On September 13, 2007, the The United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It says in part
Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.
If this is something that you believe in, it’s time to talk about cultivating cultural competency in spirituality.
Many pagans and animists look to their indigenous past for guidelines on how to practice their spirituality. And we all have animist roots if we look back far enough. However, when we superimpose modern, western ideals on top of indigenous practices and ideas, they can become distorted. We can even end up destroying what we claim to love. Here are some examples.
Misuse of Language
Christopher Columbus came to the new world in search of a shorter route to India. He called the people he found Indians. They already had names. Despite this huge error and living in an age where we say we are enlightened, we still call them Indians. I think we can all see how disrespectful that is.
My name is pretty simple name, yet it’s frequently mispronounced. When that happens, I always correct the speaker. Calling things by their right names is honoring what they are. Venus is not Aphrodite. Lammas is not Lughnasadh. One is Anglo-Saxon and Christian. One is Celtic and pagan. There are many similarities, but the time and culture matter! If we want to communicate clearly, we have to use the right words and pronounce them correctly.
Some LGBTQ use the Native American term “two spirit” to describe their sexuality. This is a Native American term that is not synonymous with LGBTQ. “Two spirit” is role within a cultural. If you are not in that culture, you can’t fulfill that role.
This isn’t something that used to happen. It’s still happening. “Shamanism” is a hugely popular business these days. The term is usually used to refer to the animist spiritual practices of tribal people, but there is only one tribe who practices shamanism – the Evenk people. Q’eros are called paqos. In Mongolia it’s called Tengerism. The Zulu call their spirit walker sangoma. Each community has a different name and practice.
If I said, “All ______ people look alike” I think most people would see how offensive that is. Yet when we call all spirit walkers “shamans,” we negate their uniqueness and destroy reality. The lie becomes the truth. You can’t just pick up words, take them out of their context, and communicate clearly.
Adopting Customs For Which We Have No Ancestral Basis
Many of us are cut off from our ancestors. Heck, we don’t even like the living family that we have. So we can go from culture to culture saying, “Are you my mommy?” as we look for a place to belong. We all need to belong somewhere. Fostering is a legitimate spiritual tradition. However, when you pick up someone else’s traditions without having roots to that tradition, you could be pretending. You could be destroying what you say you love.
For example, the awareness of spirit animals is rising in popularity now. There is nothing wrong with that. Everyone has spirit helpers that come in the form of humans, animals, angels, extraterrestrials, entities, and/or mythological creatures. However, some people are also using the term “totem” to mean the same thing. They are not the same thing.
A totem belongs to a clan. If you don’t have a clan, you can’t have a totem. Period. Spirituality belongs to everyone. All traditions and practices do not. They are bounded by beliefs and practices that are steeped in community. Taking things in isolation distorts them. While everything evolves, it is the right of those who practice these things to influence their evolution. When outsiders do it through ignorance, it’s becomes modern day colonialism. Instead of destroying the people by war and violence, we do it through commerce and distortion of traditions.
“I’m Saving the Culture”
I have heard many people defend these types of practices by saying, “I’m saving the culture.” These cultures survived the encroachment of the west through isolation. Encroaching on them, buying their goods, and commercializing their spiritual ceremonies is not “saving them.” We are not entitled to someone else’s life. Making ourselves feel better by giving them money doesn’t make us “even.”
And what about the destruction of ancient spiritual places? These places also withstood the ravages of time only to be invaded by hoards seeking healing. They were never designed for buses or the trash and footsteps of thousands. Because of our craving for salvation and the money to pay for it, we may destroy a culture’s treasures.
Creating Cultural Competency
If you want a deep, meaningful, personal spiritual practice that includes cultural competency, here are some suggestions:
- Get to know your ancestors. Go back before those whose names you remember. Having a relationship with them is creating a foundation for your life and your spiritual practice. Everything needs a foundation. I also think that once you truly know them, you won’t need to look outside of your tribe. We all have fascinating people behind us.
- Be a student. Go deep. Don’t be content with a superficial understanding of something. If you aren’t getting complete information that includes enough context for you to see how it fits within the web of life, you probably don’t understand it well enough to use it yet. Keep learning. Learn holistically. See how a thing smells, tastes, feels, looks, and sounds. Ask why. Learn from competent teachers. How do they know what they are telling you?
- Be in community. This creates context and gives meaning to your spiritual practice. You can’t be in the web of life without connection. Use this community to celebrate, support, reflect, give, receive, ask questions, and live. If you don’t have one, join ours or create your own.
- Be a visitor. When you are learning from others who are outside your culture, be a visitor. Don’t act as an ambassador for them. Let them tell their own stories. Don’t teach their traditions. Don’t sell them. Use them. Learn from them. Discuss them with others, but don’t act as if they are yours. Know that you are an outsider. This is an act of respect and shows healthy boundaries. “Leave no trace” is a good guideline when visiting landscapes and cultures.
- If you are speaking about something, use the correct terminology. When you want to be general, generic terms are okay. If you are speaking specifically, be specific. Do you mean “Nights are long, winter nights are long, or Monday nights are long?” Honor the differences. If you have blended something, call it by a different name.
- It’s not easy to separate ourselves from our culture. When visiting someone else’s do your best to view things through their eyes. Don’t impose western entitlement or commercialism onto others. Think in terms of “how can I further this relationship” and “how can I be in this experience” vs. “what’s in it for me” or “how can I exploit this for my personal or financial gain” and things will be fine.
- Remember that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Money and privilege buys access. Some are willing to sell sacred experiences and wisdom that you have not earned. Act responsibly.
Cultural competency is really just about being mindful and meeting people where they are. It’s about checking your neediness, judgment, and entrepreneur hat at the door and letting yourself connect.
Author’s note: Sorry about the divisive language in the linked article. I don’t support that type of thinking. However, the ideas about how spiritual tourism destroys the environment and culture are sound.