All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.

For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.

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Moving Beyond Cultural Appropriation: Part II. Cultures as Ecosystems

Jarume Uwujare  argues cultures should relate as equals when they take something from another, and contribute something to the other in return. I think we all can agree people can and should relate as equals, but I argue this is a confused way to think about cultures.

If I have what you want, we are not equal unless you also have what I want, and want it with about the same intensity. We can easily have a formal equality to make an exchange or not, but this equality is modified, sometimes drastically, by the intensity each of us has to make the exchange. The more desperate one party is compared to the other, the greater an important kind of inequality.

This way of looking at exchanges works for understanding the market, but not cultures. People within cultures enter into relations where one, or both, might seek to import the practices of another culture into their lives. There is also no reason for us to both want what the other has in order to make such a relationship legitimate. We are equal in choosing to cooperate, perhaps with me as your student and you as my teacher, but we are not equals in what we ‘exchange.’  Cultures do not make exchanges, people do, and much of what people do does not involve exchanges in any meaningful sense. This is especially true regarding cultures. 

If I see a fashion I like in Italy, Mexico, or Botswana, and I buy the clothes there, I have exchanged with the seller, not the culture. If they wear out when I get home, and I make replacements, I have exchanged with no one. Similarly, if upon getting home I copy what I remember seeing in these places, no exchange took place. 

According to cultural appropriations advocates, what I did with Italian fashions after my clothes wore out, or if I later copied what I saw, is not cultural appropriation because Italy is in some sense our equal. But for Mexico and Botswana I am guilty of “cultural appropriation,” because they have been colonized or otherwise exploited.  This view is incoherent and undermines the ideal of equal rights for all human beings.

Cultures are contexts that shape the relationships arising within them, rather than themselves participating in exchanges. They do not own anything, nor do they create anything, although they shape the context within which creation happens. Their members do the owning and creating.

So what is a culture?

They are a kind of ecosystem.

Culture as ecosystem

Our cultures provide the overwhelming bulk of the concepts we use and ways of seeing how they relate with one another. The richness of our cultural environment plays an important role in enabling and enriching our creativity. In this sense cultures support and shape our mental environment in ways like the physical and biological world supports and shapes our bodily environment. Absent either, we would not be.

A culture is defined by the networks of commonality shared among its members. But even if they share the same ones, individual members of a culture often weigh the elements of these commonalities differently. There are American Christians who put being American ahead of being Christian, and American Christians who put being Christian ahead of being American, and yet all would call themselves both Americans and Christians. The same is true for we Pagans.

Obviously, then, cultures can overlap with other cultures (not all Pagans are Americans and not all Americans are Pagans) and a culture can also exist within another culture. They are called “subcultures,” but what counts as a subculture depends on what counts as a culture, which varies depending on our interest.  From the perspective of Western or Anglophone culture, American culture is a subculture. If American culture is the inclusive one, the unique culture of Taos, New Mexico, where I live, exists as a subculture. Within American culture some subcultures are more based on belief than location.  There is a Mormon subculture, a NeoPagan subculture, and a subculture of Missouri Synod Lutherans, among many more.

Additionally, when we define people as within a culture, we are rarely surprised when, in some circumstances, they regard their membership in another culture as more important in a particular context. Are we Americans? New Englanders? Small farmers or business people? New arrivals or long-time residents for many generations? And so on.

We are often members of many culture whose importance can vary with context.  For example, I am part of a NeoPagan subculture that in some ways shares more in common with non-Western Pagan cultures than with American and European cultures, and in other ways shares more in common with mainstream American and European cultures than with any non-Western culture. The elements that create our membership in one of these cultures differs from the elements that establish our membership in the other, but if we are NeoPagan Europeans we are members of both.

The ecosystem model helps us to understand these intricate patterns of distinction and inclusion. Like cultures, a biological ecosystem is also a network, all of whose components are engaged in a complex process of mutual adaptation the creates a discernable pattern even though every element in it is changing and no one is planning the resulting design.

Like within a culture, a biological ecosystem’s identifying pattern emerges from the relationships among its parts, and while the parts are always changing, the pattern persists.  A oak savanna remains an oak savanna even if every plant living there at one time has passed away, to be replaced by others. We recognize ourselves as fellow Americans when we read Alexis deTocqueville’s Democracy in America, even though no one living then has been alive for well over a century and many details about American life have changed dramatically.

The only complete ecosystem we know of is earth. But within it are rain forest ecosystems, some of which are tropical and some temperate.  Within a rain forest we can examine the ecosystem of a river, such as the Amazon. The Amazon also extends above rain forests into the high alpine ecosystems of the Andes.  The Amazon rain forest is maintained in significant part by Saharan dust, which supplies important nutrients carried by wind across the Atlantic.   Ecosystems overlap and interweave. The ecosystem we focus on is defined by our interests and other than the earth itself, has no truly independent existence. I have demonstrated above how the same point holds for cultures.

The more cultures are exposed to other cultures the more they tend to influence one another. Border towns are perhaps the clearest example. Again, the ecosystem model applies. Here in Taos, the non-native Chinese elm and bindweed flourish. Neither are native but are now inextricable parts of the landscape. Tumbleweed, so famous in the West, came with Europeans and their cattle.  This goes both ways. American bullhead catfish now flourish in England and raccoons have become a pest in Germany.  

Some non-native cultures fit easily into established ecosystems. Others are very disruptive. In time the ecosystems patterns will include the newcomers with little change, force them to adapt or mutate to survive, extirpate them, or itself be transformed into a different ecosystem. The same holds for cultures.

Cultures are no more without stresses and tensions that are ecosystems.  Cultures are not seamless wholes, and the bigger the cultural unit we are describing the more this is the case. While they share common histories of subjugation and exploitation by European invaders, Native Americans cultures at least as distinct as Italians and Danes, sometimes more so.  They often have long histories of mutual animosities. For example, the Lakota and Blackfeet long warred with the Crow, a conflict so intense many outside observers thought the smaller Crow would be annihilated (19-20)

Within particular tribes there will be groups nearly as opposed. The more traditional Native American differ from those who have adapted Christianity to their needs.  And within these groups there will be further divisions. In his history of the Crow Indians, Rodney Frey writes

Because the Sun Dance religion recognizes, and even encourages, individual interpretation and realization within the spiritual, no dissonance generally arises when individuals hold contrasting understandings of the nature of the cosmos . . . .the need for a consensus on cosmology is subordinate to the function of the religion as a means to the spiritual. (67)

So far as I know, this characteristic applies to most traditional Native American spiritual traditions.  Not surprisingly, among traditionals, some believe it is fine to teach Whites and others disagree.

The more inclusive the culture we describe, the more abstract its commonalities become and the more diverse its members will be on more concrete issues.  Thus, it is often very unclear who ‘speaks for’ a culture. It is like asking who speaks for an ecosystem. No one does. To say those who are most powerful speak for a culture privileges power and would be rejected if said of this society.  The same holds in others as well. If someone claims to, there will be other cultural members who think that person lacks authority to do so.

To summarize my conclusions to this point, cultures cannot do as Uwujaren advocates. Cultures cannot relate as equals because cultures cannot relate in any sense. They provide contexts within which people relate. I am not arguing relations of exploitation and worse do not matter- they do. I am trying to enable us to think clearly about them. 

Cultures are very real, but they are real in a  way difficult for Westerners  to grasp. To get more deeply into what they are and why it matters for issues linked to ‘cultural appropriation,’ Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme helps and leads us to some very surprising discoveries.  


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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


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