I have been part of spiritual communities my entire life, since I was very little. I have been privy to the complexities of human nature, and the challenges of bringing our spiritual ideals down to earth. I have lived the realities of power-abuse by spiritual leaders, group toxicity and good intentions gone bad. I have also had wonderful teachers adept at holding sacred space who strive to keep learning, growing and holding themselves accountable. I now have the ability to spot ‘red flags’ which is growing every day, and I’m learning so much from my experiences.
At this time last year, I started a new path of deity relationship with Cerridwen, Welsh Mother of transformation, mystery and inspiration. Cerridwen has been the inspiration of bards throughout history and remains to this day a beloved presence and Goddess in the hearts of Druids, Pagans & Witches worldwide.
I love starting a new relationship with a Goddess.
Anytime a new Goddess calls me, often by showing up in meditations or dreams, I seek to learn about them and immerse myself in learning of the culture and history they are rooted in. To me, this is extremely important. Even though I feel a deity can exist anywhere in the world, and anyone from any culture may forge a connection with them, the culture they are rooted in provides the foundation, context, substance and relatability needed for us to create a down-to-earth practice.
Cerridwen has Her roots in Wales, a place I have visited and felt a deep resonance with, and She is rooted in the culture of my ancestors, so it seems natural that Cerridwen called me. I planned to learn more about these roots and create a practice that honours this as well as all of who I am.
I often wonder what use a spiritual belief system is if we don’t bring it down to earth? I am concerned with ideals that do not translate into our current reality. Do these visions that uplift and inspire us help or harm others? Are we open to shifting our practice if it is potentially causing harm?
It is easy for our spirituality to fall into traps of spiritual bypassing, and cultural appropriation, which I will touch on in a bit.
What’s in our spiritual soil?
As an Earth-Based witch, I always think of plants. The roots of a plant are the most important. When the roots are unhealthy, the plant will not thrive or grow. Likewise, our spirituality needs roots in our earthly life order to flourish. These roots include knowing something about the culture our spiritual practices derive from, an awareness of our own ancestral wounds, any biases we may carry from cultural conditioning as well as power and privilege.
Knowing where we come from as well as understanding our biases are part of constructing a healthy sense of self from which to build a sustainable non-harming spiritual practice. From there, when we reach out and grow and learn from others, we do not seek to fill any void of belonging by taking from another. We come from a rooted place that seeks to learn, relate and connect in relationship.
This sounds simple, yet in an increasingly global, online world our spiritual communities can uphold colonial, white supremacist ways of thinking that further oppress marginalised people. Like rubbing salt in a wound, spiritual people’s words and actions can deepen existing systemic inequities, cause harm and make it harder for marginalized folks to heal. Especially if we are in a spiritual leadership position, such as a priestess.
If we are in any way teachers or leaders in a spiritual community, we must continually ask ourselves: Does the spiritual garden we provide allow for a diversity of plants to thrive? If conditions favour our needs, do we notice others who are struggling to thrive alongside us? How can we listen to the needs of others and be hospitable to them? Within the limits of what we have, can we share our beauty in a way that supports others who aren’t like us?
For instance, white-supremacist, colonial and patriarchal structures have ruled in many lands across the globe for centuries, and infiltrated our personal and collective psyches. All of us have internalised these systems in various ways. We should all know by now that just because we don’t say the racist remarks uncle Jack says at the dinner table, doesn’t mean we don’t in some way quietly uphold racist systems that were programmed into us since birth.
Those who are marginalized by these systems are often still silenced and excluded in modern pagan circles and spiritual communities. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. We are all unconsciously conditioned by these social structures, and part of our work is to unpack all of this and question our own internalised colonial values and biases.
This is a lot of deep reflection and work. It takes time, patience and likely some support. It is so important, however not to skip or gloss over examining our power and privilege with spiritual concepts like ‘we are all one’, ‘we are all connected’, or ‘you attract who you are’ or ‘you create your own reality’. These statements dismiss the real life inequities and emotions of humans in a world with other humans. This is called spiritual bypassing and is a common feature of spiritual communities.
Reaching into our ancestral inheritance is important, as our families and past are part of the soil that makes us who we are. We may ask ourselves- Did my ancestors have their language, culture and spiritual practices taken away through colonization? Was this recent or hundreds of years ago? If so, how is this wound being activated, worsened or healed in my spiritual practice and community?
How were my ancestors affected by or benefitting from colonization? Do I benefit from the dominant culture I reside in? How? In what ways might I be consciously or unconsciously upholding the colonial systems that seek to eradicate or assimilate Indigenous people?
For many of a Celtic or mixed background we may have both the colonized and colonizer in our lineage. (Scottish folks displaced by the Highland clearances were sent to Canada and then displaced Indigenous folks, for example). We may carry the ancestral wound of being kicked off our lands and forced to start over in a foreign place and also the responsibility to ensure we don’t repeat the pattern or fill our cultural void with another’s culture. There is also white privilege to be aware of.
In my own case, I have been working with these questions for some time as my ancestral lineages involve voyageurs & settlers from France, Metis folks from Drummond Island who moved to Ontario and Manitoba, settlers from England, Wales and the Highland clearances in Scotland.
It was exploring my own roots that lead me to spending more time learning about the history of colonization here on Turtle Island, spending time with learning from Indigenous community and culture and discovering the many places my ancestors lived and traveled. I learned about privilege, power and oppression and critical self-reflection from amazing Indigenous professors and community members in my Social Service Worker with Indigenous Perspectives program and did my placement at the Native Women’s Resource Centre in Toronto. I continue to keep learning from Indigenous folks to this day, and have met some of the most amazing, resilient, inspiring people in these communities. I am learning about my own Indigenous ancestors’ history and that of these lands, as there is so much we weren’t taught in schools about our history of genocide. This genocide continues today.
Many Indigenous folks here urge non-Indigenous spiritual seekers to seek the gifts and wisdom of your own ancestral lands, practices and traditions. In following this advice, my personal journey involves healing the neglected, undernourished parts of myself through the wellspring of spirituality tied to the lands of my ancestors.
Why does our ancestry matter? Spiritually, aren’t we all connected anyway?
Spiritual perspectives through all cultures can agree in some way that we are all Spirit, we are all One, we are all connected. I mean, isn’t that a major reason for spiritual faith? To remind us of our interconnectedness? Even genetically, we could say we are all quite similar as far as creatures go and all over the world, many cultures share similar (but still diverse) animistic practices and myths.
However even though we share similarities, we are not all treated equally. Our current systems give power to some over others. Here in North America, while it is seen as cool, exotic, and interesting for non-Indigenous folks to smudge, trance dance, do ayahuasca or making a living as a ‘shaman’, for Indigenous people, it has been seen as shameful, and was illegal for generations. For non-Indigenous folks, Indigenous spirituality is like an exotic coat they can take on or off without having to live the trauma and responsibility that it comes with.
In Earth-based spirituality, reconnection with the land is central. Many who seek this path have personally and ancestrally lost a sense of connection to one’s own roots and/or Indigeneity, and in order to fill this void, may imitate, copy or re-invent something they’ve seen being done by Indigenous peoples. This is often done out of context, without any true relationship with the people or understanding of the culture or community it stems from. It may be a well-intentioned urge to re-create the lost communal, integral, rooted ways of their ancestors and they may not realise how doing this can add to the current exploitation, misrepresentation and romanticisation of Indigenous cultures which perpetuate assimilation and genocide.
Some spiritual people co-opt Indigenous spiritual practices and teach or sell them as one’s own. They do this without any relationship or connection to the people of that culture. Cultural sharing or exchange occurs in relationship, on an even playing field. This is different from cultural appropriation, which is based on unequal power and lack of relationship (more on this in a minute).
For instance, Smudging has now become trendy, misrepresented and mass-produced. Suddenly it got really cool to burn sage in an abalone shell and waft the smoke with a feather or feather fan. Many people jumped on board, with no idea of the traditions and culture behind these items, nor a relationship with the Indigenous people who are largely left out of the mainstream and struggling to survive.
Yoga has been particularly appropriated in the West. I don’t teach Yoga classes anymore, but am still learning about how to uncolonise my practice and reflecting on all the ways I have been complicit in the harm the modern Yoga movement has caused here.
Indigenous cultural practices on Turtle Island were recently stripped away and they are just trying to reclaim them as a form of survival. It was illegal until the 1950s in Canada to practice Indigenous ceremonies or culture. It was illegal in the United States until 1978. The legacy of residential schools is particularly horrific, which has left a death toll of thousands children and generations of trauma and abuse. The last residential school just closed in 1996. Indigenous healing depends on reconnection to their cultural practices. It has been a struggle to just come back to feeling safe to practice their spirituality.
Indigenous folks often urge non-Indigenous seekers to look to their own roots for the healing they crave. Many are often very generous and willing to teach and share their practices with non-Indigenous folks, as long as they approach the teachings in a respectful way. But there will likely be a line drawn when it comes to non-Indigenous folks teaching those practices to others or gaining money from them. Relationship, consent and respect are integral to the culture so those need to be present.
Pagans who wish to smoke cleanse can look to their own lineage history for the ways in which it was used historically. What herbs were used and in what ways? An alternative term for ‘smudging’ is ‘smoke cleansing’. Avoid using white sage, palo santo, abalone shells and feather fans if it isn’t from your lineage or you have no knowledge of the teachings around these medicines. If you cannot find a source for your lineage, or the medicines and tools you are using, then get inventive. As we evolve through our times, our practices will evolve too. There are many ways to cleanse our energy and space.
Can we strive to heal our own uprootedness without contributing to the uprootedness (or genocide) of others?
What if we saw our oneness as an invitation to listen, learn and empathise with those who are marginalised, instead of exacerbating existing assimilation trauma?
A spiritual leader, healer or teacher holds immense power, as they often attract folks in a vulnerable situations. They also have a platform, in which they carry authority. They can support or dismiss students at will. They can speak and say what they wish and assume that the students will listen. A temple that charges money for services and trainings is responsible to be aware of power dynamics and privilege. A teacher of white privilege is responsible for understanding their position in relation to people of colour, and the power they hold simply for being a teacher in relation to students.
During this time where Indigenous peoples are experiencing genocide, it is not only insensitive, but incredibly harmful to engage in cultural appropriation. We’re not all on an even playing field where cultural sharing is happening. Appropriation is devoid of relationship, of equity, respect or integrity. It perpetuates existing trauma.
Appropriation vs appreciation & exchange
Cultural appreciation and cultural exchange happen on an even playing field. It is when you earnestly seek to learn and experience another culture without taking from it, misrepresenting or distorting it. It involves learning as well as relationship and connection with people of the culture. The power and oppression dynamics matter. If you are drawn to Indigenous culture and wish to attend ceremonies, it is a good idea to do some learning about the history of colonisation and how the culture and people have suffered over the last few hundred years. Go to ceremonies where the public is invited. Don’t assume you can participate in everything. If you are invited to participate, go as a learner, as a guest. Observe the protocols and respect them. Notice your assumptions and judgements. Try to see from a new perspective.
Cultural appropriation happens when we have no true relationship or connection to the people or culture. We are more likely to benefit from dominant culture than those of said culture. Because of this lack of relationship and context, we misrepresent the item or practice, strip it of its meaning or remake it through our own lens. Because of our more powerful position, we may contribute to already existing commodification, sterilisation or ‘whitewashing’ of this culture, as well as existing misrepresentation or degradation of it. This happens because we have no real, truthful relationship to it or its people. Some people think appropriation only has to do with making money off another culture, but it isn’t limited to that. If you have a platform or influencing role such as a teacher, parent, or position of authority, you hold power and are responsible for what you communicate and do.
Indigenous people are diverse. There are many different traditions, protocols and personal beliefs in various communities. There are over 50 nations and 50 languages here in Canada. I know some Indigenous folks who believe it is wrong to sell sage, that it should only be gifted or harvested oneself. There are some who believe it is ok to buy it, from an Indigenous seller. There are some who don’t traditionally smudge at all. Some folks don’t practice their traditional ways for a myriad of reasons. I have heard non-Indigenous folks insist that because one Indigenous person (either online or in person) says they don’t mind them smudging or making dreamcatchers, then they’ve been given permission and can do as they wish. The problem with this is that its can be another ‘bypass’ from doing the work of questioning one’s biases and privilege. Some people just want an Indigenous person to ‘give them permission’ to do something because they feel entitled to do it. This doesn’t invite any self-awareness or deeper relationship with oneself or Indigenous spirituality.
Most Indigenous folks would like appropriation to stop and urge non-Indigenous folks to reach back into their own history and lineages to find the connection with land and spirit that they seek. It comes back to our roots. This does not mean you can only practice the spirituality of your ancestors! Or that you cannot learn from or share practices of any other culture. Many think this is what this means. What is meant by this is that there is often ancestral wounding underlying one’s desire for Indigenous spirituality, and it can be very healing to reconnect with the earth-based practices of one’s own lineage. Also, Indigenous people are trying to heal themselves and their communities right now and require every ounce of energy and time for that. They are still trying to recover and come home to their culture and lineage, so don’t automatically assume they can teach you or give you the feeling of belonging you want.
Seeking spiritual nourishment from one’s own lineage can take time and be challenging, as people all across the globe have experienced some form of colonisation or loss of culture somewhere in their past. Retrieving it can be difficult. But doing this work moves us away from furthering the damage already done.
There are similarities across borders – for instance animism and folk practices are somewhat similar all over the world, and so, just because a person of European descent is playing a skin drum and singing doesn’t automatically mean it is cultural appropriation. It is also possible to combine aspects of our mixed heritage in ways that feel authentic to us. However the nuances are important. Our relationship with those cultures matters. The power dynamics and social inequities are key.
(I am speaking specifically here in regards to Indigenous cultures in North America, here where genocide is happening, where inequities are massive, where much repair and reconciliation is needed. I cannot speak to all the nuances and relationships between all cultures. There are different needs in different situations.)
We can ask ourselves some questions: What is our position in relation to this practice? What privilege or power do we hold in relation to folks of this culture now? Is this from a culture or community we are part of or have lineage to that we are exploring? Are we doing this privately? Are we sharing, teaching or selling it to to others? How is this item or practice rooted in culture, land and history?
If you are interested in learning about how to uncolonise your practice, avoid appropriation, learn about Indigenous cultures from an Indigenous perspective, please check out the resource file I compiled: Indigenous Cultural Awareness Resources for Priestesses, Pagans and Healing Facilitators.
‘Positive Vibes Only’
If we see the anger, the uprisings by marginalized folks as ‘negative energy’ we wish to avoid, and the silenced voices continue to be silenced, and nothing will change. If we avoid anything political in our spiritual communities, how can we grow and be part of the solution?
Anger is justified. Conflict is inevitable and can be very productive.
Some spiritual communities believe standing up for the marginalised can cause divisiveness and conflict (more on this later), instead of seeing it as necessary to healing existing trauma.
Currently, in the world right now, many of us are waking up to the meaning of intergenerational trauma, and what it means to heal our ancestral line. This is important healing work and part of my spiritual path and service. Many currently living on the planet are suffering from the wounds of colonisation, patriarchy and white supremacy. We are deconstructing the gender binary, sexuality, race, class and transforming the very fabric that makes up our society. We haven’t all been thriving. We haven’t all been well.
We want something better for our children and descendants.
Changing the fundamental structures we’ve had for hundreds of years is messy, emotional, hard work. It is unpleasant, tiring and not all rainbows, angel wings, crystals and glitter.
Each generation has their own collective shift they envision for the future, and it is based on the world they grew up in. Many of us working for a better future right now are in need of a spirituality grounded in reconcilitaton efforts and inclusivity. We live an online, global existence with different needs than the generations before.
If we are indeed ‘all one’, then isn’t it our duty to honour this by being part of the solution and not the problem? If someone calls us out for cultural appropriation, racism, or transphobia because it harms them, their loved ones and communities, isn’t it more empathetic to listen and take this request seriously? Isn’t our ‘oneness’ especially called upon now since enough harm has been done due to misuse of power?
Is ‘we are all one’ something we are striving to live in real life or an escapist sentiment?
Cerridwen’s Path Begins
I started my path with Cerridwen learning from Kristoffer Hughes’ books who is a native Welsh druid living on the land of his ancestors, immersed in its stories and is knowledgeable of its history. He beautifully weaves the intuitive with the scholarly in an inspirational way that makes the obscure aspects of Welsh mythology more accessible. I truly enjoy his books and am learning so much from them.
However, my more immersive experience of the priestess training was about to begin with a different teacher and perspective. I put aside these books and opened to the new path before me with a priestess training with a well known temple in Glastonbury, UK. I entered with an open mind, humility and respect.
(Please note that I understand the sensitivity around our sacred practices, so if you have had a positive experience with this temple, I do not mean to take away from that. I only wish to share my experience which may perhaps resonate with others).
As an online training I had to opportunity to get to know women living in different parts of the world. They were mostly centered in the UK. Online spiritual trainings have the opportunity to be inclusive of a wider audience in terms of race, gender, class, etc. However, this training was a mainly white, middle class, middle aged, hetero cis-gendered kind of group. At first, it was a bit bumpy learning the ropes-the pacing of homework and online meetings. But I felt I had a handle on it. I am a focused, organized student, and value my education and teachers perhaps more than the average person. However, completely online spiritual training was new to me. And it was new to this school.
In hindsight, I think many things did not translate through the online medium very well, perhaps because without the influence of being on the magickal lands of Glastonbury, the lack of substance in the content was obvious to me. I have been to Glastonbury a couple of times, and the land there is quite beautiful and definitely feels like some sort of gateway to another world. I wonder now how much of a part the land itself plays in the quality of one’s temple and training experience? This online experience was not for me.
As time went on, there were some communication issues and constantly changing rules around homework. Expectations were very murky and clarity was hard to obtain. There was a lack of availability and consistency from our teacher. Booking meetings was challenging. It felt like being in a very unstable boat. Facebook was our main source of interaction and was the source of much stress for various reasons. The notes were very personal & opinionated with little sourced, objective information. Then I discovered the massive gap between my values and the those of my teacher.
I was feeling quite uncomfortable with some of the assignments. As much as I tried to really see things from their point of view, I still could not find a place within myself to accept the cultural appropriation, the willful ignorance of Indigenous issues and spiritual bypassing.