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shamanism is not my way

September 3, 2011

It turns out that white people culturally appropriating shamanism is a can of worms of apocalyptic proportions. I don’t want any part of that.

Maybe my dream was a suggestion that I learn more about shamanism, no more and no less.

The stuff I’ve read about core shamanism seemed to be missing something essential, and apparently that was cultural context.

I’m not one of those people who thinks white people don’t have (a) culture; I feel more like I have a bunch of cultures I belong to in some sense, and they don’t fit together well. I’m a white American, who was raised by working-class parents who became middle class, and eventually upper-middle-class, during my lifetime. My mother’s family is of Lithuanian descent; my father’s family is of Irish descent. Both sides are Catholic. I’ve been a Pagan for almost 25 years.

I’ve researched the “old country” cultures of both Lithuania and Ireland. Neither of them feel like they have much to do with my life here in USAmerica. Lithuania is an agrarian country, and since it became Christian in the 14th century, its culture has been heavily patriarchal. It was my great grandparents who emigrated to the USA, but my mother was raised to believe that girls were worthless, and that had a large effect on the trajectory of not just her life, but everyone around her, including her daughters of course.

The Ireland my grandparents were raised in was also agrarian. In the process of Anglicizing Ireland, my ancestors stopped speaking Gaelic, and did not hold onto their culture. What I’ve seen of ancient Irish (and Celtic) culture and mythology seems to be quite warlike. Since I’m a pacifist and advocate of nonviolence, this is not a good fit.

I’ve also lived in and around cities all my life. Agrarian culture is something I have no frame of reference for. While it’s true that three of my four grandparents spent all or part of their childhoods on farms, as adults they lived in cities. I’m not nostalgic for a farm life, which from all I’ve heard and read entails backbreaking work for long hours all day every day. And your farm may still fail.

So if I “stay true” to my ethnic heritages, I would be venerating gods of farmers. But I’m not.

To avoid cultural appropriation, am I limited to gods or mythology or cultural beliefs of my ancestors? Because my grandparents were all Catholic. My parents are still Catholic. But Catholicism didn’t work for me. How far back can I go, in the line of my ancestors, to find something that works better? Family lore tells me that some long-ago ancestors were German, Polish, and other things, although that seems to be more that national boundaries shifted around them. But does that mean that I’m “entitled” to German or Polish mythology or culture? It may have been my grandmother’s grandmother who was Jewish, but either pretended to be Catholic or converted to Catholicism; does that mean I have a claim to Judaism? Because of the loss of knowledge of ancestral languages, the genealogy of my mother’s side of the family is known with certainty only back to the grandparents of my grandparents. It’s possible, though, if we knew more, that some of them were something other than Lithuanian — perhaps Ukrainian, perhaps Russian, perhaps Latvian, perhaps Roma. Do I have a claim to any of those possibilities?

If we look at me as an individual, the cultures I have felt affinity for are cultures I discovered because of an interest in their language and/or ethnobotany: Spanish, in both the Old World and the New; Portuguese; Maltese; Anishinaubae (Ojibwe); Navajo; Hopi; Tanaina; Maori.

People can learn other languages, and fall in love with the culture of that language. When does that become cultural appropriation?

When you look at the art made by Northern Europeans such as Lithuanian people in particular, the colors tend to be muted, dark, often muddy, I would even say dreary and depressing. Lithuania is a poor country, and life there is harsh. It makes sense. But I don’t like looking at it, and I don’t want to make art in that tradition.

I’m drawn to complex colors that are bright, or deep, but lively and vibrant. Even dark colors have a spark to them. I see similar colors in the art of Mediterranean peoples, like the Spanish, Portuguese, and South Americans, such as Brazilians. If I use those colors in my work, am I culturally appropriating? Should I be restricted to dull dreary colors that I hate looking at?

So many questions, and no answers to any of them. Time to start looking and learning…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2011 21:06

    The thing that I tell people is that everyone has to come to their own personal balance. My own solution is to focus on the culture I am a part of, and be very aware of my social location and how that impacts my shamanism. Some people are more culturally daring than I am; others more conservative. Its good to be thinking about your own boundaries, and I would wager that over time you’ll find a balance that works for the time being (it’s always good to re-assess over time.)

    • September 3, 2011 21:58

      I agree with everything you’ve said. 🙂 I enjoyed (and learned stuff!) your post about the culture white people in the US do have. I think tension between communal culture and individualistic culture might be what I had previously labeled as ‘traditional’ vs. ‘anti-traditional’. Lots of food for thought anyway.

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