16 March 2013

Pagan cultural appropriation

Pagan teacher Ivo Dominguez, Jr. tells a story about doing a brief, impromptu public ritual.

I then proceeded with calling of the four directions, the above, the below, and the center. This was done through simple chants that were taught on the fly, and brief visualizations. I improvised a simple drum beat on an empty waste bin. I chose language that would emphasize connection and unity between the physical world and the spiritual world.

Afterward, he faces a striking criticism.

I listened as he harangued me for a few minutes, as the room continued to empty, about how wrong I was for appropriating his cultural heritage. He said that as a Native American he was particularly troubled that this should occur at a conference that he expected to be more forward thinking. When he was finished, I told him that nothing in my opening had been borrowed from his culture. I asked what in my opening made him think that I had done so? He said that I had called upon the seven sacred directions, on the concept of “all my relations”, and used a drum beat.

Dominguez tries to engage in a discussion with his critic about what symbols and practices are culturally specific versus more universal. It doesn't go well.

I think about cultural appropriation seriously, especially when it insults Native Americans, which makes me completely respect why Dominguez' critic would not be receptive ... while at the same time thinking that Dominguez was not behaving irresponsibly at all. Drums and the ancestors are not Native American secrets, and I myself do a seven directions practice invented by European Freemasons who I'm confident couldn't have known the first thing about what Native American rituals contained.

We do not have good tools and vocabulary for talking about these questions.

Update: Dominguez' story reminds me of another story that Pagan teacher Andras Corban-Arthen tells about an encounter with Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya. After hearing Corban-Arthen's description of European Pagan thought and practice, Banyacya said, “I didn't know there had once been Indians in Europe!”

Think about that.

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