Contemporary Pagans and the Blood that Matters

Contemporary Pagans and the Blood that Matters
© Photograph by Valeria Foglia

At Pagan Spirit Gathering, the priestess asks hundreds of ritual participants to address their “own” deities. “Artemis!” “Kali!” “Ogun!” “Isis!” “Pan!” and “Great Spirit!” are called out from the circle of participants, as they summon their adopted gods and goddesses.

At the end of the ritual, figures clothed in deerskin and feathers or masks and capes dance through the firelight and dark shadows of the woods chanting, “We are the old people, we are the new people, we are the same people, stronger than before.”

At festivals, Neopagans celebrate the identities they have borrowed from ancient or non-Christian religions, such as Santeria. They hold workshops on such topics as “Native American: Spirits of the Land,” “Creating Smudge Fans […] in the Native American Tradition,” “Medicine Shields,” “Moon Lodge,” “Birthing Your Animal,” sweat lodges “rooted in Native American Shamanic traditions,” “The Way of the Orisha,” “Yoruba Theology,” “Initiations in East African Traditions,” “Sufi Dancing,” and “Tibetan Time Travel.”

Participants design and take part in rituals that pay tribute to the religions they have claimed. But the colourful diversity of Neopagan festivals and rituals masks the cultural uniformity of its members. Most Neopagans are middle-class European Americans who are seeking alternatives to the Christianity, Judaism, or atheism of their parents.

Neopagans’ desire to identify with other cultures is the inverse of distancing themselves from mundania and from Christianity. The exotic “other” becomes as attractive to them as Christianity is undesirable, providing the contrast to everything that they have rejected in their own pasts and mundane lives. To distance themselves from Christianity, Neopagans appropriate the practices of these others with total, and frequently uncritical, acceptance. They seek to replace the past they have cast off with ritual objects, clothing, symbols, and ceremonies such as those of the Tibetan Buddhists or Native Americans. But in the same ways that Neopagans resist Christian missionising, others, most often Native Americans, resist Neopagan attempts to appropriate practices that the groups feel belong to them.

Just as they disagree about how to defend themselves against intolerant Christian neighbours, Neopagans argue among themselves over the politics of cultural appropriation. These charged discussions point to the emotional intensity with which Neopagans make themselves anew. Profound issues of self-identity — kinship, sexuality, and spirituality — are at stake in conflicts about cultural borrowing. Borrowing from American Indians and practitioners of Santeria is debated among Neopagans at festivals, in newsletter articles and Internet conversations about searching for spiritual roots. It is criticized in recent scholarly works such as The State of Native America and The Invented Indian and condemned by some Native Americans in published statements like “A Declaration of War against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality” on the grounds that it is “cultural genocide.”

Critics from non-European cultures accuse Neo-pagans and others of stealing the cultural property of communities who have already been once dispossessed by white Europeans. The critique encompasses not only Neopagans, but also appropriators of American Indian art and jewellery, New Agers, literary imposters, and environmental activists who look to Native cultures to model appropriate relationships with the natural world. Not surprisingly, many American Indian critics are unsympathetic toward middle-class white people starved for cultural authenticity, and hostile when “white-Indians” threaten their traditions by cultural absorption, dilution, and misinterpretation.

Despite criticism, cultural appropriation is encouraged by the smorgasbord of workshops at Neopagan festivals. Neopagans continue to incorporate elements from Native American and other non-European cultures into their rituals and religious identities. As one workshop leader, a member of the Cherokee nation suggested, “Should Native American practices be shared, adapted, circulated, and thus kept alive? Must blood determine membership in a particular culture or can cultural identity be decided by other factors, such as extensive knowledge and experience with sweat lodge rituals or drumming techniques?”

Neopagans say they are personally empowered by “becoming” members of cultures that are not theirs by birth. By adopting the practices of these cultures, they develop a spirituality that “works” for them as individuals. But the very focus on self-invention is what most offends opponents of cultural borrowing who charge that “whiteshamans,” to use anthropologist Wendy Rose’s term for white borrowers, threaten Indian survival.

Perhaps Neopagans are complicit in the latest episode in the devastation of America’s indigenous cultures as the last reflex of European colonialism. Since Neopagans claim to honour and revere these cultures, how do they perceive their own complicity? If Neopagan borrowers are simply the latest North American spiritual con artists, as their critics would have us believe, then what motivates them? What meanings do Neopagans derive from their own borrowing — by their own account?

The debate over cultural appropriation exemplifies contemporary Americans’ ambivalence about the meanings of “culture,” “authenticity,” “self,” and “ethnic identity.” It also reveals the intensity of Neopagans’ desire to construct meaningful identities from a confusing array of possibilities and to have their new identities recognised by other Americans. But they discover that these goals are fraught with difficulties.

When Neopagans reject their parents’ religions and become “shamans” or “Taoists,” in some sense they no longer clearly belong to any particular culture or tradition. They are not “Christians,” nor do they completely belong to their adopted religion, whose communities may not accept them. On these contested boundaries between cultures, Neopagans work creatively to make themselves anew. I look now more closely at the ways in which Neopagans shape borrowed practices into meaningful religious identities in the midst of general cultural confusion about who owns the past and to whom religious practices “belong.”

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