas is deadly to all who are not white, yet the criminality of this legacy affects us all. For those of us who belong to the dominant society and benefit from the historic subjugation of POC every day of our lives, taking responsibility means speaking “truth to power” until the day when racism is reversed. Silence is no longer an option. If we reject the ethics of white supremacy, we must believe that at some point in the future a determined collective force will undo the intersectional oppressions. And in collaboration with all those who have resisted injustice in the past, present and future, we find ourselves committed to that struggle!
DiAngelo, Robin, What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, Peter Lang, 2012
DiAngelo, Robin, “White Fragility,” The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2011
Memmi, Albert, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Plunkett Lake Press, 2013
Painter, Nell Irvin, The History of White People, W.W. Norton & Company, 2010
Wise, Tim, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Soft Scull Press, 2011
Author of Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community, Pegi Eyers is a Celtic Animist who sees the world through a spiritual lens, and is a devotee of nature-based culture and all that is sacred to the Earth. She is an advocate for the recovery of our authentic ancestral traditions, and lives near Nogojiwanong in Mississauga Anishnaabe territory.
Pegi Eyers was featured in both the first and second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. Digital versions of both issues are now available for $4 each!
According to the United Nations, there are currently more displaced people on the planet than at any other time in recorded history. Nearly sixty million people have fled or have been driven from their homes on account of war, violence, political destabilization, or severe economic conditions, compared to around 38 million a decade ago. 1 out of every 122 humans on this planet is currently a refugee, and 9 out of 10 of them are in regions considered to be underdeveloped by international standards. While the Syrian war is currently the largest contributor to such displacement, displaced people hail from every corner of the world, from Haiti to Pakistan to Senegal to Colombia.
More than half of the world’s sixty million refugees are children.
“you only run for the border when
you see the whole city running as well…”
Refugees flooded into Europe in record numbers last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times. While the majority of refugees fled from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, they came from every corner of the world; from Haiti, Mali, Senegal, Eritrea, Pakistan. The vast majority of them landed on Greek shores, but they also flooded into Hungary, Italy, and Turkey, desperately hoping to eventually reach Northern Europe.
They are fleeing civil wars, sectarian conflicts, and widespread poverty caused by both natural disasters and social forces. They are leaving their homes, their ancestral villages, and their families, with many never to return, risking their lives in an attempt to reached a promised land of safety that in reality is often quite harsh and unwelcoming. While the conflicts and tragedies that drive them from their homelands are varied in both complication and scope, nearly all are bound by the common roots of imperialism and colonialism.
In response to this “migrant crisis,” the affected countries of the European Union (mind you, the very same countries that have financially benefited for centuries off the same imperialist meddling that is at the root of the current conflicts) have recently moved to close borders, restrict free movement, and otherwise thwart the attempts of the refugees from reaching Northern Europe.
The rhetoric employed by both government and media throughout Europe in order to justify these actions follows the same tried-and-true scare tactic formula that immigration foes have effectively used throughout recent history: dire warnings that the migrants will “game the system,” “refuse to assimilate,” “steal jobs,” as well as contribute to “moral decline” on account of their differing “culture” and “values.”
American lawmakers and media personalities have also similarly politicized the refugee crisis, using both the aforementioned rhetoric as well as fears of “terrorism” in order to turn an easily manipulated populace against the idea of supporting refugee resettlement in the United States.
Their tactics are no different from the rhetoric of a century ago, even two centuries ago. The exact same dire warnings were once used by American “settlers” against the Irish, and later the Italians, Chinese, Greeks, Portuguese, Hungarians and Jews. Nowadays they are used against immigrants from both Latin America and the Middle East. And both then and now, such arguments only further benefit the ruling class at the expense of the oppressed.
“go home blacks,
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers,
sucking our country dry
…messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up…”
But while this rhetoric negatively affects the level and effectiveness of humanitarian efforts, it obviously does nothing to stem the tide of people fleeing their homelands. Well over a million refugees flooded into and moved through Europe last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times.
“the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off…”
A hundred years ago there were also a million people per year moving through Europe. But instead of risking their lives to reach Greece, Hungary, and Italy, they were risking their lives to migrate from these very countries, in many cases due to sociopolitical conditions very similar to those that are triggering the current migration crisis. They fled war, poverty, natural disaster, starvation, and religious persecution, embarking on perilous voyages across the sea only to arrive in a foreign country that was harsh and unwelcoming, treated them with great prejudice, and often subjected them to severe exploitation.
Where did they flee to, you ask?
They fled to America.
“you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay…”
When it comes to why refugees are currently fleeing Iraq or Syria, the basic answers are readily at the tip of everyone’s tongue. War. Conflict. Terrorism.
But ask the average American why their own ancestors came here, and they tend to respond with either or both of the following vague answers: they either came for “religious freedom” or for “a better life.” And while these answers are not necessarily untrue, they painfully oversimplify and sanitize the myriad of complex factors that triggered massive waves of immigration to America.
Immigration functions as a “push” or “pull” phenomenon: in short, those who migrate from one place to another are either being pushed out of a specific region due to specific negative sociopolitical factors and/or they are being pulled into a specific region due to specific positive factors, factors that frame the belief that immigrating to said region will allow for “a better life.” The standard American narrative around the immigration journey emphasizes and glorifies both the pull of America in terms of its religious freedom and promise of prosperity while stressing the great sacrifices that our ancestors made coming to America.
But what is often overlooked and forgotten in that narrative are the very reasons that so many made such a sacrifice in the first place. The pull factors are stressed, but the push factors that led to large-scale immigration to America are minimized and rarely ever summarized beyond the simple statement of “a better life.” Which then leaves unanswered the specific question of why thirty million people fled Europe over a span of a hundred years for a better life in the first place.
And in ignoring that question, we ignore both our roots as a nation as well as the struggles of our ancestors.
One of the most crucial and yet most overlooked aspects of white American identity is the fact that with very few exceptions, we are all descended at least in part from people who fled from war, persecution, starvation, and/or poverty, and who risked their lives and left everything they knew behind to do so. We categorize them as “immigrants” or “pioneers,” but in reality so many of them were refugees, no less refugees than many of those currently fleeing the Middle East for Western Europe.
“you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…”
In November of 1913, sixteen year old Sofia Manossadakis arrived on Ellis Island after a three-week journey at sea. Sofia and her three siblings were among nearly a million immigrants that arrived that year, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. For her, a better life meant the chance to escape the sectarian violence and political instability that had characterized her homeland of Crete for well over two centuries.
The Ottoman Empire took possession of Crete in the mid-1600s after several hundred years under Venetian rule, and the Greek Christian population of Crete spent the next two hundred and fifty years consistently and actively resisting Turkish rule, culminating in several notable revolts and rebellions. From the Daskalogiannis Revolt in 1770 to the numerous Cretan revolts throughout the 1800s, the island was consistently destabilized by violence. Uprisings and riots in the mid-1890s culminated into the Cretan Revolt of 1897, which directly coincided with the Greco-Turkish War being fought on the Greek mainland, a war fought over the possession of Crete. The overlapping of these two conflicts and the resulting violence led to an intervention by the great powers, who declared the Cretan state an autonomous territory under Ottoman suzerainty.
It was also in 1897 that Sofia Manossadakis was born in Livaniana, a tiny settlement high in the mountains of Sfakia on the south-west coast of Crete.
Sfakia had been a stronghold of Christian resistance against the Ottomans since the Daskalogiannis Revolt, which originated in the mountains of Sfakia in 1770 and was brutally suppressed by the Turks. The village of Livaniana itself had lost nearly half its population during the uprisings of 1821, and had suffered further violence in the subsequent uprisings throughout the rest of the century.
By the time Sofia was born, the population of Livaniana as well as the surrounding villages was significantly dwindling, with more and more peasants either fleeing for mainland Greece or risking the voyage to America in order to escape the violence. The autonomous designation of the Cretan state did little to quell the chaos, with sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims breaking out throughout the first decade of the twentieth century. Revolts in 1905 prompted another intervention by the great powers, and the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 prompted Crete to declare union with Greece. The international community refused to recognize the union, triggering yet another series of revolts. A few years later, the Ottoman Turks went to war with Italy over control of Libya and were easily defeated, a defeat which prompted the members of the Balkan League to then declare war on a weakened Ottoman Empire.
It was against this backdrop, with seemingly no end to the violence and hostilities, that Sofia, her two sisters, and her older brother sailed for New York on the RMS Carpathia, which departed for New York from Trieste on November 5, 1913. Their passage was paid with help from their oldest brother, who had established himself in Massachusetts after immigrating a few years earlier and who they planned to reunite with in America. Their parents stayed behind in Crete, never again to see their children.
A little over a week later, while the Manossadakis siblings were partway across the Atlantic, the Greeks and Ottomans signed a treaty officially ending the hostilities between them, at which time the Cretan union with Greece was finally recognized. Only a few days after the Carpathia docked in New York Harbor and Sofia was legally admitted to the United States, the Greek flag was finally raised at Firkas Fortress in Chania, Crete after centuries of struggle.
“no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck…
feeding on newspaper unless the miles traveled
means something more than the journey…”
Nobody will ever know for certain how Manuel Cardozo made his way to America, but by far the most plausible scenario is that he smuggled himself to New England on one of the countless whaling ships that came through the Azores on their way across the Atlantic.
Thousands of Azoreans made their way to port cities in New England via whaling ships in the late 1800s, most notably Bristol, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts. Those who could leave the Azores freely usually sought employment on the ships in exchange for passage to America, but those who could not leave freely had no choice other than to travel as a stowaway. And Manuel Cardozo could not leave freely.
Uninhabited when claimed by Portugal in the early 1400s, the Azores were first settled by Portuguese prisoners under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator. “Free” settlers soon followed; peasants from the Algarve and Madeira, Sephardic Jews and New Christians who were expelled from Spain and Portugal under the Catholic monarchs, former Moorish slaves and prisoners exiled from the Portuguese, as well as peasants and merchants who migrated from war-torn Flanders. The islands were established as series of ports serving the Portuguese crown, and for the next five hundred years the Azores were treated similarly to many other colonial possessions in that they served a dual purpose as a source of profit for the mainland and a convenient place to exile the unwanted and dispossessed. The well-being of the peasants themselves was rarely an afterthought.
For the next five hundred years those living on the Azores suffered through poverty, starvation, famine, and a series of wars initiated by both the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. With a terrain inadequate for sustaining the population in even the best conditions, and a land-ownership system that prevented peasants from ever attaining any sort of upwards mobility, many Azoreans started to again migrate beginning in the 1600s, most often to the newly-founded Portuguese colony of Brazil.
Those who stayed continued to suffer for generations, and a series of crop failures combined with natural disasters in the mid-to-late 1800s once again spurred a wave of migration driven by desperation and poverty, this time to the New World. However, while so many of the impoverished and oppressed throughout Western Europe were able to migrate via steamship to Ellis Island, the illiterate peasants of the Azores faced unique barriers to “legal” immigration, given that it was the most impoverished region in Western Europe.
Not only was the cost of and access to a steamship voyage to America financially unfeasible for most Azorean peasants, but males who had yet to complete the mandatory period of military conscription required by the Portuguese government were legally barred from leaving the islands unless they posted the equivalent of $300 as bond, a figure ten times higher than the $30 average steamship passage that was already out of reach for most.
As a result, the whaling ships functioned as the primary means of immigration for Azoreans, whether legal or illegal, whether as employee or stowaway. And at sixteen years old, Manuel Cardozo had every reason to take his chances as a stowaway rather than spend the next four to eight years of his life helping to expand the Portuguese empire only to then to be forced back into a life of ever-worsening poverty and starvation with absolutely no hope for mobility.
Manuel arrived in Bristol, Rhode Island around 1899, established himself and found work amongst the Portuguese community in Bristol, and a few years later married a woman of Portuguese descent who “legally” came to America by way of Hawaii. And despite lifelong illiteracy and a lack of fluency in English, Manuel supported a family of sixteen through hard work and determination, finding employment in factories and second jobs as a night watchman throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
He lived and died as an “illegal alien” in this country, having never received a single benefit throughout his entire life, but his sacrifice and hard work (along with the magical powers of “assimilation” and “whiteness”) ensured that his children and grandchildren had the opportunity to both contribute to and benefit from the “American Dream.”
On one hand, it can be fairly stated that people have been driven off of land through actualized or threatened violence since the beginning of recorded history. But the specific geopolitical and economic forces and conditions that triggered both the colonization of the Americas as well as the eventual push of mass migrations of Europeans to the New World were dependent on a very specific process known as “primitive accumulation.”
Primitive accumulation is the process of seizing land that was previously regarded as commons for the purpose of commodification, a process that first developed in Europe during the Middle Ages and was central to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In Karl Marx’s words, primitive accumulation was “the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” Those displaced producers, generally known as peasants, are then reliant on the market for survival, which tends to force them into urban areas seeking wage-labor jobs, leading to industrialization due to the sudden and enormous pool of desperate workers.
This process, which echoes and repeats clearly and continuously from 12th century Flanders to the effects of NAFTA in the late 1990s, still continues to this day in places such as Nigeria and the Amazon, triggering the same consistent patterns of violence and displacement that have been fueling migration for hundreds of years. Waves of primitive accumulation throughout Western Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries not only drove direct emigration, but also triggered a cascade of socioeconomic conditions that led to later waves of migration, most notable the thirty million immigrants that came to America between 1850 and 1934.
Primitive accumulation also factors prominently in the accumulation of the land the eventually became America in the first place. This accumulation, which came at the price of around 100 million indigenous people, quickly developed into an economic powerhouse due to its investment of 20 million African slaves, which in itself can be seen as another form of primitive accumulation.
Going back even further, it was in fact primitive accumulation that financed the “discovery of America” and sparked the colonial era in the first place.
In the sanitized version of history propagated mainly through American public school textbooks, Christopher Columbus discovered America while sailing under the flag of Spain. This narrative is problematic for many reasons (most of which others have elaborated on much better than I ever could), but aside from its sanitization of details and pro-colonialist framework, it is also most often problematically presented as having occurred in a vacuum.
While such a voyage, whitewashed or not, may have signaled the “birth” of the New World from a European colonial perspective, the voyage occurred at a pivotal moment in European history, standing as a symbolic consummation of a fledgling power that came to be known as Spanish Empire. The rise of that power, a victorious culmination of hundreds of years of warfare, would not have been possible if not for the sudden and consistent influxes of wealth generated through what was arguably the very first instance of what came to be known as primitive accumulation.
In 711 AD, Moorish armies invaded the Iberian peninsula, establishing what would eventually be known as the kingdom of Al-Andalus. Within a decade, the vast majority of the peninsula was under Muslim rule, and the various Christian kingdoms in Iberia spent nearly eight hundred years fighting to reclaim Iberian territory from the Moors.
This campaign, known as the Reconquista, gained strength in the 9th century with the alleged discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia, transported and then enshrined in a town that came to be known as Santiago de Compostela. This discovery sparked a pilgrimage route through northern Spain that quickly became the most popular medieval pilgrimage route through Europe. The influx of pilgrims across what became known as the Way of St. James was of both financial and social benefit to the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, who were able to strengthen their position and finance further mercenary armies to reconquer Iberia from the Moors.
The Moors, meanwhile, had imported merino sheep from North Africa into Iberia, and as the kingdom of Castile gradually retook land from the Muslim kingdom, the Christian aristocracy recognized the potential for merino wool as a lucrative cash crop that could reliably fund the Reconquista.
Common lands throughout Castile were then seized for the purpose of sheep grazing. The Castilian crown quickly prospered and amassed significant wealth due to the demand for wool in northern Europe at the expense of the peasantry who were displaced en masse and left to starve. Unlike the later cycles of primitive accumulation that affected England, there were no industrialized cities desperate for exploitable wage labor for the peasants of Iberia to flee to. In many circumstances, the only viable (and bitterly ironic) alternative to starvation for Iberian peasants was to join the very armies that were funded by the commodification of the lands they once lived on.
By the mid-1300s, the crown of Castile controlled the majority of the Iberian peninsula, and a hundred years later the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon created a consolidation of power that would bear fruit in 1479 when Ferdinand succeeded his late father as king. The combined union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon then successfully conquered the last Muslim kingdom of Granada thirteen years later, in January of 1492.
It was only weeks after the fall of Granada in 1492 that the court of the kingdom of Castile agreed to finance Columbus’ voyage. Columbus had been presenting his case to the Spanish court for a few years at that point, but the completion of the Reconquista meant that the profits from Castilian wool were no longer needed to fund armies and mercenaries. That wealth could now be used to fund “exploration” with the purpose of acquiring further wealth.
And so as peasants faced the choice of migration, starvation, or conscription while sheep comfortably grazed on their former lands, Columbus set sail for what he thought would be the Indies financed by the profits derived from those sheep. The voyage, as we know, did not lead him to the Indies, but instead he landed on the shores of an island known to its Taino inhabitants as Guanahani.
The Italian explorer and his crew expressed their gratefulness towards Taino hospitality by committing horrifying atrocities against the Tainos and by seizing several Tainos as slaves that they then took back with them to Spain, an action repeated by Columbus on subsequent voyages, as well as by Amerigo Vespucci a few years later. By the time Columbus left what was by then called Hispaniola for the last time, the Taino population had been reduced from eight million to less than 100,000. Not long after, slaves from other islands had to be imported to Hispaniola from other possessions of the Spanish crown as the native Taino population had been decimated by murder and exploitation to the point of extermination.
The taking of both land and slaves for the sole purpose of exploitation and profit eventually progressed into the accumulating genocidal force that we know today as global imperialism, and those takings are the foundation on which the United States was built.
A hundred years after immigration peaked at Ellis Island, the New World that once provided a remedy for the intertwined issues of land and scarcity in Europe is now the epicenter of an end-stage crisis that is a direct continuation of the same cycle that produced America in the first place.
The crisis is most often coded in the languages of development, policy, and economics, deliberately isolating it from its historical roots or patterns, but it is neither a new process nor one confined to the terrain of cities or the field of urban planning. While one was obviously a much more physically violent and bloody process, especially on American soil, overall there is little difference between the mechanisms of gentrification in America and those of colonization as a whole. The specific modes and methods of violence and oppression differ greatly, but both are processes sparked by the intertwining forces of scarcity, commodification, and speculative profit, the same processes that have been driving displacement and migration for centuries and that forced so many of our ancestors to leave their homelands for the New World.
In turn, several generations after the completion of the massive land grab that was America, the descendants of that massive wave of immigrants are now learning the hard way that the limits of the “American Dream” are congruent with the physical limits of available, affordable and viable land. But unlike a century ago, this time there is no viable pull, no newly colonized landmass for the current crop of landless peasants to settle on and continue the cycle of oppression.
In the fall of 2007, I sold nearly everything I owned, packed what I had left into my van, and drove across the country from New York City to Oregon. I had little to no connections in Oregon, no job prospects, and no concrete plan on how I would survive. But despite these unknowns, I knew that the possibilities that lay before me on the other side of the country still held more promise than what I was leaving behind.
I was an economic migrant, driven from NYC at the height of late-stage gentrification. I could not find an affordable piece of land to live on, which forced me to leave my “homeland” in order to seek out “a better life” on the West Coast where land was not as scarce and in demand.
I was the first American-born member of my direct lineage to make such a journey. Neither my parents nor my grandparents ever needed to migrate for socioeconomic reasons, as the privileges we call whiteness, assimilation, and citizenship allowed them to generate wealth and stability through the American Dream of property ownership. But my journey into adulthood was congruent with what’s now been referred to for at least two decades as an “affordability crisis,” and property ownership is now out of reach for a significant portion of my generation due to a manufactured scarcity of viable housing.
This scarcity of available and viable places to live combined with job scarcity and depressed wages has not only led to a newly proletarianized white middle class (in as much as the opportunity to generate wealth through land ownership has been newly denied to them), but it has also led to widespread migrations from economically saturated urban areas as a result of inflated housing prices. And those migrations inevitably result in triggering the cycle of gentrification in the areas that they settle.
A decade later, three thousand miles from my homeland, I myself am a part of and am witnessing this very effect. The same cycle of gentrification that drove me from New York a decade ago has now thrown my adopted home of Portland in crisis, erasing any potential of a better life in terms of economic security. And yet, despite this crisis, I am still in an infinitely safer position than some of my fellow economic migrants, whose lack of privilege in contrast to my own has resulted in their being forced to exist in some of the most dangerous and squalid conditions imaginable.
* * *
Across the street from my building in downtown Portland, a homeless camp slowly but steadily formed over the past several months. While homeless camps have been sprouting up with frequency throughout America for at least a decade now, the growth of a camp literally in my front yard in tandem with the growing refugee crisis in Europe made the similarities and shared causes and circumstances impossible to ignore.
In technical terms, “refugee” is reserved for displaced people who cross a border seeking refuge. Those who do not cross a border but are still displaced are referred to the UN as “internally displaced persons.” And while the UN may not categorize the ever-growing population of homeless in the United States as internally displaced persons in terms of their reports and statistics, there is little difference between the sociopolitical forces that produced the camp across the street and the sociopolitical forces that produce many refugee camps around the world. Once we strip away the specific signifiers (“homeless,” “bums,” “travelers,” etc.) that we use in our culture in order to characterize them, they are simply landless peasants, displaced persons, economic refugees and migrants.
One of the great myths that drives homeless policy on the municipal level in the United States is the belief that the majority of homeless people in any given area are not actually local but from somewhere else, and that they migrated to the city in question because it’s somehow better for homeless people there than wherever they came from. Often presented as incontestable truth by both local politicians and business owners, the myth is used as a justification for not funding services or shelters, as it is stressed that doing so will “enable” and “attract” these supposed masses of migrants from elsewhere.
That this idea is myth as opposed to truth is incontestable: federal data consistently shows that the majority of homeless persons within any given urban area are local to at least the county if not the city itself. And yet this myth is still consistently and successfully wielded as a weapon as it serves the ruling class on multiple levels. Not only does it exploit the same fear-of-others tendency that is also central to anti-immigrant rhetoric, the myth also serves to placate and flatter the citizenry and to create a false impression of economic stability within the community. By positioning the community at issue as a “draw,” the myth reinforces the idea that the community is such a desirable place to live that homeless folks would travel from all over the country to take advantage of the quality of life that the taxpayers enjoy, as well as create the false assumption that poverty is not a severe issue in their community.
If the visibly poor are conveniently regarded as being from elsewhere, denying and/or hiding the severity of poverty in any given community becomes much less of a challenge. Poverty itself becomes the other.
Such inaction, combined with criminalization, only exacerbates the problem of homelessness. While the federal government estimates around 600,000 homeless people currently living in the United States, that number is widely regarded as a dramatic undercount due to the federal government’s narrow definition of homeless combined with a significantly flawed data collection process. When the definition of homeless is expanded enough to include those living in cars, motels, and those who are temporarily living with family and friends, the number of American displaced persons and economic refugees rises to well over eight million people.
Though not (yet) as severe in its scope, the “homeless crisis” is to present-day America what the “refugee crisis” is to present-day Europe, and the myth of the other, the “migrant” seeking to “take advantage” of local communities echoes with eerie similarity throughout the politics and rhetoric around both crises and across two continents. And of course, that rhetoric is no different from the rhetoric that so many of our ancestors in America once faced.
It is for these reasons that I can’t walk past the camp without thinking simultaneously of the refugee camps of Europe, of my own economic migration, of the journeys of my own ancestors, and of the cycles of accumulation and displacement that lies the root of all of it.
“It is the basic contradiction in our entire history as a nation. The first European settlers who landed on these shores saw themselves as creating a great new experiment in democratic government. Yet they were enslaving a whole population of human beings, Africans, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America. As a nation, we have never really dealt with this contradiction. We’ve only picked around the edges of it.” – Anne Braden
On one hand, I am undeniably a child of empire, born and raised on unceded Lenape land that colonial occupiers renamed “New Jersey” after driving the Munsee out in the 1600s. I am a product of the same American Dream that is theoretically afforded to everyone under the protection of this empire, and despite my lack of access to land ownership I am the recipient of an immeasurable amount of privilege purely on account of my European ancestry.
On the other hand, while raised in relative stability as the descendant of two generations’ worth of landowners, once I step back any further in my family line I am a descendant of refugees and illegals. And those ancestors, who suffered through war and poverty before leaving everything behind to come to America, were in turn descended from countless generations of landless and exploited peasants.
It is variations of this contradiction that most white Americans cannot escape, the often coterminous roles of oppressed and oppressor. And in facing that contradiction we also must face our ethical obligations and closely examine our actions and attitudes towards both historic and present victims of oppression. For whether it’s the homeless already in our back yards, or the refugees risking their lives to reach our borders, to turn our backs and other them is not only a refusal of basic decency and hospitality in the face of suffering, but a painful hypocrisy given the histories of so many of our own ancestors.
When we deny hospitality and safety to the displaced, when we refuse and dismiss those begging at our door seeking safety and relief from war and poverty, we in turn deny our own past, we dismiss the trials of our ancestors, and we erase our own truths.
A few weeks ago, the camp that had built up over months across from my building was suddenly and harshly evacuated by law enforcement, with dumpsters and personnel on hand to confiscate and destroy any trace left after the residents were forced to leave. A few days later, the refugee camp in Calais known as “the Jungle,” one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in Europe, was also bulldozed and evacuated.
In both cases, those displaced were given nowhere to go. They are without land, without possessions, once again victimized by a cycle of displacement that has been benefiting the few on behalf of the many for nearly a thousand years.
A cycle that will never end for as long as the value of land carries a higher worth than the value of people.
This piece is dedicated to the estimated 2,500 refugees who died at sea trying to reach Europe in 2015, and was originally posted at The Wild Hunt.
It was written under the guidance and with the persistent urging of my own ancestors, most notably my maternal great-grandfather and paternal great-grandmother, whose stories I shared in this piece.
What is remembered, lives.
The italicized quotes running throughout this first half of this piece are excerpted from ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet currently living in the United Kingdom. The poem in its entirety can be found here.
Alley Valkyrie is a social activist, writer, artist, and spirit-worker living in the Pacific Northwest. She currently divides her time between Portland and Eugene. Alley has spent the past several years working with homeless and impoverished populations in Oregon. She is also a freelance visual artist and photographer, and produces a clothing line called Practical Rabbit. She is a co-founder of Gods&Radicals.
I woke into world the bastard child of a slaughtering Empire. I woke into world in an old Shawnee town, but I am not Shawnee, and the town is their ghost.
The town, in Shawnee, is called Chalawgatha, which is also the name of the band of Shawnee who lived there. Wherever they settled, they settled in Chalawgatha, because they were the Chalawgatha, and so Chalawgatha was their town.
What is the ghost of their town is a sprawl of mid-western pavement called Chillicothe, Ohio.
Chillicothe sits alongside a dirtied river on the last plainslands before the land roils upward into the ancient soft-green Appalachian mountains. Chalawgatha was a small settlement upon that same river with much smaller, hand-built mounts rising from the earth. Once the Algonquin ancestors of the Shawnee traveled those time-worn mountains and buried their dead beneath raised hills. The hearts of those mountains are coal; the hearts of those mounds are bone.
It’s doubtful the Chalagawtha Shawnee suspected that one day both mount and mound would be laid low.
Where I woke into the world is a beautiful, haunted place, forested hills whispering ancient truths from caves and streams, wildflower-strewn vales singing fairy-tale beauty into the souls of mortals. It is also a land trashed, paved-over, blown up to get the coal from the heart of the great mountain-spirits, razed to plunder the trees clinging to their face like verdant beards.
Where I woke into this world is sometimes filmed for European documentaries on American poverty, images of shoeless dirt-faced children montaged alongside shoeless dark-skinned children in Los Angeles.
I had shoes; my neighbors did not. Water poured from our tap, my neighbors drew from an arsenic-tainted well. Our sewer overflowed and opened, feeding tree-tall grasses and milkweeds; my neighbours shat in a shed.
We were poor. Others were more poor. The race to the bottom is an abyss mirroring the race to the top, smog-filled skies reflected in sludge filled pools.
The wealthiest can always have more wealth, the poorest can always have less.
Unlike others in those European documentaries, I was never filmed. I did not know my poverty except that I was told of it on television and from my violent and abusive father, who threw crumpled beer cans against a black and white television as Ronald Reagan told us how the Union fared. Then there were the commercials for colas, and shoes, and things we could never afford but others must could, because why would the television tell people to buy things for which they had no money?
When it rained, our clay yard turned slippery, light-brown slicks pooling water into drainage ditches along the rural highway gouged through those winding hills. It was sloppy, and clay is a relentless sort of mud, but I would play for hours. I liked the world best during those rains and just after, the air finally cleansed for a few hours from the moldy garbage-smell of the paper mill along the Scioto river and the rotten sewage smell from our overfilled sewer.
Paper Mill on Scioto river, 1901 [Public Domain]
The Chalagawtha Shawnee likely did not worry much over the smell of the paper mill. Nor did they wait like I did for the food trucks from the government, laden with brown paper-board boxes filled with processed cheese, dried milk-powder, and enriched rice. They did not clear space in their clay yards for each autumn’s delivery of blue-black coal for their wood-burning stoves. They did not pass by vales and hollows filled with rusting enameled machine-parts and used plastic diapers. The did not wonder at the strange pains and stranger thoughts entering their head from the nuclear plant just to the south.We moderns, particularly the Pagan sort, are accused of romanticizing the past. I try not to make that mistake, but it’s difficult to imagine the slaughtered and displaced Chalagawtha Shawnee lived lives as miserable, as nasty, as brutish and as short as we’re taught to believe.
At least not until Empire came.
“Indians” like gods
I woke into the world as an ‘American,’ not as a Shawnee, a child of Empire and Capital, descended from displaced peasants from many other lands. From my father ran blood of Alsatians, Swabians, French, Irish and Welsh; from my mother came more French and Welsh and a bit of English.
I was formed from the blood and semen of peoples without title, wealth or trades. Displaced and impoverished people crafted the homunculus of me, mewling in an aluminum trailer. I was born the bastard heir of Colonialism, suckling not at the teat of imperial wealth pumps but upon rags dipped in the vats of government charity.
I knew none of this then. Empire was a thing elsewhere, wealth the currency of cities on the other side of those low mountains.
Slaughter of peoples, when you are a child, is for the story-books and the 3 channel-reception of the small glowing screen: cowboys shooting Indians, Romans burning Heathens and Christians, Hitler marching Jews to ovens. Ancient peoples and their gods were all over-ocean and under far-flung skies, not by the low mound by which I played and napped.
Ancestors from over an ocean settled in untouched forests, unwitting footsoldiers of Imperial reach, pushing the descendents of mound-builders ever westward, as if chased by an unseen, voracious monster from which all peoples knew to flee. Wars fought between the settlers’ government and the tribal confederacies always ended poorly for the defenders, but what became of these lands cannot be described as glorious or even civil.
The Chalagawtha Shawnee settled in towns nearby the burial mounds of their Algonquin ancestors. They were built during periods named in the American fashion, the Hopewell and Adena cultures, after the names of the settlers’ estates where their mounds were identified. The Chalagawtha town along the Scioto river was near a collection of mounds named now, in even more an American fashion, “Mound City.”
From that Chalagawtha near Mound City by the Scioto river came the most famous Shawnee, and the most antagonistic to Empire, Tecumseh. Traveling with his brother, a prophet given to visions of coming storms and calamities, he led a resistance of confederated Creek and Shawnee tribes against that westward push.
Tecumseh was killed in battle in 1831, far from Chalagawtha. But he would return eighty-five years later to those mounds, at least for a few years, by way of an orphaned child of settlers who went on to burn cities to the ground.
Seven years after Tecumseh’s death, Tecumseh Sherman was born, later christened “William Tecumseh Sherman” by his adoptive mother. His father, a lawyer in Lancaster, Ohio, had developed a fascination for the Shawnee hero, gifting the name to one of his children but dying without giving them anything else. Raised by a wealthy politician instead, William Tecumseh Sherman later became the general who would order “Hard War,” the scorched-earth tactic which saw Atlanta and other southern cities become settlements of flames.
Soldiers from Camp Sherman training for the United State’s first worldwide war of Empire [Courtesy Ross County Historical Society]
General Sherman died in 1891 in New York City and was buried in St. Louis, Missouri, both far from Chalagawtha. But 16 years later, as the United States entered the first global imperial war, the Union he’d helped preserve built a training and supply installation along the Scioto River atop the mostly-flat plainsland. Flat, except for a few small hills….
Mound City was razed to make way for global war, the birthplace of General Sherman’s namesake buried under a military fort. There, in old Chalagawtha, men trained to join an imperial power in fighting other imperial powers in trenches gouged into the land from whence the settlers who’d displaced the Shawnee came.
It’s Totemic, and also a really bad joke.
“Their graves turned into ploughed fields”
Soldiers make an image of Woodrow Wilson on an ancient burial ground, 1918 [Photograph by Mole & Thomas]
The mounds of Chalagawtha were later excavated and rebuilt—Camp Sherman was dismantled in 1920—and the remains catalogued and distributed. Some went overseas, kept as a sampling of colonized cultures in the British Museum in London, others displayed in the visitor center.I went to the visitor center at Mound City, visited that mounded center of Chalagawtha. I remember looking at those relics, a child ten years of age, confused. There was lots of mica, some wood, a little copper, all from an age when ‘real indians’ lived and fought and died, before the coming of cities and cables.
That year—I do not remember if before or after my visit–I had learned there were still-living indians, though I could perhaps be forgiven for disbelieving it. Cable had just been lain along the ridge-line where I lived, so I’d now seen so many more stories of the killings of First Nations people that they’d become as mythic as unicorns or gods.
A real-life indian came to my school that year, dressed in white tasseled deerskin leather. I remember asking him—I had to, I’d been fooled before—if he were really an indian, because they were all dead.
He laughed, and smiled, and said ‘some of us are still alive.‘ But he looked a little sad, and very honest.
I hadn’t believed in indians, the way I hadn’t believed in gods. I’d read the stories of their existence, knew they’d once roamed the earth, but surely they’d all gone under the earth like Zeus and Apollo by now. And here was a real-life Indian, one who’d somehow survived the coming of settlers and refrigerators.
He was Choctaw, I remember. He made certain we knew this, that he wasn’t ‘from here,’ but from elsewhere.
The Choctaw were known as one of the ‘five civilized tribes’ on account of their early peace treaties and alliances with the United States. When the Chalagawtha Shawnee chief Tecumseh met with the Choctaw leaders and pleaded their help against the settlers and colonists, he was not only rebuffed but threatened by Pushmatah, the Choctaw leader, who vowed to fight those who fought against the United States.
In a transcribed speech to the Choctaw, Tecumseh warned their relationship with the new imperial state would not go well:
Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mochican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun … Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws … Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?
Tecumseh was right. Pushmatah, who had organized Choctaw warriors to fight against Tecumseh’s Creek alliance, died 11 years after Tecumseh in Washington D.C., there to beg the government for redress against white squatters of Choctaw land. And six years after Pushmatah’s death, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed, granting the U.S. full control over all traditional Choctaw lands, despite their decades of alliance against bellicose natives.
I do not know if the Choctaw man who spoke to our class thought much on this matter, nor did any of us children know enough to ask on that tragedy. I do know now that he was not the first ‘real-life indian’ I’d met. Adjacent the clay-pit upon which my home stood lived my friends whose always-tanned skin, even in the heart of winter, was an embarrassment to them but a matter of fascination for me. And off the ridge, in the small ghost township called Knockemstiff, lived several families without running water, whose body odor was an unfortunate source of jeer and amusement to us elementary school children; their kids shoeless except in deepest winter when they walked clumsily in adult boots many inches too big for their feet.
Angry Lands, Haunted Peoples
It’s tempting to see the re-appearance of Tecumseh to the site of his birth in the form of Camp Sherman as mere co-incidence or accidental poetry. But the dead haunt us for a reason, and if we’re to have any hope of revolt, we cannot ignore these spectres.
Besides, the United States military has an intimate relationship to the slaughtering of First Nations peoples–the same military which Pagans begged to include Pentagrams and Mjolnir on headstones was responsible for the slaughter at Wounded Knee and the countless other slaughters of indigenous folk.
Ward Churchill has shown that the ‘yellow ribbon’ to ‘support our troops’ –those jingoistic magnets on automobiles traversing highways built over the corpses of buffalo– come from the scarves worn by U.S. soldiers during the ‘Indian Wars.’ Even now, the military names weapons and military vehicles after conquered peoples (as Noam Chomsky mentions, “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy”), and the US military code-named Osama Bin Laden, “Geronimo.”
The United States is all one vast grave of slaughtered peoples. Our subdivisions, our malls, our kindergartens and Pagan bookshops are all lain over stolen land. And not just stolen, but currently-in-the-process-of-being-stolen. I live on stolen Duwamish land–and they, whose river is a Superfund site poisoned by industry and occupied by a war-machine manufacturer, are not even recognised as a tribe despite their very real existence.
In fact, like the homeless, like the sacred, like global warming, like the poisoned earth in places like Appalachia, Capital and Empire merely pretend its own apocalypse, its own slaughter doesn’t exist.But so do we.
Our disenchantment is mere denial, springing from our separation from the land and ourselves. It’s horrifying to make a connection between the places we live and the rivers of blood and sagas of sorrow which cleared the land for our single-family homes and hipster restaurants, or even our sacred sanctuaries. This is Marx’s ‘estranged labor,’ expanded by Silvia Federici’s work, the way we separate aspects of our being, classify our activities, and Enclose certain experiences from other experiences, living disjointed, fractured existences, alienated from and terrified of interwoven threads of meaning.
Animism can shatter these categories. Paganism’s supposed to, but can’t if it continues to cling to the benefits of Empire. Animist peoples know this, but we, bastard children of Empire, do not.
Being disenchanted, utterly disassociated from the land means we can’t even trace the threads between the ‘benefits’ of modern civilization and the slaughter of peoples.
Appalachia is the World
Nowhere is this more evident than Appalachia, the place where both Tecumseh and I were born.
Much of Appalachia is what some call ‘exclusion zones,’ and they are essential for the existence of Capitalism, as well as most of what makes modern life so (-called) ‘civilized.’
In exclusion zones, Capitalism functions precisely as it did when it first started, poisoning the water and air, raping the land for resources like coal and wood, and keeping the population in conditions quite similar to early 19th century peasants. There used to be many more such places in the United States, but in the last fifty years, as environmentalism took hold and terror of acid rain, smog-filled cities, cancer, and developmental disabilities finally took hold, Capitalists altered their behavior…slightly.
They didn’t stop wasting the planet, polluting the air and water, or making miserable the lives of people. Instead, they just moved it elsewhere, hid it from the view of the consumers whose purchases give consent to all this exploitation. They moved this to exclusion zones, benefiting from (and propagating) myths about the ‘backwardness’ of the people in those areas, helped ensure those who didn’t see that damage never took seriously the accounts of people experiencing it.
Excavation and destruction of Adena mound, another sort of ‘mountain-top’ removal, 1901 (Public Domain)
Thus, in American discourse, Appalachians are stupid hicks, backwards, violent conservatives (or militants), uneducated, and not worth listening to.
And if you’ve followed anything at all about the recent protests over the murders of unarmed Black men in the United States, you’re probably seeing a parallel. The same that is said of people in exclusion zones in the United States is said of People of Color, and this is not by accident.
The plight of the Appalachian whose water is poisoned by coal mining is similar to the Midwesterner whose water is poisoned by fracking, and both are similar again to the plight of the Black family living in Detroit or Baltimore in abject poverty, with their water being turned off. And the similarities don’t end there–lack of resources, lack of education, high crime rates, indifferent and often oppressive government representatives, and a great silencing of their voices constructed through prejudices regarding education, lifestyle, culture, and family structures.
And these groups are all similar to those living in exclusion zones around the world, where the overwhelming amount of damage and destruction wrought by Capitalism is displaced. Razed forests, poisoned rivers, dried-up wells, toxic waste, abject poverty, unbreathable air–these are the foul spirits birthed by Capitalist greed, but we don’t see it.
The same process which keeps us from seeing the Dead, the spirits, the fae, and the gods keeps us from seeing the Chlnese labourer attempting to kill herself rather than make another iPad, from seeing the connection between our automobiles and U.S. Imperialism, our electricity and mountain-top removal, our comfortable lives and the constant wars in the Middle East.
It feels like we’re waiting for an inheritance we’ll never get and we are not owed. Empire’s slaughter cleared land for the coming of displaced Europeans like my own family, but it doesn’t care about me, only my submission, only my silence.
It also doesn’t care about you, either, except that you buy what it’s got to sell, stare at screens on your way to your jobs, and keep denying the connections between your security and all the people that have to die to make you feel safe.
The dead Black kid in the street is also the slaughtered Lakota at Wounded Knee, and they are both also the drowned Syrian refugee, the shoeless cancer-ridden Appalachian, and all die in the name of Empire.
Perhaps we, Empire’s bastard children, will finally take their side instead.
An intractable tea-swilling punk, queer hooligan, and dream-soaked leftist bard, Rhyd’s devoted to Welsh gods, breathes words, makes candles, plays recorder, and refuses ever to drive a car. He writes for The Wild Hunt, A Sense of Place, Polytheist.com, and his main blog: PAGANARCH.
Capitalism! The American Dream! Except that what we believe about capitalism, and how it actually works, are two different things. We’ve been told that the essence of preserving the economy involves making things better for the wealthy, so that they will make bigger companies and hire more people for more jobs, and thus the crumbs of their good fortune will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Except that it’s not true; wealthy people won’t part with their wealth unless regulations force them to.
We are told that the American Dream rewards the hard-working and the worthy, and that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. Except that it’s not true; people in poorer countries are more entrepreneurial than people in wealthier countries, and good infrastructure is the key to building the wealth of nations.
We are told that you must pay good CEOs and Directors of large corporations top dollar so that you will get the best. Except that it’s not true; Board Directors often make decisions that are best for them in the short term, and really bad for the company itself in the long term (fancy that!) And by the way, you’re probably wrong about how much they’re getting paid. Most people think it should be about 10 times what the average worker in their companies get paid, and they think it’s actually more like 30 times. But they’re wrong; it’s really more like 300-400 times as much!
We are told that what’s good for the shareholders of a company is good for the company overall. Except that it’s not true; shareholders want to buy low and sell high, and quickly, and that means that often decisions are made in companies to cut corners, cheat, and patch instead of fix, until the whole structure collapses. Like with pretty much every automobile company you’ve ever heard of, and several large airlines.
We are told that the free market economy is the best way to handle things, because market forces will ultimately balance everything out. Except that it’s not true; there is actually no such thing as a “free market economy;” governments and corporations fix the conditions of the market all the time. So could we; and so we have in some ways, which is why “fossey jaw” is a thing of the past.
We are told that education is essential to the future wealth of a nation. Except that this isn’t true either; there’s almost no correlation. What drives the wealth of nations is actually manufacturing.
Don’t believe me? That’s okay; Ha-Joon Chang is a Cambridge trained economist who has won prizes for his work, and he’ll tell you better than I can, with figures to back it up. And he’ll explain it in a way that even an arts major like me can clearly understand.
I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you, like me, see the rot at the core of our economic system but you lack the words to tell people why it’s rotten, this is the book for you. If you don’t understand economics and you want to learn without taking a course, this is the book for you. If you think that capitalism is the best thing since sliced bread, and you think lefties are wingnuts who don’t understand how the world really works, this is still the book for you because you can acid-test your theories against an educated dissenting opinion. I wish that my Prime Minister would read it because I think he would run things a little differently if he did.
Over the next couple of months I’ll be writing an extended series focused around the theories presented in this book on Gods & Radicals if you want to know more.
There have been quite a lot of reviews of this book on Goodreads, so I think I’ll make mine brief.
This was a brilliantly written book in which three novellas — one a gothic horror novella about cloning, another a dreamscape fantasy novella of an alien world, the third being an almost Kafkaesque story of totalitarian imprisonment and suffering — interconnect. This is pure literary science fiction, in which the plot is not the point, but the theme, and that theme is Colonialism, racism, and institutionalized Colonialism and racism, and the role of identity and memory.
The protagonist of the overarching story is an anthropologist named John V. Marsch, though he never once is the viewpoint character, except by proxy in the final story through scattered and deliberately disordered journal entries. He might be descended from the aboriginal race (or races) of the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. It is generally accepted that there was at least one, and possibly more than one, aboriginal race of shapechangers who took on human forms when the human colonists came; and it is generally accepted that the humans wiped them out. However, Veil’s Hypothesis, which was invented by one of the incidental characters you encounter, suggests that the indigenous race forgot they were ever of another race, so they have intermingled among humans and the only real difference is that they have bright green eyes and they can’t use tools well. This is further complicated by a belief of the aboriginal peoples in a race called the Shadow People, who once used tools but don’t anymore, and who can manipulate thoughts and dreams. And they may once have been humans in an ancient first wave of colonization that has been long forgotten.
You will find none of this explained in the story, by the way. These details are gleaned from reading between the lines in the process of the existing stories to form all the pieces of the puzzle.
What it has to say about identity, memory and Colonialism is brilliant and thought-provoking. How memory is unreliable. How Colonial arrogance leads to a sociopathic lack of empathy and the cheapening of human life. How institutionalized racism creates unwarranted and irrational distrust in people. How it leads to the persecution of a class of people which is cloaked in “righteousness.” How identity depends a great deal on not only genetics and experience, but on one’s personal narrative. How truth depends greatly upon one’s point of view.
The writing is also brilliant. The language is amazing, and the clever, interweaving plot elements are mind-boggling. I will probably have to read it again just to pick up on all the subtle nuances I missed the first time around.
So why did I only give it a three rating? Well, to be blunt about it, I was not intending to read poetry; I was reading a novel. I found that Wolfe was so concerned with his theme and the unfolding puzzle that I could get invested in none of the characters and none of the plots, with the exception of the second story, which had the character acting in such a bewildering way at the end of it that I’m still not sure I know what really happened. In general the novel left me with a feeling of confusion and dissatisfaction. So, it was great writing, yes. But did I really enjoy it? I feel a little bit like the morning after from the time when I discovered alcohol-soaked parties in the SCA in my youth. I’m *told* I had a good time. My face hurts from smiling and my throat is hoarse from yelling and laughing. But if that’s true, why does my head hurt and why is there such a bad taste in my mouth?