Earlier today I got into an online debate about whether or not American white people of European descent ought to be learning, teaching, or engaging in indigenous spiritual and healing practices--particularly Native American. The strongly held position of some of my fellow debaters is that white people should stop "appropriating" indigenous peoples spirituality and instead delve deeply into their "own" spiritual traditions. At the risk of getting "bashed", I've written a long essay about my opinion on the matter.
Date: 8/19/2012 4:53:12 AM ( 9 mon ) ... viewed 621 times
When exploring spirituality, I disagree that one should stick to one’s “own” cultural tradition. As an American white "cultural Jew" there are some forms of spirituality within my "own" tradition that I practice, but many more of my practices stem from other indigenous earth-based spirituality.
For example, while the lighting of Yahrzeit candles in remembrance of my deceased relatives is a Jewish ritual (1), I also light candles on my ancestor altar; additionally, I keep an earth/nature altar in my house and a water altar outside (Dagara tradition of West African/Burkina Faso). I learned about keeping an ancestor altar from European-American Gretchen McKay, who went to Africa many years ago to study and learn from the indigenous elder Baba P.H. Mntshali of Siteki, Swaziland, and now as an American sangoma practices and teaches many forms of earth-based wisdom (2).
My practice of keeping altars was reinforced with teachings from a South African woman, Mbali Creazzo (3), who was raised in Europe and didn’t learn about African indigenous culture until she moved to the United States; one of her teachers was Malidoma Some, Dagara elder and wisdom keeper of Western African tradition (4), although Mbali’s “own” indigenous culture is from South Africa. I have also worked with Sobonfu Some (5), Dagara elder and wisdom keeper, in learning more about the traditions of the Dagara.
Additionally, I keep an altar dedicated to the Water Spirits (Shona/Zimbabwe) in my bedroom. I learned about the Water Spirit tradition from Mandaza Kandemwa, Shona elder and healer (6) during a 10-day trip to Zimbabwe where I underwent a traditional Water Spirit Initiation. One of my fellow travelers on this trip was an African American woman who conducted a despacho ceremony in Mandaza’s home for his family; the despacho ceremony is of Incan-Peruvian tradition (7). While we were in Zimbabwe we traveled to a remote rural area to meet the Lemba, black Jews who claim they are the descendants of ancient Hebrews who settled in the region now known as Zimbabwe/South Africa (DNA testing proves this to be true) (8); their rituals and practices are an interesting amalgamation of ancient Hebrew and indigenous Bantu beliefs.
Traditional Chumash elder Cecilia Garcia taught me about the medicinal value of California native plants (9); I have written about my experiences with her several times on this blog (10). A number of years ago I traveled to Peru to work with an indigenous Shipibo shaman, Guillermo Arevalo, at his family compound Espiritu de Anaconda (Spirit of the Anaconda) in the Amazon rainforest for 10 days (11) and experienced plant spirit medicine through traditional ayahuasca healing ceremonies; I credit this experience with a re-awakening of my artistic creativity that had lain pretty much dormant since childhood. Many of my postings on this blog are what I call “shamanic art”, which started to develop after this trip (12).
I work regularly with a spiritual mentor and healer who has Native American ancestry; however, she does not publically claim to be “Native American” as there is much controversy these days about who is and isn’t considered to be “Native” (her tribe of ancestry is considered to be “extinct” by the U.S. government); nor does she focus only on traditional Native American healing practices and techniques. Instead, she draws from an eclectic wealth of knowledge from many different practices while maintaining a deep spiritual connection with Mother Earth.
My indigenous teachers have had no problems teaching white people about their indigenous traditions or spirituality. What they have encouraged me to do is to incorporate earth-based spiritual practices into my life. I do not in any way feel I am “appropriating” cultural practices and spiritual beliefs that do not “belong” to me because they are not from my “own” tradition. I believe that spirituality has no one culture, race, nationality, or any other limitation that humans seem to want to impose on it. I do what I do because it is my desire in this lifetime to learn about and practice earth-based spirituality from many cultural perspectives, and then to incorporate what I have learned into my own spiritual practice in my own individual way. I am grateful to the indigenous healers and teachers I have met who freely share their wisdom with me and do not set arbitrary boundaries and limitations on what they teach based on my country of origin, religion of origin, sex, race, or age.
As to the issue of non-indigenous people teaching about or practicing indigenous healing techniques, and charging for their services: I feel that it is highly unethical for someone to claim they were born into the culture of a particular indigenous people, whether it’s Native American or other, when they were not—in other words, those who “pose” as being indigenous. However, having said that, I think if a person is very publically honest about what they know and the limitations of their knowledge, who their teachers were, and the fact that they were not born to the indigenous tradition they are teaching or practicing, then it is OK for them to charge for their time. As I’ve already written here, Gretchen McKay is an example of an American white woman who is both a healer and a teacher in the sangoma tradition; she does not practice from her “own” European-American culture yet is very open about that fact and writes extensively about her training and practices on her website (13). I have worked with several other non-indigenous healers and teachers whose practices and beliefs stem from those of indigenous cultures; none of them make claims to be born of the tradition they are practicing, yet they are highly skilled and trained. As an example, one of the shamanic healers I’ve worked with is a compatriot of Eliot Cowan; both men are Jewish by their “own” culture, yet both are fully initiated Huichol shamans and elders who practice plant spirit medicine (14).
As to the issue of white people “appropriating” indigenous cultural beliefs or practices: If one just adopts what I call the “exterior” trappings of a culture—the clothing, jewelry, symbols, art, language, or ritual, for example, then there exists the possibility of the “colonizer” (i.e. white person) demeaning or trivializing the “colonized” (indigenous) person’s culture. But if one has deep respect for the traditions, beliefs, and practices of another culture and with deep sincerity and humility takes the time and makes the effort to practice and learn about and internalize the inner spiritual meaning that imbues those objects, symbols, art, language, and rituals---all the while acknowledging that as a person not native to that particular culture, one can not completely or fully understand all aspects of that culture---then I believe that is a legitimate spiritual quest on the part of the non-indigenous person.
As I wrote the paragraph above, the question came to me: “What is an ‘indigenous’ person?” Looking at the origins of the Lemba people of Zimbabwe/South Africa, for example, one sees two distinct and separate peoples of two different races, cultures, beliefs and practices who forged a “new” yet centuries old culture. If one is a student of ancient history, it is readily apparent that many other people of the world whom we call “indigenous” today originated from some other geographical location and migrated to wherever they are now. There are many beliefs about the origins of the human race: scientific theories, cultural, religious and spiritual beliefs. No matter what your belief about the origins of the human species, there is no doubt that innumerable cross-cultural exchanges and mergings of beliefs and spiritual practices have taken place since the dawning of Homo sapiens. So, what and who, indeed, are “indigenous” people? Martin Prechtel, shaman, artist, healer, and writer, tells us that if we search long enough, we will find that each and every one of us has an “indigenous heart.” (15)
I will leave this essay with my own adaptation of the Buddhist metaphor about the ocean and the waves (16): Each cultural or spiritual tradition is a “wave” that is not entirely separate in its existence and yet not entirely “one” with each other; there exists a common, underlying “ocean” substance--what I call “Indigenous Wisdom”. May we each embark upon a spiritual journey to find this Indigenous Wisdom for ourselves, in our own unique and individual way, while learning from each other as we go.
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