Decolonizing Pagan Witch Camp

Below are two letters initiated to raise issues of cultural appropriation and and cultural respect with the British Columbia Witchcamp.  The letters were widely criticized within the pagan community. Fortunately, several people with experience in social justice and solidarity with Indigenous communities helped to step up and bring some further understanding to the BC Witchcamp.   We believe the issues raised persist in many pagan events and in the community as a whole.  We challenge pagan communities to affirmatively address and prioritize these issues.


 

An Open Letter to the British Columbia Witchcamp on Issues of Cultural Appropriation & Respect

Nire izena Ana Oian Amets da, esan english Naomi Archer.

My name is Naomi Archer. I’m a descendent of european peoples who settled in “America.”, I am descended from Aquitanian (proto-Basque) ancestors from the Dordogne River valley of southwest France, whose language I speak above.

I am also descended from the Irish Clann Dhochartaigh, Suebic tribal people from the Kocher River in southern Germany, Sicambrian tribal people from the Rhine River delta, several English families, and Brittanian Celts.

I manage the Awakening the Horse People blog (awakeningthehorse.wordpress.com) that provides decolonization resources for people of european heritage. I also provide decolonization skill shares, often co-facilitated with my adopted Lakota brother Canupa Gluha Mani, for Indigenous and non-native participants. I’ve been honored to be a part of Indigenous resistance and sovereignty movements for the last decade, and have been involved in the Tetuwan Lakota warrior society known as Cante Tenza (Strong Heart). Further, I founded the Lakota Solidarity Project and the Four Directions Solidarity Network.

I have a long street activist history with many of the folks in the Living River – the activist movement originating within Reclaiming pagan tradition. I briefly explored Reclaiming paganism on the path to my place-based ancestral cultural roots that I honor today.

I mention these things so you may know who I am, as I reach out to you with these thoughts.

I am writing to you- members of Reclaiming and the British Columbia (BC) Witch Camp – about issues of cultural appropriation and disrespect in the upcoming Witchcamp gathering that is taking place at Evans Lake Forestry Camp on unceeded Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation’s land and across Evans Lake from an existing Skwxwú7mesh community.

Cultural Appropriation, Spiritual Colonialism and Cultural Disrespect

There are many great definitions of cultural appropriation, but for now I’ll invite you to consider the one I use in the poster attached to this letter:

Cultural appropriation is the taking of cultural expressions, symbols, ceremonies, intellectual property, and ways of knowing from another culture for our own self-expression or use, while stripping them of their deeply rooted cultural identity and significance.

Cultural appropriation has been described as, “a way of using another culture that delights our imagination while stripping that group of their identity” and it almost always applies when the culture being taken from is a minority culture or has a subordinate social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture.

From a decade long work with Indigenous people in resistance, I have grown deeply aware of the pain, frustration, and anger that cultural appropriation creates:

  • Deeply hurtful and retraumatizing to those whose culture is taken.
  • Disrespectful of Indigenous peoples and others whose culture is taken.
  • Demonstrates unexamined privilege and a lack of self-knowing.
  • Enforces harmful stereotypes.
  • Trivializes and erases colonialism and genocide.
  • Makes the subject culture invisible within the appropriating culture.
  • Converts deep beliefs into shallow symbols.
  • Potentially harmful to those appropriating sacred knowledge without cultural guidance.

In addition to cultural appropriation, I also raise concerns around Spiritual Colonialism. Here I mean this as the exploitation or replacement of Indigenous spiritual practices by colonizers. I also mention Cultural Disrespect, which I generally use to mean the lack of consideration for Indigenous peoples and other people of color as a consequence of white privilege.

Cultural Appropriation at BC Witchcamp

In addition to the visible issues of cultural appropriation around the use of the Hindu deities Ganesha, Parvati, Shiva and Kali in prayers and practices outside of their cultural context, by non-Hindus, that is centered in this year’s Witchcamp story “Dancing with Ganesha”, there are several other critical issues of respect and social justice that remain invisible, at least within the public face of the BC Witchcamp website.

  1. In no place does BC Witchcamp acknowledge the Indigenous Skwxwú7mesh People of the land the camp is using, nor the colonial history of land theft and genocide that has allowed BC Witchcamp to use this land for its own purposes without Skwxwú7mesh consent.
  1. In no place does it demonstrate BC Witchcamp has sought, or been given consent, to use Skwxwú7mesh lands, specifically for spiritual purposes including ritual, ceremony, “ecstatic discovery”, trance, “sacred sexuality”, temple/alter creation, spell-casting, and “magic”. There is no recognition that Indigenous peoples often have strict protocols for others doing ceremony on their stewarded lands, including protocols around spiritual practices and sexual practices.
  1. There is no acknowledgement of the free enjoyment and use of occupied Indigenous lands for privileged white settler spiritual practices and recreation – while the Indigenous peoples of that land are/have been forcefully assimilated and punished for practicing their own cultural lifeways.
  1. In no place does it demonstrate BC Witchcamp has consulted Skwxwú7mesh people or been given consent to invoke foreign deities and spiritual energy onto lands whose caretakers nurture historic, pre-existing cultural and spiritual relationships with the living beings of that place, seen and unseen.
  1. In no place does BC Witchcamp create space for the Skwxwú7mesh people to speak in their own voices about their people, their home place, their history, or their opinions about the camp and its activities.

In addition, it is my understanding that when a BC Witchcamp organizer was asked about the camp’s relationship with the Skwxwú7mesh people, they were heard to say, “they don’t want anything to do with us”. Clearly, this is an indication of a much bigger problem.

The problem comes into clearer focus when one reads the BC Witchcamp website and sees, phrases like, “we bow low to the people and the cultures that have carried his [Ganesha’s] stories from ancient times into the Ever-Now”, and specific recognition of, “Great Mother India, Thailand, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Japan, China” but not one mention of the Skwxwú7mesh people or their land which the Witchcamp occupies.

The Reclaiming Principals of Unity used at the BC Witchcamp state:

We work for all forms of justice: environmental, social, political, racial, gender and economic. Our feminism includes a radical analysis of power, seeing all systems of oppression as interrelated, rooted in structures of domination and control.”

 Based on the Principals of Unity it would seem that cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism and cultural disrespect would be an issue of considerable importance and attention to BC Witchcamp. Certainly others have found it so. I’m not the first person to raise issues around this subject with BC Witchcamp. I’ve heard directly from at least one person who refuses to attend because of this situation, and I know there are people coming to do workshops and hold conversations around these issues.

 It is clear that addressing issues of cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, and cultural disrespect must be addressed by Reclaiming and the BC Witchcamp if it wishes to remain in integrity to its own Principals of Unity and to address issues of colonization and privilege in its right relationship with local Skwxwú7mesh communities, their ancestors, and the other living beings of that place.

Indigenous People are Watching: A Story

In 2005, I attended an all-nations gathering called World Peace and Prayer Day on Tetuwan Lakota land in South Dakota. I was moved to go there by my ancestors to speak of their reawakening. Though I really had no idea what to do, I followed my heart and intuition and tried to honor this responsibility as best I could.

One evening, everyone was invited to share with the circle of attendees including Indigenous elders, activists, and traditional people from all over the world. Frightened but determined, I took the microphone and tearfully told the story of how I came to be there – my ancestors were reawakening. Though a few people were understandably wary, most were very supportive.

Afterwards, I was beckoned to sit down next to Western Shoshone activist and grandmother Carrie Dann. We talked for a few minutes about what had drawn me there, and then she asked me this question, “What do you think of pagan witches?”

I reflected back to times I had observed the depth of eclectic “borrowing” of other cultural deities, symbols, and rituals by Reclaiming members, and also to the times I had tried to challenge Reclaiming on issues of appropriation, eclecticism, and selective historical interpretation.

I could only give Carrie my honest answer based on my experiences within Reclaiming. I told her I thought the pagan people I knew had good hearts, but many were confused and lost in shallow movements.

What I realize now, that I could not vocalize well at the time, is this: I’ve observed many pagan identified people that want to feel the power of Indigenous ways of connecting and knowing, but cannot also recognize the necessary commitment to deep decolonization. Because of this, their spiritual seeking is mostly filtered through, and reinforced by, a colonized mindset. The disassociation and unfaced trauma that exists within the colonized mind are still present and diverting authentic movements of connection into pleasurable but relatively shallow movements of knowing (or un-knowing).

This is why actions like eclecticism, cultural appropriation and cultural disrespect continue to happen by good hearted “spiritual” seeking people, as well as those who claim social justice as an ideal but do not seek decolonization as an answer to this injustice. It is also one reason why many eclectic pagans receive hostility from Indigenous people.

The Troubling Co-option of Cultural Appropriation at BC Witchcamp

Once BC Witchcamp was approached with concerns about cultural appropriation and its relationship with local Native people, organizers had an opportunity to face these dynamics. For whatever reason, this does not seem to have occurred in a way that recognizes the organizational culture of Witchcamp must change. In fact, in some cases, it seems as if whitewashing of these issues has occurred.

I would like to point out three instances of this in evidence on the Witchcamp website.

  1. The event is proceeding with the Hindu Ganesha focus as originally planned. If addressing cultural appropriation were meaningfully important to the BC Witchcamp, then it would be expected that this year’s “story” be changed or removed until an open and honest process of education and discussion could be held with concerned Hindu people, Indigenous communities and others familiar with cultural appropriation. This has not happened.

Stopping or pausing the behavior or actions that have been called out as appropriative and problematic would demonstrate an awareness the group does not have all the knowledge it needs to act justly and may not be seeing an issue clearly. To avoid creating further harm, the group would stop the existing process until a clearer understanding can be reached and a more just path forward is created.

This seems particularly relevant as the invoking of the Hindu deity Ganesha (and other deities) is not just an individual workshop or a single offering by a lone devotee, but is imposed on every person who attends through the Witchcamp “story” and its related workshops and spiritual practices. This includes babies, children, and others who may not have the means or awareness to consent to disassociative spiritual energy on colonized Skwxwú7mesh lands that may already have traumatic elements in play.

If one believes they are actually doing “magic” and calling in the Spirit of Ganesha, Shiva, Kali, etc. then these concerns are particularly valid (as are the issues of not getting consent from the Skwxwú7mesh people to call this energy onto their lands).

If one doubts they are calling in the Hindu deities, then they are only projecting their desire and imagination onto an exoticized “other” because it’s interesting or fun. This is certainly appropriation, and its destructive to authentic self-knowing. Lack of authentic self-knowing prevents deep connection and healing.

  1. There is only one scheduled cultural appropriation offering on the main workshop path. All others have been relegated to non-path time. The website states:

“The organizers for the 2014 BC Witch Camp are aware that in choosing to work with Ganesha and his stories there is potential for issues of cultural appropriation to arise. Our teaching team will be working with this awareness in the paths and rituals they present, including a teacher-led offering on “Exploring the Impacts of Cultural Appropriation”; see the description below for more information.  Additionally, we anticipate some teacher- and camper-led optional offerings regarding these issues to be presented in non-path time.  We also anticipate a camper-led offering during path time on issues of cultural appropriation and colonialism.”

It would seem as if the “potential” issues of cultural appropriation (and cultural disrespect) have already arisen. So it appears not only is the BC Witchcamp unwilling to backtrack on the existing theme, but it is unwilling to mainline discussions about cultural appropriation at the expense of the Ganesha/Hindu themed offerings. While I appreciate the attention to cultural appropriation on the website’s Story 2014 page, I still can’t ignore the Hindu story themes are still mainlined while the majority of cultural appropriation education gets put off to optional non-path offerings.

  1. Instead of redefining the theme of this Witchcamp, cultural appropriation has been co-opted back INTO the offending dynamic. Instead of removing discussions of cultural appropriation to neutral spaces, it seems as if they are immersed right back into dynamic that has been called into question.

On the Story 2014 page, in the section headed by, “A word or two about cultural appropriation from the Orgs” it says:

 “The organizers for the 2014 BC Witch Camp are aware that in choosing to work with Ganesha and his stories there is potential for issues of cultural appropriation to arise. Our teaching team will be working with this awareness in the paths and rituals they present…”

So the same teachers that are facilitating the Hindu paths and magical rituals, “ecstatic discovery”, trance, “sacred sexuality”, temple/alter creation, “spell-casting”, “creating elements of magic” and adorning bodies with “sacred ash and sandalwood” are the ones who will simultaneously be ensuring cultural appropriation doesn’t occur?

Unfortunately, it gets worse for me. In the fourth paragraph on the same page, organizers describe how the south Asian Hindu deity Ganesha will be involved in getting rid of cultural appropriation among (mostly) white settlers of european descent:

Each year, we gather and connect to the web of ecstatic life force, transforming repression into liberation in the world for generations. What are the barriers that block us, the obstacles that are personal, collective, systemic? In our world, we see and experience poverty, greed, apathy, shame, injustice, slavery, war, privilege, discrimination, distraction, arrogance, disconnection, cultural appropriation, destruction and cruelty. Ganesha, help us to remove these obstacles to liberation in the world for generations. May our dance call the salmon home; restore the wholeness of time; cry our despair and anger to the heavens and back. May our dance croon love songs to the weakened land and the poisoned waters. May our dance devour the crust around our complicated hearts and make them sparkle like a thousand suns.

We begin humbly: Will you join us in this dance?”

Co-opting issues of cultural appropriation back into the cultural practices in question is deeply offensive. Consider if a group was challenged on the use of blackface, and then said it was going to explore the harmful use of blackface by doing more blackface?   Ridiculous!

But the ridiculous grows into outrageous. In the same paragraph, the Skwxwú7mesh People along with their ancient relationships and ceremonies with the Salmon People are literally replaced by (mostly) white neo-pagan settlers, in the midst of honoring south Asian deities, who ask, “May our dance [for Ganesha] call the salmon home…” Pagans will also sing songs to the, “weakened land and poisoned waters” but apparently not to the Skwxwú7mesh people who are the ancestral stewards and relatives of these beings.

All of this makes the lines, “We begin humbly..” a particularly bitter pill to swallow – and I imagine quite upsetting to any concerned Hindu or First Nations people who may be reading.

There is no humility in evidence. The act of examining cultural appropriation has itself been colonized. Any Hindu objections to the Witchcamp storyline and workshop practices, as well as the very existence of Skwxwú7mesh First Nations people has been steamrolled under the flowery language of good hearted entitlement and the self-justifying belief of individual eclecticism that hides behind, “ultimate spiritual authority is within”.

Just Actions

 I support all Witchcamp workshops that address cultural appropriation, spiritual colonization, and creating healthy relationships with other cultures. I earnestly hope these workshops address the deeper and more critical issues of appropriation and colonization of Skwxwú7mesh lands, relatives, and spiritual relationships. These actions have clearly led to disharmony in communication and an erasure within public WitchCamp materials.

I also believe the following actions would greatly benefit BC Witchcamp in addressing issues of cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, and cultural disrespect.

  1. Withdraw the existing Hindu story of Ganesha and remove the references of such from your public materials.
  1. Develop relationships with Hindu people, Skwxwú7mesh people, and others who can aid in the decolonization of BC Witchcamp.
  1. Change the theme to Cultural Respect and invite Witchcamp participants to participate in extensive dialogue throughout the entire event time on cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, settler privilege, and how to change Reclaiming Witchcamp culture to be respectful of Indigenous peoples and others who may have their cultural and spiritual knowledge taken by (mostly) white settlers as a consequence of eclectic paganism.
  1. Prioritize the attendance of trainers and others who can address these issues with camp participants.
  1. Create specific accountability mechanisms for moving forward including but not limited to Witchcamp guidelines to avoid cultural appropriation and get consent from Indigenous peoples on whose land Witchcamp occurs.
  1. Explore ways to heal relationships with traditional Skwxwú7mesh First Nations people, and center their perspectives and needs in discussions moving forward.
  1. Provide physical space, resources, and encouragement to Reclaiming pagans to deeply decolonize and find their own ancestral people, home places, and cultural practices.

I also invite Reclaiming leadership and other influential persons, including Starhawk, to speak and write publicly on these issues in order to bring awareness to these practices.

Cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, and cultural disrespect within Reclaiming paganism deserve to be prioritized and addressed. These attitudes and behaviors prevent effective solidarity with Indigenous peoples and other people of color, enforce white settler supremacy and colonialism, and prevent healthy relationship building with those affected.

Reclaiming and Reclaiming Witchcamps can do better.

Harm none.

I’m available to discuss this letter at any time, and offer my experience on dealing with these issues. I can be reached at decolonizebizi [at] riseup.net and my phone # is available on request.


This is a follow-up to the original open letter: An Open Letter to the British Columbia Witchcamp on Issues of Cultural Appropriation & Respect.

UPDATE: It’s been 12 days since the original letter was sent. As of Tuesday morning August 5, there have been NO CHANGES to the BC Witchcamp website. I’ve not heard personally from the BC Witchcamp or even received an acknowledgement of the concerns that were sent in the original letter. Public conversations have occurred with members of Reclaiming, and people who have been communicating privately with camp organizers.

I would like to share my appreciation for the public conversations that are occurring and for the hosting of these conversations at Witches Union Hall. Conversations about white settler supremacy can be very challenging but very necessary. At the same time, let’s take care that drawn-out conversations among privileged white settlers are not used to evade the actual action of dismantling white supremacist structures.

I’ve intentionally been direct in provoking this conversation. That should not be mistaken for a lack of care for the individual people who are receiving the letter and who may be participating in this dialogue. The time and energy I’ve put into this process says otherwise.

This open letter was written to provoke honest conversation and action on apparent issues of cultural appropriation, cultural disrespect, and spiritual colonialism within the BC Witchcamp (as evidenced by its public website), as well as some elements of Reclaiming paganism in general, which birthed this and other witchcamps. This is not just about the witchcamp relationship with Hindu deities, but its relationship with the Indigenous peoples whose land this camp occupies.

For pagans resistant to the provoking of these conversations, I have to point out both BC Witchcamp organizers and others surrounding them have been invoking help in confronting questions of cultural appropriation. What if these letters are part of the answers being offered?

Why Are You Bringing This Up Now?

I’ve been asked why am I bringing this issue up now when other witchcamps have occurred under similar story themes.

  1. I have questioned Reclaiming on these issues before. As early as 2004 during the G8 Summit protests in Brunswick, GA I questioned the use of Carib-West African deities in ritual by influential Reclaiming witches. In 2005, at a gathering of the Living River group of Reclaiming in North Carolina, I also brought up this issue (and others), as it was visible among multiple participants. And at the 2009 G20 protests in Pittsburgh, I offered a decolonization skill share to a small number of Reclaiming witches and other pagans.

In January of this year I sent out a Call for Submissions: “Decolonizing Paganism and Witchcraft” through Awakening the Horse People to members of Reclaiming I know. It was also sent widely to a wide variety of neo-pagan, heathen, and similar groups. I initially received no response, and have finally received two articles, both of which are problematic from a decolonizing perspective.

  1. I have a responsibility to my Native family, and as a settler on stolen Indigenous lands, to question acts of white settler supremacy when I experience those behaviors.  A large part of my current family (and extended family of friends) are Indigenous people of different nations including Tetuwan Lakota, Anishinaabe, and Comanche.

 I have personally seen the frustration and pain in my family caused by cultural appropriation and spiritual colonization. I’ve seen their tears, received their anger, and also learned from the Indigenous understanding of these actions and their affects in the world. It’s frustrating. Cultural appropriation is literally everywhere we go, and we hear the worn out record of evasions that gets played whenever white settlers are questioned. Perhaps you can empathize when I say I don’t want my family to cry, or get angry any more.

  1. I do not feel safe around people engaged in cultural appropriation either. From my own experiences I have learned how difficult it is to find a safe space where cultural appropriation or spiritual colonization is not occurring. It affects what groups I am comfortable in, what events I want to attend, and even what communities I feel safe to live in. In groups where there is little awareness, seeking accountability is often met by multiple people derailing these conversations, unwilling to look deeper into these dynamics. It’s exhausting.
  1. It’s always the right time to deal with our stuff. It has been often said that white settlers are hungry ghosts. Appropriation and spiritual colonization are not healthy. I see what it’s done to people of european heritage – the disassociation from authentic self-knowing, the faulty illusions of deep connection, the diversion from authentic ancestral relationships, and the prevention of healing colonial traumas.

Is This Really Cultural Appropriation?

While there may be some uncertain areas of cultural borrowing, what constitutes appropriation and theft has been fairly consistently defined by many including the following articles:

The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation by Jarune Uwujaren

Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation? from Unsettling America

Wanting to be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft by Myke Johnson

Cultural Appropriation: Is it Ever Okay? By Leeanne Duggann

And even though the use of Hindu deities by certain practitioners at Witchcamp may not be appropriative, the imposing of this foreign cultural/spiritual narrative on other participants who are not Hindu appears to be. While some Hindus may be fine with these activities, others have raised concerns about cultural/spiritual practices being taken out of their deeply rooted cultural context for general practice or consumption.

And these activities are occurring on Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation lands, completely unacknowledged and made invisible by the witchcamp website and language. Imposing this foreign cultural/spiritual narrative on the land and on other living beings seen and unseen without consent sure looks like spiritual colonialism.

As I detailed above, it is my experience that Reclaiming has struggled with issues of cultural appropriation and spiritual colonialism. These actions are in direct conflict with its stated Principals of Unity.

And it’s worth reflecting on, those same Principals can also be twisted into unhealthy self-justification of virtually any act, when they state, “ultimate spiritual authority is within.”

While this idea may be true within a personal practice, when one extends those practices to a group of people, on another culture’s land – then claiming “authority” to basically do whatever feels good becomes another example of white and/or settler privilege.

 Why Did You Make This an Open Letter?

For those of us who are settlers on the stolen lands of Turtle Island or North America, we each have a responsibility to challenge and undo white supremacy culture and settler colonialism, and the devastating conditions caused by these systems. This requires us to reflect critically on the stories being told in our communities and the ways these narratives take up space and crowd out the experiences and understandings of Indigenous people and people of color.

This requires us to step back. Be humble and cautious. And when our behaviors may be harming others – to stop – even if we do not yet understand how. In consideration of this, I chose to post an open letter for several reasons:

  • Indigenous Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) people have the right to know about, read, and contribute (should they wish) to conversations that involve settler activities on their lands. This applies further to Indigenous people and others in general, whose cultures are being used, disrespected, or appropriated by white settlers without their consent.
  • Historically, white people have avoided accountability for white supremacist behaviors and transformation of white supremacist structures by derailing uncomfortable conversations into “private” meetings and discussions where tone and content are policed. Expectation of “privacy” is an example of white privilege. My intent is to break through this dynamic.
  • A public conversation may provide valuable education to other groups and individuals with questions about these issues. I have already received positive messages this is occurring.
  • The witchcamp is basically a public event, with a public website, featuring the content in question. Unless the event or its organizers have something to hide or protect, then why wouldn’t these public conversations and the content they provoke be welcomed?

Criticism of the Letter

I would also like to address some of the criticisms or questions I’ve heard for the way in which the letter was written.

I’ve heard comments that the open letter was “tear down culture”, that I’ve not been considerate enough of the organizers, that my tone was judgmental or otherwise inappropriate, that the organizers are good people, that it would have been better if I had spoken to them directly, and (paraphrasing here) I’ve been unfair to the organizers.

I’m going to be direct here: I’m not primarily concerned that the organizers are “good people” (I’m sure they are) or that their feelings are privileged in this conversation. White settlers and settlers of all kinds are centered enough in this world. I am trying to decolonize this dynamic by de-centering white voices, feelings, and needs and making space for Skwxwú7mesh First Nations people, Hindus and others to be considered.

White people are always considered – it’s built into the system of white supremacy. I don’t care to support that. I seek a process where Indigenous peoples are centered in this conversation. It’s their lands and cultures in question.

 Where do We Turn?

My personal experiences have shown me it’s often difficult for white settlers to know who to talk to, who to ask, and where to turn within Indigenous communities. Especially those communities that have been heavily impacted by colonization, assimilation, divide and conquer tactics, and the dysfunctions of inter-generational poverty – trust can be hard to come by, and it can be very difficult.

And if we are talking about gaining access to traditional Native people, elders, or people whose first language is not our own, then it may become even more of a challenge. We may be stonewalled or misdirected as a way to protect surviving cultural knowledge.

But it’s not impossible. And in fact, uncovering why we lack the ability to access these communities, the knowledge of who to ask, why we don’t get an honest answer, or why there may be no one to ask who knows or remembers traditional ways, holds critical lessons for us.

 Burden of Proof

Taking advantage of Indigenous communities disrupted by colonialism, by deciding you can’t or don’t need to engage them, is opportunism and another form of settler privilege, i.e. colonialism. This rationalization lures with the idea Native people can’t decide for themselves because they are angry or divided – so we can do what we want.

When this is the case, then the right action is to withdraw so Indigenous people can have the space to figure out what is needed to heal from colonial forces.

Settlers have the same burden of response when we are questioned on issues of cultural theft or disrespect – to withdraw. Stop the busy-ness of what we are doing. Remove anything that might be harmful. Reconsider our actions. Get more feedback. Do the uncomfortable work of authentic self-reflection. Listen!

White settlers – whether we are “good people” or not, have a responsibility to demonstrate that we have done the work. especially in a public gathering of a spiritual nature on Indigenous lands – the burden of proof is on us.

This proof has no evidence on the BC Witchcamp website – its public face. If I am wrong, and this work has been done – then great! But if so, then why is their no acknowledgement of that process in the witchcamp public materials? Why is there no mention of the Skwxwú7mesh people, acknowledgement of using their lands and resources, and the activism of First Nations people in defending their traditional lands?

A Bad Story of Good People

Several years ago in the community where I lived near Asheville, North Carolina, I saw a flyer announcing a spiritual retreat to be held in the community meeting hall. A group was gathering to practice “shamanic” techniques, and then attempt to alter the nature of water – from polluted to clean.

I felt concern on several levels, not the least of which was the treatment of Water as a non-living object to be controlled and manipulated by humans for pleasure.

In my understanding, Water is a powerful living being, and right relationship and stewardship with the being we call Water on that land resides with the Tsalagi Cherokee People.

And I knew all or most of these people would be of european heritage. As people of european heritage we have our own decolonized, place-based understandings of living Water. Shouldn’t we learn those before we start experimenting with spiritual techniques taken out of cultural context and packaged as “shamanic” and used on another people’s lands?

So on the morning they were to begin I visited. After polite introductions to this obviously good-hearted group of white women, I calmly pointed out the powers of learning our own cultures, and the problems with taking spiritual tools – shamanism- out of cultural contexts. I pointed out we were on Cherokee lands, and that before doing ceremony and spiritual work with a living being as powerful as Water on their lands, it would be respectful protocol to ask the Cherokee for permission and guidance. I shared a story as example. I offered to give the numbers of my Cherokee friends and contacts so they could begin this process. All they had to do was call me. They offered their very effusive thanks, and I left.

All weekend I waited for a call that never came.

On Monday morning, I ran into a neighbor that had attended the gathering. I asked her, “How did the retreat go?”

“It was wonderful,” she offered with a big smile.

I said, “No one ever called me about contacting people in Cherokee. Did you have other contacts there?”

“No,” she replied reverently. “We decided we would contact the Cherokee ancestors ourselves, in the spirit world, and ask their permission.”

I had to fight to keep a normal tone, “Oh, and how did that go?”

She bubbled, “It was great! They said yes!”

I walked away sad at the unconsidered arrogance and privilege of these “good hearted people”, who were so completely colonized in their spiritual seeking – they could justify disappearing living, breathing, surviving Cherokee people from their awareness. The Trail of Tears was completed within these “good hearted” people. The Cherokee people had been fully removed this place – physically, culturally, spiritually. They were no longer needed.

Transformation is Possible

Many of us in this conversation seek transformation of the unjust systems of this world. For white settlers of european heritage in this conversation, I would like to offer a path of accountability, decolonization, and reconciliation:

  • Being accountable to Indigenous communities and other communities of color – even when it is uncomfortable or the communities appear to be in disarray;

The Original Request for Action

  1. Withdraw the existing Hindu story of Ganesha and remove the references of such from your public materials.
  1. Develop relationships with Hindu people, Skwxwú7mesh people, and others who can aid in the decolonization of BC Witchcamp.
  1. Change the theme to Cultural Respect and invite Witchcamp participants to participate in extensive dialogue throughout the entire event time on cultural appropriation, spiritual colonialism, settler privilege, and how to change Reclaiming Witchcamp culture to be respectful of Indigenous peoples and others who may have their cultural and spiritual knowledge taken by (mostly) white settlers as a consequence of eclectic paganism.
  1. Prioritize the attendance of trainers and others who can address these issues with camp participants.
  1. Create specific accountability mechanisms for moving forward including but not limited to Witchcamp guidelines to avoid cultural appropriation and get consent from Indigenous peoples on whose land Witchcamp occurs.
  1. Explore ways to heal relationships with traditional Skwxwú7mesh First Nations people, and center their perspectives and needs in discussions moving forward.
  1. Provide physical space, resources, and encouragement to Reclaiming pagans to deeply decolonize and find their own ancestral people, home places, and cultural practices if possible.

Wishing us the understanding, love, and courage of our ancestors to make good choices on these issues in the days ahead.

Naomi Archer (Ana Oian Amets)

Awakening the Horse People

8 thoughts on “Decolonizing Pagan Witch Camp

  1. Pingback: Open Letter to BC Witchcamp on Issues of Cultural Appropriation & Respect | Awakening the Horse People

  2. All cultures that exist today came into existence through the blending of multiple cultures, almost always as a by-product of colonial violence, genocide and rape. The imagery, symbols, ceremonial systems, names and attributes of gods, etc., carry from one culture to the next in bits and pieces, always ‘decontextualized’, otherwise there would only be one culture on this planet by now.
    Also, in regards to the several points, instead of just one, about whose territory these people are on, and how the fact that the land we’re born on is someone else’s, and we don’t have the option of returning to our ancestral homeland, we should have permission to bring ‘foreign gods’ or it’s disrespectful… there’s no truth in that argument whatsoever, by the way, but more importantly, why does the author focus only on these kinds of groups and not on the mainstream churches who have more members?
    The creation of a new common worldview is inevitable, it happens every time multiple cultures come together, bits and pieces of all of them survive as part of a whole though the original cultures fade into nonexistence. Right now it’s happening in an unprecedented way, with more cultures and sub-cultures and transitional cultures than every before all melding into each other.
    I see that this scares you, but transitional periods in history are often frightening.
    A future human culture not tied to a certain race or piece of land, will come about as a result of the blending of elements from existing cultures, whether the ‘gaurdians’ of those regional, racially centered cultures likes it or not, we’re not going to separate back into our own ancestral lands and we’re not going to all adopt one single existing cultural wordview
    Instead of fighting a positive process of finding that future worldview, why not try to do something about the huge numbers of people whose culture is industrial consumerism, before that becomes the future common spiritual worldview?

    • Thanks for your comment. Obviously so much I personally disagree with, but don’t have the time to discuss. I may share it in other forums to get additional feedback if that’s okay?

  3. Pingback: Accountability | Weaving Webs

  4. I really enjoyed this article. As an anthropologist and former field archaeologist, I myself have struggled deeply with the issues you raise here. Your perspective is refreshing, and I am glad you have found your voice.

  5. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation: Calling ‘This American Life’ In to Accountability | Change From Within

  6. This is very detailed, constructive engagement I hope it is well met by those it is addressed to. In any case, such clear thinking about these issues is helpful and rare and I am one person who will take your thoughts into my own struggles. Thank you.

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