As a druid, someone who connects to the local landscape spiritually, I’ve gotten my fair share questions about cultural appropriation and druidry’s relationship to indigenous practices, particularly traditions indigenous to the USA. The conversation may go something like this, “So druidry, is that like Native American?” My response is, “Druids and Native Americans both honor and respect the land, and see spiritual significance in nature. However, Druidry comes from a different cultural tradition (the British Isles, particularly Wales) and our relationship with the land, spiritual practices, and celebrations are completely different than indigenous peoples in North America” Another thing that happens with some frequency is that I describe something on this blog, like land healing, building sacred spaces, or other such spiritual work. And someone who has never commented before leaves a comment that says something like “You don’t have a right to do that, this land belongs to Native Americans” or “You need to ask permission from those who used to live here to work spiritually with the land.” In my time in druid leadership in various places, I see a lot of white druids seriously grappling with these same kinds of questions and issues–and so I want to share my thoughts.
Another observation: here in the US, white people who are trying to reconnect to their land spiritually carry around a lot of baggage. Guilt about the atrocities that were committed so that we could live on this land, guilt about what was done before we were born, guilt about always being an “imposter” here on the land, guilt about living here now. Even if you don’t know your family history, if you are white, the cultural history and legacy of the broader US are more than sufficient. There’s also a lot of fear–fear of connecting deeply with nature, fear of appropriation (even inadvertent appropriation), fear of doing something wrong, of somehow doing more damage than has been already done. I never realized the extent of this fear and guilt–even within me–till I met druid who had recently came from Europe and moved to the US. I connected with her at a druid event where I was leading a workshop and ritual. After the workshop, she said to me that she felt that Americans were so afraid of their land. After her comment, we had more discussions and I started to pay attention, and I realized how acute her observation was, even within me. I’m afraid I will do more harm and dishonor the ancestors of the land that came before me. I want to do good. Culturally, there’s also this idea that if you are a white person, you really don’t have the right or privilege to connect with the land here. So the guilt sets in, the fear sets in, and people do nothing. How, then, can white American druids build a relationship with nature, given these cultural complexities? How can we build a relationship rooted in honoring the ancestors of the land and recognizing culturally, what work we have to do? And, do we have a right to do so? And why should we? Those questions are the subject of today’s blog post.
Building connections with nature
As I’ve discussed before on this blog, druidry as a spiritual path is ultimately about connection and relationship building. People who find druidry and take up the druid path are concerned with building deeper connections to nature, physically and in spirit, and in living a life that is nurturing of the earth rather than destructive of her. People from all walks of life, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc, can join the druid tradition; it is open to anyone who seeks this path. I want to frame this entire discussion about cultural appropriation in terms of relationship, as I think it is a useful and productive lens. So let’s start by thinking about the definition of relationship. Here are a few dictionary definitions, useful to get us started. Definition A: “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected” and B: “the way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave toward each other.” In the case of druid practice, we are exploring ways that we, as 21st century human beings living in specific ecosystems, and coming out of specific cultural and historical traditions, connect spiritually with our living ecosystems around us. My definition here, then, accounts not only for a specific person, but that person living in a specific context, and bringing specific history with them. And it is this “cultural and historical context” that has everything to do with appropriation–but also, nature relationship.
Here in Pennsylvania, prior to white colonization, old growth forests covered the land, producing massive amounts of mast crops (acorns and chestnuts) with about 1/3 of the total forest cover in hardwood nut trees; streams were clear and full of fish; animals and hunting lands were abundant. Native Americans, as M. Kat Anderson describes in Tending the Wilds, tended these lands and had them in a very healthy state of abundance. As non-industrial societies, they depended on the land, build spiritual practices surrounding their relationship to the land, and many tribes had rich animistic traditions surrounding the land and her spirits. Traditions that, in some cases, spanned hundreds or thousands of years. Framing this in terms of relationship–generations upon generations of Native Americans were tending the wilds and cultivating a sacred relationship with their landscape. Every person in that tribe gained strength from those ancestral connections to land, established over generations upon generations. Even for a native person today, those connections are still present, and I think they are beautifully described in the works of Robin Wall Kimmerer, among other native authors.
But a white person’s cultural relationship to our local landscape here in the USA is completely different. Let’s take a look at my own cultural relationship as an example. As a white person living in Western PA in the 21st century, I can trace my ancestors back to the late 1600’s and 1700’s arriving on American soil. My ancestors were some of the first people to arrive in what is now known as Pennsylvania; and some of the first to push westward into Western PA and settle the Laurel Highlands region. My family heritage is Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English (about 75%) and German (25%). The strongest cultural heritage I grew up with was Pennsylvania German (Dutch) traditions, passed on to me in some small ways by my grandmother. This makes me very, very white, and the descendant of coal miners, farmers, steel mill workers, loggers, and other people who worked hard to colonize and extract the rich resources of Pennsylvania to fuel growing industrialization. In our family records, and in my own ancestry research, I know that when my ancestors first arrived, these lands were a cornucopia of abundance and were pristine. Within less than 150 years due to their efforts, these lands were desolate wastelands, extracted of their wood, coal, iron, tannins, animals, fish–anything that could feed the industry. I know from a copy of the Department of Forestry’s Annual Report from 1898 from PA, that less than 4% of forest cover remained by the turn of the 20th century in counties where my ancestors settled. Further, in less than two centuries, Native peoples who made these lands their home were slaughtered to extinction (Susquehannok) or forcefully relocated to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma (Shawnee). When I look upon the lands where I was born, lands that are still the subject of many extraction activities, I have to recognize the colonialist legacy that produced me. That’s the cultural and historical reality of the blood that moves through my veins. Regardless of how much I have personally worked to reconnect with the land, I cannot deny or change this history. My ancestors directly participated in these atrocities. I reap the benefit of them today. My ancestry offers me little positive spiritual “connection”, historical or otherwise, to this land. So I return to my original question, “How, then, can I, as a white druid, build a relationship with nature?”
Acid Mine Drainage–a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region
Probably the worst way to answer these questions is to engage in cultural appropriation. When we look at the above–it makes sense that no white person wanting to connect spiritually with nature wants the cultural and historical baggage that being white on this soil brings. (For the record, it doesn’t matter if we want it, it is ours and we need to acknowledge it and work to right these wrongs). And so, a white person might be drawn away from their own cultural traditions, which offer no spiritual connection to the land, and instead, attempt to shift themselves into a different relationship with nature. Some people choose to do this, most unfortunately, by trying to appropriate various Native American traditions. Some have tried to spiritually practice like a Native American, of appropriate Native American traditions or beliefs as their own, or, in the most extreme cases, even claiming to be offering ceremony in a Native American way or in the way of a specific tribe. I have seen some Native Americans call such people who appropriate their traditions “plastic shamans”; and I think the term is apt. In other words, these white people are attempting to claim the relationship to the land that only Native Americans have a right to. Understanding this issue as tied to relationship, the appropriation is not just about appropriating specific ceremonies or traditions, but really, it is an attempt to claim that indigenous relationship to the land and her spirits. (There are exceptions: in some limited cases, a white person has been welcomed into a tribe or by an elder and taught with intention.)
The relationship metaphor is a really useful one here for breaking down why cultural appropriation is so problematic and why cultural appropriation should have no place in the druidry–or any nature-based spiritual practice–of white people. You might think about your current relationships you have with other people: each one is unique, each one is different. Your immediate and extended family and friend network are all relationships cultivated over a long period of time. Each person in you know has a different relationship with you than any other person. Maybe one friend is fun to hang out with and chill out, but another one is a good travel partner, and still another you can share your deepest secrets with. If you have a partner or spouse, certainly, that relationship is very sacred and very unique. You wouldn’t want another person to try to barge in and claim your spouse as their own–you would rightfully be defensive, angry, and demand that person stop. That’s essentially what I think appropriation is–taking someone else’s relationship with the land and claiming it as yours. It is no wonder that people whose traditions are subject to such appropriation are rightfully upset about it.
Further, relationships are complex and nested. I’m an individual, yes, with my own ethics, spiritual path, and decisions to make. I’ve worked hard to build my relationship with my local land over time. But I bring with me–in the very blood that flows through me–the DNA of my ancestors. I bring with me, for good or for ill, that cultural legacy and that history, the choices that they made, and I am living the benefits and consequences of those choices. As a white person, I simply cannot hope to have the same kind of relationship that a Native person has on this land today–because relationships aren’t just about individuals, they are about cultures and generations of people. Under no circumstances could I *ever* replicate someone else’s cultural relationship to the land, even if I tried. Not only is trying to do so problematic from a cultural, ethical, and historical standpoint, it is deeply problematic from a spiritual one (and I don’t think the land spirits are having any of it).
My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!
Now, let’s take a look at a very specific plant example here, to further illustrate my point. A few posts ago I wrote about the issues surrounding white sage and other at-risk plants. Let’s dig into white sage specifically, as it is an American plant used by a number of native traditions. There are a lot of different perspectives surrounding white sage and whether or not white people should use it. These perspectives range from “don’t even look at this plant if you aren’t native” to “buy white sage from natives and support them” to “anyone can use this plant for any purpose.” I think the first line of reasoning suggests that only one culture can have a relationship with a plant that grows broadly, thus, cutting off that plant medicine and spirit to anyone else. As a druid, I see all of nature as sacred, particularly, the nature growing in my own ecosystem, and I think each person and culture can build new relationships with plants. At the same time, I also think the last perspective is problematic, as that is the source of white privilege and cultural appropriation. What I see as the thing here is acknowledging that other cultures and people may have a specific relationship with a plant, and it is not ok to try to mimic that relationship with a plant. Instead, white druids and others can build their own relationships with plants–relationships that are their own. White sage certainly has chemical properties that may help clear and heal. However, native tribes, such as the Luiseno and Cahuilla people in California, built up a very sacred relationship with white sage over millennia. Someone who is not part of that cultural legacy has no right to try to claim that specific relationship with white sage. This goes back to why indigenous peoples get upset when white people try to appropriate their plants and ceremonies–it’s trying to lay claim to a spiritual relationship that belongs to a culture. If the plant’s use comes from a cultural tradition that you can rightfully access, then great, access it. But if it doesn’t, those doors are closed to you, and you will never have a key. But it will be yours. But what you DO have the ability to do is to create your own relationship. It will be a different door. It will be a different relationship. It will be a different key.
The land, her spirits, here in the US, even after all that is happened culturally, welcome relationships with white people. But for white people living here, these must be *new relationships* and they need to be built upon acknowledging and honoring the past, building trust, and about reparations, accountability, and building trust. It is up to each of us to forge those connections, and for larger druid groups to start to do that on a broader, generational level. In other words, white people have build those relationships ourselves, and they are going to be inherently different looking because of our own identities, cultures, and histories. This is why talking about cultural appropriation matters–because we have our work cut out for us, and there are no easy short cuts. If we want to build deep, meaningful, and lasting relationships with the land here, we’ve got to do the work from the ground up. If we are appropriating someone else’s culture and spiritual practice, we aren’t doing the hard and necessary work of relationship building for our own tradition–hence, we are perpetuating more colonizing behavior.
So, as white druids living in 21st century American soil, we have a lot of work ahead of us. I see at a number of things that we can do to build our own traditions and relationships with this land, and offer this list as a starting point.
A love of the land and nurturing of spirit
Become a nurturer and healer of the land. Reject the cultural values of exploitation and colonization that have shaped white people’s legacy here on American soil. Instead, work to reduce your own ecological footprint, learn to heal the land (through permaculture, sustainable living, conservation, other means), and develop a very different relationship with the physical landscape than other white people, past or present. Relationships with spirits are mirrored on the physical world. To get the land and spirits to trust you, to recognize you are different than other white faces that have come before, you have to behave differently–outside of the typical behaviors of exploitation. This is part of breaking down the past cultural legacy and establishing new patterns.
Honor the ancestors of the land and recognize those who came before you on this soil. I think there are lots of ways to honor the ancestors of the land, and here are a few of those that I use. First, learn about who the ancestors of the land where you live. Learn about who they were, what they did, how they lived, their stories, and what happened to them. For example, the peoples who lived where my home is located now were Osage, Shawnee, and Susquehannock. Today, the Osage and Shawnee are in Oklahoma, which is where they were forcefully moved by the US government. The Susquehannok are said to be extinct. (To find out who used to live in your region, you might start with this site.) Once you know about them, find some way of honoring them regularly: perhaps say their names at the start of your rituals, create a shrine, or do an honoring ceremony as part of your practice.
Support and recognize the rights of indigenous peoples today. If there are still native peoples in your area or region, find ways of supporting them–if they need someone to come to a fight or take a stand, be that ally. If there are not native tribes in your area, consider finding a cause that you can assist in that supports the rights of indigenous people regionally or globally. For example, I donate regularly to an organization called Cultural Survival, which fights globally for indigenous peoples’ rights. I also subscribe to their mailing list, which often has items you can take action on and keep you informed about global developments. I also think, as a white person, it is really important to do the “ground work” to speak up for indigenous rights. Have compassionate conversations with other people about cultural appropriation, indigenous rights, and history. Talk about these issues. Recognize your own flaws and misjudgments. Apologize. Learn and grow.
Recognize that we are building relationships, over time, in a new way. Because we are white people on US soil, we have very little to build upon. We are here, inventing and growing this tradition organically, a tradition imported from white ancestors, yes, but from a far off place. While this is a major challenge before us, it is also a really exciting opportunity. In permaculture terms, we talk about the problem being the solution–in this case, our problem allows us to build something anew. Something that responds to this time, this place, and honors our own path as white druids in the 21st century while not dishonoring those who were here before us. This requires us to deeply invest our time in learning about the land through building nature wisdom, nature connection, and our own rituals.
I hope this piece is helpful for those white druids who are struggling with these issues. For this post, I am indebted to members of Sun Spiral grove, who spoke with me at multiple settings about these issues, and including members of the grove who read and offered me feedback on this post. I also realize and recognize that there may be things I haven’t thought about. This is a tough topic, and I appreciate your respectful feedback. Blessings!