Native American spirituality is for Native American people — but if you’ve spent anytime in the pagan or witchcraft communities you’ve probably seen more non-Native people talking about it or attempting to practice it than actual indigenous people. New age spirituality has a huge problem with appropriation, and the biggest issue is that a lot of people who dabble in Wicca and similar paths aren’t even aware of the damage they’re doing. The following will hopefully give some kind of explanation for why you should abandon this bad habit, and what you can do to help preserve indigenous culture without appropriating it.
Indigenous spirituality isn’t witchcraft
How would you feel if someone took your most sacred and personal beliefs as their own, but only the most superficial aspects of it? And how would you feel if those same people — who are products of a dominantly Christian culture — labeled that spiritual belief as “witchcraft” or “New Age?” The very concept of including indigenous spirituality under the umbrella of New Age witchcraft practice is actually pretty insulting if you put some thought into it.
This is especially true when you take into consideration that some indigenous tribes have their own lore surrounding witchcraft and witches — and not every tribe views these concepts in the same light. While some tribes in North and South America view witchery in a positive or even neutral light, there are indeed tribes who view witches and witchcraft much in the same way that Christians do.
To sum things up: Native Americans are not witches. Their traditional spiritualities — which vary from tribe to tribe — isn’t witchcraft.
You probably aren’t practicing it correctly
Do you even know what you’re practicing, or did you glean some information about indigenous spirituality from a book published by Lewellyn, and now believe you’re the reincarnated spirit of Dragging Canoe? If that’s the case you couldn’t be more wrong, and you should stop immediately. The problem with the mass publication of so-called Native American spirituality in the pagan community, is that the information is often broadly generalized. Many sources don’t even bother distinguishing one tribe’s beliefs from the next — applying the words “Native American” broadly to various practices that are actually shared by specific tribes, and not all of them. The use of “totem animals” and “spirit animals” as well as the use of white sage in ritual isn’t as broadly Native American as some Wiccan and New Age pagan writers would have people believe. For example, not every indigenous tribe in North and South America even use white sage — but many do, and for many uses that vary from tribe to tribe. The same can be said about materials like Palo Santo and sweetgrass, among other plants and traditional items that are intended for the spirituality of specific tribal peoples.
The fact of the matter is that you absolutely cannot properly or correctly practice indigenous spirituality by merely obtaining information from books — especially if those books are written and published by people with no actual affiliations with indigenous culture. Purchasing a book on animal totems written by a European writer named Featherspirit Moonbeam isn’t going to give you the insight or personal connection to these deeply sacred practices, and it’s not going to adequately educate you on just why these beliefs are what they are.
The only way to fully understand and practice indigenous spirituality is to have contact with specific tribes who practice the spiritual beliefs in question. The only true, authentic way to practice native spirituality is to have connection to native culture, to native people and native elders.
Sharing isn’t always caring
It’s very common to hear non-indigenous people make numerous excuses for why they should be allowed to practice native spirituality. The most common arguments focus on the virtues of “sharing” and the so-called “diffusion” of cultures. These arguments only make sense in the most superficial sense — such as teaching children that being selfish is “wrong,” and that “sharing is caring.” But the problem with this frame of thought is that it ignores the very blatant fact that indigenous people were never given the opportunity to “share” their beliefs with non-indigenous people. Their lands were invaded by so-called “settlers,” and their people were decimated through disease, war and slaughter. They were forced to convert to Christianity by the missionaries that came here, and the militants who enforced the so-called “word of god” on the people. Up until the 1970s — Native Americans were not legally allowed to practice their cultural beliefs and spirituality.
Now that Native Americans are “allowed” to practice their traditional beliefs — after centuries of forced-conversion and oppression — non-natives now feel entitled to practicing it as well, under the guise of it being “sharing.” It’s not sharing when you are a part of the oppressing race of people — whether you actively participated in the oppression or not. It’s just more “taking,” from a people that have experienced nothing but taking since the first European colonizer arrived on these continents. It’s not “sharing,” to flagrantly pick-and-choose elements of these practices like a buffet of spiritual appetizers. It’s just more theft by people who have historically stolen from the indigenous folks to whom these beliefs — and this land — belong.
The same can be said about the “diffusion” argument: It isn’t diffusion if the oppressing group — or the group who has held all the power — had to force their beliefs in order for there to be an exchange. Furthermore, it is just more of the Christian mindset to assume that every culture is there for the taking, simply because these other cultures have been forced to adopt practices from outside their traditions. In other words, if your ancestors’ culture involved murdering people who refused to convert to Christianity, then you have no business expecting the descendants of these victims to share their traditions with you — especially since you’re probably exoticizing them anyway.
Dear White Witches
If you want to express your worldly spirituality, you can do so without appropriating the traditions of cultures to whom you don’t belong. If you want to show solidarity with the native inhabitants of North and South America, you can do so without taking from them and adopting their beliefs as part of your spiritual aesthetic. For example, you can donate to indigenous causes and join the public fight for various indigenous rights such as the LandBack Movement and the push to investigate unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.
As white witches who feel entitled to these practices, wouldn’t your energy be better suited to healing ancestral trauma between your ancestors and the ancestors of these people? Wouldn’t doing some shadow work and giving to these people be more beneficial to your own spirituality than hanging inaccurately designed dreamcatchers above your bed and burning stolen plants?
It’s really not that difficult a concept to grasp if you put a little thought — and basic human compassion — into it.