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Pillage of Spirit and Culture

Pillage of Spirit and Culture

As you know if you read my last blog post, I was on the Bespoken Bones podcast #20. One of the things we talked about in that interview was how discussions of cultural appropriation can be very binary, and that that binary is not always a helpful way to go about having conversation.

Let me say first that I think it is always wise, especially for white US spiritual practitioners, to be on our guard against cultural appropriation. We run the risk of being cultural pillagers. What do I mean by that?

Cultural Appropriation and Life as a Pillager

Historically, white spiritual practitioners of various traditions have been cultural/spiritual thieves. We have simply “ripped off” the customs, traditions, and teachings of racial and cultural groups different from our own. Especially when those traditions are alive now, and not simply “dead mythology” (let’s not tangle over that terminology for the moment, shall we?), white practitioners run the risk of committing outright theft.

The smell of white sage burning immediately puts me into a space of spiritual readiness. Why?

Because for many, many years, I used it as one way to cleanse myself, others, and spaces, often in preparation for ceremony. But where did that tradition come from?

As far as I knew, it was just part of Wiccan and Wicca-flavored Pagan practice. I “grew up” in Paganism with the smell of white sage as much a helpful trigger as any church incense from my childhood. (I love the smell of church incense, and find it instantly makes me aware of the Sacred.)

I just wrote the sentence, “White sage has nothing to do with Euro-descended Paganism,” and then I realized that that’s not true. It’s simply not true that burning sage isn’t part of Paganism. It’s a core practice for many white Pagans, and is the sensory signal that ritual is to come.

The thing is, white sage is part of living, breathing, indigenous traditions in North America. How did it come to be so thoroughly part of white Paganism? has this helpful commentary on the problematic nature of burning white sage:

pile of dried white sage leaves“White sage Salvia apiana is sacred in many Shamanic and Native American belief systems and is used in smudging, and other, ceremonies to purify the body. Smudge sticks made of white sage are often found in New Age shops and kits are heavily marketed to modern magical practitioners. Unfortunately, white sage is difficult to grow in captivity and is largely wild-crafted, which threatens native populations and since it’s really not part of European-based traditions, we really don’t need it. Our European spiritual ancestors burned a lot of different herbs in their practices, but white sage was not among them. If you feel the need to use sage, garden sage is a suitable substitute1. Indeed, most Salvia species can be burned by the non-indigenous witch and we can leave white sage to those to whom it is truly sacred. If you must have it, try to grow it yourself.”

Now, should white Americans use only those herbs and plants that grow in Europe? I am inclined to think being rooted in the place where one lives is an important part of spiritual practice. But has it made sense for me, as a Celtic/Germanic-descended woman living on the East Coast of the United States and cultivating no garden, to burn white sage?

I don’t think so.

The problem is further compounded by the specific nature of the historical relationship between white Americans and those people indigenous to the land. White Americans over the past two hundred and fifty-odd years, have both intentionally and unintentionally obliterated individual, family, and communal lives; languages; cultural and spiritual practices; entire nations on this continent.

Using spiritual techniques from these cultures without invitation, teaching, or personal relationship is cultural pillage. I have done it myself for years at a time. The familiar sight of a white Pagan, holding an abalone shell, burning white sage, and fanning it with a pheasant wing…that could easily be me from some years ago.

Coming Up

In my next post, I’ll talk about cultural tourism, something a bit different from cultural pillage or thievery. Cultural tourism is more fraught in some ways than cultural pillage, and much more so than being a cultural guest. And all these are further complicated by the idea that “the Spirit blows where it will,” as the Christian New Testament says.

The third installment will discuss cultural welcome, being a guest, and developing relationships across difference.

For now, I leave you with some questions.

How do I decide what spiritual technologies or devotions are appropriate for me, depending on my own cultural, racial, ethnic, background and the history of the people from whom I am descended? How do I feel about the techniques I use? Am I willing to give any of them up in the service of furthering respect?

Most important, as always, how can I make well-discerned and mindful decisions now and in the future?

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