Historical Trauma Is Not A Free Pass for Creating More Harm

Reaching for the LightI belong to a lot of online communities, among them groups for writers, groups for artists, and groups for spiritual seekers. I mention these three because they come together in a hybrid practice of seeking deeper relationship with the Divine as we each know it, through the practice of art journaling.

Like other communities (both online and off) that deal with endeavors in creative and intellectual property, there are concerns over cultural appropriation. Specifically in these art/spiritual spaces, the appropriation of cultural faith beliefs and spiritual practice. To be clear, I’m talking about pre-Christian spiritual practices and customs.

Those advocating against cultural appropriation encourage seekers to dig down and find their own roots, find the traditions of their heritage and culture, and practice in alignment. To do otherwise causes harm to the culture you dip into, especially those which have been oppressed and/or enslaved, suffered cultural genocide and/or are disadvantaged in a marketplace where white European descendants are more favored and white privilege gives advantages non-whites do not enjoy.

If you want to better understand cultural appropriation with good examples , read Pulitzer Prize Winning author’s, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Arguments Over The Appropriation of Culture Have Deep Roots.

As might be expected, there is room for disagreement and misunderstanding at every level. What exactly is appropriation? How does it cause harm? What about freedom to practice the religion of my choice?

One example, that of Indigenous Americans’ ritual of smudging has been talked about in every group community I belong to (note that using burning herbs and incense to purify person, spirit or space is found in many cultures).

In popular culture, we think of smudging as burning sage in an abalone shell, using an eagle feather to move the smoke. But there is much more to the Native American practice of purification, including the use of not only sage, but sweetgrass, tobacco and cedar for different purposes. 

If you are not of Native American bloodlines, or were not specifically taught the practice by a Native American, it is considered appropriation to smudge in this fashion. To do so without understanding the deeper meanings and various uses does not honor the practice. Widespread practice without proper knowledge dilutes the deeper meaning. Sharing the practice as a teacher or facilitator results in profiting from the practice, whether financially or simply building credentials.ricky-turner-585075-unsplash (1)

I will disclose here that I have Native American (matrilineal) bloodline, Ojibwe. Though not enrolled in a tribe I have been taught by a tribal member how to smudge and gifted the tools to do so, but what does it matter if I make that declaration? I can’t prove it. I don’t carry around a gold edge certificate that proves I received the practice, or that I was named by an elder and welcomed by the community, nor that I participate in spiritual ceremony with them. I can’t credit them anytime I perform the ceremony as is often suggested, because they are private people, they don’t want their names bandied about social media or in public. Even if I were to give names of teachers, few people would know who they are.

I don’t look Ojibwe, if I’m smudging outside of my personal practice and I’m questioned about appropriation, I can answer honestly that I followed the respectful path. But, so can anybody who hasn’t followed a respectful path—how is it to be proved or disproved?

My point is, unless we want to go so far as saying that cultural practices shall only be performed by those so obviously of said culture as to not question their heritage, there is no way to regulate it. I don’t think anybody wants to travel down the slippery slope of entitlement or restriction per cultural identity.

This is just one example of the a chasm of ambiguity that troubles me. Any online group or community can urge right practice, they can urge refraining from cultural appropriation, teachers and facilitators can lead by example, but when compliance depends on making assumptions about another’s cultural heritage, how do we rightly proceed? Or, will we all wear armbands issued from some authority?


The thing is, there are no cultural or spirituality police in this country or within the online community—at least not any with actual authority for enforcement. Nobody is going to come break down my door and confiscate all of my herbs, my sage or incense, crystals, prayer beads, or rosaries. It won’t happen even if I’m teaching others. The choice not to engage in cultural misappropriation is entirely individual and depends wholly on the honor system—and enforcement (even attempted) is in direct opposition to honor.

As it stands now, within the online art/spirituality community, because of public conversations among and about teachers and facilitators who fall short of the desired standards, many students are being left with the belief, and fear, that they are doing something wrong if they practice cross cultural rituals in the privacy of their own home. Some are angered by what feels a whole lot like policing of the faith-based practices in which they can and cannot engage.

I believe teachers and facilitators must not disregard the impressionable nature of a certain percentage of students, and should take care to tread lightly in the territory of personal values and standards. The challenge is finding a way to hold true to personal values, while still drawing clear lines between encouraging right practice among peers, and the desire to educate students and followers in ethical personal practice.

A good place to begin might be founding an organization focusing on ethics for the purpose of ensuring integrity and quality among it’s members. This would allow students to make informed decisions in choosing courses and instructors, with some assurance of a standard of ethics.

Ideally, such an organization would also protect teachers and facilitators from falling prey to possible hubris as well; honestly there is no way to prove right or wrong in this issue. How do we know that the increasing emphasis on bloodline entitlement, not just online but in the real world as well, isn’t going to lead to even deeper division, harassment and violent spaces?  I’m sure nobody want’s that, but it’s not beyond the realm of probability.

And here’s where the ambiguity comes back into play because, in seeking the pre-Christian spiritual practices of our ancestors, who of us knows the entirety of our cultural roots?

My 95 year old patriarchal Auntie just received her DNA profile. There is only a small sliver of her pie that is not South Central European—and she knows her mother and father came to the U.S. from the same village in Yugoslavia. But you need only read the history of the multiple invasions of Slavic people throughout the centuries, or for that matter look at my own daughter and a nephew, who are often mistaken to be of Middle Eastern heritage, or my cousin with her very almond eyes, to realize Balkan people carry a rich mix of ancestry from East of their historical borders.

Further, our family name, though likely a boggled Americanization of something more Slavic, hints at an Irishman in the mix. Even if Auntie’s DNA seems to disprove this, who knows for sure? One contribution of Irish DNA several generations back, would become pretty watered down in all that Slavic blood.

Additionally, we must consider the incidence of non-biological children by adoption and donor eggs or sperm, also those from secret liaisons and, yes, rape. It would seem, then, that if we are strongly attracted to a spiritual practice we have no apparent connection to, there may be good reason for it and we should be left to follow what our gut, or blood, is telling us.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there is a certain irony in all of this; spiritual seekers are generally quite accepting of the ideas of collective consciousness, Akashic records and even reincarnation, you’d think they’d also be accepting of being drawn to a cultural practice otherwise unrelated to present characteristics.

And let’s not discount the power of capitalism to influence the American Gestalt. We are experiencing a shift of consciousness, falling under the thrall of yet another feat of marketing magic. Test your DNA, find out who you really are! Trade in your lederhosen for a kilt. It seems we have gone from holding unity as an ideal, to becoming the much more interesting, flag bearing embodiment of our unique cultural heritage.

I suggest proceeding with caution. Go ahead and test your DNA if you’re curious, but not to use as a weapon in the war over who gets to rightfully smoke a peace pipe, or play a bagpipe.

If you are a teacher, facilitator or thought leader working hard to establish and maintain an ethical standard among your peers, I respect and appreciate that, but please, don’t overlook the potential pitfalls. And please stop soft selling what is a very militant movement by saying people are being called in, not out. It may start as a call into the fold, but as soon as there is non-compliance, it quickly becomes a calling out and sometimes a tearing down —own that, don’t neutralize it to make yourself feel better about what you’re doing. 

Accept that being in the majority on social media posts might represent a false endorsement, because those who don’t agree are either afraid to speak up or have simply grown weary of being dismissed out of hand and just scroll on by.

Admit that you are using your loud voice (because we all know what a loud voice is online even without the shouty caps), and that doing so with with many loud voices of dogged insistence comes across as intimidation, regardless of the intention—own that, too. Do not soften it by calling it educating. I wouldn’t stand for an educator treating any student that way in a brick and mortar classroom.

If you, or others you know offer sound advice and information in the comments of social media posts, please refrain from later declaring that some people deserve to be paid via their Patreon or other similar monetizing sites. I have been a consultant in the business world. Would that I could drop facts and helpful information on people, completely unsolicited, and then send them a request for payment.

This is not to say those who are offering insights don’t have valuable information worth monetary compensation, but perhaps a more professional approach would better serve their cause and their credibility. “I believe I have some helpful information. Here’s a link to my site with info on my experience and credentials, my hourly fees, and a payment link. If (X-number) of donations are made (or X-dolllar amount reached) I will join in the conversation.” Barring that, understand that any advice given is given freely.

Neither am I saying that those who want to give payment shouldn’t. I personally believe there is a better way to help direct others who also might want to pay for the valuable experience and expertise of people you follow. Include names and links of those you frequently turn to for advice in your prepared statement (see below). Post on your social media accounts—“Hey, peeps. I was recently in a discussion where (name) dropped some real pearls of wisdom on us and I’m visiting (site) to buy her a a cup of coffee” . . . or put a little jingle in her pocket . . . or however you’d like to word it.

Finally, if you are taking it upon yourself to facilitate groups, please understand the weight of your responsibility regarding impressionable students and followers. Consider providing a concise, written/downloadable/printable statement, easily accessible in your marketing materials and also provided by email at course sign-up, listing your values standards and expectations in your online classrooms. Consider directing students to a well written, easily digested explanation of cultural appropriation (an anything else of import). From that foundation, let them figure out their own positions.

When debate arises within your own community of leaders and facilitators, consider not carrying it over into your instructional spaces. If you feel you must make a statement, because you previously endorsed an individual or program you no longer wish to recommend, keep it simple—”I am no longer endorsing (teacher/program) because she doesn’t align with my values regarding cultural appropriation.” Refer students and others with questions back to your provided statement of values and standards, and remind them that they have to do their work and make these decisions for themselves.

Finally, given the room for so many unknowns in cultural heritage, please consider the fact that as altruistic and ardent as you may be in the cause, there is a huge potential for turning your passion into a bully pulpit, regardless of all good intention. Understand that we are all on individual journeys to spiritual fulfillment, and there are many different points along the way, some of us are more ready for the hard work than others. Each of us should have a wide array of choices to meet our current need when we are paying for classes and courses of personal enrichment.

Remember, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Your students will find you and you them.

As for myself, I stand firm in my conviction that past harm is not a carte blanche excuse for creating more harm. Today’s bloodline entitlement is tomorrow’s discrimination. If all we manage to change is the culture being oppressed or restricted in their choices, then there is no change at all. It is not progress and it is not healing

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Comments for this post are disabled—not because I’m avoiding dissenting opinions, nor did I write this for any ego boost derived from “likes” and positive comments. I’m not allowing comments because I don’t want this to become another showcase for the problematic behaviors that concern me.

I also want to thank those who have informed my understanding of cultural appropriation thus far (there is always more to learn), and those whose ethics classes gave me solid foundations, but I’m not going to name any—you know who you are, you are doing your work and you are encouraging and allowing me to do mine.