Tuesday, July 8, 2008


(poster by Ricardo Levins Morales at Northland Poster Collective)

I have copied an important article to share with you, which was published in Sinister Wisdom #52, Spring/Summer 1994. It was written by by Myke Johnson, a white working-class lesbian activist and theologian, whose ancestors are German, Frisian, Austrian, Canadian French, Scottish, and Innu. She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree in Feminist Liberation Theology from the Episcopal Divinity School. She is currently reverend at the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church of Portland, Maine.

I discovered that a later, differently written version of this essay exists online at a website by Hawk. In all instances, the copyright for this essay remains with Myke Johnson.

Past copies of this volume of Sinister Wisdom, known as the Allies Issue, are available from them via their website at Sinister Wisdom. SW is a multicultural journal by and for lesbians which has been publishing for 30 years, a unique women's voice which very much deserves our support.

Jump to after the fold for the article.


(Chrystos, Menominee poet and activist, photo by Jean Weisinger)

You can't hear the grass breathe
because you're too busy talking
about being an Indian holy woman two hundred years ago
You sure must stink if you didn't let go --- Chrystos

How has racism affected white women's search for spiritual empowerment? How has white women's spiritual search adversely affected people of color? How can we work toward a woman-valuing spirituality which is deeply anti-racist?

When white woman began to be hungry for a woman-valuing spirituality, it was easy to look to other cultures and be excited about rituals and stories we saw there. Encouraged by the new age movement, many white feminists began exploring Native American and African spiritualities. We gravitated toward their greater emphasis on female deities and positive roles for women. We found a resonance with their greater focus on the earth, their grounding in the interconnectedness of all being. Because of our misunderstanding of feminism as uniting women across race and culture, it was easy to jump in and claim these treasures as our own lost histories.

Many Native and African American women have since informed us that is not how they see it. They have introduced the concept of "cultural appropriation", naming as theft the misuse of Native and African cultural symbols and practices by white people. These women of color have asked white women who truly want to be sisters, to be allie, to join them in condeming the new age appropriation of the cultural heritage of people of color. This has been a difficult challenge for white women to understand and take to heart. {See Amoja Three Rivers, Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned, 1990, distributed by Market Wimmin, Box 28, Indian Valley, CA 24105}

This challenge has been a source of deep transformation for me. I stand in a peculiar relation to the question of cultural appropriation because I am a woman of mixed racial ancestry, with both European and Native heritage. I gew up in white patriarchal christian culture, with fair skin and red hair, and only a reminder that we were "part-Indian" to link me to any other culture. It was when I began to reclaim the power of the mothers, that I found my matrilineal descent was from the Innu, who were called Montagnais by the French. My mother line led me to these women who were not white, who were made white by the racist and sexist practice of the assimilation of Native women into white culture through marriage.

Part of my attempt to reconnect with my female Innu roots drew me into exploring "Native spirituality". Luckily, it also drew me into political activity with Native people, for sovereignty, land rights, and religious freedom. It has been my engagement with these real issues and realities of Indian life that has brought me into connection with a me who is Indian. It also brings into sharper relief the me who is white, gives me a deeper insight into what whiteness is in this society. It undercuts that feature of whiteness which is about not having to look at itself, because it is the dominant norm, the "way things are".

This dual identity creates a grammatical problem when I write about cultural appropriation. How do I use "we" and "they" when I am included in both categories? In this article, I want to speak as a white woman especially to other white women. I have heard many Indian people speak out about these issues. It seems to me that it is white women in the women's spirituality movement who especially need to wrestle with these issues, if we are to be true to our commitment to the survival and liberation of all people.

White racism works in many ways. For example, many cultures have maintained a more spirit-including world view than Euro-American cultures. White racism has called these views "primitive" while considering white perspectives as "advanced". To study the cultures of people of color with new awareness and appreciation can be a positive way to undermine that form of cultural imperialism. To glorify or romanticize the stereotypes of these cultures is just another form of racism: for example, to consider all Indians as mystical and close to nature, all Africans as rhythmic and possessing powerful magic. This form of racism is currently rampant in the new age movement, as well as other contexts of mainstream life.

So-called "Native American spirituality" has been a particular commodity on the new age market.* A look at any new age magazine, center for workshops, or even the bulletin board of your favorite women's bookstore, will reveal some white person claiming to have studied "Native American beliefs, traditions, and rituals for many years." They will then offer a course or workshop, for a prise, which will use Native spiritual practices to help us to "experience our wholeness" and "our primal female energies". {Quotes from a random flyer found a women's bookstore bulletin board.}

{*I am focusing on the appropriation of Native American cultures because I am most familiar with and engaged in this particular battleground, and because this is perhaps themost popular culture for such an assault. However, the principles of which I am speaking apply also tothe appropriation of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern spiritual and cultural heritage.}

Andrea Smith, Cherokee activist and member of Women of All Red Nations, points out that actual Native religions are diverse community based religions, and reflect the particular need of each community. "The 'Indian ways' that these white, new-age 'feminists' are practicing have very little basis in reality… they do not understand Indian people, or our struggles for survival, and thus they can have no genuine understanding of Indian spiritual practices." {Andy Smith, "For All those Who Were Indian in a Former Life", Sojourner, Vol. 15 # 3, November 1990, p.8. Now in the anthology Ecofeminism and the Sacred, edited by Carol J. Adams, NY:Continuum, pp. 168-71.}

Janet McCloud, Tulalip elder and fishing rights activist reflects,
"First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game …Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they're medicine people. And they'll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for fifty bucks. It's not only wrong, it's obscene. Indians don't sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in the very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet. {From "Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men," in Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians, Monroe, ME Common Courage Press, 1992, p. 217. Originally published in Z Magazine, Dec 1990}

Paula Gunn Allen, Laguna Pueblo author and teacher, sums it up by saying, "You cannot do Indian spirituality without an Indian community,… it's physical and social and spiritual and they're fused together." {Jane Caputi, "Interview with Paula Gunn Allen", Trivia 16/17, Fall 1990, p. 50.}

There are also Indian individuals who are marketing these practices. Some Indian people who become "teachers" of white people defend the practice by saying it is time to share these wisdoms. They put forth the idea of a "rainbow tribe", composed of people of all races and nations living together in harmony. I have noticed, however, that the context of this sharing is in white dominated new age circles, not in Indian communities. McCloud comments "They're thieves and sell-outs, and they know that, too. That's why you never see them around Indian people anymore." In 1980, a resolution was passed by the Circle of Elders of the Indigenous Nations of North America against Indians "who use spiritual ceremonies with non-Indian people for profit." In 1984, the American Indian Movement passed a resolution supporting the Elders. {AIM Resolution, May 11, 1984, at Sovereign Dine Nation, Window Rock, ASTHMA. Full text is in Churchill, op.cit., pp 226-28.}

When I am in Native political and community contexts, among those who are struggling against oppression, I hear these sentiments echoed over and over again. Yet when I am in white and multicultural feminist contexts, women seem to have a really hard time understanding cultural appropriation. "I cannot see the harm to worshipping the Goddess in whatever cultural form you can relate to" writes one woman in a letter in a women's spirituality magazine. Another echoes in a more disgusted tone, speaking against "politically correct" wiccans/pagans saying I can't worship the Goddess(es) that I want to (that speak to me) because I'm of 'European descent' and am therefore committing 'Cultural Genocide' no matter what I do." {Sage Woman #17, 1991, pp. 45-46}

By denying the spiritual and political autonomy of Indian people, the New Age "rainbow" people subvert whatever good intentions they may have about multi-cultural community. What gets created is multi-cultural white middle class dominance in yet another form.

An even more ominous excuse I have heard, also from both new age white people and Indian "teachers", is that native peoples are dying out, and therefore these treasures much be passed on to whites so they are not lost. White Americans, at least in the United States, like to believe that Indians are a phenomenon of the past. This creates a climate in which denial can be maintained about current day assaults on Indian land and livelihood. Indians are not "dying out" but they are being killed even today, by radioactive mining, environmental waste, and FBI bullets, among other things. They are also fighting back and surviving.

I don't mean to discount the fact that there are Indian people on all sides of this issue. Like all groups of people, Native people have many different opinions and political leanings. But if we are concerned about fighting oppression, I believe it makes sense to pay attention to those Native people who are fighting against the oppression of their people. At some point, we have to choose those with whom we are going to make alliance.

To better understand cultural appropriation/theft and its deadliness, and to distinguish it from appropriate cultural sharing, I think an example from European history might be helpful. Cultural appropriation is one of the ancient tools of domination and colonization. It has been going on throughout history, whenever one culture has attempted to conquer another. Battles are not fought only by the force of arms, but also by images and ideas. Any context of domination will include such cultural imperialism. This is not unique to U.S./Native relations.

Many feminist scholars have pointed to evidence suggesting that there were early female images of divinity throughout "pre-historic Europe". The Catholic church took the image of the great mother goddess, and incorporated it as the virgin Mary, Mother of God. It used her early sacred sites for building its shrines to Mary. The church absorbed many such pagan symbols, yet distorted and transformed their meaning and their impact on the lives of the people.

The shift of context, control, and usage created important shifts of meaning and power. The conquerors took what had been an image of empowerment and valuing of women and turned it into an image promoting female acquiescence to male pre-eminence. They were able then to redefine female goodness as obedience, humility, and renunciation of sexual energy. To capture and transform the image of goddess in this way served to further solidify the subjugation of women and undermine ideas fostering resistance.

How is this similar to the cultural appropriation of Native images and practices by the new age movement? I will use the example of one practice, the "vision quest," a ritual found in Lakota culture (with variations in many other Native nations), which is now offered for a price in many new age contexts. In traditional Lakota culture, the vision quest was a time of fasting and prayer in the mountains, and fit into the unfolding of a person's role within their community. The elders of the community sent the individual forth with prayers, and received them back offering interpretation of their visions and guidance for living out their implications. The context was belief that the person's individual life and calling was a gift for the whole group, and their connection to the spirit world would bring them into deeper connection with the community, bringing life to the community. Each existed in balance with the other. {One account of the vision quest is given in Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, New York Penguin Books, 1971, pp 44-66}

When this ritual is brought into a new age context, its meaning and power are altered. The focus shifts to white people's needs and visions. There is no accountability to a community, particularly any Native community. Secondly, the form and structure of the ritual itself have been changed. The focus of spirituality in the new age is much more on individual growth and prosperity. The giving and receiving of the Native way is transformed into buying and selling, a sacrilege in Native contexts. What is called "Indian spirituality" has actually become a distortion. It cannot be relied on. It has been warped to fit another agenda.

What are some of the effects of this warped agenda on Native people? The actual realities of Native communities are erased. Native communities have been under assault for 500 years, and are facing issues of dislocation, poverty, suicide, unemployment, addiction. In Native communities, the recovery of traditional practices such as the vision quest helps build identity and community pride, helps empower Native communities for life struggles against a racist mainstream.

"The process is ultimately intended to supplant Indians, even in areas of their own customs and spirituality. In the end, non-Indians will have complete power to define what is and is not Indian, even for Indians. We are talking here about an absolute ideological/conceptual subordination of Indian people in addition to the total physical subordination [we] already experience. When this happens, the last vestiges of real Indian society and Indian rights will disappear. Non-Indians will then 'own' our heritage and ideas as thoroughly as they now claim to own our land and resources." {Pam Colorado, Oneida activist, quoted in Wendy Rose, "The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections on Whiteshamanism," in M. Annette Jaimes, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, Boston, South End Press, 1992, p. 405. Original quote in Ward Churchill, "A Little Matter of Genocide: Native American Spirituality and New Age Hucksterism," Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 8 #5, Sept/Oct 1988, pp. 23-24}

It is important to notice that Indian people are not saying, "Don't learn about Indian culture." Rather they are asking that white people learn more deeply and accurately about Indian cultures and in a context which does not foster their destruction. "...for those of you who want to know what Aboriginal peple are like, let us tell you. Participate in our writings, feel our visual art, move with our music, hear in your heart our stories." {Joy Asham Fedorick, "Fencepost Sitting And How I Fell Off To One Side,", in Give Back: First Nations Perspectives on Cultural Practice, North Vancouver, BC, Canada, Gallerie: Women's Artists' Monographs, Issue 11, 1992, p. 42}

There are many community rooted Indian writers, scholars, and cultural workers we can support, for example by buying their books instead of the new age impostor books, and helping to break down the barriers which stand in [their] way to full creative and cultural expression." {Joy Asham Fedorik, ibid}

Cultural sharing involves interaction with the whole of a person and community, reciprocal giving and receiving, sharing of struggle as well as joy, receiving what the community wants to give, not what you want to take. Cultural sharing begins in respect, with patience not to make assumptions but to risk stepping outside of our own frame of reference. {For those who would like to learn more about the experience of Indian people and support Native women writers, I would recommend the books of the following Native writers, as a start: Paula Gunn Allen, Beth Brant, Maria Campbell, Chrystos, Louis Eldrich, Janice Gould, Janet Campbell Hale, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, M. Annette Jaimes, Lee Maracle, Leslie Marmon Silko, Anna Lee Walters.}

What are some of the ways we can work toward a woman-valuing spirituality which is culturally located and deeply anti-racist? Part of what feeds cultural appropriation is a deep spiritual hunger in White people. This sense of starvation is very real, but we must realize: Native people are not keeping us from spirit. White culture has broken and disrupted its own spiritual heritage. If we believe there is such a thing as spirit, we can recreate a path to it, we can hope that it will help us in that process.

We need to explore the links of spirit to community. Ask ourselves, Who is my community? How do we negotiate the world together? Where do we find our power: What gives us meaning? What is our relationship to the world around us?

The concept "Indian" is stereotypically linked to a connection to the earth and other species. In reality, we all live here on this earth, our lives equally enmeshed with the fate of countless other beings. These beings can teach us if we are quiet with them. We need to trust that we can begin where we are, who we are, in our own lives. What are the animals and plants we rely on? What feeds us? How can we honor that gift? How can we give back?

We can also look more closely at the deep desires underlying the phenomenon of white people "wanting to be Indian." White culture has attached those desires to a fantasy creation it called "Indian", which is not accurate to the real realities of Indians. But the fantasy can teach us about our own realities. We may find that we recover some lost shadow of ourselves which was projected onto the "other".

Many Native people have encouraged us to explore the traditions of our own ancestors. Whiteness in the U.S. has served to homogenize distinct European (and some part-European) peoples into one entity, generally from the very racist intention of solidifying the Anglo-Saxon base of power against people of color. We can counter that manifestation of racism by reconstructing ethnic cultural identity. People in the mainstream U.S. have been pressured to dishonor our ancestors, to honor individuality and rebellion against our cultural traditions, as well as conformity to dominant patterns. To honor cultural location is a profound transformation of a way of thinking.

I think it is important for white women to acknowledge the risks involved in exploring a woman-valuing white spirituality. While the fantasy image of the "Indian" has been romanticized and spiritualized, the fantasy image of the "witch" is as sinister and belittling as ever, despite occasional "good witch of the North." Women accused of being witches were burned and tortured. We carry in our collective European psyche the memory of this gynocide.

When we face ourselves as white women, we face this loss, this tremendous assault on female power and value, perpetrated upon us by our own people. To embrace woman-valuing spirituality that is Euro-based implies a rebellion against the dominant "spirit-world" of Euro-Christianity. For white women to reclaim the word witch is to bring this rebellious aspect of our search into the open. There is a risk in this and tremendous power.

To be allies in the struggle against cultural appropriation, to find grounded cultural sharing, we need to realize that the answer will not evolve as a set of rules we can follow. Nothing will earn us a certificate of innocence. Cultural appropriation is much bigger than any specific, individual dilemmas. We need to understand it is in the context of structural racism. Racism is a system of oppression in which the structures of society are operated and controlled by white people. Racism combines prejudice against people of color with political, economic, and social power over their lives. Cultural appropriation is the use by a dominating or colonizing people, in this case Euro-Americans, of cultural and religious ceremonies and articles of a people experiencing domination or colonization, in this case Native Americans. On a fundamental level, cultural sharing will not be possible until we end racism. In the meantime, only when we wholeheartedly join the struggle to end racism, and all oppression, can we begin to experience cultural sharing.

I want to close with some advice offered by Chrystos:

Take nothing you cannot return
Give to others
give more
Walk quietly
Do what needs to be done
Give thanks for your life
Respect all beings
& it doesn't cost a penny

{from the poem, "Shame On!" in Dream On, Vancouver Press Gang, 1991, p. 100-101}

For more information about how to be an ally, I recommend reading the work of Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, especially her Working Assumptions and Guidelines for Alliance-Building and Working Assumptions for White Activists on Eliminating Racism: Guidelines for Recruiting Other Whites as Allies.

For more information about Chrystos, you can read her Voices from the Gaps biography.


The Minstrel Boy said...

nice find maggie. i seem to find myself, quite often, having myself and my culture explained to me. it depends on my mood how i respond. i try to explain that there really is no such thing as a "native american" perspective. even among the apache there are many, wildly different subsets who mostly don't even like each other all that much.

a friend and i often host a pretty open, and open-minded sweat lodge. we have had our beliefs and ceremony both explained and criticized by both white folks and folks from other nations. one devoutly earnest oglalla tried to prevent us from "doing everything wrong" by pointing out our "mistakes" and "errors" without even imagining that there would be other cultures that do things in a different way.

after one long night where we hosted a group of "white indians" (don't get me started dear) as they were leaving, one of them spoke a truth that had been revealed to her in the lodge. as she gave me a small gift of thanks she said:

"i finally understand that this is something i do but it's something you are."

i gave her a macaw feather and told her she was welcome in my lodge anytime. the next time she attended she wanted to talk about peyote.


kat said...

This article was really fascinating. As was your experience, minstrel boy.

I don't know if it relates, but the opera I'm in at the moment is being staged in a kind of "cross-cultural" way. It was written in 12th Century, in Germany, and is a dialogue between a soul, the virtues and the devil.

We are performing it dressed in kurti (indian/pakistani ourfits) and are doing some simple classical Indian dance. The choreographer is apparently very well known in the classical dance communities of India and the US.

It's interesting to think about this piece performed as we're doing it, because it was written by a Christian mystic (who was a woman!!), and some of the themes are apparently echoed in Indian mysticism of the same period (according to our choreographer).

Here's my issue: There isn't an Indian or Pakistani among us. There are lotsa white girls, a few "ethnic white" a few East Asian.
I'm afraid that we're going to end up looking like caricatures, or like we're appropriating something and doing it badly, at that.

Not that I think our show will be bad. Just that we might not communicate the point of the comparison with any success.

Oh, yeah, and that none of us can do that "head thing." D'you know what I mean by the "head thing"?


The Minstrel Boy said...

is that like a sideways neck jive?

kat said...

yeah, that thing.

I think one person in the whole cast can actually do it. The rest of us look like nobs.

april said...

Marvelous find Maggie!
I am trying to walk that line of cultural discovery and appreciation that is not appropriation. Most days I lose track a bit. Other days I can see the path but not where I am on it. Still other days I feel like a wanker who should pull her head in.

Oh minstrel boy, I feel your pain about the peyote-seeker. LOLing through the tears.

kat, I think you should go for it. Everyone has to look like a nob a few times before they die. Give it your best.

Hawk Silverstein said...

Chrystos is my favorite poet.
The most honest poet out there!

I'm glad to see that people are talking about Myke's wonderful essay also. She contacted me shortly after I got the whole thing typed up - it took me a week - and she was pleased that people are still discussing it.

Unfortunately, Geocities is closing on October 26, 2009 and my site will no longer be available. I'm in the process of converting it to a new site. The link is:


I've also added essays by Helene M. Hagan and Terre Jean and an interview by Wendy Rose

It should have a message board where you can leave your thoughts, announcements, interesting blogs etc.

Thanks for supporting my site,

peace & justice,

Hawk Silverstein