During last year’s Parliament for World Religions a dispute
arose over whether Pagans were properly considered indigenous religions. One person prominent in our community
insisted he qualified by virtue of his membership in a “FamTrad,” that is, a
family held tradition that while practiced in the US today, had its roots old
Other Pagan attendees disagreed. While our NeoPagan
representatives had been the main allies of indigenous peoples getting involved
in the Parliament, and had been recognized by them as fellow practitioners of a
kindred path, NeoPagans had always recused themselves when an event was held as
purely “indigenous.” This was discussed in the blog Jason Pitzi-Waters set up,
which you can hear here.
It’s complicated, interesting, and I think, important.
At the Parliament a Christian Navajo living near the Great
Lakes, attempted to impose her own standards for being indigenous, which would
have excluded most indigenous peoples who were not Indians. Even the Australian aborigines on whose
continent the Parliament was being held.
Truly a mess for folks who like neat packages.
Don Frew, who was among the NeoPagans there, suggested the
proper response to the question “is NeoPaganism an indigenous religion?” was to
answer “That’s an interesting/complicated question.” As a matter of practical politics I think that’s about the
best we can do, but I am not much involved in practical Pagan politics and so
want to tease the issue apart a little more. My off-the-top-of-the-head answer would be to follow Frew’s
response with another sentence: “But for the most part and by most reasonable
“Indigenous” refers to the people of a place whom Europeans
or other more technologically advanced people encountered upon “discovering”
that place for themselves. If they
had arrived ten years before the Europeans they would almost certainly not have
been called indigenous because the word carries with it the sense of long time
inhabitation. On the other hand,
indigenous only makes sense when contrasted with non-indigenous.
At the same time, it seems odd to argue East Indians or
Chinese are “indigenous.” There is
a strong sense that the term refers to tribal societies that have not coalesced
into states although the border lines are blurry. The Maya had cities, a written language, and their
descendents are called indigenous.
All these nonreligious elements trump any religious
criteria. If, for example, an
island in the Pacific had had a Christian missionary wash up on its shores, and
somehow he had converted its population into being good Methodists, they would
still be called indigenous.
People and Politics
“Indigenous” became a political term beginning with the rise
of a strong political identity among Indians. This is important because when “indigenous people” of
different cultures gather, they do so because of their common experience of
colonial domination and a common attempt to address the problems it created
from within their own societies.
An “indigenous religion” then is one that has been or is adversely
threatened by colonial domination.
From my perspective, then, “Indigenous” is primarily a
political rather than religious term.
Most NeoPagans, including this one, are not indigenous in this
sense. And yet practice a religion
sharing more in common with most indigenous religions than with Christianity or
Judaism, and so are usually recognized as spiritually akin to them in a way the
Navajo Christian never would. In
interfaith work NeoPagans often identify themselves as practicing indigenous
spirituality but not being indigenous people. I think this gets it about right.
A person from an indigenous tribal culture is indigenous in
a way we will never be. One easy
way to see a difference is that most indigenous religions emphasize the role of the ancestors as central to their
spiritual lives. We mostly do not.
Another way to see the difference is to recognize that indigenous cultures see
their particular place as spiritually important. This hill, This lake, This fish. We usually emphasize more abstract spiritual forms.
In my view both are valid and represent how different ways
of life relate to the spiritually immanent. But they are different.
NeoPagans and Being Indigenous
What of the FamTrad?
In my view FamTrad practitioners are neither politically nor culturally
indigenous – the two most important meanings of the word in practical use. They may be historically indigenous to
another continent (or their own continent if they live in Europe), but by now
they and their immediate ancestors are culturally modern Westerners. Culturally they share vastly more with
their fellow Westerners than they do with indigenous peoples. Politically their relation to Western
religious and cultural domination cannot help but be different from that of
That being the case, in my opinion at indigenous gatherings
such NeoPagans are essentially every bit as much as any other NeoPagan is. What
they share that is indigenous is no more indigenous than what the rest of us practice.
It is a sign of respect towards indigenous peoples that we
respect our difference in cultural and political experience. Doing so gives
them the opportunity to honor us by recognizing our commonalities, and inviting
us to be their guests in many events.
As they often do.
We are trying to address our relationships with other Pagans
using concepts created by the imperial mind set from a position assuming
“Indigenous” originally implied primitive as well as different and of
long habitation. Now it is being
taken over by “indigenous” people and used to identify what they have in common
underlying their different languages, cultures, and ways of relating to the
world. What they have most in
common is a history of being victimized by imperial exploitation.
They are seeking to turn a term of disrespect into one of
To accomplish this they are seeking to have their cultures respected as worthy ones as well as to gain the
political independence needed to enable their ways of life to evolve primarily
by their own understanding rather than having an alien world view imposed on
them. In other words, I think the
common thread within the term indigenous is an emphasis on culture. It
initially separated them from imperial powers, and now is providing a common
ideal for resistance to the modern manifestations of that power.
We NeoPagans are in an ambiguous position. Our beliefs have long been victims of
this same imperial exploitive mentality.
In almost every case we once shared that mentality. Today we are slowly breaking free from it.
In 25 years of being Pagan, I am increasingly aware of just
how different the world appears when viewed consistently through Pagan eyes
rather than Christian or secular modern ones. Almost everything changes, sometimes a little, sometimes a
lot. It is ultimately much more
profound than simply celebrating Moons and Sabbats.
As we integrate into this venerable spiritual tradition, one
that extends into the prehistory of our kind, we are bringing something new:
the mentality of the modern world.
If forced to use the term, I would say we are indigenous to modernity, and I would argue we are indigenous to modernity far
more deeply than is Christianity itself.
We are moderns who have rediscovered or encountered the spiritual
reality that exists within the world, and not simply transcendent to it. For example, NeoPagans do not
have problems with science anywhere to the degree that Christianity and other
scriptural religions do.
We bring being moderns to a spirituality recognizing the
sacredness of this world and its cycles.
As with any culture there are strengths and weaknesses. Regarding modernity’s weaknesses, which
are many, we can learn from the best of the indigenous traditions. They have much to teach us. Regarding modernity’s strengths, which
are also significant, they can learn from us.
To harvest the best fruits of both indigenous and modern
cultures within a Pagan context, I think we should not try and claim to be
indigenous ourselves to anything but the modern world.
We are not yet really indigenous, most of us, to our
concrete place. Our culture is a “porta-culture”
almost as standardized as the international airports that link us together
regardless of where we live. Like Christianity we also have a portable
religion, and our Sabbats and Circles follow very similar scripts, often
identical ones, wherever we may be.
In this way we are significantly different from most indigenous
But this is a strength if it can be melded with a knowledge
of and respect for the places where we live. When we have finally achieved that
meld, so that our landscape and its energies are truly home to us, and we have
a genuine sense of ancestors, we will have become, finally, indigenous to this
wonderful place where we live.