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What is Remembered Lives!

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Obituary: The Witches of East Van (2008-2015)

On October 31, 2015, the magickal collective known as the Witches of East Van, or WOEVAN, passed from this world. This passing was conducted by a small ritual held at CRAB Park in the city of Vancouver, on the unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Tsleil-Waututh, and Stó:lō people. The location of the ritual was a return to the same place where WOEVAN had first made itself public in a fiery ritual full of noise and revelry seven years earlier. WOEVAN was joined in body and spirit by former members, collaborators and allies.

WOEVAN was a collective of magickal people, many (but not all) self-identified witches, who organized as a community of mutual support, a hub for other politicized magical people and facilitators of public ritual. Initially a group whose main purpose was to support one-another in the challenging and at times dangerous process of “coming out of the broom closet,” WOEVAN evolved and transformed  according to the emerging needs of the group and the communities it drew to it.

Throughout all of its changes in shape and membership, WOEVAN maintained a set of principles that unified its work:

WOEVAN is a collective of magickal people who come together to share knowledge, practice rituals, build community and engage in magickal activisim.

WOEVAN is non-hierachical, anti-authoritarian, queer and eco-feminist.

WOEVAN is rooted in pagan traditions and we draw particular inspiration from the Reclaiming tradition of witchcraft, but we honor a diversity of spiritual and magickal practices.

WOEVAN recognizes that we live on unceded native land and we try to practice an earth-based spirituality that respects the spirits and the people who have traditionally called this land home.

WOEVAN believes that anyone and everyone can have magic in their lives, that it is everyone’s right to have a magical practice and that the exploration of magic is a part of our own personal and communal liberation.

WOEVAN encourages people to step out of the broom-closet and be public about their magickal identity.

WOEVAN is not a coven but a collective, and we are open to meeting and sharing with others.

WOEVAN was born out of an array of earlier groups whose work included organizing queer dance parties, a feminist craft collective, a noise music collective for self-identified women, and an anarchic interdisciplinary arts collective. The relationships and tools of those projects fed into the practices and methods of the collective project that became WOEVAN. Like many queer-feminist projects before it, WOEVAN began with a potluck, a tentative reaching into community in order to find each other. Out of these first steps, a group formed to create a public ritual celebrating Samhain, an illicit sabbat involving over 75 magical creatures revelling, weeping, and rebelling. The ritual involved trance, de-spelling, a spiral dance and culminated in a meandering procession of noise makers, carrying a rune covered cedar coffin filled with fears and grief that was set fire and sent to sea at a beach beside the port.

In its earliest phase WOEVAN served to form a safe and caring community within a wider context that was hostile to its ways of being. Many of us had spent our young adult lives keeping our spiritual practices secret from family and friends, from employers and co-workers, closeting ourselves like many of our queer ancestors of path. Our beliefs were even taboo in the radical communities we organized with, their social norms dominated by atheistic dogmas inherited from Marxism and the hyper-rationalist side of Anarchism. It felt decidedly unsafe at the time to suggest a necessity for making space for spirit in our activism, to say nothing of suggesting that we could use magic and ritual to support our struggles. We also found that most spiritual communities who might have provided support and teaching were unapproachable or even repellent to us, their uncritical cultures shaped by class privilege, hetero-normativity, white supremacy and cultural appropriation. WOEVAN became a way to build a magical community that could centre our politics, our experiences and our dreams.

WOEVAN met regularly, often sharing food and resources, hosting heart-circles[1], and creating new rituals and traditions that tracked pagan holidays. Many of us were heavily influenced by the Reclaiming community, with its feminist culture, anarchist ways of working and sharing power.[2] We especially gravitated towards the tools that Starhawk made available through her many good books.[3] We drew from whatever we had encountered in our personal histories, ranging from teenage spell work to survival skills learned on the street, the everyday magic inherited from grandmothers to the patient silence of Quaker meetings. We also drew from anarchistic methods of collaboration, sharing responsibilities and supporting each other to walk our edges. As our group developed trust and cohesion we began to emphasize ritual in public, focusing on the holidays with which we held the most sympathy: Samhain and Beltane. The shadowy pageantry of the former, and the intersection of sex, earth magic and class rebellion of the latter, made these our most faithful days for bringing ritual out into public space.

In the seven years of our existence WOEVAN helped organize over a dozen public rituals: indoors and outdoors, in century old halls and underground warehouses, anarchist social spaces and private homes, in parks and in the streets. These rituals often leaned heavily on the structure of Reclaiming’s well tested practice of large group rituals, its systematic opening/working/closing structure easily revised to meet our needs. WOEVAN cast circles with athames, kisses, musical tones and by passing a bag of chips. Our invocations included an eclectic pantheon that might include European deities, animal and plant beings, ancestors of path [4],  and a host of abstract concepts and experiences. Some beloved allies included the Intersex Worm Spirit (a genderqueer composter who transformed garbage and shat soil), Sugar Crash (a defender of children), and Whole Time (an experience of time as a continuous, nondividuated whole which can be visited and transformed in any direction at any moment).[5] We took trips to the Shiny Isle using trance and a single piece of rope to create a ship; we induced dancing with accordions, banjos, cassette players and giant sound-systems; we layered interwoven stories reflecting anthropocentric, biocentric and mythic perspectives; we co-created our rituals with shared activities ranging from weaving to scrying to storytelling.

We also maintained a commitment to our politics, refusing to treat our spirituality as a separate sphere, but rather believing that these things should be linked together to form a resilient whole. We marched our maypole into traffic and took up space in public with playful and fiery queer witchiness. We cast spells of support and aid to protect those communities who were likely to be devastated by the incursion of the winter olympics. We hosted a public ritual for over a hundred people on Samhain at Vancouver’s Occupy. We hosted fundraisers offering dancing, divination, glamour and wellness, the latter in the form of a magical spa. More than anything we held space for a radical spirituality within a larger community, giving support to others as they explored their own pathway through spirit, ancestry and power.

In the end the world changed around us, and we changed as well. What seemed almost impossible only a few years ago – to be “out” as a witch in radical communities – is now common enough. Even if radical communities still don’t know how to talk about this change, much less integrate these sometimes diametrically opposed worldviews (magical vs. rational), there is a critical mass of radicalized magicians and magical radicals such that it’s inevitable that these evolutions will unfold. It is amazing to realize how many fiery earth defenders and fierce gender rebels are trying on the mantle of “witch”, exploring their powers of transformation and co-creation. More and more zines, journals and blogs are trying to find their way through the politics of spiritual practice, relanding their earth-based spirituality while resisting settler-colonial violence. We are on the cusp of something new, a “rational” response to the ongoing anthropocentric destruction of our bodies, our psyches and the living earth. “There is nothing that never changes, wait and witness…

For WOEVAN, our project changed. We became more concerned with attempting to deconstruct whiteness within our group, addressing privilege and asking hard questions about who was part of our group and our rituals and who wasn’t. What does it mean to practice earth-based spirituality in the midst of settler-colonialism? How can we follow indigenous protocol when conducting public ritual? How can we hold space for a multiplicity of cultures and ceremony, especially when we continue to fall back on ritual and group norms that privilege a particular type of Eurocentric magic? What would it mean to identify as a primarily “European settler group” explicitly working through unsettling work? Should we break the group open completely in order to build a diverse magical collective that centers non-European magic from the beginning? These questions wove through our group over two years of workshops, retreats, arguments and stalemates.

It would be easy to say that this critical self-exploration as a group was what ultimately caused it to fall away, but it would ignore other realities, other challenges and demands for our time and energy. It seemed that time was never on our side, no matter how much we tried to work and play with it as an ally, if only because too few of us had expansive enough a relation to it to be able to devote all that we desired to this project. The intense demands of survival under capitalism, the demand to constantly trade our labor for money, to engage in the constant self-administration that work more and more demands, left few of us with “free” time. In a big way, the exhaustion of living in Vancouver exhausted this group. Competing against our desires and dreams for our group were entries into school, towards parenthood, toward new projects that felt more insistently alive. Rather than let something we love wither we decided to let it pass from this world. We celebrated its life with laughter and song. We burned its material (and immaterial) remains. We bequeathed its energy and wisdom to the many communities near and far who carry on the work whether or not we remain. We said our goodbye as best we knew how, transforming it with our bodies gathered around the fire, with singing and the sound of our stories, with the salt of our tears and the coolness of the Salish Sea.

———

[1] “Heart-circles” are a tool developed by Radical Faeries used to create spaces for emotional sharing and honesty with supportive listening, affirmation and an insistence on validating the truth of each person’s feeling. See: http://www.radfae.org/

[2] “Reclaiming is a community of people working to unify spirit and politics. Our vision is rooted in the religion and magic of the Goddess, the Immanent Life Force. We see our work as teaching and making magic: the art of empowering ourselves and each other. In our classes, workshops, and public rituals, we train our voices, bodies, energy, intuition, and minds. We use the skills we learn to deepen our strength, both as individuals and as community, to voice our concerns about the world in which we live, and bring to birth a vision of a new culture. Founded around 1980 in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Reclaiming tradition now includes several dozen regional communities across North America and in Europe and Australia.” see: http://www.reclaiming.org/

[3] Certain books that we often drew rituals and inspiration from included The Spiral Dance (1979); Dreaming in the Dark: Magic, Sex & Politics (1982); The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature (2004); and Circle Round:Raising Children in the Goddess Tradition (co-authored with Anne Hill & Diane Baker, 1998). See: http://starhawk.org/

[4] Examples might include Harry Hay, Emma Goldman, Gloria Anzaldúa, among others

[5] Whole Time is a concept that WOEVAN shares with many others, in particular the community associated with BC Witchcamp and Free Cascadia Witchcamp.

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