How to not steal from cultures, while maintaining spirituality
( Kayla Maurais / Unsplash )
Two days after a white Wiccan woman dabbled in Voodoo in April, she died.
On Twitter, Katelyn Restin posted “let people live and have their own religion.” Two days after she cast a summoning spell and claimed to see the Haitian “loa,” or spirit, Papa Legba, she was found dead in a bathtub. According to one of her friends, she drowned.
This story is frightening. But time and time again, white people have been told not to touch spiritualities unnative to their own without research.
The problem here is not only misunderstanding but entitlement. While she died for experimenting with things she did not respect, those who come from generations of practitioners have died because they could not change who they were.
What is cultural appropriation?
Ten minutes from my house in Tampa sits a mauve metaphysical store.The store is tucked in a cranny, almost magically concealed. When I enter the space, the aroma of incense, candles and essential oils ripples towards me and trickles into my nose. A shrine on one wall features Buddha and Vishnu the Preserver — significant to Hinduism and the Hare Krishna movement. The combination of the two religions struck me as odd. Because sometimes, when someone sells products from cultures they are not native to, each region’s flavor dissipates and blanches to an ambiguous soup.
The store also sells sage smudges, which are sacred to Indigenous Peoples. Through the ceremony of smudging, Indigenous Peoples burn sacred medicines to purify or cleanse the soul.
Amy Willier, who is Cree from Sucker Creek First Nation, said the practice is not something to take lightly. It involves more than an aroma, more than wisps of dancing smoke; it enlivens every part of her being.
According to the Huffington Post, Indigenous People want brands to stop selling sage and smudging kits. To them, selling sage desecrates the herb and practice. Stores like Anthropologie, Free People, Urban Outfitters commodified their spirituality when they sold it. Amazon still does. Sage is only advertised to burn as a physical act, rather than an internal, spiritual undertaking.
Cultural appreciation means you can study other belief systems, as long as you respect their intentions with the practices and research. Cultural appropriation, however, is not just picking pieces of cultures that aren’t yours; It's about colonizers deciding what they like and what they can take. People appropriate because they can, and often because the culture they steal from is viewed as less valuable than theirs.
With the backing of power, the dominant culture can uproot practices their ancestors once upbraided the natives for. The Indigenous People did not have autonomy or choice, and laws like The Indian Act prohibited them from their spiritual traditions like smudging.
Willier said sage is a gift to all — nonnative people just need to uphold the original intentions, without washing away or eroding its meaning. She even said some would be willing to teach others the practice properly.
The documentary In the Light of Reverence told the Wintu tribe’s story of creation. Before the formation of the visible world, the Wintu tribe said spirit beings roamed. Then, the creator called the beings to Mount Shasta and told them to choose a physical form. One chose to become an eagle, another a bear and another a sunflower. But one anxious spirit could not decide. Finally, the little spirit said they would be a human and darted down the mountain. The creator asked the water, fire and mountain spirits to shelter and take care of the human because he doesn’t know his purpose.
To the tribe, the mountain, the rocks and all beings are sentient. And on their sacred land with no physical border, New Age people sing naked and bathe in the springs. To the natives, some New Age practices, imitations of their own, are an offense to the mountain and to them when they invade their space.
“In an effort to find themselves, they are appropriating a lot of native belief systems to plug into it on the weekend — only to get a feeling for themselves alone,” Chris Peters, who is in the Pohlik-lah said. “They fill an emptiness.”
And for the native people, their beliefs are ever present and not just carried for effervescent sensations. Caleen Sisk-Franco, of the Wintu tribe, said out of all the cereal boxes of religions down the line, there is only one Wintu box.
As a white person myself, the question is how can I study spirituality without appropriating cultures?
All those tweets advising baby witches to not steal practices like honey jar spells, a Hoodoo tradition, need to be taken seriously.
But what some find is that spirituality is not limited to a few cultures, and it is etched in the underbelly of many.
In episode nine of the podcast Medicine Stories, Ariella Daly, a beekeeper, spoke of her heritage and the intermingling of spirituality. She is 98% British with Celtic ancestry. According to her, the Irish and Scottish are displaced people too, with a history that borrows from Indigenous wisdom.
Instead of stealing from others, she studies Celtic myth and knowledge. In her beekeeping, she uses The Path of Pollen, a shamanic honey bee tradition based in the British Isles.
Growing up, she said she thought the word "indigenous" could never belong to her. She learned though, that she is not a woman who is a part of an oppressive race and that there is wisdom of