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Spiritual Theft & Soul Sickness

Stealing has always seemed fairly harmless to me. I don’t mean bank robbery, I mean filching. You know, sampling from the olive bar at New Seasons, running a red light, stealing second base. Breaking the law just a little; seeing how much I can get away with. I suspect that my attitude has something to do with my white entitlement (no one would seriously accuse me of lawbreaking, right?).

Today I’m noticing this kind of thievery of spiritual beliefs and practices. If something spiritual resonates with me, I don’t usually stop and ask: Where specifically did this symbol, sacred story, word, legend, image come from? Who does this story belong to? On what authority does this spiritual leader teach?

Last night I attended a workshop on Native American spirituality. As his primary text, the facilitator used a book by Hyemeyohsts Storm. Researching the author this morning on the internet gave me a massive headache. Not only is Chuck Storm not Native, but he is popular among non-Native people who don’t care that he’s a fraud.

One of the ways racism hurts me as a white person is in fooling me that my actions are harmless. If I make a mistake and accidentally appropriate Native American culture and religion, I can just apologize. After all, I mean well. No harm, no foul, right?

Except that three white people died in 2009 in a fake “sweat lodge” built by a white man who stole and twisted Native American spiritual beliefs and traditions. (This man’s trial is due to conclude this week.) Being purely selfish, death seems like a pretty good reason to pay close attention to what spiritual practices we “borrow” and who we elect to follow for spiritual wisdom.

Every time non-native people hang a dreamcatcher on their rear view mirror, pay to go on a vision quest or sign up for shamanism training, we perpetuate genocide against indigenous people by desecrating and distorting their faith traditions…and we compromise our own authentic spirituality. Stealing is a serious illness and an exercise of supremacy. If we don’t respect the sacred beliefs of another culture how can we truly cultivate lovingkindness and compassion?

For my own part, this morning’s research convicted me to take responsibility for the spiritual practices, symbols and images I put on my altar. I want my ways of knowing and celebrating the Sacred to increase justice in the world….both for others and for my own wholeness. Otherwise my spiritual practice is not merely empty but ultimately destructive.

What do you think? Is it okay to adopt a spiritual practice from a culture/faith which is not yours?

p.s. For those who are curious, see http://www.newagefraud.org/. Did you know there are over <a href=”http://www acheter du viagra sur.nc-cherokee.com/theonefeather/2009/11/04/cno-video-proliferation-of-fake-cherokee-tribes/” target=”_blank”>200 fake Cherokee ‘tribes’ in the United States? Frauds like Kiesha Crowther have made millions of dollars stealing and exploiting Native American spiritual traditions and practices.

Here’s more info on the author I mentioned: Storm, author of Seven Arrows (Harper & Row) and other books, “is famous primarily for presenting a faux version of Cheyenne religion, one the actual Cheyenne consider blasphemous, exploitative, and disrespectful. His works and person are immensely popular with New Age audiences…Storm remains a pariah among the Cheyenne and Native Americans as a whole, one of the most notorious “plastic shamans,” even while his books remain popular among non-Natives who are largely unaware of or unconcerned by how they appall many Natives” (Encyclopedia of of American Indian Literature, p. 346).

5 Responses to “Spiritual Theft & Soul Sickness”

  1. Kevin L says:

    Well said, thanks for the reminder of important awareness.

  2. Vanessa Timmons says:

    So true, I often struggled with the balance between feeling called by a tradition and not being able to find teachers that are culturally connected to the teachings. I think something gets lost in the translation. I love the blog and look forward to this thoughtful journey.

  3. Siobhan says:

    Liz, this is well said and thought-provoking. I guess that I have never viewed picking up pieces of spiritual practice as “stealing,” but instead gathering a patchwork of multicultural rituals that feels right to me. In this process, I have been struck to find that the similarities among faiths stand out more than the differences–which to me offers opportunity to bring cultures closer together.

    To think about this lifting as a way to make money and mis-represent the authentic practice is appalling, and again distorts the sacred into the selfish. I would like to see those “borrowing” from other traditions correctly label it as such and build understanding and respect for the origin of their practice as part of the learning.

    But with pure-hearted goals in mind, I see nothing wrong with picking up practices from other cultures so long as the respect for its roots remains a priority.

  4. Ila Suzanne says:

    Co-optation is the word that came to mind when I read your blog entry. Who gains? Who makes money? Who has access? Whether it is “gentle appropriation” or “aggressive capitalist co-optation” the dominant culture “wins” as usual. Keep writing!

  5. nina jane ann says:

    Thankyou for your voice and this site. Not an easy question to answer. So many white people who feel alienated from Christianity have found spiritual connection and meaning through practices such as Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. Were they invited, welcomed, tolerated??? I don’t know, but many seem to benefit. For myself, Indigenous spiritual practices are different. If I cut a branch off a tree that has had integrated and relational practices in all aspects of a tribe/nation’s identity since the BEGINNING on this land and I try to graft it onto a ‘hybrid’ White immigrant tree: this part from this spiritual practice and that part from another, will I truly understand the full extent of its knowledge.Indigenous peoples never and still don’t separate spirit in the way that Whites do, even before arriving here. These practices are old, require learning (training) before the RIGHTS are passed on for one to use safely in relation to helping others. Do White people understand how this is done in Native communities before they just take and use finding justification in the phrase “good intentions”? Good intentions are to be valued, but if you are naive or blind to what you are doing…The appropriation of Native spiritual practices is still in the vein of stealing land, which as we know, is still going on. For me, it is as you wrote: we perpetuate genocide against indigenous people by desecrating and distorting their faith traditions…and we compromise our own authentic spirituality. Stealing is a serious illness and an exercise of supremacy. If we don’t respect the sacred beliefs of another culture how can we truly cultivate lovingkindness and compassion?

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