Polytheistic Ethics: Cultural Appropriation

Noted art historian and critic, James O. Young observed that as cultures intertwine, their cultural motifs overlap. But he warned that using another culture’s motifs in art “carries with it certain responsibilities.” For example, Paul Simon often used the motifs of African cultures in his music. Since he approached the act of composing music with respect, Simon kept the authentic voices of the Africans intact. For that reason, many people do not consider him a cultural appropriator.

Young concluded, “I urge everyone to avoid making blanket pronouncements about cultural appropriation. As we have seen, cultural appropriation has many forms. Some examples of certain forms are certainly immoral. At the same time, many examples of all forms of cultural appropriation are morally unobjectionable. … Cultural appropriation is sometimes to be condemned but equally to be avoided is a restriction of artists to their cultural homelands.”

Since many Neo-Pagans integrate the beliefs of various cultures into their practices, Patti Wigington, in “About.Com Paganism/Wicca,” addresses the issue of cultural appropriation. She states, “If you are incorporating a practice into your belief system, ask yourself whether you’re doing it because you’re truly called to do so, or whether you simply saw it in a book and thought it looked appealing. Carefully evaluate the practices you borrow, and make sure if you choose to use them, that you do so with respect and reverence towards their original owners.”

In regards to Native American cultures, Laura Donaldson (Cherokee) believes that cultural appropriation “strips [them] of any historical specificity of contextual depth and interprets them with a colonial logic of cultural commensurability.” Vine Deloria Jr. (Lakota) adds, “It’s about what white people think Indians should be.” Others include in their commentaries that careless people perpetuate the “noble savage” stereotype, lump diverse cultures together, or imply that Native Americans existed only in the 19th Century.

In her review of “Oracle of Shadows and Light” (Lucy Cavendish & Jasmine Becket-Griffith, 2010), Cat discusses the misuse of cultures in this deck. Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Destruction is displayed as a soulful-eyed being who takes bad things away. Meanwhile Amara, the Menehune is a stereotype of a Native Hawai’ian – soulful-eyed long haired girl, who wears flowers. Since this deck does not provide any cultural context, Cat wonders how Hawai’ians or Indians would react to these skewed depictions of their respective cultures. Moreover, she asserts that the authentic voices of these cultures (and others) are distorted and overwhelmed by “cuteness.”

Living in North America, I am mindful that other Gods reside here. In my devotions, I follow the practices of the Religio Romana. For example, I ask the local land spirits (by divinations), if they want my devotion.

Works Used:
Aldred, Lisa, “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality.” The American Indian Quarterly, 24:3. 2000. Web. http://muse.jhu.edu/article/193

Cat, “OMG Your Ethnicity is So Cute.” Cat’s Journal. 19 March 2012. Web. https://tarotreading.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/omg-your-ethnicity-is-so-cute/

Cole, Joan, “Pseudo Native American Tarot Decks: A Picture is Worth 1000 Words.” 2004. Web. http://www.lelandra.com/comptarot/tarotindian.htm.

Cormack, Bridget, “The ethics of cultural borrowing.” The Australian, 18 December 2012. Web. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/visual-arts/the-ethics-of-cultural-borrowing/story-fn9d3avm-1226538593187.

Green, Heather, “The Hula Dance: From Sacred to Commodity.” The Wild Hunt Blog, 23 June 2013. Web. http://wildhunt.org/2013/06/the-hula-dance-from-sacred-to-commodity.html.

Young, James and Conrad Bunk, “The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation,” John Wiley: New York, 2011.
Young James, “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63: 2, 2005. Web. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0021-8529.2005.00190.x/full.

Divination Review: “The Star That Never Walks Around” by Stella Bennett

Stella Bennett. “The Star That Never Walks Around.” Weiser Books, Boston, 2002.

Stella Bennett, a dedicated Tarotist has created a deck combining her Native American heritage and her vision of the Tarot as the “Guide to Wisdom.” (Her grandmother was of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Indians.) Her title for the deck, “The Star That Never Walks Around” reflects both traditions. (It is the Native Americans’ name for the Polar Star (Polaris).)

Demonstrating her extensive knowledge of the Tarot, Bennett includes its astrological aspects in her cards. For the Court Cards, she pairs each with their Sign. The “Knight of Turtles (Pentacles)” is Capricorn, while the “Queen of Butterflies (Swords)” is Virgo. In the Minor Arcana, she matches the suits’ elements with their respective Zodiac Signs. Bennett writes for the “Three of Thunderbirds (Wands, element of fire): Our warrior offers assistance, help, and strength to the ram in distress. The ram represented by the Zodiac Sign Aries and can be headstrong.”

Bennett wrote that designing this deck was a spiritual experience for her. By drawing the cards herself, Bennett could explore the Native American cultures of the Plains, where she lived, more deeply. Each card depicted Native American ceremonies and beliefs. She included ordinary events, since they also carried a message from the Spirits. An example of this was the “Death Card (XIII)” of the Major Arcana. It showed the graves of the men from Custer’s Last Stand next to a platform Indian burial. Bennett wrote, “This card represents the death of the old human spirit and the rebirth of the new spirit of the Grandfathers.”

However, I feel uneasy in using this deck, since Native Americans have objected to their portrayal in various media. Also, they have complained that their cultures are being mined for commercial, Neo-Pagan, or New Age uses. For me, the crux of the issue became where on the “continuum between celebrating culture diversity and cultural appropriation” does Bennett’s deck lay?

In my review of “The Star that Never Walks Around,” I considered the following. (1) Did the deck portray the dignity of the Plains Cultures of the Native Americans? (2) Were the images of a particular stereotype? (3) Were the images taken out of context to be used for various Tarot meanings? (4) Does the authentic voice of the Tarot come through?

What bothers me about this deck is how Bennett mixes the Tarot, Astrology, and Native American cultures. For example, “The Tower (XVI)” of the Major Arcana is represented by the Sun Dance, a sacred ceremony of the Lakota peoples. She writes that “The Tower (XVI)” is a “breaking down of Karmic ties,” The message of this card is “Liberating yourself from old ways and old belief systems will provide the path to a higher place within your spirit.” This is troubling to me since it takes a sacred ceremony out of its cultural context. The Sun Dance has a superficial commonality with “The Tower (XVI),” but is contextually different. The Sun Dance is a personal sacrifice for the welfare of the community. Since “The Tower (XVI)” represents an outside catalyst to instigate change for the individual, the Sun Dance is not appropriate for this card.

A culture can express unique viewpoints of the Tarot, and not be shoehorned into the standard card meanings. I would prefer seeing how the “The Tower (XVI)” is expressed in Native American cultures than fitting those cultures into the “The Tower (XVI).” This is a subtle but important distinction. Bennett removes the original context of the Sun Dance and forces it into an artificial one. This ceremony sanctifies personal sacrifice for the sake of community and is not “a breaking down of Karmic ties.”

Although Astrology and the Tarot are a natural combination, Native American cultures are not. Bennett’s explicit association of Astrology with the Major Arcana Cards implies that Native Americans practiced this form of divination. She makes the logical fallacy that since Native Americans watch the stars, they are astrologers.

Bennett uses Native American cultures to “fill in the blanks” for the Tarot. Rather than depict the various Native American cultures of Montana (where she lives), she lumps them into one homogeneous group. In the process, she also skews the meaning of the Tarot cards as well. Bennett equates the “Royal Road” of the Tarot to be “Trail to Wisdom” in Native American cultures. This is a subtle form of stereotyping, since it assumes that Native Americans today are the same as those of the 19th Century.

Gods Recruiting: Closed Culture: Native American

(I wrote this before Brain Fog came.)

Many people are attracted to Native American Religions, but not because Native American Gods recruit (because They do not). Rather it’s because people are seeking spiritual fulfillment and believe that these religions will satisfy their longings. Unfortunately, this becomes a matter of people seeking the Gods of a closed culture.

From the 1980s, people have sought out those who claim to be Native Americans to teach them how to be one with nature and to follow the “Red Road.” Furthermore, many of these “Native Americans” promoted their books and workshops to attract followers and make money. In response to this “selling of Native spirituality,” many Nations issued statements telling these “Native Americans” to cease and desist. Moreover, tribal authorities stressed that their religions belong only to their particular Nation.

Given the amount of material that is written about Native American beliefs, people feel that they know enough to practice these religions. However, much was recorded by outsider anthropologists and missionaries, who translated what they saw into a Western cultural milieu. For example, these religions are presented as proto-monotheistic with the “Great Spirit” as the supreme God.

Meanwhile, the books written by those who claim to be Native American or taught by Native Americans have their own peculiar theology. From my readings of several authors, they present a monotheistic New Age theology with a sprinkling of pseudo-Native terms such as “Grandmother Moon.” Often included in these books are versions of the “Rainbow Warrior Prophecy,” (Note 1) which stipulates that White people are reincarnated Native Americans, and that they need to follow Native Ways to bring about the New Age of Harmony. Another thing in common is promoting the use of crystals, which is a New Age concept. To bolster their writing, the authors will stress their special status or lineage. (Many will cite each other’s books or credentials for added authority.) These books are appealing because they present what non-Native Peoples want to be true – that Native American Religions are open and should be practiced by everyone. Also, that they present “pure, ancient truths” that are lost to the West.

What do people do if they are called by the Spirits of the Land? Before I became a Polytheist, I was a Nature Mystic, spending as much time as I could outdoors. I studied nature, learned the flora and fauna of my region, and kept a diary of the seasons. I read poetry of the Nature Mystics and wrote short poems to convey my depth of feeling. Even now, I talk to the trees and rocks, and practice reciprocity of giving little gifts for their wisdom.

Nature Mysticism is a union of the self with nature. Going deeper into the transcendental wonder of Nature, the person merges with the living world. Some types of Paganism practice Nature Mysticism and seek spiritual sustenance in the natural world.

I would suggest that people read William James’ book, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” This philosopher wrote many books discussing people’s mystic experiences and placing them in a religious or natural context. I would also suggest that people study the Nature Mystics such as John Muir, Henry Thoreau, Walt Wittman, or William Wordsworth, and others. Their writings will give people a means of how to connect to the land and nature.


Note 1. The Rainbow Warriors Prophecy

Wikipedia: Legend of Rainbow Warriors

“When the earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth from many colors, classes, creeds and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth green again. They will be known as the warriors of the rainbow.”

“The legend said [the Native Americans] would also be joined by many of their light-skinned brothers and sisters, who would in fact be the reincarnate souls of the Indians who were killed or enslaved by the first light-skinned settlers. It was said that the dead souls of these first people would return in bodies of all different colours: red, white, yellow and black. Together and unified, like the colours of the rainbow, these people would teach all of the peoples of the world how to have love and reverence for Mother Earth, of whose very stuff we human beings are also made.”

The Rainbow Warriors Prophecy is actually “fakelore,” and originated in Baptist Missionary tracts.

Other posts in this series:

Gods Recruiting: Open and Closed Cultures

How Gods Find Followers: Intro