Hi Naomi and everyone.
Naomi, I appreciate your sending me this letter to look at. I’ve been on a very complicated and hectic trip and haven’t really had time or energy to deal with much except the next thing in front of my face. You raise some good issues in the letter.
But I would ask you, have you actually talked to the organizers of BC camp? Have you asked them about their process and intentions, and how they plan to approach the story of Ganesh? I know some of the organizers and many of the long-time campers. I know they include some amazing, life-long activists and many people who have been deeply involved in the struggles of First Nations people up in their area. I would suggest that other people also start from a place of open inquiry and talk to the organizers directly, before rushing to some judgment.For me, that’s a deep issue about how we want to be with each other as a community, how we give each other feedback, and how we educate one another on issues. I would like us to develop a common culture around disagreements and conflicts where we start with direct communication, start by asking questions from a place of open inquiry, sharing experiences, and trust.
I do think it is a good practice to acknowledge the traditional peoples of the land, as the Australians do, and to ask permission where that’s appropriate and possible from the living people. For me, the Waters of the World ceremony is the way I always begin, by addressing the spirits of the land and all the ancestors, making an offering, stating our intention and asking permission. When possible, I prefer to invite someone from the original peoples to come or at least to ask permission or blessing. However, that’s not always feasible. Who is entitled to grant that permission? On the land where I live, the Kashia Pomo are deeply, deeply divided. If we ask permission from one faction, we are essentially taking sides in a conflict that is not ours to intervene in. We’ve had people from both sides come to our Earth Activist Training, and we have been involved in some of their struggles to preserve and regain some of their land. Naomi, you mentioned the Western Shoshone. Perhaps you are unaware that both Reclaiming and other Pagans and Witches have had a decades-long collaboration with the late Corban Hardy and other Western Shoshone leaders at the Nevada Test Site, resisting nuclear testing. I remember asking Corban for permission for us to do a ritual on that land when we were planning to hike into the test site and risk arrest. We asked if there were special places we should look for or places specifically sacred to the Shoshone that we should avoid. I also remember the immense sadness I felt when he said, “We haven’t been allowed on the land for so long, we no longer know where those places are.”
I think the overall issue of cultural appropriation is a complex one. There are aspects of the critique that I think are very valid. But it comes out of Native American/First Nations people who have a very specific cultural relationship to their own stories and heritage. For many of those groups, a story or song or myth is something given very specifically to their people, not a universal story. That cultural orientation does not apply to every indigenous culture or every heritage of people who have been colonized or oppressed in some way. I’m certainly not sure that it applies to Hindu mythology. To assume that it does risks lumping every non-Western culture together and making invisible their differences. We might also argue that we have an obligation to explore myths and stories that come from the broad and diverse world we actually live in, as long as we approach them with humility, respect, and the honest acknowledgment that we are exploring them from a perspective as outsiders.
I’m also curious as to why this issue is coming up around Ganesh, when it has not come up around camps working with Inanna, or Isis, or Baba Yaga, or for that matter Cerridwen? There’s a whole long history of oppression of the Welsh by the English, after all!
My own belief–after many long years of considering and meditating on these questions–is that one of the great gifts of being alive at this time is that we have access to the mythology and literature and understandings that come from a wide diversity of heritages. We have to approach those treasures with respect, but we may need that synthesis to move us through this time of global crisis. When I went back to talk to the ancestors about this many years ago, the answer I got was, “We don’t actually give a damn who your ancestors were. What we care about is what you’re doing for the children.”
Reclaiming our ancestral and tribal identities can be liberating when our people have been oppressed, but I am all too painfully aware that it can have its dangerous aspect. My own ancestors are Eastern European Jews. I am in immense pain right now at the Israeli genocidal attack on Gaza that they justify in part out of that reclaimed tribal identity and heritage of suffering. It makes me very, very wary of losing the nuances.
So, I would ask everyone, can we begin this discussion in a spirit of open inquiry, with the assumption that the organizers and participants in BC Camp are thoughtful, intelligent people of integrity, with a long history of organizing and activism to make this world a safer place for children of all nations. Then we might send a letter–if it was our business to send a letter at all–asking
“How did you come to choose this story? What are your hopes and intentions for the camp? How do you plan to approach it? How are you planning to address issues around cultural appropriation? What have you already learned from this process?”
And I’m sure that will be a learning experience for us all!