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An Open Letter to the British Columbia Witchcamp on Issues of Cultural Appropriation & Respect

Nire izena Ana Oian Amets da, esan english Naomi Archer.

My name is Naomi Archer.  I’m a descendent of european peoples who settled in “America.”, I am descended from Aquitanian (proto-Basque) ancestors from the Dordogne River valley of southwest France, whose language I speak above.

I am also descended from the Irish Clann Dhochartaigh, Suebic tribal people from the Kocher River in southern Germany, Sicambrian tribal people from the Rhine River delta, several English families, and Brittanian Celts.

I manage the Awakening the Horse People blog (awakeningthehorse.wordpress.com) that provides decolonization resources for people of european heritage.  I also provide decolonization skill shares, often co-facilitated with my adopted Lakota brother Canupa Gluha Mani, for Indigenous and non-native participants.  I’ve been honored to be a part of Indigenous resistance and sovereignty movements for the last decade, and have been involved in the Tetuwan Lakota warrior society known as Cante Tenza (Strong Heart).  Further, I founded the Lakota Solidarity Project and the Four Directions Solidarity Network.

I have a long street activist history with many of the folks in the Living River – the activist movement originating within Reclaiming pagan tradition. I briefly explored Reclaiming paganism on the path to my place-based ancestral cultural roots that I honor today.

I mention these things so you may know who I am, as I reach out to you with these thoughts.

I am writing to you- members of Reclaiming and the British Columbia (BC) Witch Camp – about issues of cultural appropriation and disrespect in the upcoming Witchcamp gathering that is taking place at Evans Lake Forestry Camp on unceeded Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation’s land and across Evans Lake from an existing Skwxwú7mesh community.

Cultural Appropriation, Spiritual Colonialism and Cultural Disrespect

There are many great definitions of cultural appropriation, but for now I’ll invite you to consider the one I use in the poster attached to this letter:

Cultural appropriation is the taking of cultural expressions, symbols, ceremonies, intellectual property, and ways of knowing from another culture for our own self-expression or use, while stripping them of their deeply rooted cultural identity and significance.

Cultural appropriation has been described as, “a way of using another culture that delights our imagination while stripping that group of their identity” and it almost always applies when the culture being taken from is a minority culture or has a subordinate social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture.

From a decade long work with Indigenous people in resistance, I have grown deeply aware of the pain, frustration, and anger that cultural appropriation creates:

  • Deeply hurtful and retraumatizing to those whose culture is taken.
  • Disrespectful of Indigenous peoples and others whose culture is taken.
  • Demonstrates unexamined privilege and a lack of self-knowing.
  • Enforces harmful stereotypes.
  • Trivializes and erases colonialism and genocide.
  • Makes the subject culture invisible within the appropriating culture.
  • Converts deep beliefs into shallow symbols.
  • Potentially harmful to those appropriating sacred knowledge without cultural guidance.

In addition to cultural appropriation, I also raise concerns around Spiritual Colonialism. Here I mean this as the exploitation or replacement of Indigenous spiritual practices by colonizers. I also mention Cultural Disrespect, which I generally use to mean the lack of consideration for Indigenous peoples and other people of color as a consequence of white privilege.

Cultural Appropriation at BC Witchcamp

In addition to the visible issues of cultural appropriation around the use of the Hindu deities Ganesha, Parvati, Shiva and Kali in prayers and practices outside of their cultural context, by non-Hindus, that is centered in this year’s Witchcamp story “Dancing with Ganesha”, there are several other critical issues of respect and social justice that remain invisible, at least within the public face of the BC Witchcamp website.

  1. There is no evidence BC Witchcamp acknowledges the Indigenous Skwxwú7mesh People, stewards of the land the camp is using, nor the colonial history of land theft and genocide that has allowed BC Witchcamp to use this land for its own purposes without Skwxwú7mesh consent.
  2. There is no evidence BC Witchcamp has sought, or been given consent, to use Skwxwú7mesh lands, specifically for spiritual purposes including ritual, ceremony, “ecstatic discovery”, trance, “sacred sexuality”, temple/alter creation, spell-casting, and “magic”.   There is no recognition that Indigenous peoples often have strict protocols for others doing ceremony on their stewarded lands, including protocols around spiritual practices and sexual practices.
  3. There is no acknowledgement of the free enjoyment and use of occupied Indigenous lands for privileged white settler spiritual practices and recreation – while the Indigenous peoples of that land are/have been forcefully assimilated and punished for practicing their own cultural lifeways.
  4. In no place does it demonstrate BC Witchcamp has consulted Skwxwú7mesh people or been given consent to invoke foreign deities and spiritual energy onto lands whose caretakers nurture historic, pre-existing cultural and spiritual relationships with the living beings of that place, seen and unseen.
  5. In no place does BC Witchcamp create space for the Skwxwú7mesh people to speak in their own voices about their people, their home place, their history, or their opinions about the camp and its activities.

In addition, it is my understanding that when a BC Witchcamp organizer was asked about the camp’s relationship with the Skwxwú7mesh people, they were heard to say, “they don’t want anything to do with us”.  Clearly, this is an indication of a much bigger problem.

The problem comes into clearer focus when one reads the BC Witchcamp website and sees, phrases like, “we bow low to the people and the cultures that have carried his [Ganesha’s] stories from ancient times into the Ever-Now”, and specific recognition of, “Great Mother India, Thailand, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Japan, China” but not one mention of the Skwxwú7mesh people or their land which the Witchcamp occupies.

The Reclaiming Principals of Unity used at the BC Witchcamp state:

We work for all forms of justice: environmental, social, political, racial, gender and economic. Our feminism includes a radical analysis of power, seeing all systems of oppression as interrelated, rooted in structures of domination and control.”

Based on the Principals of Unity it would seem that cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism and cultural disrespect would be an issue of considerable importance and attention to BC Witchcamp.  Certainly others have found it so.  I’m not the first person to raise issues around this subject with BC Witchcamp. I’ve heard directly from at least one person who refuses to attend because of this situation, and I know there are people coming to do workshops and hold conversations around these issues.

It is clear that addressing issues of cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, and cultural disrespect must be addressed by Reclaiming and the BC Witchcamp if it wishes to remain in integrity to its own Principals of Unity and to address issues of colonization and privilege in its right relationship with local Skwxwú7mesh communities, their ancestors, and the other living beings of that place.

Indigenous People are Watching: A Story

In 2005, I attended an all-nations gathering called World Peace and Prayer Day on Tetuwan Lakota land in South Dakota. I was moved to go there by my ancestors to speak of their reawakening. Though I really had no idea what to do, I followed my heart and intuition and tried to honor this responsibility as best I could.

One evening, everyone was invited to share with the circle of attendees including Indigenous elders, activists, and traditional people from all over the world.  Frightened but determined, I took the microphone and tearfully told the story of how I came to be there – my ancestors were reawakening. Though a few people were understandably wary, most were very supportive.

Afterwards, I was beckoned to sit down next to Western Shoshone activist and grandmother Carrie Dann. We talked for a few minutes about what had drawn me there, and then she asked me this question, “What do you think of pagan witches?”

I reflected back to times I had observed the depth of eclectic “borrowing” of other cultural deities, symbols, and rituals by Reclaiming members, and also to the times I had tried to challenge Reclaiming on issues of appropriation, eclecticism, and selective historical interpretation.

I could only give Carrie my honest answer based on my experiences within Reclaiming. I told her I thought the pagan people I knew had good hearts, but many were confused and lost in shallow movements.

What I realize now, that I could not vocalize well at the time, is this:  I’ve observed many pagan identified people that want to feel the power of Indigenous ways of connecting and knowing, but cannot also recognize the necessary commitment to deep decolonization.  Because of this, their spiritual seeking is mostly filtered through, and reinforced by, a colonized mindset.  The disassociation and unfaced trauma that exists within the colonized mind are still present and diverting authentic movements of connection into pleasurable but relatively shallow movements of knowing (or un-knowing).

This is why actions like eclecticism, cultural appropriation and cultural disrespect continue to happen by good hearted “spiritual” seeking people, as well as those who claim social justice as an ideal but do not seek decolonization as an answer to this injustice.  It is also one reason why many eclectic pagans receive hostility from Indigenous people.

The Troubling Co-option of Cultural Appropriation at BC Witchcamp

Once BC Witchcamp was approached with concerns about cultural appropriation and its relationship with local Native people, organizers had an opportunity to face these dynamics. For whatever reason, this does not seem to have occurred in a way that recognizes the organizational culture of Witchcamp must change.  In fact, in some cases, it seems as if whitewashing of these issues has occurred.

I would like to point out three instances of this in evidence on the Witchcamp website.

  1. The event is proceeding with the Hindu Ganesha focus as originally planned. If addressing cultural appropriation were meaningfully important to the BC Witchcamp, then it would be expected that this year’s “story” be changed or removed until an open and honest process of education and discussion could be held with concerned Hindu people, Indigenous communities and others familiar with cultural appropriation. This has not happened.

Stopping or pausing the behavior or actions that have been called out as appropriative and problematic would demonstrate an awareness the group does not have all the knowledge it needs to act justly and may not be seeing an issue clearly.  To avoid creating further harm, the group would stop the existing process until a clearer understanding can be reached and a more just path forward is created.

This seems particularly relevant as the invoking of the Hindu deity Ganesha (and other deities) is not just an individual workshop or a single offering by a lone devotee, but is imposed on every person who attends through the Witchcamp “story” and its related workshops and spiritual practices.  This includes babies, children, and others who may not have the means or awareness to consent to disassociative spiritual energy on colonized Skwxwú7mesh lands that may already have traumatic elements in play.

If one believes they are actually doing “magic” and calling in the Spirit of Ganesha, Shiva, Kali, etc. then these concerns are particularly valid (as are the issues of not getting consent from the Skwxwú7mesh people to call this energy onto their lands).

If one doubts they are calling in the Hindu deities, then they are only projecting their desire and imagination onto an exoticized “other” because it’s interesting or fun. This is certainly appropriation, and its destructive to authentic self-knowing. Lack of authentic self-knowing prevents deep connection and healing.

  1. There is only one scheduled cultural appropriation offering on the main workshop path. All others have been relegated to non-path time. The website states:

“The organizers for the 2014 BC Witch Camp are aware that in choosing to work with Ganesha and his stories there is potential for issues of cultural appropriation to arise. Our teaching team will be working with this awareness in the paths and rituals they present, including a teacher-led offering on “Exploring the Impacts of Cultural Appropriation”; see the description below for more information.  Additionally, we anticipate some teacher- and camper-led optional offerings regarding these issues to be presented in non-path time.  We also anticipate a camper-led offering during path time on issues of cultural appropriation and colonialism.”

It would seem as if the “potential” issues of cultural appropriation (and cultural disrespect) have already arisen. So it appears not only is the BC Witchcamp unwilling to backtrack on the existing theme, but it is unwilling to mainline discussions about cultural appropriation at the expense of the Ganesha/Hindu themed offerings.  While I appreciate the attention to cultural appropriation on the website’s Story 2014 page, I still can’t ignore the Hindu story themes are still mainlined while the majority of cultural appropriation education gets put off to optional non-path offerings.

  1. Instead of redefining the theme of this Witchcamp, cultural appropriation has been co-opted back INTO the offending dynamic. Instead of removing discussions of cultural appropriation to neutral spaces, it seems as if they are immersed right back into dynamic that has been called into question.

On the Story 2014 page, in the section headed by, “A word or two about cultural appropriation from the Orgs” it says:

The organizers for the 2014 BC Witch Camp are aware that in choosing to work with Ganesha and his stories there is potential for issues of cultural appropriation to arise. Our teaching team will be working with this awareness in the paths and rituals they present…”

So the same teachers that are facilitating the Hindu paths and magical rituals, “ecstatic discovery”, trance, “sacred sexuality”, temple/alter creation, “spell-casting”, “creating elements of magic” and adorning bodies with “sacred ash and sandalwood” are the ones who will simultaneously be ensuring cultural appropriation doesn’t occur?

Unfortunately, it gets worse for me. In the fourth paragraph on the same page, organizers describe how the south Asian Hindu deity Ganesha will be involved in getting rid of cultural appropriation among (mostly) white settlers of european descent:

Each year, we gather and connect to the web of ecstatic life force, transforming repression into liberation in the world for generations.  What are the barriers that block us, the obstacles that are personal, collective, systemic?  In our world, we see and experience poverty, greed, apathy, shame, injustice, slavery, war, privilege, discrimination, distraction, arrogance, disconnection, cultural appropriation, destruction and cruelty. Ganesha, help us to remove these obstacles to liberation in the world for generations.  May our dance call the salmon home; restore the wholeness of time; cry our despair and anger to the heavens and back.  May our dance croon love songs to the weakened land and the poisoned waters.  May our dance devour the crust around our complicated hearts and make them sparkle like a thousand suns.

We begin humbly: Will you join us in this dance?”

Co-opting issues of cultural appropriation back into the cultural practices in question is deeply offensive. Consider if a group was challenged on the use of blackface, and then said it was going to explore the harmful use of blackface by doing more blackface?   Ridiculous!

 

But the ridiculous grows into outrageous. In the same paragraph, the Skwxwú7mesh People along with their ancient relationships and ceremonies with the Salmon People are literally replaced by (mostly) white neo-pagan settlers, in the midst of honoring south Asian deities, who ask, “May our dance [for Ganesha] call the salmon home…”   Pagans will also sing songs to the, “weakened land and poisoned waters” but apparently not to the Skwxwú7mesh people who are the ancestral stewards and relatives of these beings.

All of this makes the lines, “We begin humbly..” a particularly bitter pill to swallow – and I imagine quite upsetting to any concerned Hindu or First Nations people who may be reading.

There is no humility in evidence.  The act of examining cultural appropriation has itself been colonized. Any Hindu objections to the Witchcamp storyline and workshop practices, as well as the very existence of Skwxwú7mesh First Nations people has been steamrolled under the flowery language of good hearted entitlement and the self-justifying belief of individual eclecticism that hides behind, “ultimate spiritual authority is within”.

Just Actions

I support all Witchcamp workshops that address cultural appropriation, spiritual colonization, and creating healthy relationships with other cultures.  I earnestly hope these workshops address the deeper and more critical issues of appropriation and colonization of Skwxwú7mesh lands, relatives, and spiritual relationships. These actions have clearly led to disharmony in communication and an erasure within public WitchCamp materials.

I also believe the following actions would greatly benefit BC Witchcamp in addressing issues of cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, and cultural disrespect.

  • Withdraw the existing Hindu story of Ganesha and remove the references of such from your public materials.
  • Develop relationships with Hindu people, Skwxwú7mesh people, and others who can aid in the decolonization of BC Witchcamp.
  • Change the theme to Cultural Respect and invite Witchcamp participants to participate in extensive dialogue throughout the entire event time on cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, settler privilege, and how to change Reclaiming Witchcamp culture to be respectful of Indigenous peoples and others who may have their cultural and spiritual knowledge taken by (mostly) white settlers as a consequence of eclectic paganism.
  • Prioritize the attendance of trainers and others who can address these issues with camp participants.
  • Create specific accountability mechanisms for moving forward including but not limited to Witchcamp guidelines to avoid cultural appropriation and get consent from Indigenous peoples on whose land Witchcamp occurs.
  • Explore ways to heal relationships with traditional Skwxwú7mesh First Nations people, and center their perspectives and needs in discussions moving forward.
  • Provide physical space, resources, and encouragement to Reclaiming pagans to deeply decolonize and find their own ancestral people, home places, and cultural practices.

I also invite Reclaiming leadership and other influential persons, including Starhawk, to speak and write publicly on these issues in order to bring awareness to these practices.

Cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, and cultural disrespect within Reclaiming paganism deserve to be prioritized and addressed.  These attitudes and behaviors prevent effective solidarity with Indigenous peoples and other people of color, enforce white settler supremacy and colonialism, and prevent healthy relationship building with those affected.

Reclaiming and Reclaiming Witchcamps can do better.

Harm none.

I’m available to discuss this letter at any time, and offer my experience on dealing with these issues. You can find more resources on the Awakening the Horse People Grow Solidarity page.   I can be reached at decolonizebizi [at] riseup.net.

Ana (Naomi)

 

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2 Comments

  1. I respectfully read your opinion. It is not a reality I would care to be a part ,or to focus on, or to help create. A balance between cultural pride and being understanding of others would be something I would prefer to strive for. Your perspective is vastly different from my own, I would strive more for ONE PEOPLE, ONE World, ONE LOVE . I see sharing ( “appropriating” culture as you might call it) as a desirable tool for creating ONENESS and understanding. I am not saying we should deny anyone the pride of their heritage, or the preservation of traditions, but that I see goodness in our desire to work with the mythologies of many cultures.

    I don’t know my lineage very well – it is a long lost mix . It is not so important to me. However my Daddy did always tell me that my heart is Polish. But what makes me proud, is my continual growth toward love and acceptance of ALL peoples. As a person that does not know or understand her own heritage, I revel in being able to work with diversity and trust that there is enough guidance from Spirit to do so in a nice way.

    It has been my experience in Reclaiming that we do honor the land were we gather – whether we know of the indigenous peoples or not; and that we are certainly willing to honor and work with those who want to represent or speak up for the land and it’s heritage.

  2. Pingback: Follow-up to the original open letter to BCWC by Naomi | WITCHES* UNION HALL

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