You can hardly navigate paganism without encountering the debate about cultural appropriation and dealing with folks taking spiritual things from American Indians or other indigenous peoples. Euro-American folks mimic their rituals, mimic their methods, mimic their religions. Some argue that appropriation is a natural act, others that it is cultural theft, some that it doesn’t exist.
I feel it is important to discuss some of the pitfalls of paganism, this being one of them. Cultural appropriation, it’s a problematic issue and it does exist. The peoples that it occurs most often to are indigenous peoples and in America this typically means we’re discussing American Indians.
First and foremost, American Indian is a large category full of many tribes and diverse peoples. It is the overall preferred name for the majority of American Indians when the individual tribe cannot be mentioned. For example, much as an individual French person would usually prefer to be known of as French first and European in general terms, an individual Lakota person would usually much prefer to be known as Lakota first and American Indian only in the cases when speaking generally about many peoples. It is also important to understand that the traditions and beliefs of the various American Indian tribes are diverse, very very diverse. There are definitely some similarities found in certain regions and some general concepts that stretch widely but there is not and never was a single American Indian culture.
So here is why when I see non-indigenous folks doing indigenous spirituality I cringe: The people whose traditions these are still exist. They didn’t die out, they didn’t disappear. The cultures still exist.
To compare it back to Heathenry or other pagan traditions like Hellenic beliefs or Celtic ones is flawed, those traditions are long dead. Heathenry is hundreds of years dead, so long dead it isn’t even funny and it makes a significant difference. The Vikings are gone. The Anglo-Saxons are gone. There are not heathens left to go and converse with that have unbroken and complete traditions. What we have instead is the books, the lore, it’s all we really have remaining from those peoples to understand the gods besides material culture which would be out of context without the lore to compare it to. So since it is gone we have to rebuild. If there were another option we would take it. If there was a whole culture to learn from unbroken from that time we would be doing that but it simply doesn’t exist.
Heathenry has to do reconstruction, what we have left is incomplete. Heathenry is like having an intro book sitting next to a long dead corpse. You can’t ask the corpse questions, you only have the book to go on. You know there’s more so you have to fill in the gaps so you do research and reconstructions. And sometimes our reconstructions pull from a variety of different related sources, looking at related things; but it should be done respectfully and honestly.
Well can’t you just apply the same process of UPG and reconstruction to go your own way into Indigenous spirituality? Going your own way in indigenous spirituality is like having an intro book sitting next to a whole tribe of people and saying you’d prefer to ignore the people actually alive and living it and you’d prefer just the intro book that you would just create your own thing anyway without them.
In a nutshell, unless you’re deeply involved in unity and collaboration within that specific tribe and devoting your life to being a part that culture then it’s really very disingenuous. And how often does that happen? There are a few notable examples, but they’re notable precisely because it’s so rare that it happens that way. What isn’t rare is people appropating in such a haphazard way that it is disrespectful and usually incorrect.
The American Indians are here, they’re alive, they maintain their culture and it hasn’t disappeared, and they are telling their cultural colonizers not only that when people copy them without embracing their culture they’re doing it wrong and it’s disrespectful when they do it wrong but that they don’t want people taking what amounts to their cultural heritage. When they express these things we really should at least try to listen. As I said, it’s one thing if you’re doing it right and doing it within their culture in unity with them but those are rare cases. Time and time again natives have to navigate their own spirituality with what amounts to their colonizers taking their diverse cultures and religions and then poorly understanding them, combining them erroniously, and trying to (what amounts to) mansplain their culture back to them, the native peoples whose cultures they were in the first place, and they are tired of it and letting people know.
You can do it, absolutely, nobody is actually stopping you, you would not be alone either as it is all too common. But you do have those American Indian people who live it every day and whose culture it actually is looking at you saying that it’s inauthentic and that you’re effectively attempting to colonize their spirituality.
And on a different note, that spiritual and religious knowledge isn’t really all that accessible outside of the cultural confines of the specific tribe. It’s not as easy as going and picking up a book on Native American mythology and thinking that will do it for you. These folks kept things to themselves, especially spiritual things. They straight up don’t tell outsiders stuff sometimes, like not even historians or anthropologists because in some of those cultures knowledge equalled power and often kept the society structured with folks the on top guarding some knowledge and spiritual knowledge also often kept the priestly folks in their positions. Some spiritual concepts can also only be effectively transmitted in the native language of a specific tribe and within that specific culture and would only be granted to those who were high enough within their tribe in station and learning for that knowledge.
There is really no amount of homework someone outside of an Indigenous culture can do to “get it” properly and then do it respectfully until they actually experience that culture first hand and get it from them personally. And this makes it markedly different from Heathenry. Heathenry exists now solely in books and are accessible to all who are willing to do the research. There is nothing in heathenry that anyone anywhere can’t access without internet and a library card. It’s often opaque, it’s difficult to grasp due to cultural differences and requires a major shift in world view. But that’s all we have. Ours is a religion of homework, American Indian spiritualitues and religions are religions of cultural connections. That is a big difference that needs to be acknowledged.
In the end, nobody can stop you from being an ass about these things. But as with all spirituality one should probably seek to do it correctly, to do it justice, and for Indigenous spiritualities that simply isn’t found in books but in the living cultures of the various indigenous peoples still practicing these religions.