This was basically the question poised regarding a major yearly Pagan event within the past few days. The request explained that a friend of his had just gone to a pow-wow and now he was interested in Native faiths. It included language gushing about Native Americans as "our spiritual ancestors" and was responded to with a swell of agreement, including one person complaining about the word "appropriation" being added into everyday conversation, and another referring to Native traditions as "Pagan." I mean, I'm paraphrasing. When stuff like this comes up I can't help but mentally replace everything with this Family Guy clip:
For those of you who would understandably like to pass on watching it, it's Peter and Lois as a pair of hippies singing a song asking a "Noble Indian Chief" to bring them "his ways," lamenting over his death and asking how that could possibly have happened. The clip is a parody of a very common attitude among whites (especially hippies, new age spiritualists, and yup, Pagans) that betrays a complete lack of understanding of where we fit into an oppressive power structure while engaging in what we think is harmless spiritual seeking.
First and foremost I'd like to express something really important about this: The fact that in the Pagan community this is mostly white people asking more white people about getting more material is a huge part of the problem, and it's the only reason I've decided to write an actual essay on the subject, considering my blog is at its most basic a Pagan blog. Basically, these are people looking for answers in all the wrong places and who in many cases are assuming that famous writings like the Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality aren't referring to "us" for one reason or another (despite the fact it specifically names Neopagans). That said...
Do Pagan events need more Native American material?
The reasons for this are quite plentiful. First and foremost it's important to recognize that Pagan gatherings, websites, books, and vendors already include a lot of information and practices selectively harvested from Native American traditions or done in a Native American-coded* manner. Some are led by people of Native descent, many are not. There are quarter calls involving versions of the medicine wheel, there are sweat lodges, there are drummers, there are art pieces, there are talks about animal spirits using Native American-coded terminology and concepts, and the list goes on.
Next is that most Native Americans--even those practicing Native spirituality--do not identify as Pagans, and more importantly, the reason they don't identify as Pagans comes from very deep wounds that the ancestors of white American Pagans are directly responsible for. Most people who practice indigenous beliefs in any country do not identify with that term because they rightfully associate it with powerful missionaries not only devaluing but outright banning their beliefs.
Most Pagan-identified people, because so many of us are descended from and were raised Christians, have never seriously felt what it's like to be a member of a thriving faith culture and to have that forcibly taken away from us, nor does that usually exist in our recent ancestry. We experience discrimination, sure, but most of us have never experienced firsthand that kind of religious and cultural colonization. This is a big reason why white Pagans are so comfortable calling ourselves "Pagans." That fresh, direct history just isn't there. Our recent ancestors are more likely to be the colonizers than the colonized, after all. For Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, this is a recent thing. Native children were forced into boarding schools specifically to eradicate their culture, forcing them to accept Christianity, cutting their hair, forcing them to wear European clothing, banning them from speaking their native languages, and in many ways these trends continue.
And this is something all of us, as white people living in the Americas, benefit from. All of us. We owe our lifestyle to the uprooting, forced relocation, and murder of the people who lived here before us. Even our Pagan festival grounds are on colonized land, and that will be true no matter how many sweat lodges people perform on them and how many times we say "thank you" or "sorry" to the Great Spirit while we use that land.
One of the responses to this demand for Native material was the appalling statement by one Pagan that "in her region" Native spirituality is viewed as more legitimate than Paganism, and I honestly almost flipped out. This is a false comparison. It wasn't until 1978 that Native spiritualities even got legal protection. Hippies, New Agers, and Pagans (yes, Pagans did it, too) were able to appropriate whatever they felt like from Native culture before Native Americans even had a legal right to practice it themselves. Hippies were subject to ridicule for their beliefs. Native Americans were forced into boarding schools to eradicate them. Whether or not a Native belief or practice is considered acceptable has always been a decision made at the whim of white power.
That piece of important history is something we need to think about when talking about the subject of Pagans learning and incorporating Native beliefs and practices into our own: When we request "Native material" at our gatherings, we are continuing an oppressive power structure by reducing a huge diversity of deeply-held beliefs varying from indigenous nation to indigenous nation to a sliver of that which would be superficially beneficial and appealing to white Pagans. That's not free exchange of information at all. It's yet another demand placed upon indigenous people by white people.
"No, it's not superficial though, this is something I'm deeply seriously serious about!" Alright, I know you probably think that, but if you're willing to boil this all down to "material" and are looking to gain that "material" by having it presented on a platter among a group of predominantly white Pagan outsiders for their consumption, then you're damn right I'm going to consider that a superficial interest. At the very least, why is your starting point other white people and not indigenous people themselves, maybe by taking a back-seat solidarity role--doing things that their communities request of you--without expecting them to just hand over their traditions because you think as a Pagan you're entitled to every faith practice out there?
Finally, I'd like to make a quick statement on that one Native person you know who was totally cool with letting you sit in on their sweat lodge ceremony or whatever. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that engaging in cultural practices with somebody who genuinely wants you there and genuinely wants to give you that opportunity is wrong. People like this certainly exist. Native people--like all groups of people--are not a monolith with the exact same opinion on this subject. If you really have connections of that kind, I am not going to judge that.
What I will say, though, is that you can't just bring up this one Native person as justification for pretending all of the above I just wrote never happened or is irrelevant. There is a world of difference between learning from people when information is offered and grab-assing every Native trinket that comes your way and re-packaging it for white Pagans. And when you decide that the best way to gain that knowledge is through the Pagan community, I have a hard time believing you aren't engaging in the latter.
* -- When I say "Native American-coded," I mean practices that are found in many cultures, but talked about in a way that heavily associates it with Native Americans. For instance, the word "shamanism" is not a Native American term (shamanism is found worldwide), but people very often associate it with Native Americans, therefore it is Native American-coded.