Note: I'll be back to the Hero's Journey next time, but this topic came up on the Facebook "Magickal Community and Education" group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/MagickalCommunityEducation/). Rather than simply posting my thoughts there, I thought they'd make a decent blog post. I look forward to everyone's thoughts.

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It’s one thing to appreciate a culture and seek to better understand and perhaps even embrace it.

It’s one thing to enter into a course of study with elders or teachers and, upon learning about and being welcomed into that community, to work with its materials and teachings.

That said, it’s another thing entirely to cherry-pick or singularly appropriate material from that same culture and use it as one’s own.

AppropriationTo “appropriate” means “to take (something) for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission.” The most common meaning of cultural appropriation is that a person takes or uses something from a culture that isn’t her own and that she knows little about and presumably does so without permission. The action is thus one-sided. Because of this, members of the original culture  or community may feel (rightfully!) disrespected and angry, all while the person who “took” the practice proceeds in using it with neither culture nor context. In the worst case scenario, the cultural practice may begin to take on less meaning to its original practitioners and may diminish in importance, causing a cultural loss to those people who originally “owned” it.

Compare this situation to “cultural exchange,” where members of two cultures share information or practices under a system of mutual agreement and respect and perhaps vie a course of teaching or mentoring. The result of this kind of collaborative interchange is a growth of understanding and an increase in respect. Both cultures are enriched by the process. And, importantly, each tends to regard the other as an equal.

Or compare the above to “cultural assimilation,” where persons entering a new culture take on the language and practices of that culture in order to more easily live within that community. Failure to assimilate in this way may mean that the new neighbors’ lives are more difficult than they would otherwise have been after assimilating. The drawback is that their original cultural practices are suppressed by the assimilation and, over time, may be diminished or lost to what becomes an increasingly homogenous culture. Some argue that the choice is theirs—they choose to assimilate in order to better enfold themselves into a new setting. Others argue that this is a kind of forced assimilation that inevitably causes the newcomers to lose or weaken their original culture and connections.

Complicating the idea of appropriation is that too often, a historically dominant culture is the one assimilating the practices or traditions of a traditionally oppressed culture. For instance: when a Caucasian magic user suddenly declares herself to be a shaman and adopts the practices of a traditional Native American tribe, she not only appropriates those shamanic practices without permission, but completely disregards what it means to those Native Americans to be a shaman—including the lifetime of training required, the sacred nature of the role, and the importance of the shaman to the tribal nation. In doing this, she renders the role meaningless. Even worse, she reenacts centuries of historical oppression by, quite literally, taking something vital from the Native Americans and calling it her own property, demonstrating reckless disregard for their way of life and their spiritual practices. She may not know the people, may not know their culture, and may not care to understand either—but she feels comfortable and entitled in taking their spiritual property.

This is only one example, of course. But this type of appropriation is, I feel, a significant problem in the [Big Tent] Pagan and New Age community.

A quick search of the Web will find people offering “sweat lodge weekends” with no understanding of what that ceremony is or what it means to Native Americans or how sacred it is, let alone having any relationship with the tribe or tribes who practice it.

We have websites that promise to convey instant shamanism-by-diploma, the ability to quickly master some sort of protected spiritual practice, or the skill to instantly confer healing Reiki upon others.

KenteWe have people using Native American symbols or practices out of their true context, i.e., declaring “totem” animals, wearing ribboned or fringed clothing, or using peyote. Ditto for Kente cloth, Djembe drums, and traditional African braided hair styles, or for enacting a so-called Japanese Tea Ceremony without the slightest idea of the what goes into the actual traditions or what they mean to the people who protect them.

I’ve heard folks claim to have Native American lineage; they pull aspects of those traditions into their practices; yet those same people are unable to demonstrate actual proof of tribal affiliation.

And what about those who tattoo Chinese characters, Celtic symbols, Maori patterns, or other icons on their arms because they like the look—but with no clue about what the symbols mean to those cultures? Or the woman who wears a Bindi dot but isn’t Hindu? Or the person who attempts to perform the Hawaiian Hula without the least understanding of the dance’s origins or meanings?

To me, cultural appropriation is in the same neighborhood as plagiarism: namely, it involves a theft of something that belongs to someone else without giving them credit—which translates to doing it without their permission and to dishonoring and disrespecting the importance of their original contribution.

Does this mean that the world of cultural and spiritual experience is closed to those outside of those communities. In a few cases, yes. There are situations where one must truly belong to a community in order to reach its inner circle or the highest level of mysteries. But in most or at least many situations, knowledge and practice are made available to those who show genuine curiosity, who respect the origins of the material, who honor the community or culture it resides with, and who enter into a shared exploration of the experience.

When I teach my college English students to avoid plagiarism, I teach two main rules.

  • First, do your own work. This is how we reach and grow, after all.

  • Second, if you use someone else’s materials, sources, teachings, or other intellectual property, you must give them credit. You must identify them as the owners of the material.

The same rules apply to the problem of appropriation.

Do you want to create a sacred dance? Do so, but make it your own. Don’t swivel your hips and wear a grass skirt and call it a Hula. If you really want to learn the Hula, find a Hawaiian community to study with and learn from. Be patient as you learn. Show respect. Put in the time.

Do you want to enact a tea ceremony? Create one, but make it your own. Don’t try to copy what you’ve seen in a Japanese Tea House and call it a Japanese Tea Ceremony. If you really want to learn to perform a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony, find a Japanese community to study with and learn from. Be patient as you learn. Show respect. Put in the time.

Do you want to practice shaman-like techniques? Do so, but find your own way. Practice meditation, astral travel, and scrying, and see where they take you. Don’t try to copy what you’ve seen in a Native American ritual and call yourself a Shaman in the Native American tradition. If you really want to learn more about Native American Shamanism, find a tribal elder to study with and learn from. Be patient as you learn. Show respect. Put in the time. And even then, understand that you will not be able to call yourself a Shaman in that tradition unless you’re born or adopted into it.

And then, one day, if you are able to perform the Hula, or carry out a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony, or craft your own type of Urban Shamanism, remember to give credit to those who taught you. Honor their cultures. Speak aloud their names.