You may have come across the word ‘decolonize’ lately if you spend any time in the “witchsphere” online, but do you know what it means? The most simple definition of decolonization is the act of undoing the effects of colonialism. When it comes to spirituality, it essentially means the same thing — but with that, comes the need for study. The following article will attempt to explain what spiritual decolonization is, and whether or not it’s something that everyone should consider in their own witchcraft practice.
A brief history of colonization
Ever since humans started walking upright, we’ve traveled — and we’ve traveled all over the planet. This historic spreading made way for a lot of positive encounters and opportunities for trade and the exchange of information. Unfortunately, power-hungry governments have spent their time throughout history taking what does not belong to them — as well as killing indigenous people and wiping out their villages, taking slaves from Africa (and elsewhere) and taking over sacred homelands of their victims.
Even colonists who had no ill will toward the indigenous of the North American continent contributed to the demise of close to 90% of their population. They pushed them from their lands by settling on them, they brought diseases to which they had no immunity and their overall ways of life were detrimental to the balance of nature. The more colonists came, the more land was taken from various tribes. The more people rooted, made families and spread — the worst things got.
Things were no different in South America. When the Spanish “discovered” the region, thousands of innocent tribes were slaughtered violently — leaving many extinct, and some teetering over the edge of extinction. The Botocudo people, the Arawak, the Taino — and many more — were murdered, kidnapped, enslaved and uprooted from their homes to be shipped to various plantations in Barbados and elsewhere.
With the spread of colonization — especially in the past 500 years — the traditions of countless cultures have been either stolen and appropriated, or lost altogether. I wish I could say that there are places that haven’t been affected by colonization on this planet, but if there are — they’re extremely few and far between. Even the extremely isolated North Sentinel Island has experienced tragedy thanks to outside contact with colonizers and nosy explorers.
What does colonization have to do with spirituality and religion?
The short answer: Absolutely everything.
If you’re familiar with any type of world history, like at all, then you’re familiar with how christianity and other major religions have spread across the world. Much of the so-called exploration and other “foreign conquests” overseen by the likes of England and Spain have been powered in part by the intent to spread Christianity — mostly Catholicism. The spread of Christianity in particular is directly responsible for the invasions of indigenous African lands, and the enslavement of their people. The British, the Dutch and the Spanish did not amount Africans and other Indigenous people as human beings because they practiced their own traditional faiths as opposed to Christianity. Over the course of many hundreds of years, countless cultures have been forced-converted and conquered in the name of religion.
The effects of hundreds of years of aforementioned colonization continues to have an impact on people today. White Americans are afforded privileges that wouldn’t be possible had it not been for all of the atrocities committed by our ancestors. And people of color continue to live in the shadow of what their ancestors suffered. Many of us live with mixed ancestries — being made of both the colonizers and the colonized. Nonetheless, most of us live in an overwhelmingly Christian culture — the results of total colonization.
Today, we take for granted the ability to openly practice whatever beliefs we please, but many of our ancestors — in far more recent times than you may realize — were not afforded that opportunity. Once-upon-a-time, indigenous practices were completely criminalized in the United States. Native Americans weren’t given the freedom to practice within their traditions until the late 1970s, for crying out loud! Prior to that, laws in the Southern United States frequently attempted to prohibit the practice of African, South American and Caribbean traditions.
Through pop culture, church indoctrination and the maintained facade of white society, many indigenous religions and traditions have been demonized and painted as “dark” or “evil.” Louisiana Voodoo, Voudou and Hoodoo are all three constantly demonized by white-led media and entertainment, to the point that it is ingrained in white society to be fearful and distrustful of indigenous or old-world African culture. Thus, it has all been accepted as evil witchcraft — when that couldn’t be further from the truth. All of this is the result of colonization and white supremacy.
Who benefits from decolonizing their spirituality?
To be honest, everyone benefits from it. More and more lately, Wicca has come under fire for being a highly appropriative religion that takes much of its “wisdom” from colonized cultures. It’s because of this that many modern witches of color have broken from Wicca in search of more traditional paths. Decolonizing your spiritual beliefs takes you back to your roots, to what your ancestors practiced prior to the invasion of hostile forces and slavers. Native Americans, people of African descent, Latin Americans and even various people of mixed ethnicities stand to benefit from this.
White Americans and white folk in other colonized regions could also benefit from decolonizing their spiritual practices. Being the descendant of colonizers doesn’t mean you don’t have work to do spiritually. Even Celtic and Germanic paths come with some baggage.
The decolonization journey
If you feel like you could benefit from decolonizing your witchcraft practice, there are numerous sources you can start with. This Vice article discusses how people of South American descent are reclaiming traditional Brujeria. And this article talks about how black Americans are un-whitewashing their own practices.