A Pagan's Blog

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Modern Pagans and Indigenous Religion

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
standards, no.”

“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
indigenous peoples.

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
unquestioned superiority. 
“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.

Becoming Indigenous

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.


Comments read comments(14)
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Cat Vincent

posted April 27, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Though my own beliefs don’t connect to this debate (I know my angle is non-indigenous & I really don’t care) the phrase “indigenous to modernity” resonates strongly, and I thank you for it.

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posted April 27, 2010 at 7:00 pm

One way that I sometimes describe the development of Neo-Paganism is to consider it as an acculturation process. More specifically, as an acculturation process that some counterculture oriented members of the dominant Western culture complex experienced as the dominant culture did its best to incorporate them into the dominant culture. Where they did not want to go.
Some folks imagined, made up, became, Neo-Pagans, in other words, as a way of becoming closer and more aligned with indigenous non-dominant, often colonialized other cultures. Because they recognized some elements of common experience and world view in those other cultures. They have “tribes.” We take up “tribal” styles and lifeways.
In many respects, Neo-Paganism began and grew up as a Creole spirituality and world view. It retains aspects of Creole, even though I think that Neo-Paganism, like other aspects of new spiritual movements, have been more or less successfully re-colonized (co-opted) by the dominant Western culture.
Lastly, I would describe Neo-Paganism as a “postmodern quasi-indigenous sub-culture.” Not “modern.” We are the “indigenous peoples” of a/the emerging global culture that is founded in technology and information and creative linking. Not so much in polities and territories.

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posted April 27, 2010 at 7:11 pm

It’s an interesting debate, but usually whenever a non-aboriginal claims to have an “indigenous” trad, it strikes me as a new variation of an old game: “My trad has a real lineage and yours doesn’t” . This nonsense has been with us since Gardner, first with old-line Wiccan “lineages” and then people claiming ludicrous and unprovable familial traditions stretching back (fill in the blank) centuries. It’s another instance of people rebelling against Christianity but taking its worst mental constructs with them. People figure if they have the right “apostolic successsion,” then their trad must be the real deal. To these people, the world stopped making “real” pagans just about the time they had their initiation.
Some of this is fed by white folks insecurity and disconnection from their tribal past. Anything “indigenous” must therefore be noble and spiritual somehow. People are figuring out that it’s not cool to simply steal Native American culture and appropriate it to your own use in cheesy New Age fashion, so they had to reclaim or outright reinvent their own tribal roots, however tenuous and ill-understood they may be. In a way people become enamored with the outward forms and not the spirit of things. Paganism to me is not some ancient lost codex or spell book that one should labor to “recover” or recreate forensically. It’s a living practice. If your tradition or ritual is “valid” it will be valid if it traces to 1662, 1962 or the day before yesterday. If it is fake and contrived, 1,000 years of additional “lineage” ain’t gonna help.

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posted April 27, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Thanks for these thoughts, Gus. I think you’ve nailed some of what I’ve been thinking about in regard to all this; I was never hot on the idea of NeoPaganism as “indigenous” at all and in fact offers some insight into exactly why.

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posted April 28, 2010 at 3:22 am

“”Indigenous” refers to the people of a place whom Europeans or other more technologically advanced people encountered upon “discovering” that place for themselves. … 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”
Frankly, I find this an absurd definition, although I am aware that something along these lines is in use in acadaemia, especially in the USA. No-one I know personally uses “indigenous” in this sense, and it is also not the traditional or etymological meaning, which is simply that of someone who is native to a place or region, with ancestors who have lived there since time immemorial. If I were to describe myself as “indigenous English” or “indigenous to Pennine Yorkshire”, I don’t know anyone who would bat an eyelid, unless they suspected me to be making some BNP-type statement.
If you want to use “indigenous” to mean “tribal” or “of oppressed ethnicity”, for example, you should use those perfectly servicable terms. While we’re on the subject of cultural expropriation, I must say I find it difficult to see why US liberal academics feel they have the right to expropriate the English language.
“Indigenous religion” is more complicated, and I think it should only be used for religion that is specific to a place or region. Types of neopaganism such as Wicca and Asatru are clearly not indigenous, as they are entirely portable, like world religions such as Christianity and Buddhism. Some of the more earth-mysteries-based types of paganism are arguably indigenous – druid worship at Stonehenge, etc., comes to mind. Among literate religions, the more clearly indigenous are Shinto and Taoism, and some types of Hinduism.

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Apuleius Platonicus

posted April 28, 2010 at 10:06 am

The problem with “indigenous” is that in the case of modern Paganism this pretty much inevitably transmorgrifies into “indigenous European”, thus turning modern Paganism into a religion for white people. The most serious problem with this is the very real existence of people who think that Paganism as “the indigenous religion of white people” is a capital idea.
Of almost equal importance are the facts that (1) many modern Pagans are not white, (2) many of the Goddesses and Gods worshipped by modern Pagans are not European, and (3) many of the influences on modern Paganism, such as Qabalah, are not European in their origin.
We should nevertheless continue to strive to find constructive ways to articulate the very real sense of commonality that we feel with those who are less problematically identified as following “indigenous” religions. My own opinion is that a significant part of our commonality lies in the fact that we have made a conscious decision to oppose the spiritual aggression of Christianization.
And something important to keep in mind is that even when used for Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, etc, the term “indigenous” was originally coined by Europeans to be applied to non-Europeans. So even there the term is still far from unproblematic.

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Gavin Andrew

posted April 28, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Speaking as a Pagan who was at the Parliament, a little extra context may be useful. Many Pagans (including myself) found that describing our Paganism as ‘indigenous European spirituality’ was a useful way of re-framing the word in the minds of representatives from other faiths who would otherwise be hostile to us.
For example: “I follow the indigenous European spirituality of my ancestors. You would know this as Paganism.”
Everything I saw and heard at the Parliament makes me believe this is a very effective strategy for initiating interfaith dialogue. Of course, the challenge of explaining who we are to others inevitably leads to questioning our own foundations. Hence the debate, which is not new: I understand people like Oberon Zell were using the term “indigenous European” in the Green Egg as far back as the early 1970’s.
Gus, you say: “An “indigenous religion” then is one that has been or is adversely threatened by colonial domination.”
I think this is getting to the heart of the matter. Chas Clifton’s view is that the word ‘indigenous’ relates purely to land rights claims by minorities. I think this is an important point but ignores the dispossession of language and culture.
The argument of Angie Buchanan (Earth Traditions), one of the Board of Trustees members for the Parliament, is that the near-extinction of European Paganism by Christian hegemony represents an earlier and more complete destruction in relation to what many indigenous cultures around the world are facing now. This is where modern Paganism finds common ground with indigenous faiths and traditions from around the world.
The difficulty with this, admittedly, is that it then raises questions about ourselves, whether we have any authentic links to the Paganism of the past, and worst of all, the nature of authenticity and where it might reside.
Rather than get into a debate with those who see all this as another manifestation of ‘Murrayism’, I think it is fair to say that an important part of being a Pagan is reconnecting with the past. There are many ways to do that, including reconstructionism, the renewal of long-hidden Pagan traditions like the Lithuanian Romuva faith, and the kind of reinvention we see with modern Wicca. As ever, each to their own.
P.S. I must also respectfully but strenuously disagree with your claim that Christianity and modern Paganism are equally portable. My own view is that connection to landscape (wherever it is) is an essential component of walking a Pagan path.

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posted April 29, 2010 at 1:11 am

“Rather than get into a debate with those who see all this as another manifestation of ‘Murrayism’, I think it is fair to say that an important part of being a Pagan is reconnecting with the past. There are many ways to do that, including reconstructionism, the renewal of long-hidden Pagan traditions like the Lithuanian Romuva faith, and the kind of reinvention we see with modern Wicca. As ever, each to their own.”
It looks to me like the pendulum might now be swinging back towards something not unlike Murrayism. “Shamanism”, by Thomas DuBois, published recently, shows that, in parts of Russia and northern Scandinavia, shamanism was hardly affected until the 17th and 18th centuries, and in Scandinavia the witch trials often targeted Saami shamans. He also tends to argue that early-modern witches were followers of a relict shamanism, because many of the reports seem so like Siberian shamanism. I was surprised by the book’s arguments, but the author is a professor, and it is published by a reputable company.

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Gus diZerega

posted April 29, 2010 at 12:43 pm

A brief response to Gavin’s comment on portability – and then on to the body of my comments. Gavin, years ago I was a guest at a circle in Seattle where the HPS said she took great pleasure in knowing that all over the world covens were meeting the same night and doing the same rituals. In this sense that tradition – not my own – was portable. My own Gardnerian tradition is similarly portable. I THINK THIS IS NOT BAD for it helps us focus on what we all share in common.
But when we do not also connect with the spirit of our place, we miss something profound and important. Here we do differ in most instances from earlier Pagan traditions both hunting and gathering and agricultural, who were focused to a larger extent on the place where they lived, if for no other reason than that they were not part of a rapidly traveling cosmopolitan culture. I think one task we have is to try and integrate these two perspectives.
Now to my larger point…
I think we have roots with our Pagan past, not that it concerns me very much as a practical mater. How much of the roots survived is a matter of some conjecture and the (alas oath bound) evidence I have seen suggests it might be significant – but if true, what I have seen takes us to the Classical World. It is definitely a strange and unfamiliar use of the term to apply “indigenous” to the Greeks and Romans. Or to the Celts for that matter. They had all pushed out or incorporated earlier peoples who had almost certainly pushed out still earlier ones.
As a matter of simple fact, the term “indigenous” has come to widespread current use because of efforts by native peoples who were exploited, oppressed, and murdered by colonial powers to regain control over ancestral lands and respect for their cultures and often their religious practices. I think we should honor those efforts, but not confuse our situation with theirs. We face a fundamentally different situation.
First, culturally, ALL of us have our deepest roots in Western modernity. No exceptions. As Margot Adler noticed when she did the research that led to “Drawing Down the Moon,” we are a bookish, better than average educated, and often technologically literate crowd. We are over-represented in computer fields. Much of our initial growth in America came during the 60s counterculture, a group overwhelmingly white and middle class because that is what we were reacting against, searching for something more psychologically and spiritually authentic.
Sarah Pike has argued convincingly in her “New Age and NeoPagan Religion in America,” that the 60s were not truly unique. After the War of 1812 ended, and before the Civil War, there was a remarkably similar period in the US, although spiritually more was within very broadly Christian frameworks on spiritual matters. Spiritualism, transcendentalism, the roots of environmentalism, abolitionism, feminism, anti-war movements, and other cool things developed then.
Religious freedom was pretty new and the nearly fifteen hundred year totalitarian war against alternatives had only recently ended. People exploring spirituality while enjoying freedom and awareness of a variety of alternatives were doing something pretty new – and they had to start with where they began. So superficially that time was more Christian – but they were beginning to free themselves from orthodoxy and open up as never before. Our 60s roots are in their tradition, and so a natural outgrowth of the best of our culture.
We reflect the cultural mutation of the liberal Enlightenment and we should be glad that we do, not in the sense that we are intrinsically superior to others, but in the sense that while we have lost and seek to regain much that our distant ancestors knew, we also bring new contributions of enormous importance. We are not simply impoverished descendents of earlier traditions of practice trying to rediscover ancient wisdom.
For example, we have incorporated into our very bones the principle of human equality. That has never been a Pagan trait until we get to the more sophisticated forms of Classical philosophy. Once we get into agricultural cultures, slavery was a basic institution even in relatively democratic Pagan societies. Nor was the status of women all that high once we entered agricultural civilizations, and it tended to get worse over time as states grew and became more authoritarian. And we are definitely descended from agricultural Pagans to the extent we are descended from Pagans at all.
We also incorporate a way of thinking that incorporates modern science, which has been a major stumbling bloc for scripturally based religions and absolutely depends on modernity to exist.
Finally, we are post-agricultural, culturally. Agricultural society gave us many good things, and was probably inevitable, but it also gave us empires, vast numbers of impoverished people, shifted spiritual focuses from harmony to liberation or salvation, seeking to control nature rather than harmonize with it, and an acceptance of powerful hierarchies socially, politically, and spiritually, both human and divine. I consider all of these noxious and on these matters a devolution from hunting and gathering societies.
By shifting to an urban, democratic, relatively egalitarian, knowledge and industrial base these noxious elements of agricultural civilization have been weakened or destroyed. Whether these advances will survive the primitivist counter attack by conservative Christians is unknown at present, but we represent not simply a return to roots, we represent a massive step forward, helping to bring spirituality into harmony with the best of modernity.
We should look forward and not backward.

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Gavin Andrew

posted April 30, 2010 at 4:58 am

Rombald – I’m not familiar with that book, but it sounds as if DuBois is following on from the work of Prof Carlo Ginzburg – if this area interests you I recommend Ginzburg’s ‘Night Battles’ and ‘Ecstasies – Deciphering the Witches Sabbath’.
Gus – Possibly the HPS you cite had not considered how different the situation might be in somewhere like Australia, where the seasons are reversed and the sun curves to the north instead of the south. Our ‘indigenous’ eucalypt trees lose leaves in the summer and bark in the winter. The energy of the land itself is different, as some Pagan delegates to the Parliament discovered during their visit here. Christians might be able to celebrate Christmas and Easter with no reference to the seasons, but I assure you very few Pagans of any tradition will be celebrating Beltane tomorrow night as the winter cold sets in here. I am in furious agreement with you that it is important to connect with the spirit of our particular place. Perhaps ‘adaptable’ is a better description to aspire to than merely ‘portable’.
I am also less sanguine than you about the benevolent nature of modernity – socially, politically and spiritually. We cannot place the blame solely on ‘primitivist’ conservative Christians for consumerism, the Free Market, and the precipice towards which these things are driving us.

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Gus diZerega

posted April 30, 2010 at 10:28 am

You are right, most likely, about that HPS. Other than the reversal of the Sabbats depending on the hemisphere we were essentially portable – and years ago people “down south” were wondering what to do about it, as I remember. But what I meant by my remark was that for ost of us – nearly all of us – we follow traditions that could be practiced identically no matter where we were, at least so long as we are in the same direction from the Equator.
What is less developed, by far, among modern Pagans is our sensitivity to the energies of place. They are different, important, and I think developing our sensitivity to them is a vital potential in our own development of our traditions. I like what Gary Snyder had to say here: that the spirit of place is the sum total of all the energy fields of that place.
Modernity is a BIG topic. My book ms now searching for an agent is largely about that issue. I agree with you that right wing Christian nihilism is not the only issue, and that the worship of “the market” is in the long run as big an issue – but I think we could begin to get a better handle on it if we could be free from them and their alliance with said corporations and their intellectual lackeys.

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posted May 1, 2010 at 5:13 pm
I posted a similar essay on my blog recently about the kind of indigenousness of neopaganism, how we’re indigenous to the world we live in, that is, modern America. I think it’s interesting how we arrived at such a similar thesis even though they’re worded quite differently and you focused much more on the differences and similarities we have with other traditional indigenous groups and how “indigenous” changes meaning when viewd through religious, cultural, and political lenses.
Thank you for this post. I very much appreciate it.

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posted May 8, 2010 at 2:30 am

A lot of people forget that the same force that colonized the world also colonized Europe in much the same way, standardizing the many different tribes. In paganism we find the shared roots of the heritages of all people. You can find earth religion on every inhabited continent, and its remarkable that pagan people from all around the world shared such similar beliefs. We can all continue to learn from one another.

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Indigenous Peoples of Europe

posted August 31, 2010 at 2:06 am

I think there is nothing wrong with promoting it in our own countries, and insisting that immigrants adopt its values. People who inhabited the land before it was the conquered by the colonial societies and who consider themselves distinct from a societies currently governing those territories are called the Indigenous Peoples.

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