What is Old is New Again: Cultural Appropriation

Issues of cultural appropriation in “New Age” and holistic circles isn’t breaking news – over the past decade, there has been much in the media and news discussing appropriation of ritual garb, sacred herbs, and practices, often by white spiritual leaders who make financial gain through their appropriative acts without providing anything in return to those whose culture has been stolen. Although the material side of cultural appropriation is easy to spot (for example, the many, many examples of white people wearing indigenous war bonnets during festivals), it has also become far more engrained in some Neo-Pagan and modern witchcraft circles.

Cultural appropriation doesn’t seem related to archaeology at first glance, but because appropriation is mostly performed through the creation and utilisation of material culture, it arguably is an archaeological issue. Regardless, given that this writing series is focused on Neo-Paganism, it feels necessary that this topic is discussed first and foremost.

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Just a small example of clashing cultures – a Norse rune alongside an oracle card depicting Egyptian deity Bast.

Arguably much cultural appropriation could be traced to comparative studies of religions – for example, comparative Indo-European mythology, which has resulted in the use of aspects of Hinduism in Celtic reconstructivism (Michale 2008). In some ways, this could be seen as coming from a good natured place – by utilising a form of soft polytheism, or the belief that all deities across religions are all aspects of the same god, it places all religions on a similar level of “respect” and does not place one particular religion over another.

However, this masks the negative effects of cultural appropriation. In Peter Grey’s book Apocalyptic Witchcraft (2013), he writes that “the New Age is one such form of cultural imperialism”, referring to the violence that cultural appropriation does towards the very rituals and rites that are being appropriated, torn from the cultural context that they originated from. An “outsider” from the culture will gain from their use (or, in many cases, misuse) of their practices – in a sense, they are stealing what is not rightfully theirs, which in some ways can recreate imperialistic power structures, especially if the culture in question has a history of being persecuted for practising the very beliefs that have now been appropriated.

The more malicious form of cultural appropriation is seen in the commodification of spiritual elements from other cultures by outsiders. The term “plastic shaman” is often used to refer to someone (often a white, non-native) who peddles “Native American spirituality” in the form of manufactured totems, jewellery, or oracle cards. This commodification often results in the homogenising of all Native American practices as one singular tradition, rather than the complex and diverse cultures that differ based on tribe and region (Lelandra 2008). The commodification of appropriation further “others” a culture, often advertising it as something “new” and “exotic” to Western consumers.

Ultimately, it seems that most instances of cultural appropriation can be traced to a similar cause that also creates pseudo-archaeological histories (which you can read more about here) in Neo-Paganism: a need for authenticity. Filan’s paper in Talking about the Elephant (2008) makes a great point about the word “authentic”, noting that “it is an outsider’s word”. Those outside of a culture want something “authentic”, something that is proven to be real and true, as they will not have the background knowledge to truly connect with the practice. Authenticity also implies a sense of insecurity as well – someone who has grown up in a particular culture knows that it is real, while an outsider will need reassurance.

This insecurity is similarly reflected in the pseudo-archaeological histories that have come out of many Neo-Pagan practices. In order to combat naysayers and disbelievers, many feel that they need to prove that their path is authentic and valid. So, in many ways, these drive for authenticity in both history and practice feeds into pseudoarchaeology and cultural appropriation – for example, Gardnerian Wicca extrapolates from different cultures (Celtic, Egyptian, etc.) to formulate its rituals as well as provide the aura of an ancient, authentic religion that harkens back to prehistory. This is also seen in “eclectic” paths, or spiritual practices that tend not to follow one particular pathway – by utilising “authentic” cultural practices and their histories as “proof”, their path is more “valid”.

The discussion surrounding cultural appropriation in Neo-Pagan and other New Age communities is still very tense, as practitioners try to balance between cultural diffusion and appropriation – on one hand, those who find themselves “called” to their current practice may feel as though they are not appropriating said culture at all, but rather can be seen as part of the culture due to their spiritual connection. Others argue that so long as the practitioner follows the laid out traditions of the culture and is knowledgable of their history (more specifically, by an elder of said culture), it should not been seen as appropriation (Barrette 2008). But there is a growing number of people within these communities who are becoming more informed about cultural appropriation and engaging with it, both on a spiritual level as well as a more aware, political and social level.

References

Barrette, E. (2008) Braiding Pagans: Cultural Etiquette in a Multicultural World. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Filan, K. (2008) Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby…Cultural Appropriation and the Myth of Authenticity. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Grey, P. (2013) Apocalyptic Witchcraft. Scarlet Imprint.

Lelandra (2008) Devouring Kitsch: Image Collecting and Cultural Appropriation. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Michale, J. (2008) Druids and Brahmins: of Cultural Appropriation and the Vedas. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

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