FORUM ON APPROPRIATION: Who has the right to practice indigenous traditions?

by | Feb 7, 2017 | Article, Cultural Appropriation, Opinion

As a man of mixed Mexican, Basque, Irish, English, and Scottish heritage I have often run into rather extreme prejudice about my interest and practice of shamanism over my many years of teaching and ceremonial work. I can understand some of the sentiments of indigenous people upset with non-indigenous people’s poor understanding of their traditions and in worse case scenarios, untrained people copying and cashing in on their spiritual practices. This of course is a travesty and totally unacceptable. I would be furious too if they were misrepresenting my secret traditions. However what I find extremely challenging is the general lack of understanding among many indigenous and non-indigenous people about the global nature of shamanic practice. I recall a time when I was teaching in a graduate counseling program in Northern California and I was using a rattle to facilitate and demonstrate a shamanic journey for healing purposes. A Native American student became incensed because she felt that I was ripping off her native traditions with the use of the rattle and the journey experience. As it happened I was using a rattle given to me personally by a Huichol Maracame (master shaman) whom I was apprenticing with deep in Mexico. The practice was one I had learned from him and one I had come across in different parts of the world.

This student reported me to the dean and caused me no end of problems. No matter what I said she would not hear any of it. To put it bluntly, she felt that the only people who could used a rattle to journey were Northern Native Americans even though these practices are used all over the world. Even the ancient Greeks used the journey method that they had learned from the Siberian Shamans, Mongolian and Tibetan shamans.

Another time I was attacked for other imagined crimes of a shamanic nature. I was called on the carpet for daring to represent Indigenous elders wisdom and teachings. This self appointed white person demanded to know what right I had to represent the teachings of indigenous elders even though these very indigenous elders from the Shipibo of Peru and Huichol of Mexico told me to carry their teachings to the masses because it was time and they recognized that it was my mission to do so. They realized that because I am an author of books and a psychologist with degrees I have credibility and access to large numbers of people around the world that they don’t have and they wanted their wisdom to get out into the world. I have often found myself in the middle of this rather intense paradox. Some indigenous say I should spread their wisdom and some say I shouldn’t. I say I should because universal cross cultural shamanic wisdom belongs to all of us and is the best way for so many humans to return to the original ways, that is if we are going to restore this planet and survive our current crisis.

I also say I should spread the knowledge of shamanism because I have spent many years of my life studying with shamanic peoples, have learned a great deal from them, and practice these ways myself to great benefit. I have learned from wise and wonderful teachers and some who have been seriously dysfunctional and problematic. One thing I have learned is that dysfunction and misbehavior ignores the color of ones skin. Just as with the white population the indigenous are not all saints nor do they all follow the shamanic ways with integrity.

I should perhaps mention here that I have never knowingly revealed any secret ceremonial practices or knowledge given to me by any indigenous peoples and especially by Northern Native Americans, nor would I have ever done so without specific permission. Yet I have been treated disrespectfully and publicly humiliated on more than one occasion, subjected to some of the most insulting words of my life at the hands of Native Americans and by zealous white folks trying to be politically correct. I have great compassion for what the indigenous have been subjected to by white people. They have been wounded, trashed, and exterminated and they are angry, even bitter, and many want vengeance. However I carry no guilt. I have done nothing wrong, nothing to earn their disrespect. I cannot claim to be purely white, nor am I a person with any pure ethnic background. I am mixed as are most people today, including the indigenous peoples. This hostility and irreverent behavior has no beneficial consequences, and accomplishes nothing, only perpetuates an already unacceptable situation.

Much as I decry the commercial ripping off of aboriginal peoples, I cannot agree that they are the sole possessors of ancient universal wisdom to be used only by and for their own peoples. Yes, they are entitled to their own secret ceremonies and practices. No they cannot dictate what others may do with universal knowledge that is the birthright of all human beings and the heritage from peoples of all color skins, of all cultures and continents all over the world.

Below is an abbreviated response I gave to one such person of native heritage viciously attacking “white folks” via e-mail for attempting to raise money for website construction for a shamanic educational group and for “stealing indigenous wisdom.” It was also his perspective that money should not be involved in anything having to do with shamanic practice, another idea that flies in the face of shamanism as it is practiced all over the world. Shamans have to eat and live. They always request some form of energy exchange, some form of payment whether it be a basket of fruit, an animal skin, a goat, or money. If the person cannot pay they simply ask more from those who can.

Here is my written response to this gentleman. I have not reproduced his e-mail here as I have no permission to do so. Some of my colleagues suggested I just ignore his angry e-mail but I felt he deserved an honest response. I never heard back.

“Hi, I will try to answer your question here and with all due respect it is not easy to receive insults and attacks from you before we have had any interaction. As a healer you should know that this is a poor way to start a dialogue. It would be welcome if you could set down your insults and listen with an open curious mind. It is not helpful that you divide the world into us and them, white men and indigenous because you know full well that there are many nasty people who are both white and indigenous and many wonderful people who are both as well. This is not about us and them.

If we did not have a membership fee and fund raising drive we would never be able to pay our director who administers our website, organizes events, and does a long list of things that allow this organization to provide its services. I myself do not possess these skills nor do my colleagues so we hire someone to do them for us.

On another note being a shamanic practitioner is not stealing from any culture that purports to own it. Shamanism has been practiced in most cultures and continents of the world since the beginning of time. The ancient Greeks were master shamans as were the Taoists of China, the people of Tibet, the Vikings of the North, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Celts of the British Isles. No one owns shamanism. That is simply not possible. No one is fooling the unknowing public here. If anything the unknowing public do not know the things I have just written here. They have forgotten their roots and their traditions. We are trying to educate them and help them pick up where they left off. There is no competition between cultures here. We respect and honor all shamanic traditions of which you represent one. I hope I have answered your question in a respectful and honorable way.” Blessings, Jose Stevens

I could go on and on here with examples but that would serve no purpose? I speak out here not because I am wounded or injured in any way by my interactions with those who carry a chip on their shoulder. This is the nature and responsibility of being a public figure and working in an area in which there is great public interest but is terribly misunderstood. I merely speak out to draw attention to the lack of education about shamanism and express my disapproval of all the hate and attacking that has become so prevalent in all of our media, on the internet, in our political system, in all of our discourses today. It is not the way. Yelling, insulting, attacking, and pointing the finger is not the way. The way is education, dialogue, exchange, understanding, co-operation, agreeing to disagree at times, being respectful. That is the way.

Respect is the spirit of the shamanic way. It is the recognition of Spirit in everyone, the great web of life. This is why the Mayans greet each other with the word Inglakesh, “I am another yourself,” and the Tibetan’s greet each other with Namaste, “The Spirit in me salutes the Spirit in you” or “I bow to the God within you”.

To all you indigenous folks and all you zealous white folks who are so angry, looking to pick a fight, Namaste! Inglakesh!

About the Author

José Stevens PhD is an international lecturer, corporate team builder and organizational coach, consultant and trainer. A psychologist, licensed clinical social worker and author of more than twenty books and numerous articles, he is also co-editor for the Journal of Shamanic Practitioners and a board member. He is the founder, with his wife Lena, of the Power Path School of Shamanism and The Center for Shamanic Education and Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating youth in indigenous cultures. He has completed a ten-year apprenticeship with a Huichol Maracame in Mexico and has studied with the Shipibos of the Amazon and the Paqos of the Andes for the last thirty years. Jose is a board member of The Society for Shamanic Practice.

Cultural Appropriation

by Marsha Scarbrough

We live in a time of unprecedented access to the spiritual and healing traditions of many different cultures. Are non-natives who adopt indigenous ways guilty of cultural appropriation? I think a more helpful question is: What is the appropriate way to interface with indigenous cultures and explore their traditions? For me, the answer is: With respect and humility.

Throughout Asia, Buddhists and Hindus welcome occidental students into their temples to learn meditation. Hare Krishna devotees proselytize in airports throughout the world. Mongolian shamans openly share healings with Westerners. Even in South America, shamans solicit North American and European clients for their plant medicine healings. However, in North and Meso-America, the sad and hurtful history of conquest and genocide has introduced an element of understandable distrust. Native Americans fear disrespect and exploitation by the descendants of their Euro-American oppressors, and rightly so. The burden is on us, the non-native seekers, to approach with respect and humility, to adopt consciously, to eschew for-profit exploitation, and to use the medicine for healing still-festering historic wounds.

Cultural appropriation is integral to human history. We appropriated democracy from the Greeks. Italians eat spaghetti because Marco Polo appropriated noodles from the Chinese. Cultural appropriation cuts both ways, and it isn’t always negative. A hoop dancer who performs in Cirque du Soleil is appropriating the cultural tradition of dance as entertainment while offering a ritualized blessing to the audience. A Navajo weaver who sells rugs at Indian Market is appropriating the idea of placing monetary value on her meditative craftsmanship as well as sharing her beautiful creation with appreciative collectors. When conventional media ignored their cause, the Standing Rock Sioux skillfully appropriated social media to bring attention to their protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Adopting positive elements of other cultures is also an ancient tradition. When the culture being appropriated from has been oppressed, respect and humility tip the scale away from potential harm and toward mutual benefit.

About the Author

Marsha Scarbrough is a widely-published journalist with experiential training in dance therapy, Buddhism, and martial arts, as well as Native American and African spirituality. She worked in film production for major feature films and prime time television for almost 20 years, and is the author of Medicine Dance and Honey in the River. She currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Despacho Ceremony” by Cielle Cindy Backstrom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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