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Follow-up to the original open letter to BCWC by Naomi

This is a follow-up to the original open letter: An Open Letter to the British Columbia Witchcamp on issues of Cultural Appropriation and Respect

UPDATE:  It’s been 12 days since the original letter was sent.  As of Tuesday morning August 5, there have been NO Changes to the BC Witchcamp website.  I’ve not heard personally from the BC Witchcamp or even received an acknowledgement of the concerns that were sent in the original letter.  Public conversations have occurred with members of Reclaiming, and people who have been communicating privately with camp organizers.

I would like to share my appreciation for the public conversations that are occurring and for the hosting of these conversations at Witches Union Hall.  Conversations about white settler supremacy can be very challenging but very necessary.  At the same time, let’s take care that drawn-out conversations among privileged white settlers are not used to evade the actual action of dismantling white supremacist structures.

I’ve intentionally been direct in provoking this conversation.  That should not be mistaken for a lack of care for the individual people who are receiving the letter and who may be participating in this dialogue.  The time and energy I’ve put into this process says otherwise.

This open letter was written to provoke honest conversation and action on apparent issues of cultural appropriation, cultural disrespect, and spiritual colonialism within the BC Witchcamp (as evidenced by its public website), as well as some elements of Reclaiming paganism in general, which birthed this and other witchcamps.  This is not just about the witchcamp relationship with Hindu deities, but its relationship with the Indigenous peoples whose land this camp occupies.

For pagans resistant to the provoking of these conversations, I have to point out both BC Witchcamp organizers and others surrounding them have been invoking help in confronting questions of cultural appropriation.  What if these letters are part of the answers being offered?

Why Are You Bringing This Up Now?

I’ve been asked why am I bringing this issue up now when other witchcamps have occurred under similar story themes.

  1. I have questioned Reclaiming on these issues before. As early as 2004 during the G8 Summit protests in Brunswick, GA I questioned the use of Carib-West African deities in ritual by influential Reclaiming witches.  In 2005, at a gathering of the Living River group of Reclaiming in North Carolina, I also brought up this issue (and others), as it was visible among multiple participants. And at the 2009 G20 protests in Pittsburgh, I offered a decolonization skill share to a small number of Reclaiming witches and other pagans.

In January of this year I sent out a Call for Submissions: “Decolonizing Paganism and Witchcraft” through Awakening the Horse People to members of Reclaiming I know. It was also sent widely to a wide variety of neo-pagan, heathen, and similar groups.  I initially received no response, and have finally received two articles, both of which are problematic from a decolonizing perspective.

  1. I have a responsibility to my Native family, and as a settler on stolen Indigenous lands, to question acts of white settler supremacy when I experience those behaviors. A large part of my current family (and extended family of friends) are Indigenous people of different nations including Tetuwan Lakota, Anishinaabe, and Comanche

I have personally seen the frustration and pain in my family caused by cultural appropriation and spiritual colonization. I’ve seen their tears, received their anger, and also learned from the Indigenous understanding of these actions and their affects in the world. It’s frustrating. Cultural appropriation is literally everywhere we go, and we hear the worn out record of evasions that gets played whenever white settlers are questioned. Perhaps you can empathize when I say I don’t want my family to cry, or get angry any more.

  1. I do not feel safe around people engaged in cultural appropriation either. From my own experiences I have learned how difficult it is to find a safe space where cultural appropriation or spiritual colonization is not occurring.  It affects what groups I am comfortable in, what events I want to attend, and even what communities I feel safe to live in. In groups where there is little awareness, seeking accountability is often met by multiple people derailing these conversations, unwilling to look deeper into these dynamics.  It’s exhausting.
  2. It’s always the right time to deal with our stuff. It has been often said that white settlers are hungry ghosts. Appropriation and spiritual colonization are not healthy.  I see what it’s done to people of european heritage – the disassociation from authentic self-knowing, the faulty illusions of deep connection, the diversion from authentic ancestral relationships, and the prevention of healing colonial traumas.

Is This Really Cultural Appropriation?

While there may be some uncertain areas of cultural borrowing, what constitutes appropriation and theft has been fairly consistently defined by many including the following articles:

The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation by Jarune Uwujaren

Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation? from Unsettling America

Wanting to be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft by Myke Johnson

Cultural Appropriation: Is it Ever Okay? By Leeanne Duggann

And even though the use of Hindu deities by certain practitioners at Witchcamp may not be appropriative, the imposing of this foreign cultural/spiritual narrative on other participants who are not Hindu appears to be.  While some Hindus may be fine with these activities, others have raised concerns about cultural/spiritual practices being taken out of their deeply rooted cultural context for general practice or consumption.

And these activities are occurring on Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation lands, completely unacknowledged and made invisible by the witchcamp website and language. Imposing this foreign cultural/spiritual narrative on the land and on other living beings seen and unseen without consent sure looks like spiritual colonialism.

As I detailed above, it is my experience that Reclaiming has struggled with issues of cultural appropriation and spiritual colonialism. These actions are in direct conflict with its stated Principals of Unity.

And it’s worth reflecting on, those same Principals can also be twisted into unhealthy self-justification of virtually any act, when they state, “ultimate spiritual authority is within.”

While this idea may be true within a personal practice, when one extends those practices to a group of people, on another culture’s land – then claiming “authority” to basically do whatever feels good becomes another example of white and/or settler privilege.

Why Did You Make This an Open Letter?

For those of us who are settlers on the stolen lands of Turtle Island or North America, we each have a responsibility to challenge and undo white supremacy culture and settler colonialism, and the devastating conditions caused by these systems.  This requires us to reflect critically on the stories being told in our communities and the ways these narratives take up space and crowd out non-white settler experiences and understandings of the world.

This requires us to step back. Be humble and cautious. And when our behaviors may be harming others – to stop – even if we do not yet understand how.  In consideration of this, I chose to post an open letter for several reasons:

  • Indigenous Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) people have the right to know about, read, and contribute (should they wish) to conversations that involve settler activities on their lands. This applies further to Indigenous people and others in general, whose cultures are being used, disrespected, or appropriated by white settlers without their consent.
  • Historically, white people have avoided accountability for white supremacist behaviors and transformation of white supremacist structures by derailing uncomfortable conversations into “private” meetings and discussions where tone and content are policed. Expectation of “privacy” is an example of white privilege. My intent is to break through this dynamic.
  • A public conversation may provide valuable education to other groups and individuals with questions about these issues. I have already received positive messages this is occurring.
  • The witchcamp is basically a public event, with a public website, featuring the content in question. Unless the event or its organizers have something to hide or protect, then why wouldn’t these public conversations be welcomed?

Criticism of the Letter

I would also like to address some of the criticisms or questions I’ve heard for the way in which the letter was written.

I’ve heard comments that the open letter was “tear down culture”, that I’ve not been considerate enough of the organizers, that my tone was judgmental or otherwise inappropriate, that the organizers are good people, that it would have been better if I had spoken to them directly, and (paraphrasing here) I’ve been unfair to the organizers.

I’m going to be direct here: I’m not primarily concerned that the organizers are “good people” (I’m sure they are) or that their feelings are privileged in this conversation. White settlers and settlers of all kinds are centered enough in this world. I am trying to decolonize this dynamic by de-centering white voices, feelings, and needs and making space for Skwxwú7mesh First Nations people, Hindus and others to be considered.

White people are always considered – it’s built into the system of white supremacy. I don’t care to support that.  I seek a process where Indigenous peoples are centered in this conversation. It’s their lands and cultures in question.

Where do We Turn?

My personal experiences have shown me it’s often difficult for white settlers to know who to talk to, who to ask, and where to turn within Indigenous communities. Especially those communities that have been heavily impacted by colonization, assimilation, divide and conquer tactics, and the dysfunctions of inter-generational poverty – trust can be hard to come by, and it can be very difficult.

And if we are talking about gaining access to traditional Native people, elders, or people whose first language is not our own, then it may become even more of a challenge. We may be stonewalled or misdirected as a way to protect surviving cultural knowledge.

But it’s not impossible. And in fact, uncovering why we lack the ability to access these communities, the knowledge of who to ask, why we don’t get an honest answer, or why there may be no one to ask who knows or remembers traditional ways, holds critical lessons for us.

Burden of Proof

Taking advantage of Indigenous communities disrupted by colonialism, by deciding you can’t or don’t need to engage them, is opportunism and another form of settler privilege, i.e. colonialism.  This rationalization lures with the idea Native people can’t decide for themselves because they are angry or divided – so we can do what we want.

When this is the case, then the right action is to withdraw so Indigenous people can have the space to figure out what is needed to heal from colonial forces.

Settlers have the same burden of response when we are questioned on issues of cultural theft or disrespect – to withdraw. Stop the busy-ness of what we are doing. Remove anything that might be harmful.  Reconsider our actions. Get more feedback. Do the uncomfortable work of authentic self-reflection. Listen!

White settlers – whether we are “good people” or not, have a responsibility to demonstrate that we have done the work. especially in a public gathering of a spiritual nature on Indigenous lands – the burden of proof is on us.

This proof has no evidence on the BC Witchcamp website – its public face.  If I am wrong, and this work has been done – then great!  If so, there should be ready acknowledgement of that process in the witchcamp public materials.

A Bad Story of Good People

Several years ago in the community where I lived near Asheville, North Carolina, I saw a flyer announcing a spiritual retreat to be held in the community meeting hall. A group was gathering to practice “shamanic” techniques, and then attempt to alter the nature of water – from polluted to clean.

I felt concern on several levels, not the least of which was the treatment of Water as a non-living object to be controlled and manipulated by humans for pleasure.

In my understanding, Water is a powerful living being, and right relationship and stewardship with the being we call Water on that land resides with the Tsalagi Cherokee People. 

And I knew all or most of these people would be of european heritage.  As people of european heritage we have our own decolonized, place-based understandings of living Water. Shouldn’t we learn those before we start experimenting with spiritual techniques taken out of cultural context and packaged as “shamanic” and used on another people’s lands?

So on the morning they were to begin I visited. After polite introductions to this obviously good-hearted group of white women, I calmly pointed out the powers of learning our own cultures, and the problems with taking spiritual tools – shamanism- out of cultural contexts. I pointed out we were on Cherokee lands, and that before doing ceremony and spiritual work with a living being as powerful as Water on their lands, it would be respectful protocol to ask the Cherokee for permission and guidance. I shared a story as example. I offered to give the numbers of my Cherokee friends and contacts so they could begin this process. All they had to do was call me. They offered their very effusive thanks, and I left. 

All weekend I waited for a call that never came.

On Monday morning, I ran into a neighbor that had attended the gathering.  I asked her,  “How did the retreat go?”

“It was wonderful,” she offered with a big smile.

I said, “No one ever called me about contacting people in Cherokee. Did you have other contacts there?”

“No,” she replied reverently. “We decided we would contact the Cherokee ancestors ourselves, in the spirit world, and ask their permission.”

I had to fight to keep a normal tone, “Oh, and how did that go?”

She bubbled, “It was great!  They said yes!”

I walked away sad at the unconsidered arrogance and privilege of these “good hearted people”, who were so completely colonized in their spiritual seeking – they could justify disappearing living, breathing, surviving Cherokee people from their awareness.  The Trail of Tears was completed within these “good hearted” people. The Cherokee people had been fully removed this place – physically, culturally, spiritually.  They were no longer needed.  

Transformation is Possible

Many of us in this conversation seek transformation of the unjust systems of this world.  For white settlers of european heritage in this conversation, I would like to offer a path of accountability, decolonization, and reconciliation:

The Original Request for Action

  1. Withdraw the existing Hindu story of Ganesha and remove the references of such from your public materials.
  2. Develop relationships with Hindu people, Skwxwú7mesh people, and others who can aid in the decolonization of BC Witchcamp.
  3. 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.
  4. Prioritize the attendance of trainers and others who can address these issues with camp participants.
  5. 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.
  6. Explore ways to heal relationships with traditional Skwxwú7mesh First Nations people, and center their perspectives and needs in discussions moving forward.
  7. Provide physical space, resources, and encouragement to Reclaiming pagans to deeply decolonize and find their own ancestral people, home places, and cultural practices if possible.

Wishing us the understanding, love, and courage of our ancestors to make good choices on these issues in the days ahead.

Naomi Archer (Ana Oian Amets)

Awakening the Horse People

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