“Fighting is fighting, whether it’s a physical fist fight or fighting against the power that is, the capitalist state, and the destruction of the wild places left in the world it creates, sustains and promotes.”
From Emma Kathryn
As many of you may well know, I am a fighter. An actual fighter. I’ve trained in boxing, kickboxing, muay thai with a dash of grappling thrown in for good measure and I’ve had many fights. The truth is I like a good tear up. I know, it’s strange, well, to most people at least, but what can I say other than I’m a strange kind of woman!
I have written on this topic before for this site and you can read that article, the part 1 to this part two here.
So why a part two, you may well ask. As with most topics of interest, they become even more so when discussing them with others (that’s why I think community, or rather solidarity within communities is a good thing, and also why I like the open and honest discourse between people). So I was talking with an occultist friend of mine the other week, and the topic of fighting came up. I think I mentioned how fighting can have practical lessons in witchcraft as well as in life. Anyway, he asked me what it’s like to get hit in the face.
It’s a common question to those who don’t fight, even to those who might train but don’t spar or fight. The idea of putting yourself in that situation, with the full knowledge that the person standing in the opposite corner is going to try to hit you, to hurt you even, is so alien to people. It is a weird scenario to put yourself through, and no matter how well I might try here to explain it, unless you’ve gone through it yourself, it really is hard to comprehend.
I think he was quite surprised with my response, because I told him that getting hit in the head, or even the face doesn’t really hurt. Yes, you might get rocked, or even knocked out, but the actual blow usually doesn’t hurt all that much at the time, thanks to our amazing bodies and adrenaline. The real pain comes when you take a body shot, a punch, or worse, a kick, to the liver or to the floating rib. Oh my goodness that pain!
So why a part two? Well, the answer is that fighting is fighting, whether it’s a physical fist fight or fighting against the power that is, the capitalist state, and the destruction of the wild places left in the world it creates, sustains and promotes. I honestly believe that my training (over ten years!) and my fighting have given me good insight and experience to extend that fight into other areas.
Stepping into the ring, or even the gym might not suit everyone, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share those lessons I’ve learned in there with others who might put them to good use. I often like to say that we should never choose to stop learning, to stagnate and that there are always new lessons to be learnt.
Within the fighting world, when reputable fights are held, opponents are always closely matched where ever possible, including aspects like weight and experience. You’d never put your first time fighter in with a world champion. Why would you? It doesn’t make sense, after all, the aim of the game, or the fight rather, is to win, and it’s the same in real life when it comes to fighting, to resisting, to building that solidarity within your community, whether that’s the physical community where you live, or one you belong to because of some other shared feature.
It’s okay to start small. In fact, you have to.
I’ve written here before about how the state undermines communities so that people become disassociated with those others who are like themselves in some way, and how when that happens, the common feature they share, in this case, the land, is then attacked, usually for profit that will disappear never to be seen by anyone in the community.
In instances such as this, the first step is to get together with your neighbours. Talk and discuss but also laugh, have fun and build those connections, those links, friendships even. That is where true resistance starts, because it won’t work if we don’t stand together.
Just this evening, as the last of the open green community spaces is about to be stolen from this already poor estate where I live, I was talking to my neighbour, laying plans of attack. Attack isn’t always physical, at least not at first. It must start somewhere.
No Fighter is Alone
Before a fight, unless it’s a last-minute replacement, usually due to injury, you have an eight week fight camp. Every fighter will train on a regular basis anyway, three, four, five times a week perhaps, but eight week fight camp is something else. It’s eight weeks of gruelling training, six days a week, sometimes twice a day if you’ve got weight to cut. You’ve got tough pad sessions, sparring, conditioning, road work. It’s not fun (only kinda, in a weird way).
But in all of that, you’ve got your coach. My coach is the best coach! He really is a great guy who goes way over and beyond what’s expected of him for his fighters. Weekends and holidays spent travelling around the country, unpaid, cornering fights (many amateur fights too, amateurs do it for fun, unless you’re really something else, there’s no money for the fighter, and thus, the coach. It is a labour of love!).
It’s your coach who has your back. My coach is one of the old school kinds, but he will beast you and tell you straight when he knows you are slacking or can do better, but he does it for your own good.
Then there’s your team mates, your fellow fighters, your squad. These guys go through it all with you, the pain, the hours in the gym, the strict diets and tight weight cuts. They get it, they understand, and on fight day, when it’s a lot of hanging around going through the weight checks and the medical and the waiting, they are there and you can talk to them knowing that they totally understand what you are going through at that exact moment in time. It’s a kind of solidarity in itself.
In resistance, we are not alone either. Community is the key. Solidarity with those who face the same threat. Building links within your community can start with something as simple as going for a drink with your neighbours (does anyone in the UK remember the time before all the local pubs were shut down? Is it just me wearing the rose glasses of nostalgia that seems to think that something has been lost in the closing of such places, places where people could meet and drink and talk about the shit that affected them?).
I was just talking to my sisters the other day about the games of rounders people from the estate would play on those long summer nights when we were kids. Sometimes they’d start just by a dad taking his kids and their friends on the field for a quick game, but before long there would be about twenty or thirty people , adults and kids, having a great time, all for free. Hopefully, we can revive such traditions, because community links are important.
Every Fighter is Alone
I know, I know. But it’s true as well. Because, as a fighter, no matter how good the team behind you, when you step into that ring, it’s all down to you. Yes, you have your coach in your corner and your friends and family in the crowd cheering you on, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, you’ve just got yourself to rely on.
In life, no matter the support systems we may have available to us, it is up to us as individuals to decide for ourselves the fight we want to fight. Physical fighting might not be for everyone, but there are other ways to join in the fight against empire, the capitalist empire that crushes all beneath it in the name of profit.
Last week, myself and around seventy others from the estate went to a meeting set up by the council regarding the proposed redevelopment of where I live (an excuse to build houses on the only bit of land left to the community). My neighbour, an elderly woman who’s lived on the estate for god knows how long, stood up to the council, and she uses her power and knowledge as a councilor to fight them wherever she can. Shes’ already responsible for making the council come out and say they will no longer look into the compulsory purchase of those privately owned houses, a minor victory in the scheme of things, but major to those who risked losing their homes.
Know your individual worth, develop your individual skill set, whatever that might be, because it is only by those individuals making those small lonesome acts that the community can then come together in a more organised way.
Keep Your Head
Finally, and perhaps most importantly is the very sound advice to keep your head. Don’t lose your cool because you have a set back, or even a loss. If you lose your head in a fight, it’s bad news. People who don’t fight think that anger in a fight helps, but it doesn’t really. It might spur you on to train harder, perhaps when you fail at something, that kind of anger makes you keep at it, but anger bordering on rage is not good. Once your head goes in a fight, everything goes out the window, the game plan, the advice from your coach, even your own common sense.
I’ve seen it happen, when fighters get so frustrated in a fight that they end up not fighting to the best of their ability and then lose.
The same is true in life, in every aspect of it. In the fight against empire, keep a cool and level head, even when things get hard. The opponent want’s you to get frustrated, to make a mistake , to lose pace and give them the lead.
How many uprisings never happen because those who would take part are too busy arguing amongst themselves on social media? You’ve seen it yourself, I’m sure, people arguing with those who really are not too far removed from themselves, over a word or phrase misused or misunderstood or some other minor miscommunication.
So there you have it, just this fighters tips she’s learnt in the ring and shared in the hope that they will help others too!
Resist beautifully people, in whatever way you can.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!You can follow Emma on Facebook.
“I truly believe we, especially those of us who consider ourselves witches and occultists, have the power to create our own communities, ones based on mutual trust, aid and respect. Solidarity, if you will.”
From Emma Kathryn
I love the little town where I live. It has beautifully old and historic buildings, a rich and vibrant history. I love its cobbled streets, its higgledy piggledy buildings, the huge church that dominates the skyline, a gothic affair with huge stained glass windows.
When my little sister comes home from where she now lives, down south, she says she’s coming back to the sticks.
Isn’t it funny, how the perception of a place varies from person to person. At work, my area manager thinks it’s a posh little town, mostly because of the historic architecture and the fussy town council. But recently, a BBC report named my humble little town as one of the most deprived areas in the UK and one of the worst places to grow up poor.
The report, which goes into great deal regarding my town, says that there is a lack of opportunity for young people, lack of job security and so on and so forth. The usual stuff.
I must admit, I was quite surprised at the negativity in this report. Perhaps it is because those of us used to being poor find nothing surprising about the situation. We’re used to it. It’s like when some middle class feminists talk about women and working and all of the issues faced, it comes from a middle class perceptive. They talk about the high costs of childcare and how it affects them; about pay disparity (only today, as I write this, a BBC presenter has resigned despite earning well over one hundred thousand pounds a year and being offered a forty-five thousand pound pay rise). All of those things should be addressed, of course, but to me it highlights a clear problem within the fight for equality. Those at the bottom don’t count.
I think my town and the people in it are no different to anywhere else in the country, or indeed, the world. Poor is poor. When you can’t afford to feed your family, or to clothe them, when you struggle to keep a roof over your head, it doesn’t matter where you live, and it’s hard to feel that the woman presenter, is akin to those women, those single mothers in council houses struggling to make ends meet; or the mother and wife, who works full-time and still scrapes through life on less than the basics, but it’s all very middle class isn’t it? Though she shares a gender with those working class women, that’s it. There are no other shared traits, no other commonality.
The council estate where I live probably has the worst reputation of anywhere in the town. But what we have is a sense of community. I know all of my neighbours, could call on them for favours in times of need. When there’s car trouble and no money for mechanics, you can bet that after a few minutes of tinkering under the bonnet, at least two neighbours will be out with their tool boxes, helping if they can. When a kid goes missing, the whole street is out looking. When trouble comes, we band together.
And it’s not just the street where I live. In recent years, and with the rise of social media, whenever there has been an accident in the town, when people have been left homeless with no belongings, with nothing to their name, the town has rallied round, with donations of money, bedding, clothes, kettles, cutlery. The basics of existence. The little things that help to make a hard life just that little bit more bearable, and all from others who have very little themselves. We have community.
Don’t get me wrong, the town does have its problems, but no more than other places, and there are many diamonds in the rough.
The problems faced by the residents of this town, and countless others, countrywide and globally stem from the same source. From an unfair, capitalist system. In the UK, if it’s not London, Parliament doesn’t care. The political structure is a corrupt machine, not fit for purpose. It doesn’t matter what political party is in power. Politics is a stage show, the politicians actors, our lives the stage on which these skilled deceivers sell us their lies. We, the vast audience are taken in by their show, kept quiet with the power of the almighty vote. We think we are the directors of the show that is politics. We think we have control.
We do not.
But we can take it. And it starts at the grassroots. It starts with the land, and those with whom we share it. It starts at home.
When I talk about community, I think some people think I mean all love and light and all that nonsense. I do not. There are people I just cannot stand, who live on my estate. I just don’t like them. I don’t like the way they play into the hands of the media, acting the stereotype. I don’t like that they are apathetic. I wish they would take a stand, to fight back against all of the detritus thrown at them. But I’ll tell you something, they are more honest than all the politicians combined. I’ll tell you something else as well, they would have my back and I theirs.
But community means more than people. What about the other beings we share the land with?
Once, on an outing with a couple of pagan friends, the conversation turned to the topic of animal welfare, or rather the lack of it. Now, I am a vegetarian, would be vegan but for eggs and honey, and so animal welfare is a big deal for me. We were discussing factory farming, specifically the production of meat. Can you guess what a fellow pagan asked me? She asked if I thought then, because of my stance vehemently opposing factory farming, that animals had feelings?
Yep, you heard right. Do animals have feelings? My response was for her to go home and kick her dog, and then to come back and ask again whether I thought animals had feelings. Now, obviously I didn’t actually mean for her to actually kick her dog, but it’s so strange to me how a pagan, or any one who shares their home with an animal could even think to ask me such a question. Do they not feel fear, or pain, happiness and sadness. Of course they do and anyone with a bond to an animal will tell you the same.
For me, community goes beyond those who live on the same street as you. Now I know some do not like the word community, seeing it as a category of people lumped together based on their postcode or some other shared trait, and in a sense, this is true. But again, for me community means more. I truly believe we, especially those of us who consider ourselves witches and occultists, have the power to create our own communities, ones based on mutual trust, aid and respect. Solidarity, if you will.
Today, distance need not separate us and we can connect with others thousands of miles away. This is community too.
Wherever you are in the world, seek out those other like-minded folk, and build your community based on solidarity.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!
“We [White people] have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.”
From Lisha Sterling
“Gooooooood morning, Water Protectors! This is not a vacation! We’ve got work to do, relatives! It’s time to pray! Get your čanupa! Get your bible! Get your sacred items and come to the sacred fire!”
– Morning wake up call over the loud speakers near the sacred fire at Očeti Šakówiŋ.
The night I rolled in to Standing Rock it was dark, and finding the right entrance to the camp where I wanted to go was confusing. It was all headlights and flashlights on a short strip of road, traffic coming up from the south, lots of people and cars but everything else was dark. Really, really dark. So I drove past Očeti Šakówiŋ, past Sičangu (Rosebud), and all the way to the town of Cannon Ball, then through the town, out the other side and back up to Sacred Stone camp. I didn’t see much of anything that night. I think it must have been overcast, because I don’t even remember the stars. Or maybe it was clear, but I was so tired from the 2 day drive and overwhelmed by just having arrived that I didn’t really see the sky.
The next morning, after breakfast, I drove back out through Cannon Ball, over to highway 1806, and north towards the other camps. Just before I got to Sičangu I crested the hill, and in the clear sunlight the sight of thousands of people camped in tents and tipis was awe inspiring. There are no words that can express that feeling. Joy. Excitement. A thrill at the hope all those tents and tipis represented. These are just approximations. I wish that I could take that feeling that wells up in my heart even at the memory of it and place it inside your heart so that you could experience it, too.
That feeling never went away. Even in the coldest and harshest part of the winter, even in the most stressful days of battle, the view of the camp was exhilarating.
You Are Not In The United States
One of the first lessons for anyone coming to camp who wasn’t Native was that Camp was not part of “America”. Camp was sovereign territory. Camp was on treaty land, run by the people of the Seven Council Fires, existing in the cultural ways of what the American government calls The Great Sioux Nation.
Each camp entrance had a security checkpoint. Signs by the entrance reminded people whose land they were entering and set out the clearest of ground rules:
No Weapons of Any Kind.
No Alcohol Or Drugs.
Not on you and not in you.
This Is A Peaceful Prayer Camp.
Each of the three camps were broken into smaller camps. I don’t know what the separate areas of Sacred Stone were called, or if they even had different names, but at Očeti there were camps with names like, “Oglala Camp,” “Southwest Camp,” “Red Warrior Camp,” “Cheyenne River Camp,” “Red Lightning,” and so on. The fact that life at camp was broken into these smaller camps was something utterly lost on most of the non-Natives who showed up.
Johnny Aseron would ask people in the morning meeting or at some other meeting throughout the day, “What camp are you in?” and the answer from non-Native vistors was almost always, “Oh, we’re not in a camp. We’re just in a tent by ourselves.” This was rarely the first experience of culture clash that people would experience, but it was one that embodied all the other clashes. “Go back to your tent,” Johnny would tell the visitors, “then look around you. Figure out who is near by. Introduce yourselves and ask what camp they are in. Get permission to be where you are, and then make yourselves useful to your camp.”
“White people think that they are all individuals! They don’t even know what it means to be in a community!” Johnny would fume. And he was right.
We come from cities and towns where we never see our neighbors any more, where we don’t even know the people in our own apartment building. We travel through life completely oblivious to the people next door unless they play their music too loudly in the middle of the night. We have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.
People showed up from all over the country certain that they could do something to help the camps, but few took the time to stop and listen before they told everyone what their great idea was. As a result, a lot of duplication of efforts happened between September and December, a lot of projects went off half-cocked, and so many things were started and then abandoned when the people who started them decided to go home.
Even some of the people who did take the time to listen as well as talk managed to cause consternation when they treated the space like it was Burning Man rather than the sacred ground of the meeting place of the Seven Council Fires. There was an incident in which some non-Native women declared that they were going to run a prayer circle and discussion group at the sacred fire. They hushed the men who were tending the fire and scolded them for speaking over the women. They were oblivious to the fact that the sacred fire is the men’s prerogative, and that a women’s prayer circle there was completely out of place. Men are the fire keepers. Women are the keepers of the water.
This was not the only incident, possibly not even the most egregious one, that angered the Native community for its complete lack of respect for Lakota culture. But those who stayed for the long haul learned how to live in better harmony with the local culture. White people learned to cook buffalo instead of quinoa. White women learned to stay away from the sacred fire on our moon time. White men learned to let Native men set the boundaries and decide what steps to take next. Some of us left camp as honorary Lakota. Some found themselves connected with and adopted by the Nation from the land where they make their home.
Sacred Ground and A Place of Prayer
The land where the camps were is sacred ground. Lakota tradition teaches us that many medicine men have put sacred medicine into the land where Očeti Šakówiŋ was. There were also burials in several areas within the camps’ boundaries and to the North of them. It was no coincidence that the movement to protect the water gained so much momentum from this place. The prayers spoken there carry extra weight.
I had heard this before I ever arrived at Standing Rock. I knew it in my bones once I got there.
On the night that I arrived at Sacred Stone, I walked down to the Cannonball river and talked to the spirits of the land and the ancestors there. That first night the spirits were not impressed with me. They gave me something of a cold shoulder. They were doubtful about my intentions, I think, and not terribly trusting. I’m not sure exactly how it is that I gained their trust, but it didn’t take long at all.
One thing that I do know is that prayers were answered for everyone at camp, and miracles were absolutely commonplace there. People would talk about it while sitting around a fire or standing in line at a kitchen. You need a thing. You pray for that thing. The thing shows up. Again and again and again. Need someone with a certain skill? Pray. Need a power inverter? Pray. Need to get in touch with someone but your phone doesn’t work at camp and neither does theirs? Pray.
In November I found myself at a laundromat in Mandan, about 50 minutes away once the checkpoint had turned into a roadblock and everyone had to drive around the long way between Standing Rock and the urban area to the north. There were no laundry facilities at camp, so nearly everyone went north to wash their clothes once every two weeks or maybe once a month. I met a White woman at the laundromat who was also staying at camp. She said that she really liked the environment at camp, but she was skeptical of the idea that prayer was going to do anything useful.
“You can’t stop a pipeline with prayer,” she told me.
“I don’t know if we will stop the pipeline, but you have to admit, prayer is doing something,” I pressed.
“No. I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe that prayer has any purpose.”
“But, wait, haven’t you noticed the weird things that happen? How things just magically seem to turn out just so? How people end up in the right place at just the right time? How things show up just when you need them?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” She admitted somewhat uncomfortably.
“Well, you don’t have to call that a miracle if you don’t want. You can put it into another cosmological framework if you choose. Call it a synchronicity. There are an awful lot of synchronicities happening. Where does that come from?”
She laughed, “Yeah, there sure are a lot of synchronicities. I have no idea where they come from.”
“Well, maybe you would think of it as some sort of as-yet-unexplained quantum phenomenon. Or maybe it’s just the Unknown. But that thing that makes the synchronicities come together, that’s what some of us call God.”
The Atheist White Lady agreed that it was possible to hold the idea that whether there was a God or not, something was certainly happening at camp. When I got back to camp, I shared that story, and from then on the term “Očeti Synchronicity” entered the collective lexicon of the folks I camped with.
The Ancestors Stood With Us
In early October I was standing between the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Media tent and the Water Protectors Legal Cooperative tent on top of Facebook Hill in Očeti Šakówiŋ. As I stood there smoking a cigarette and talking to one of the IEN volunteers, we saw a red car come speeding from the south on 1806 followed by a police car with it’s lights flashing. The car turned into the south entrance to camp and sped right past the guards. As soon as it entered camp it turned off its lights, but the police car continued in pursuit, lights still flashing. The red car disappeared into the camp, but the police car made it about ¾ of the way around the loop road through the south side of camp before it was surrounded by angry Water Protectors. People on the hill jumped into their cars and trucks and sped down towards the police car. Some of the vets who were camped north of Facebook Hill near the north entrance did the same.
From our perch atop the hill we could hear people yelling at the police officer inside his now stopped car. The situation was tense. There would be some yelling, and then silence, then yelling again.
I ran into the tents to inform people inside what was going on, and to tell my friend to get ready to grab his sleeping kid sprawled out in front of the wood stove and put them in my van. “If there are shots, we go. If more police show up we go. I’ll drive through the fence if we have to. We don’t want to be here if this gets ugly.” I went back outside and kept watch.
Eventually, the police car turned its flashing lights off and began to drive slowly around the rest of the loop road toward the north entrance. Another police car showed up and parked by the north entrance. I went inside to get my friends and go. We jumped in my van, and I drove straight for the south entrance. As we got there, more police cars were coming up 1806.
When we got to the south gate, one of the guards stepped up to stop me from leaving. “We’re on lock down,” he explained, “Someone just drove in to camp in a stolen car and there are police here.”
“It’s not us. We saw the whole thing from on top of the hill. I have a kid in the van. We need to get back to Sičangu. I need to keep the kid safe.” I told the guard. I don’t know why he let me through. They didn’t let anyone else out of camp. We were the only ones. But he let me go, and I pulled out of Očeti, drove south of the river onto undisputed Reservation territory and turned into the driveway of Sičangu camp.
“Sorry. No one in or out. We’re on lockdown.” The guard at Sičangu told me.
“I know. We were just at the Media tent. We have a kid in the van. I need to get ’em safely back to our camp.” The guard knew who we were, an advantage of living in the smaller camp at Rosebud. He nodded in ascent and let us through.
As we pulled into the back grove where we were camped, I gave my friend instructions, still functioning in emergency mode. “If they raid the camp tonight, come find me and the van. I’ll drive us out of here no matter what it takes. If you can’t get to the van, then run south towards the town. I’ll find you and pick you up.”
I need not have worried. When the police car had turned its lights off, the Akíčita (say: ah-KI-chi-tah, warriors) of Očeti Šakówiŋ had made an agreement with the police who happened to be a local Lakota from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The police would stay outside the camp while the Akíčita would search for the car thief and bring them to the police. They found the bad guys, a driver and two passengers. They also rescued a woman who got trapped in her tipi when the car had plowed into it. Miraculously, she only had minor injuries.
That night I had a dream that I was walking around the whole perimeter of Očeti Šakówiŋ camp with my brother who had died on December 25, 2015.
When I became aware that it was strange to be walking with my dead brother as if it were normal, he spoke up, “Phew! That was scary last night!!”
“Yeah it was.” We walked and the silence hung over us for a while.
“I’m so glad that you are here, though. If I were alive I’d be there with you.” He paused, “Well, I am here with you. Just not like that.”
I looked at him and nodded, “Yeah, I know.”
One day in October there was a 9am meeting unlike any other while I was at camp. It was in the army tent on Hunkpapa hill, before the days when morning meetings happened in the dome. Johnny Aseron was late, but some other elders came in to the tent and started the meeting off without him. As usual, sage was lit and passed around the circle of people gathered. An opening prayer was said, just like always. But instead of Johnny saying a few words and then going around the circle to hear from whoever wanted to speak, these elders stood at the focus of everyone’s attention.
One elder spoke of the terrible number of Water Protectors that had been arrested the day before. Another spoke of the people who had not stayed peaceful and had instead lit fires. There were agitators amongst the Water Protectors who said that peaceful protest was not enough. We needed to fight already, they said. This elder said that made no sense at all.
“Look at the power of the United States,” he said, “Do you think that we can defeat them? Of course not! If we use violence, they will come down on us with as much force as they need. They will not just arrest 40 people or a hundred people. They will come in here and kill us. We’ve lost enough of our people. We need to live and we need to fight smarter than that.”
I didn’t know it then, didn’t know who these men were, but I would find out later that these were men who had once been militants who had no compunction about using guns in their battles. They had aged since then, and wised up. They had watched revolutions in other countries and seen how they went down. They had contemplated their own history and realized that winning every battle was not enough to win the war. They had learned that violence was not going to give them the gains they wanted. Only prayer could do that.
One of the elders stood up to tell a story that I don’t think I will ever forget. “Back in the 80’s we were told to go to the Black Hills with our families to stop the mining. The elders told us then to go out and set up a camp. Build a sweat lodge and pray all day, every day. We wanted to fight, but they said, ‘No. This time you just go and pray.’ We did what the elders said. There were about 30 of us. My wife was there and my kids. Other families, too. We just prayed and went into sweat lodge every day. After we’d been there a while, one morning we wake up and we’re surrounded by White men on the hills overlooking the valley where we were camped. All these White men up there with their guns. Some of them were sheriff’s deputies, but there were also just guys from the area near there. They’d called up and said that anyone who had a gun should come down and stop us. So there they were, surrounding us. There was nothing we could do. They stood there with their guns pointed down at us, men, women and children. We thought for sure it was going to be a massacre. But no one shot a single bullet. We all stood there for a long time, until finally someone came to us to negotiate a deal, and then we left there.
“Well, you see, about ten years after that happened, I was telling the story at this place. You know, I’d travel and speak at places, and tell what happened there. And I told the story this one time, and after the whole thing was over, this one man comes up to me after to talk. It was a White man. He said, ‘I had to come here to tell you that I was one of those men up there with a gun pointed at you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know back then, but I know now. I’m really sorry for what I did.’ and then he said, ‘but I have to tell you something, because you didn’t say anything about it in your story, and I don’t know if you even know. There’s a reason we didn’t shoot. When we looked down into that valley, we saw thousands of Indians and they were all armed. We all knew that if we shot, we’d all be dead. We didn’t see 30 people. We saw a valley full of Indians.’
“And so that’s how I know. Prayer works. The ancestors were with us that day. They stood with us, and those White men saw them.”
I feel pretty certain that the same thing happened at Standing Rock during the encampments. Not just once, but over and over again. The police were terrified of the Water Protectors. They told stories of Water Protectors with pipe bombs and tire irons and knives threatening them. None of those things ever happened. Some of that was surely just cops telling lies to justify their actions, but I heard cops talking with real fear in their voice on more than one occasion. Now, either they are such complete cowards that they make stuff up in their own heads – which considering the vast number of non-gun items that police have claimed were guns in the hands of Black men, we can’t ignore that possibility – or else, they really did see angry Native ancestors brandishing ghost weapons.
I know the ancestors were there. Against all logic, I met some of them. In the days of late November when I slept in my van outside the Cannon Ball Rec Center after working late into the night alongside the Media team, I saw ghosts who were as real and as solid to my mind as any living person. The wind seemed to blow them my way, and they gathered around the van. Some pressed their faces against the windows to look inside. Some followed me into dreams. I was able to describe people who had died many years before to relatives of theirs at camp and at the Cannon Ball Rec Center. I should perhaps mention that I do not usually see ghosts. This was not a type of magick or medicine in my repertoire before those nights.
One night after the snows started I climbed into bed at the back of my van and snow began to fall on my head, blowing through a gap between the back door and the frame where the seal had shrunk away from age and cold. I climbed out of the van and went back inside the room in the rec center where the Media team worked. I fumed in frustration and exhaustion, and sat with John Bigelow, head of the Media team, for a bit to vent about how things weren’t working right on this thing and that thing and I felt so isolated and alienated and unsure of myself. (We didn’t know it then, but TigerSwan had been using infiltrators to intentionally create division between White people and Natives, and I’d been hit by some really cruel words about my not belonging there.) John reassured me and told me to talk to the ancestors. They’d tell me how to handle it.
After our talk, I climbed under a table to sleep on the floor. As I closed my eyes I prayed that the ancestors would speak to me and give me guidance. Just as I was falling asleep, one member of the Media team stuck a pillow under my head, and another put a blanket over me. And then I was in another place and time.
I dreamed that I was at a meeting with a number of chiefs from the past and some other Native elders from the past and the present. We were in a long lodge. We sat on pillows at a long table that was close to the ground. I sat on the corner at one end of the table listening to the conversations going on. When it seemed appropriate, I took part in the conversation. After a bit, the people at the table broke into lots of smaller conversations. I had a deep conversation with two men that were sitting right by me on the long side of the table and a man who sat down at the short side of the table next to me for a bit and then got up to take care of something else. Towards the end of the conversation the man right next to me said, “We’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, but we didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” I felt so pleased, so I said the most obvious thing of all, “Just a moment. I’ll give you my mobile number.” And then I woke up.
Every time I think about that dream it makes me laugh. I offered a 140 year dead Lakota chief my mobile number. Oof! John got a good laugh at my foolish offer, too, but said that it was a good sign that they wanted to talk. I needed to spend more time learning how to listen to the ancestors.
“I learned more about anti-capitalism in the short time we were there, than I had in decades of research. Theory vs practice.” – Karina B Hart
One of the things about camp that everyone noticed, whether they were there for a day or for months, whether they took the time to understand Lakota culture or not, was that none of the camps functioned like the outside world. No one worked for money at camp, but everyone worked. No one was homeless at camp. Everyone had food to eat. Everyone had clothes, batteries, cigarettes, matches, flashlights, and whatever other basic need they might have. Healthcare was free, and it included both Western medical care and an assortment of other modalities including herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care.
If you needed almost anything, you only had to go to the tents where donations were sorted and distributed. If you were hungry, there were kitchens located all around the camps. As winter approached, there was a construction team that worked literally 24 hours a day building temporary housing for those who needed it and insulated floors for those who had sturdy tents or tipis that just needed a little extra protection. (It gets so cold in North Dakota that the ground freezes solid and if your sleeping bag is directly on the ground you can freeze before you wake up, even inside a heated tipi.) There was another team whose sole job was to construct wood stoves out of 50 gallon drums. The solar team that worked with me provided and/or repaired power systems at major locations throughout Očeti Šakówiŋ and Sičangu camps, including at the medical facilities, the dome, the restrooms, and at some of the larger insulated army tents that held a lot of people.
There were people at camp who complained that they never got what they needed. I will be honest and say that I don’t understand what happened in those cases. I wish I did, because it is something that all of us who were leading teams around camp worked hard to avoid. It was important to all of us to make sure that no one was left behind, especially Native families and elders. The medical team even sent out teams of medics to visit every single tent, tipi, and structure in all the camps to check on people, find out what they needed, and make sure that those who were unable to get to the donation tents or the medical yurts for whatever reason got whatever it was they needed.
Nearly everyone worked in some way that benefited either their local sub-camp or the camp as a whole. Some people were unable to do outside work because they were caring for their children, for elders, or they themselves were handicapped in some way. There were rumors of some people who didn’t work at all, but I never came across those people. I have no idea if this was just a TigerSwan-spread rumor or what. The only people that I know of that came and didn’t work were some of the “tourists” who came to camp for a weekend or a week and figured that since they’d brought donations they didn’t need to take part in any of the work. They could have been a burden, but I think that their work ethic was less of a concern than their general lack of respect for Lakota culture. But, then again, even among the “tourists”, most showed up and pitched in wherever they could.
There was so much to do. In an off-grid community, chopping wood becomes a vital job. In the winter, after the porta-potties were gone and we all started using the composting toilets, we needed two people per shift to work in each toilet tent to keep the wood stove burning, the sawdust bins full, and the composting toilets from overflowing. Every kitchen needed assistants for food preparation and clean up. The donation tents needed people to sort through things, pack up surplus to go out to reservation residents, and help Water Protectors find the things they needed. Each of the three camps needed security at the gates and walking through the camp 24 hours a day. The sacred fires required trained men to tend the fire round the clock in every kind of weather. The medical camp needed all sorts of non-medical support in addition to the healthcare work. The technology team needed network engineers who could drive a snowmobile up to “hop hill” outside of camp to fix our connection to the Internet if the wind, snowpack, or mystery computer gremlins cut us off. We also needed people who could program radios so that medics and security personnel could keep in contact throughout the area. A few tent or tipi fires occurred, and when they did every available hand was needed to put out the fire and make sure that everyone stayed safe. There was a school at Sacred Stone and another school at Očeti, so we needed teachers.
There was no top-down hierarchy that planned and managed everything. Instead it was more like herding cats. There was a volunteer desk near the main sacred fire in Očeti where people could sign up with their skills or find out what needs there were around camp. There were daily meetings for the representatives of sub-camps and work groups to discuss the work of the day, what they offered to others, and the needs they needed filled. Not everyone trying to run a project showed up to those, and not every camp had representatives at the meetings each morning. We did the best we could to keep things running as smoothly as we could. There were failures in communication, and failures to accomplish some of the things we wanted to accomplish, but all in all we did amazingly well.
Miraculously, there was not one single death in camp throughout the bitterly cold winter, though there was one death ten miles south in the parking lot at the Prairie Knights Casino when a man was working on his car in the snow and electrocuted himself in a freak accident.
All of this near utopia would not have been possible without the donations that flowed in from around the world. Some people would say that the need for donations proves that this sort of community life is impossible without people in the capitalist over-culture supporting it, but I would disagree strenuously. There was certainly a need for donations at the camps, but that need would have been far less if the camps had continued for a second or third year. If we could have grown our own food, we would not have needed food from outside. If we could have produced our our own clothing using traditional methods – whether Lakota or not – we would have needed fewer and fewer clothing donations over time. If we had stayed for more than a year we could also have begun to make things which could have been sold to people outside the camps so that the camp would have money available for those things which can’t be made from renewable and well-stewarted local resources. As it was, we had so many donations that we were able to ship truckloads of clothes and other items to communities on Native reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota and beyond.
The added bonus of all those surplus donations for camp is that children who had never had snow boots in their lives, despite living in a place where the temperature gets below -20F (-29C) and the snow can be several feet deep, got snow boots as well as warm gloves and jackets, toasty long underwear, and more. Some of the surplus warm weather gear from the summer and autumn was shipped onward to Water Protector camps in Florida. Other gear made its way to poor urban communities in places where it doesn’t get as cold as the Dakotas.
It’s true that the camps could not survive the first year without donations, and they probably would have continued to need some help in a second and third year, but those donations where investments in the better world that we would all like to build. They were transvestments of capital and other resources from the capitalist system into a gift-based system, and those transvestments did bring resources to more than just the camp community. Having now entered the gift economy, many of those donations will continue to circulate free of the capitalist system for a long time to come.
And that is one of the beautiful things about allying ourselves in the work of environmental protection and economic shift with indigenous communities like the Lakota. The Lakota have a rich tradition with the gift economy. The wopila is a cherished celebration of thanks in which a person, family, band, or tribe gives away as much as they possibly can. And so, the goodness keeps revolving, moving from hand to hand, staying put only when and where it is most needed.
A Place That Changed Lives
“I was there for such a brief little spurt of time and I still feel the loss in such a profound way. It changed me even though I was only there for mere days….” – Elizabeth Schindler
Standing Rock was a life changing event for a great many people. For some it was the experience of living in the flow of a gift economy where work is something you do out of love and where receiving is as important as giving. For others it was how Lakota culture seeped into their consciousness after months of living in that land and with that amazing community. For some it only took a few days for the vision of tipis standing on the plain to etch something indelible on their soul. For others it was the long fight on the frontlines, face to face with militarized law enforcement and mercenaries who brought tactics back from wars in the Middle East to oppress people right here in North America that changed their view of the world and their place in it. Standing Rock also changed me in dramatic ways that I’m still just beginning to understand.
The first and most obvious change in me was faith, or maybe I should say “belief”. I was first trained as a healer when I was just nine years old. The first cancer patient I ever worked with is still alive 37 years after she was told that she would be dead in less than three months. They had given up on chemo therapy and were just concentrating on palliative care. And yet, even after many more years and many more patients where I saw “miraculous” things flow from the use of those core healing techniques I learned as a child, I used to say that I didn’t really believe in any of it. I would do the work as I was taught, and results would happen, so it was obviously a real thing, but I would say that I didn’t believe in it any more than I believe that the sun is going to come up in the morning. I just knew that it worked, but I couldn’t say with certainty why or how, and I was never fully certain – definitely not as certain as that the sun would come up – that any good at all would come of my attempts to heal someone. And prayer? We all know that sometimes the answer to prayer is “No.” So, how can you believe in prayer if you don’t know what the outcome will be?
I blame that lack of belief on the dominant culture of the West. These spiritual things don’t fit into the scientific narrative, and so saying that they are real is the height of foolishness. Worse still, to say that I believe in such things can damage my reputation as a technologist. How can someone “believe” in science and also believe in such unscientific things as prayer and energy healing?
Očeti changed that for me. I saw the power of prayer over and over again, but I realize that wasn’t what changed the way I feel about belief or the sense of certainty I have now that wasn’t there before. The real change was wrought because for six months I lived in a community where that belief was normal and accepted and perfectly reasonable.
Standing Rock also gave me hope for the chance that we might be able to live in a different way again. For years I have longed to be able to live in a way which reflects my cosmology of infinite interconnectedness and universal sentience. For a prolonged period at Standing Rock there were over 10,000 people, and for a short while there were as many as 20,000 people, who were living as if we are all connected and every animal, every plant, even the soil and the water are our relatives. Occasionally I meet a person who feels the way that I do and I am inspired for a moment, energized to live my Truth more fully. But that energy can get snuffed out by the demands of the dominant culture. Standing Rock changed that for me.
Colonialist culture says that there is one right way to do things, and anything else is unworthy of respect. Standing Rock said that there are many Nations, many ways to be in the world, many ways to pray, and they all are worthy of respect.
Settler culture says that when I move into a new land I can simply replicate the culture and way of life from my old land without consideration of the realities of the new place or the culture of the people who lived there before me. Standing Rock said that the land has memory and long standing cultures exist the way that they do for good reason and we must listen and pay close attention if we wish to live well.
Extractivist culture says that there is no value in the Earth except what we can take from it and no value in humans except what they can produce. Standing Rock said that there is value in every human even if all they can do is sit in the path of a bulldozer, that there is value in the oil that stays in the ground, that there is value in clean water even if it only nurtures weeds and fish that we will never eat.
Standing Rock gave me and many other people another culture to cling to, a new extended family, and the strength of knowing that we all still have the fire of Očeti Šakówiŋ with us wherever we go.
Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.
I don’t have the time to waste in these arguments any longer. I can feel the clouds gathering on the horizon. The storm is coming, and when it does, there will be no time left for pointless arguments and accusations.
From Emma Kathryn
This week I’ve been gently reminded to be careful not to commit cultural appropriation. Twice. In talking about the loa, Papa Legba to be exact, I was told that I should be careful not to appropriate the African gods.
Now let me just make clear that this is not going to be yet another essay describing what is and what is not appropriation, but the whole incident got me thinking. I mean, the advice was offered in good faith, I’m sure it was meant well (and the person giving said advice wasn’t to know I’m an obeah woman, was she now?), and they seemed nice enough in all regards, but there was something that left me feeling a bit blah about the whole conversation after that remark.
I could have taken the time to reassure the person of my cultural heritage (though even to some that wouldn’t be good enough!), I could have expounded upon my experience and practise.
I did none of those things. Instead I left the conversation.
I don’t have the time to waste in these arguments any longer. I can feel the clouds gathering on the horizon. The storm is coming, and when it does, there will be no time left for pointless arguments and accusations. There never was any time for them really, it was a folly by us all, but I’m rambling.
There are plenty of folks who are nice, who don’t want to upset anyone and want to walk that middle ground, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just ignore the real wrongs that this world faces.
There are many real instances of racism and appropriation that the person could involve themselves with, if they really wanted to, but I guess it was much safer for them to confront me over my mention of the loa.
And that’s the real problem.
It’s like the Hollywood sex scandal, and the silent protest by many actors at the Golden Globes and their decision to wear black. It doesn’t achieve a single thing, except perhaps to get them more column inches, more TV coverage, keeps them relevant. These people, with their fortunes and with their platform could affect some real tangible change, that could help other survivors of abuse, others going through it, who don’t have the money or the platform.
But instead they chose to wear beautiful dresses that cost more than most women can even dream about.
And let’s not forget the precursor to this, the Me Too campaign. Regardless of whether or not you agree with it, what real change, for all women has it actually achieved? You barely hear about it now. Is it enough to highlight something most people, and certainly most women already know happens?
These campaigns rarely benefit all women, especially the ones undergoing abuse, the ones with no support, with no one and nothing. Yes, it must be such a comfort to know that these women, these celebrities are going to these extravagant awards shows looking fabulous whilst they are in their homes struggling to survive. A real help.
And this in turn highlights another problem, that often the people at the bottom, the poorest in society usually fall through the safety nets. Or perhaps the safety nets aren’t deep enough to begin with.
I can’t help but think that so much of what we argue over are very much middle class issues, and this is coming from a working class woman.
Only this week, a BBC presenter quit her role because of gender pay disparity. Now of course, obviously people doing the same job should be paid the same wage, it goes without saying, is so very obvious, isn’t it? But at the same time, to the poor, who can only ever hope for such sums of cash, it just seems so otherworldly. It doesn’t even compute. Added to that she still works for the BBC, but in a more junior position, well, what can I say?
When there are such distances between the classes, the haves and the have-nots, it can be difficult to see how we can move forward, I mean, I am always banging on about unity and the dangers of false divisions. Because of course racism, appropriation, sexism and wealth are all false divisions used to separate people based on superficial differences.
So we need to get back to community, and that doesn’t mean we have to like everyone within that community, but it does mean that we don’t let our differences divide us. That’s part of the reason I like small town life ( when my little sister comes home for visits, back up north, she often says she’s coming back to the sticks!).
My little town was recently described in a BBC report as one of the most deprived places and also the worst place to grow up poor in the UK, citing poor job security and prospects for the young, amongst other things. But to the poor, being poor is nothing new. It’s just life.
My estate is considered rough, but the people stick together. Whenever there’s something wrong with the car and no money for mechanics, you can guarantee that after a few minutes tinkering under the bonnet, there’ll be a couple of neighbours lending a hand. When kids go missing, the whole street will be out looking. Generally, the people are good, but life is hard for some, and sometimes people are forced to act in ways that are not always acceptable. Generally though, most of them are good people making the best of bad situations.
And it’s not just my street either, the whole town rally around in times of need. A few years back there was an explosion in someone’s house and they pretty much lost everything. The whole town pulled together, donating money, clothes, food shopping, utensils, furniture, all of the basics of living. People who didn’t have much to give gave anyway, for people they didn’t know.
We must pull together in times of need, with those who are closest to us, and also to others who are also in need, against those who would keep us down, keep us pitted against one another, blaming one another for real or perceived wrongs, even when the blame does not lay with any of them.
I also think we must remember the past, most particularly our ancestors, and we must learn whatever lessons there are to be learned.
One thing I will leave you with though, a little story of how a British Goddess became an African Loa. About pulling together in times of need to overcome the true threat, the one thing that united women, women who came from different worlds.
I have a particular fondness for the loa Maman Brigitte, often pictured with fair skin and red or brown straight hair..
What is not often known is that Maman Brigitte is the very same celtic Goddess Brigid, Brigantia, worshipped many centuries ago in my part of Britain. This ancient Goddess of the British isles was taken to the hearts of African slave women, introduced to them by white Irish and Scottish women, slaves themselves ( though it was called indentured service). These Irish and Scot women bought with them their beloved goddess, for solace and protection, and she offered aid and comfort to the African women too and was taken into the hearts of all women. The story of Maman Brigitte, her origins and how she was so loved by all women shows us that there is more that unites us than separates us.
Don’t get me wrong though.. Maman Brigitte is a fierce loa, protectress as well as a loa of death. This isn’t a story about forgiveness and acceptance, about being all loving , but rather a rally to those who also would overthrow the oppressors of us all.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magick, of course!
Recognising the tools that are used to divide us is the first step in fighting back.
From Emma Kathryn
I often say that the only real freedoms we have left to us are what we think and how we spend our money.
I am wrong.
Our spending habits are dictated largely by our needs in life. Make the cost of living, the cost of surviving higher, then you are already well on the way to snatching this freedom from us. How many of us, in so-called rich, first world nations, struggle to survive, struggle to eat, to heat our homes, to even keep the roofs over our heads? How much of our income is left over, so that we may enjoy ourselves in a world where everything costs?
For many, this freedom does not exist, and for those whom it does, it is eroded daily. If you can’t even afford to survive, if you can’t afford to buy the basics necessary to survive, then you are not free.
We are sold the dream of normality: our own house, a car or two, branded clothes and package holidays. How many people aspire to such a mundane existence? How many think this is living the dream? Any deviance from this norm, from this mindless, thoughtless norm is regarded with suspicion. If you don’t achieve these things, you’re a failure. It doesn’t matter that this lifestyle is financed for many by debt: car finance; mortgages; credit cards and loans.
It doesn’t matter, so long as it looks like we’ve ‘made it’, that it looks like we are successful.
We are the freaks, those of us who know our true nature and strive for our own dreams and wants. We who shun this false norm, who forge our own paths, we are the weirdos, we free thinkers are the odd ones. Embrace your weirdness, your otherness–for it is this that will keep you free.
Our thoughts, how we think and what we think, are the last bastions of true freedom, and thus, the tools of state, of capitalism seek to destroy this. Thoughts are powerful things. The greatest (and the worst) achievements of the human race all ascend from mans ability to think.
If you take a moment to consider man, as an animal, he is a poor specimen. By rights, we shouldn’t have survived as a species. We aren’t particularly fast, we aren’t physically strong, we have no fur to survive the cold, we’re physically slow. The list of man’s inadequacies to survive in the natural world is long. And yet we dominate the planet, are at the top of the food chain. If not for our brains, for the power of our thoughts, who knows what would have become of mankind! Thoughts are powerful things. If in doubt ask any occultist!
So to dismantle the tools of state, of capitalism then, we must familiarise ourselves with the tools they would use to control us.
The attack on what and how we think is insidious, sneaking in to all aspects of life. Schools are failing our children, so instead of educating them, kids are taught to pass tests, the pass rate and Ofstead (a government body that inspects state schools) rating of the school more important than teaching the children quality knowledge, how to think for themselves. Instead individuality is crushed.
And it’s not the teachers fault! Here in the UK, teachers and successive governments (all governments too, left and right) are always at loggerheads. Teachers increasingly have to teach children things that were traditionally taught in the home, through example and experience and just general parenting. There is often talk of extending the school day in line with working patterns, and in this world where both parents must work full-time but quality childcare is unaffordable, it sounds like a good idea. The erosion of the family (and that’s family in any form!) is not a conspiracy theory!
Then there’s advertising and television programming (they’re called programs for a reason!), all hinting at what we should feel in regards to this stimuli or that. Opinion pieces and chat shows, morning TV, the news, are all designed to elicit certain responses. It’s like a drip effect.
What actually spurred me to write this piece, though, was a government report into race inequality that was recently published. This particular report, the ‘race disparity audit’, looked at the link between races and wealth and privilege factors, including the ownership of homes. The report found that white British people are more likely to own their own homes and be in employment than those from ethnic minorities.
I stumbled upon this story whilst scrolling through Facebook, and though I know I shouldn’t have, I couldn’t help but read the comments section. I had hoped to see people call the report out for what it so blatantly was – a piece designed to invoke difference and friction. What the report ‘found’ was nothing new, offered no new insight, no insight at all really, and only served to make people defensive. Defensive people fight back.
Whilst people were busy blaming one group or another for being ‘lazy’ or ‘privileged’ (divide and conquer indeed!), they were missing the obvious flaws of the report. For one thing, in Britain, and as far as I have experienced, issues of race and culture can be quite complicated. For example, the report looked at White British, Black, and Asian, all seemingly very concrete, very different subsections of society. But what the report fails to do, or doesn’t make clear, or outright ignores, is that such differences, in real life, are often very blurred. For example, I’m mixed race (White British and Afro Caribbean if you’re wondering), and British. Half of my family are white, the other half black, where would someone like myself fit into it all? And that’s the problem, issues like this aren’t clear-cut, are multifaceted, with many contributing factors. Reports like this are designed to cause friction between friends, neighbours, and sometimes even family.
Reports like this are designed to distract us. Whilst we are busy arguing amongst ourselves about man-made castes and classes, we aren’t scrutinising the government. I think people sometimes forget that governments are meant to be our representatives, are meant to govern for us, not over us. I think governments have forgotten this as well. Or maybe they haven’t, hence the need to divide us all over shit that doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t matter.
And distract us they do! How many pointless online arguments are there between groups and people, who often times have quite similar beliefs and opinions? Instead of uniting, people get caught up on the semantics of a concept, arguing obscure points that mean absolutely fuck all in the real world (what I mean by the real world is the everyday lives of the people who just want to get on and live their lives ). We argue over the most trivial things, blame one another for the problems created by an unfair system.
This separation of people, this ploy to distract us can be seen in all aspects of modern life, personal and professional. At work recently, my manager had to do a progression plan with a head office type. We have a small staff in the shop, and we all get on, are a team. In an employee survey, our manager received full compliments from us, his staff, and instead of this being seen as a good thing, the manager was told it was too much! That he shouldn’t be so popular amongst the other plebs, because that is what we are, what we are seen as.
When the plebs, the people, (because we are all plebs in the eyes of government) unite, it spells danger, not only in work, but in life generally.
Any kind of unification of the people is a danger to governments. Look at Catalonia! Look how other governments around the world denounce the Catalonian people and government. It reminds me of the Brexit campaign, when other governments threatened us with no trade agreements, that we as a country would be ‘at the back of the queue’. Fear is a motivating factor, and as such, another tool that governments use to separate us.
It’s hard to stick to your guns when your threatened with this and that, harder still when you have children or others who depend on you. It is scary, change and the unknown, but we are powerful, we must stand united, all people, from all backgrounds. It’s the only chance we have for any real change.
And so, an important aspect of the good fight is to learn to recognise the tools the state would use to divide us. Learn to recognise media reports that aim to set one group against another. Do your own research, form your own opinions based on solid research because media reports often try and portray a certain perspective, elicit a particular response. Get out and about in your community, because a good, strong community cannot be turned in on itself, neighbour will not turn against neighbour when they know one another. Start at the grassroots level, because everything stems from there.
We are powerful things, and we must learn to recognise the tools and tactics capitalism, and thus The State, would use against us. Recognising the tools that are used to divide us is the first step in fighting back.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magick, of course!
When I first heard about this book, The Pagan Leadership Anthology: An Exploration of Leadership and Community in Paganism and Polytheism, edited by Shauna Aura Knight and Taylor Ellwood, I immediately dismissed it as “not relevant to my interests” because I do not lead or organize any groups, events, etc., have any other leadership type role, or have a strong desire to be in one of those roles. However, it came up again, and this time, I thought I would give it a chance. I was, admittedly, a bit curious about its contents. I’ve only been pagan myself for about 4 years, and have not been deeply involved in pagan/polytheist communities, so I don’t have much sense at all about what people in the broader community think “leadership” is, or ought to be. I also thought that even though I’m not in a leadership role, it might end up having some interesting and useful things to say about working with people in groups. Well before I finished reading it, I thought it was valuable enough that I wanted to try and talk other people into reading it, too.
The book contains 36 essays organized into 8 sections: Personal Work; General Advice; Leadership Models and Processes; Group Structure, Agreements, and Bylaws; Delegation and Volunteers; Building the Long Term Infrastructure of the Pagan Community; Conflict Resolution and Dealing with Crisis in Groups; and Recognizing and Dealing with Burnout.
My chief disappointment with the book is that a couple of the sections felt a little thin in comparison to others. The section on long term infrastructure had only two essays, and the last section on burnout only 3, while the others had 4 to 6. I would have appreciated more writing specifically on those topics, though some of the essays in other sections also contained advice that is applicable to those topics (burnout, for example, was mentioned in more than just the 3 “Burnout” section essays).
I’ve absorbed advice about leadership in several different circumstances, both formal and through life experience, and as a whole, I thought the book did well at describing effective, healthy ways of working with people. One of my favorites was the essay by Diana Rajchel, “Pagan Volunteers: How to get 100 Pagan Volunteers to Show Up on Time and Leave Happy.” She starts off by addressing the problem of assuming that people cannot be organized, which sets yourself, and the volunteers you need, up for a less than awesome time:
“Here’s the main problem with the herding cats metaphor for Pagans: it’s a blame shifter. By labeling a group ‘impossible,’ it divorces the person that makes such a claim from responsibility for the ensuing chaos. It also ignores the problem that usually underpins the disasters often blamed on Pagans being Pagan. … The truth is that Pagans, as a group, are no more or less difficult than any other group. Pagans in general respond well to clear communication, and most need to commit to causes that make them feel valued.”
She then describes how, by being well-organized, communicating well with volunteers, and taking care of them (food, thank you notes, and more), she had record success in having volunteers show up for a particular event and get stuff done – and had even more success recruiting and retaining volunteers for the same event in subsequent years. The remainder (and majority) of the essay describes a bunch of specific organizational and communication techniques and tools to improve communication and organization and help people feel good about engaging in community-building work.
Another memorable lesson came in Shauna Aura Knight’s essay, “Three Leadership Tools and a Mystery,” in the section in which she describes the importance of being aware of the filters through which we view the world, as these filters contribute to a lot of conflict. This section of her piece describes a tool called “Four Levels of Reality and Conflict Resolution.”
“Physical Reality is what actually happened in the physical world. Mythical Reality is the store our brain instantly writes where we assign motivations to people’s actions. That Mythic Reality instantly generates an Emotional Reality, which is how we feel about that story. Beneath it all is Essential Reality, which is how we perceive the world.”
She elaborates on these levels of reality, how they play out in causing conflict, and how working through the Four Levels in a fraught situation can prevent it from becoming a major problem. It’s a discernment tool, one I believe that many, many people would benefit from learning and employing.
My favorite overall section was the one on Group Structure, Agreements, and Bylaws, which covered ways in which a group can create formal agreements for itself, and the values of doing so. This is really valuable information to consider for anyone involved in the creation of a new group, whether you’re in a leadership role or not. I’ve been involved in one largely-volunteer organization that had bylaws, and while there were, shall we say, “challenges” writing them, they were not only legally necessary (the organization was seeking nonprofit status), they were also vital in delineating how an organization with both paid staff and a major volunteer component would balance power between the different groups of people keeping the organization going. Regardless of a group’s legal status, bylaws or other agreed-to rules provide groundwork to come back to if/when conflict arises.
If I could pick only one theme from the book as the central point, it is that treating people respectfully – including yourself – is vital to good leadership, building community, and avoiding burnout. I really appreciated the attitude of the authors’ towards the importance of working WITH people, and making sure the needs of others in the group are being attended to, rather than taking a top-down approach.
I highly recommend this to anyone interested in being involved in community, whether it is pagan or not, and whether you are or want to be in a leadership role. It has good advice for working with other people, understanding group dynamics, and many examples of challenges faced and how they might be solved while doing this kind of work.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I bought my copy from Syren Nagakyrie, who is a friend with an essay in the book and is also on the board of Gods&Radicals.)
The sit-in. The march. The occupation of public space. The power of many forms of protest lies not in the immediate effects of its tactics; the purpose of the act is not the disruption of business or traffic at a particular facility or city street – these are merely means to an end. The purpose to which these material disruptions are performed is rather to effect a disruption of social discourse, and in so doing make an agenda impossible to ignore. Grievances and their redress, oppression and redemption, the nature of the status quo and the possibility that it might be otherwise – all of these are made salient in the consciousness of protesters, agents of the institutions they address, and the entire psycho-social context in which they act. A détournement, a discontinuity in the dominant narrative, in the hegemonic discourse, is physically forced into being, and in that newly opened space, alternative story-lines can begin to be written.
I wish to examine here the class of phenomena broadly defined as ‘possession’ – the manifestation of the activity of a god, spirit, ancestor, or other non-human force in the body of a human person – in terms of its power to rhetorically disrupt dominant narratives. Possession, and the interventions into social life of occult entities and forces more generally, bear an inherent anti-hegemonic potential. In both form and content, they demand that the cycles of quotidian life be brought to a halt. Indeed it is rare that their manifestation does not portend a reordering, a rectification – if not a revolution – in human relations. I do not mean to suggest that the appearance of possession or sorcerous phenomena necessarily correlate with conditions of marginalization or oppression. That is demonstrably false; they do not express any one paradigm of power relations in every instance[i]. However, it seems apparent that when the powers of the invisible world are appropriated by the disenfranchised, the exploitative powers of the visible world should take heed.
Suspicion of possession as a weapon of the oppressed has a long and geographically broad history in the consciousness of repressive regimes. Judicial authorities and slaveholders in nineteenth-century Brazil feared both Candomblé devotion and sorcery more as loci of subversive organization than as spiritual threats[ii].Lesley A. Sharp observes that “Europeans had long recognized possession activities in Madagascar as politically-charged and thus potentially revolutionary events…”, ultimately outlawing their practice following a failed insurrection in 1947[iii]. Agents of the white administration of then-Rhodesia attempted, with little success, to counter the revolutionary influence of mhondoro spirit-mediums, going so far as to make recordings of co-opted mediums, allegedly in trance-states, repudiating rebel guerrillas, and broadcast them from airplanes[iv].
Yvonne Maggie describes how a belief system incorporating spiritualism and efficacious witchcraft “…was shared by the police, magistrates and lawyers, and those they accused or defended” in early twentieth-century Brazil[v]. Antagonistic actors who share a cultural context – even if they are otherwise asymmetric in power and status – can come to share certain assumptions about the means of engagement. Ultimately these mutual assumptions maintain the status quo by channeling aggression in ways that never challenge the premises of the social structure itself. Hence, an oppressor’s hegemony may be facilitated through sharing with the subaltern a set of cosmological beliefs and their ritual-forensic implications[vi]. Conversely, however, a shared frame of reference makes the dominant party susceptible to the subordinate’s strategies for negotiating agency. As I.M. Lewis suggests of the gods invoked by cults of the marginalized, “…it is obviously essential that both superior and subordinate should share a common faith in the existence and efficacy of these mutinous powers…. since otherwise clearly the voice of protest loses its authority.”[vii]
Spirit-possession, as an idiom of occult forces, is not only a medium for discourse about social relations; rather, it comprises the content of a discourse with real social implications. As Maggie suggests, Afro-Brazilian Candomblé “…does not engender resistance. It is in its very existence the antithesis to the rational bureaucratic order that the Brazilian state outwardly proclaims.”[viii] Scholars have long theorized spirit-possession in just such terms as a means of resistance to culturally-entrenched power disparities, or the deprivations, oppressions, and dislocations of modernity[ix]. Maya Deren points to the Petro loa cult as a driving force and organizing principle behind the Haitian revolution[x].Indeed, the Petro seem to express fundamentally anti-social values consistent with the exigencies of systemic discontinuity, rupture, and escape imposed by the condition of slavery. While this explanatory frame may rationalize the place of occult beliefs and practices within a context of political action, precisely what those beliefs and practices accomplish in that domain remains to be fully understood. Likewise, as Frederick M. Smith notes, the psychologizing turn of modern scholarship has tended to understand possession as a culturally-mediated, unconscious reaction to social and political oppression[xi]. Yet this point of view overlooks the possibility of its intentional appropriation as a means of indirect action.
When Somali women give voice to the demands of their possessing sar spirits, they speak with an authority denied to them in everyday life[xii]. Speaking through the authority of supernatural agents can be an oblique strategy of negotiating autonomy by appropriating a privileged discursive space, outside of which one’s demands are literally unspeakable – a metanegotiation. Thus, as Mary E. Hancock argues, bhakti devotion and possession among Brahman women “…may be an agency for change in domestic life, whether the bhakta is perceived as succeeding or failing in her efforts.”[xiii] In this context, as with the other forms of embodied protest, it is not the direct result of one’s actions which effects change in one’s status or circumstances, but rather the implications of the means by which one has acted.
As Lewis observes, the powers involved in the shaman’s vocation “…are often, either directly or indirectly, both the cause of misfortune and the means of its cure.”[xiv] The possessing spirits of the materially dispossessed frequently assume qualities of the class by whom the possessed is victimized – women are possessed by masculine spirits, Nigerien Hauka cultists by gods who appear in a ludicrous parody of European colonials[xv]. The whips brandished by former slaves in the possession rites of the Somali numbi cult “…enable them to present themselves not as slaves, but as masters of slaves”[xvi]. “Possession… is a state of tension, of lived irony, in which dilemmas are resolved (for better or worse) because the volition of the dominant, socially hegemonic voice is reduced to the point of disappearance and another authority is expressed through the body”[xvii]. If mimesis is one means of comprehending the power of an Other[xviii], so much more so is a mimesis realized in the very agentive body of the subject. Indeed, the French commandant who most brutally suppressed the early Hauka movement was among the first colonial personae to manifest within the ranks of its pantheon[xix]. Satirical performance, properly understood, is a controlled environment in which group identity distinctions can be rehearsed on the subaltern’s own terms. In their warped dramatization of the European, Paul Stoller suggests that the dancers of the Hauka possession rite “…have resisted culturally the way of the European and have expressed metaphorically their preference for the traditions of their ancestors.”[xx] Originally arising in a context of anticolonial agitation in the early twentieth century[xxi], the cultural distancing effected by the Hauka remains relevant amidst the homogenizing pressures of the globally-connected post-colony[xxii].
Deren argues that psychosomatic illness is in early twentieth-century Haiti sometimes interpreted as the result of witchcraft or the intervention of loa. It serves as a form of psychological defense against hopeless circumstances, maintaining the status quo for better or worse. Nonetheless, she notes that, “…Voudoun is most often opposed and suppressed by the government as a threat to the status quo.”[xxiii] This is because the occult interpretation of misfortune is not simply a superstitious expression of acquiescence to impotence. Deren elaborates: “Instead of the hopeless finality of absolute, abstract despair, the man is immediately involved in the idea of promising action…. Thus psychosomatic projection serves not as an evasion but as a means of making the moral problem accessible on a level of real action”[xxiv]. As Catherine Bell explains, this kind of ‘misrecognition’, intrinsic to ritual practice, shifts the entire context of means, ends, and meanings to one defined by the ritual actor.[xxv] In other words, faced with a destructive system from which one cannot escape, the psychotherapeutically strategic response may be to constructively misrecognize the nature of the problem one is facing. Thus one’s options for effective retaliation are transposed into a space where one can take practical action. A new context is created, in which the constraints and rules of the oppressing system do not apply, and where once-unspeakable ideas of liberation may be spoken. Subjects demonstrate to themselves the vulnerability of the socially-inscribed hierarchy[xxvi], a demonstration which may be sufficient impetus for material change. Whether the sar of Somalia or the tarantism of southern Italy, the manifestation of invisible forces in the bodies of oppressed classes implicitly protests and draws public attention to their intolerable circumstances[xxvii].
Spirit-possession, and the popular hermeneutics of the phenomenon, can assert indigenous historical power against histories of colonial power, critically responding to the concerted dislocation of indigenous identity through colonial desecration and depopulation of territory[xxviii]. The expressive modalities of spirits during possession rituals can recapitulate history by embodying historical identities, categories, or peoples. Thus, participants claim for themselves a sense of historical agency which the dominant culture may deny that they possess., It also provides them with a medium through which to experience that history[xxix].
This intervention into consensual space of a discourse utterly orthogonal to hegemonic norms is characteristic of possession as the ingress of the otherworldly. Smith observes that possession is effectively “…a structure of resistance, a rift in the psychological, social, and political fabric of society.”[xxx] His argument, however, that its counter-hegemonic potential is constrained by its very embodiment and segregation from consensual consciousness and communication[xxxi], must be contrasted with Stoller’s framing of the Hauka movement/ritual-complex as a ‘comedy of paradox’[xxxii], a form of social protest whose message can only be conveyed inexplicitly because there is no extant social space in which its complaint can be communicated in its own terms. Likewise, the ritual prohibitions of the mhondoro spirit-mediums of revolutionary Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) acted to clearly segregate “…the world of the ancestors… and the world of industrial production and exchange…” in which their followers were being exploited[xxxiii].
The position of invisible powers in relation to processes of claiming agency is not always a positive one. If, as Basile Ndjio observes, the popular discourse on occult forces which arises in response to inexplicable social disruption is frequently one of enslavement to those forces[xxxiv], perhaps this represents an inversion of the empowering self-alienation of spirit-possession. The invisible here becomes object of, rather than medium for, retaliatory action. Indeed, it is precisely the restoration of communal self-determination for which the Cameroonian anti-witchcraft gru ordeal is conducted[xxxv].
Whether occult practices are employed toward defusing the tension of systemic contradictions or exacerbating them to a crisis point may depend upon the foreseeable prospects of remaining within the system itself. Often, the sheer spatial extent and ideological monopoly of oppressing institutions are such that extricating oneself from their grasp is simply untenable. Hence, one may practice insubordination, “…but usually not to the point where it is desired to immediately rupture the relationship concerned or to subvert it completely”[xxxvi]. When female Malay factory workers are attacked on the shop floor by spirits of violation and pollution, a protest against the capitalist alienation of human beings is made manifest, albeit tacitly[xxxvii]. Until one is prepared to openly repudiate the structural bases of one’s mistreatment, and denounce the agents of that structure, the person who “…exerts pressure on his superior without radically questioning his superiority”[xxxviii] is certainly safer; the rebellion, such as it is, is allowed to continue. But this kind of complicity, subversive as it may be, can only accomplish so much. Frantz Fanon insists upon a ‘radical overthrow’ of the colonial system[xxxix], and possession, with its embodiment of an implicit political agenda, realizes that coup as a fait accompli, if a highly circumscribed one. As João José Reis describes the situation in nineteenth-century Brazil, “[u]nder paternalist cultural and ideological pressure, slaves often worked hard to create bonds of affection with masters through witchcraft or other means… but having failed this… they struggled to untie their lives from those of their masters…”[xl].
“The colonial world is a compartmentalized world”[xli], Fanon says. Not a truly hegemonic one, then, in the strictly Gramscian sense, it remains unreconciled, the colonized living in a different epistemic world from the colonizer. As David M. Gordon points out, “…not all agents of the invisible world are compatible.”[xlii] The break effected in decolonization is with a structure that was always still ‘other’. As Lewis suggests, the acute pressures which may prompt a shamanic response at the communal level “…may result from external encapsulating forces when a whole society is marginal or marginalized, and becomes itself peripheral in relation to a wider, over-arching political system.”[xliii] The Zimbabwean liberation war saw the spirits of ancestral rulers, speaking through their mediums, authorize armed resistance to the colonial regime[xliv]. The space for negotiating autonomy is a breach forced inside the discursive field of the colonial ‘other’, inside the capitalist world-system. That breach is made using the language of the colonized, whether that be the words of gods and spirits, or the rhetoric of arms and insurgency. If spirit-possession is one source of authoritative voice with which to negotiate discursive space for autonomy, so too is violence the counterpart act which unmistakably voices the same provisional demand.
As Homi K. Bhabha argues in his foreword to The Wretched of the Earth, “Fanonian violence… is part of a struggle for psycho-affective survival and a search for human agency in the midst of the agony of oppression”[xlv]. Possession and violence each effect the search for agency; they are processes of creating space for its eventual realization. Smith has argued that South-Asian forms of possession often correspond to a somaticization of intense emotional and psychological states[xlvi]. These grahas, ‘graspers’, lay hold of persons who indulge in the very transgressive behaviors they themselves incite[xlvii]. Perhaps sometimes, in seeking out a space to negotiate self-determination, the oppressed in fact become possessed by the visceral experience, as much as the ideological imperative, of violence.
His undisputed insights notwithstanding, Fanon betrays a myopic psychologism in asserting that things like myth, possession, and supernatural beliefs only distract from the reality of colonial conflict[xlviii]. He fails to recognize that such concepts can operate in support of, and parallel to, “…the practical tasks the people are asked to undertake in the liberation struggle”. David Lan, for instance, relates how many veterans of the Zimbabwean liberation war “…tell similar stories of how long-dead members of their families had assisted them and led them to sources of food or other supplies”, as well as furnishing practical advice[xlix]. Nor did their adherence to ritual proscriptions imposed by cooperative spirit-mediums preclude their participation “…in the programme of peasant mobilisation or of political education that their political party put into action”[l], revolutionary methods of which Fanon explicitly approved. Indeed, the mediums of royal ancestor-spirits helped to legitimize and socially assimilate the guerrillas and their revolutionary agenda in the eyes of the rural populations among whom they operated, in part through the guerrillas’ participation in local ritual cycles[li]. The ancestors’ uncontested, atemporal legitimacy, grounded in their provision of the land’s fertility and cutting across communal divisions by means of ascribed genealogies, provided a common point of reference for revolutionary consciousness[lii].
Why should gods, spirits, or ancestors be approached, adapted, and recognized as authoritative, legitimate arbiters of the very this-worldly political maneuvers among husbands and wives, laborers and managers, the colonized and the colonialist? Why should they particularly care? Perhaps because, as Lewis observes, “…the moral code over which these spirits so resolutely stand guard concerns the relations between man and man.”[liii] Thus they respond, obliquely or aggressively, to disparities and abuses in human society, to “…changes which are felt to impose limitations on traditional freedoms and rights, or to benefit one social group or category (e.g. men) at the expense of another (e.g. women)”[liv]. Whether held to be motivated by personalized moral concern or impelled by abstract nature, these entities will come to intervene in matters of what can be called social justice.
An archaeologist by profession, Brian Johnson also pursues his interests in the cultural construction and practical mechanics of human interaction with the supernatural through independent scholarship. With the cultural-relativist lessons of his anthropological background always in mind, his practice is self-consciously omnivorous and syncretic.
Bell, C. 2009 (1992). Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press.
Bhabha, H.K. 2004. Foreword: Framing Fanon. In Philcox, R. (trans), Fanon, F., The Wretched of the Earth. Grove. pp. vii-xli.
Colleyn, J.-P. 1999. Horse, Hunter & Messenger. In Behrend, H. and Luid, U. (eds), Spirit Possession, Modernity and Power in Africa. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 68-78.
Deren, M. 2004 (1953). Divine Horsemen. Documentext.
Fanon, F. 2004 (1961). Philcox, R. (trans), The Wretched of the Earth. Grove.
Gordon, D.M. 2012. Invisible Agents. Ohio University Press.
Hancock, M. 1995. Dilemmas of Domesticity. In Courtright, P. and Harlan, L. (eds) From the Margins of Hindu Marriage. Oxford University Press. pp. 60-91.
Lan, D. 1985. Guns and Rain. University of California Press.
Lewis, H.S. 2005. The Globalization of Spirit Possession. In Al-Haj, M. et al. (eds) Social Critique and Commitment. University Press of America. pp. 169-191.
Maggie, Y. 2011. The Logic of Sorcery and Democracy in Contemporary Brazil. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 145-163.
Makris, G.P. 1996. Slavery, Possession and History: The Construction of the Self Among Slave Descendants in the Sudan. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 66: 159-182.
Ndjio, B. 2011. Naming the Evil: Democracy and Sorcery in Contemporary Cameroon and South Africa. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 165-186.
Ong, A. 1987. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline. S.U.N.Y. Press.
Reis, J.J. 2011. Candomble and Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Bahia. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 55-74.
Sharp, L.A. 1999. The Power of Possession in Northwest Madagascar. In Behrend, H. and Luid, U. (eds), Spirit Possession, Modernity and Power in Africa. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 3-19.
Smith, F.M. 2006. The Self Possessed. Columbia University Press.
Stoller, P. 1995. Embodying Colonial Memories. Routledge.
It is not very well-known outside of anthropology just how much culture (and our enculturation from the day we are born) shapes the way we think and how we see the world. Our consciousness takes shape within a social container. A larger piece than you might think of your own personal identity and personality has come about as a response to your social environment, whether embracing or rejecting aspects of the society into which you were born and/or exist within now. Culture is a powerful force that shapes societies and, yes, individuals.
In a hyper-individualistic culture, like that in the U.S., hearing that culture shapes our personalities and identities might chafe. We’re all self-made men and women, right? Nobody/nothing makes us think things or be any way other than what we choose – we’re independent thinkers and islands of selfhood!
Except that we aren’t, not totally. Humans don’t actually work like that. Humans are social creatures, and culture permeates our minds. But our culture has decided that every man and woman is an island (which might come together in a nuclear family archipelago, at least), and to shape our society as if that were true… which causes problems. It detaches us from our community, and erases the community’s role in personal development, in collective responsibilities, and all manner of things. The culture re-styled us as islands, but we’re not, and delusions like that wreak some havoc with the functioning of systems like societies, and even personalities, making them maladjusted and unsustainable. They often carry that corruption forward and affect other people, society, and even other societies detrimentally.
In a question of nature vs. nurture, people in this culture don’t usually realize that culture is both. It can nurture, but it is also nature – the environment we develop within, as well as a natural phenomenon that evolved with/in us – inextricable. Humans aren’t humans without culture. We aren’t even capable of language unless other humans teach it to us at the critical early stages of psychological development. If we miss that enculturation due to isolation, at that point in our childhood, we’re not going to learn language at all. There will only be rudimentary communication for the rest of our life, like the other primates — even if we’re later surrounded by language and being actively taught — if we miss that window of opportunity, we will not have human language (grammar, recursion, storytelling, etc.) We need to develop within culture to be human, and it’s best if our culture is a healthy one. Unhealthy cultures/societies tend to produce unhealthy individuals.
Shaping reality is wielding magic, and that’s why I find culture (and religion) so fascinating. I’ve always found magic fascinating. Magic is in the subtle programming underlying what we see in front of us. Bardic arts involve being able to see and illuminate for others the influence of fine distinctions, in words and meaning and emotion. Wisdom flourishes in being fluent in this subtle language, able to understand it, speak it, and direct it.
You can trace so many of our problems back to culture and mistaken conceptions / bad memes that became installed in culture and that have cast a spell of illusion on our society, making us stumble along blindly and knock over things that we need… like belonging, equality, and other aspects of healthy relationships with each other and with nature; the intrinsic value as well as the instrumental value of each person/being so that we won’t treat each other as mere means but always also as ends; contemplative time to develop our minds and sense of subtlety/spirit; and so on. The lack of these in our present culture can be laid at the feet of capitalism, the Protestant work ethic, Abrahamic religion’s concept of human dominion over the earth, and such memes that have developed into chaos over time, barely contained by increasingly complex technology or systems of law, as they grew to their logical ends within the arc of history. Nature is proving them out as unwieldy mistakes, but they are still dearly held beliefs, because it’s somewhat rare for memes and their effects to be visible to people.
Since culture teaches us individuals how to see the world, a blind culture makes for blind people, unless another culture, sub-culture, or some circumstance teaches one of us to see differently than our culture sees. Most people reading this have probably had a taste of such circumstance and the experience of seeing differently than their culture taught them to see; if not from being in a minority religion in a predominantly Christian culture (especially one with roots in the healthier cultures that came before much of what ails this one) with a whole other cosmology, then perhaps from some other route to caring more about nature and community than is normal for this society, and thank gods/spirit for that, I say! You have been called, initiated, and given a responsibility. The world needs you. You can bless it.
I believe that this is like a second sight, and that learning to see behind the cultural curtains can ignite a desire to heal the flaws in the system because you can see right where they reside, how it came to be that way, how it can be undone or done better, and understand that it is within your power because we make culture, as much as it makes us. We wear it, but we weave it. We can bring our culture back into alignment with nature’s truth, and off the distorted track caused by beliefs that disconnected us from it.
Culture, religion, politics, ethics, art, personality, spirit… it’s all interconnected and mutually-influencing. As much as we sometimes like to examine them separately, they do not exist separately. We can use this holistic vision to wield a healing magic and to become culture-weavers who influence society to bring balance where it is needed. I know that’s why I’m here at Gods & Radicals, offering our community and the world my art and the insights I’ve gleaned from my experiences, education, and the meta-view afforded by walking between the worlds. I’m singing guiding songs to awaken and help my people see magic, know health, and weave in wisdom. You, my kin, should weave with me, and spread healing out into the world, setting things a-right for healthy community. Learn all you can about this world and it will come naturally, as all the pieces come together in a clearer view of the whole, and you’ll develop a trust in nature to tend toward health, wholeness, and the sustainability and stability of goodness. We just need to help smooth out the knots where ignorance and imbalance make ideas tangle and distort the whole cloth of this beautiful world. There will always be knots, but we have some really gnarly knots to work out right now, after centuries of some truly bad ideas that dominated and have been tearing the fabric, outright. The medicine of our hands, minds, and spirits are needed. Come, learn to see the patterns, so we can re-weave with stronger threads.
A student of anthropology and philosophy, lover of learning and homeschooling mother, Lia Hunter grew up in a conservative Christian cult and had to learn critical thinking the hard way, now values it highly, and looks behind all the cultural curtains. She came home to Paganism in 2000 and blogs at SageWoman blogs (The Tangled Hedge) and her personal spirituality blog (Awenydd of the Mountains).
The First Harvest has ripened. The long arms of the Sun have embraced us and brought forth the fruits of the Earth.
We come to the field and work together with our sickles and scythes, bringing in the tall and fulgent grains that we sowed as seeds, moons ago. We make an offering of the first sheaf, grateful for sustenance and the miracles of life’s growth and cycling seasons that bring back the renewable harvest. We tell tales of the gods who died, were followed to the underworld, brought back… death and rebirth myths resonating with the work we are doing and the world we cycle through.
We store up for Winter and plan our common future. Gathering to the hewn fields, traveling to the fields of our kin, we reunite and celebrate abundance, as well as mark the turn toward shorter days and lengthening darkness.
I bring the skilled arts of my hands, and you bring the skilled arts of yours, and we share and trade, admire and learn. With feasting and funeral games and feats of strength, the singing and dancing goes on for days…
The tales we tell are of seasons of fecundity and fallowness wrought of the struggles of Inanna and Tammuz, Osiris and Isis, Ceres, Demeter and Persephone (and Aphrodite and Adonis), John Barleycorn, Tailtiu and Skilled Lugh. (Skilled Brighid for the Imbolc holiday of our Southern hemisphere kin – your light is just waking while we are holding a wake for ours… we could be seen as each other’s Underworld – ha! I will have my Lughnasadh corn dollies bow to your Imbolc corn dollies.)
As we harvest the fruits of our labors together, let us gather in community and enjoy the leisure after and before the work, and celebrate our holiday, and honor the sacrifices made that brought us here. Tailtiu, Lugh’s foster mother, dies clearing the land for the fields of grain; people of color die under the wheels of racist oppression and bring our attention to that machinery inside our society; exploited peoples around the world toil and suffer and die creating, or being pushed out of the way of, wealth for capitalists; and ecosystems are collapsing, warning us of the end of the path we’ve let capitalism and dominionism take us on.
Let us sit and drink with the Irish Many-skilled Lugh of the Long Arm (in Welsh, Lleu Llaw Gyffes – The Bright One with the Strong Hand), in the still-abundant sunlight, and ponder how we can use our skills and talents to benefit the whole of our community of humans and Earth-life, how we can trade and gift them to enhance our lives without the harms our current economic system inherently requires. We’ll listen to Lugh’s lamentations, and offer him new songs of comfort and of harvests and of sacrifices not in vain. We will craft good law for our people, going forward, fixing the laws that have revealed their flaws in practice. We will do our best and most careful thinking, keeping compassion at hand, and always learning… becoming Bright Ones and good ancestors.
We’ll be dreaming of and remembering alternatives and a rebirth from the season of darkness we’ve been in and no doubt will return to in other forms, to other extents. We’ll prepare to weather those future seasons by putting up the lessons of this one, if we pay attention to the lessons, and set aside our preconceived notions and truly observe, and think ahead, and work with nature in wisdom, and carefully craft the tales and songs that carry the wisdom. We will succeed now, and again, if we do.
And we’ll always have seasons of light to succor us, too. Blessed Lughnasadh, Hlæfæst, and Imbolc!