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How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation and Racism as a Pagan

Updated on March 3, 2016

Native Disrespect

No other culture has been appropriated from and disrespected by the New Age community more than the Indigenous cultures and tribes of the Americas. From the DIY-trend of making one's own dream-catchers to wearing Native-derived motifs like Navajo prints that aren't created by actual Natives.

Smudging is a Native ritual that involves the burning of plants such as sage, cedar, sweet-grass, etc. to drive away negative spirits, restore balance, and cleanse the soul. Many tribes burn the dried plants in a shell (often an abalone) and employ the use of feathers or a fan to waft the smoke in the desired direction. The most popular feathers used by North American tribes are eagle feathers - birds are highly revered because of their closeness with the heavens and the feathers are said to connect to the breath of life. Certain prayers, unique to each tribe, are spoken during a smudging ritual.

Bundles of dried herbs that are bound together are referred to as smudge sticks. These days, many a New-Ager can buy a sage bundle at their local metaphysical shop, along with the sacred abalone shell and faux 'eagle' feathers to complete the ensemble.

I want to caution you against performing your own smudging ritual if you are not a Native and do not have permission from a Native to do so. The topographical landscape of America is riddled with Native burial grounds and ancient sites - if you decide to perform a smudging ritual, you could actually anger Native spirits.

Does this mean you can't burn a bundle of sage to cleanse a space? Of course not, you have every right to do that. Sage, as a clarifying and magical herb, has been used by many cultures around the world for that exact purpose. But you should avoid appropriating a ritual style from a close culture that you do not have permission to use.

Instead, burn your bundle of sage or cedar in a small iron cauldron or other fire-proof dish. When wafting the smoke, use your hand or a fan not made of eagle feathers. Create your own chant or call upon your own deities to bless the space.

Unless you are a Voodoo priest or priestess...

Don't call your hastily constructed fabric doll a "voodoo doll".

Modern Voodoo (or Vodou) is an Afro-Caribbean religion said to have originated in Haiti and incorporates a blend of Catholicism and indigenous African beliefs. Voodoo is practiced by over 30 million people in West Africa, and other varieties of Voodoo also exist in the Caribbean and most notably now, Louisiana. The word vodou in many West African languages, refers to 'spirit' which is appropriate because Voodoo is a religion of spirits. Voodoo practitioners believe that the world of humans is shared by the world of spirits.

Voodoo made its journey out of Africa during the slave trade more than 400 years ago and the various traditions mingled to form the modern Voodoo practices now found in the United States. Unfortunately, like most of black culture, Voodoo is very much demonized in popular media as something dark, demonic, and evil. The most notable magic symbol people think of relating to Voodoo are dolls made to represent a human being or spirit.

Media often depicts these dolls being used for curses or harmful magic, being stuck through with pins or burned to enact pain on the person they depict. But Voodoo dolls are not usually used for nefarious purposes, rather they serve to represent a person in various magic workings - from healing to harming.

Voodoo is closed religion, and practitioners would prefer if those not affiliated with their practice didn't borrow elements from it without context. This includes gris-gris or 'mojo' bags, black cat bones, and the frivolous contacting of their patron spirits or Loa.

So what's a witch to do who wants a physical object to use in sympathetic magic? Poppets, my dear. Poppets, often made from corn husks or burlap fabric, were used by witches in Europe and in fact, the concept of a poppet goes back thousands of years.

Poppets can be as simple or as elaborate as you like, and are used to many different purposes. Feel free, as an eclectic witch or pagan, to research and make use of poppets in your magical practice.

Black vs White

This isn't so much about cultural appropriation as it is possibly about avoiding racist connotations in your practice. There is much debate in the magic community about the use of the terms Black or White Magic - and their implications.

On the surface, White magic is said to refer to light and good magic, the stuff used to heal and promote compassion and fairness while Black magic is said to be darker and more aligned with material gain, selfishness, and harm. This probably relates to many equating the day-time and sunlit hours with goodness and safety and the nighttime with uncertainty and fear.

But it goes further. When you consider that White and Black may have racist connotations, you see it more clearly. White magic is often that which is associated with European traditions - Druidry, etc and Black magic is often equated with Indigenous traditions like Voodoo, which is primarily practiced by Africans. Nevermind the consequences of automatically associating the color white with goodness and the color black with bad....

My suggestion, like that of many others, is to do away with this terminology altogether and treat magic as the neutral source that it is. When referring to the intent of a magical working, I recommend the terms baneful or destructive vs beneficent or creative. This eliminates the concepts of good or bad magic as well, because destructive magic can be used for beneficial means and creative magic has the potential to do harm. This puts the onus on the practitioner to be more aware of their workings and the intents behind them.

In Summary

Those of us in the New Age and Witchcraft communities have a responsibility to be mindful of the cultures and beliefs we draw inspiration from and an obligation to be respectful of closed cultures and oppressed peoples.

If you have an admiration for Native Americans, please purchase goods directly from them, not from white-owned corporations that contribute to the continued oppression of living cultures. Many tribes will sell handmade goods at events open to the public and buying directly from them supports the existence of their culture and livelihood.

Don't use symbols from other religions without context - borrowing the OM symbol or trying to reclaim the swastika is obviously off-limits. Incorporating Hindu gods into a European pagan practice is an insult to a religion that has existed for thousands of year and is still being practiced.

Treat the beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples around the world with respect, not fear and ignorance. And certainly don't steal from their religion and make it a fashion statement. Just be a good person.

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      Laurn Hynde 13 months ago

      I don't call my Poppets "Voodoo Dolls" because I don't practice Voodoo. It has nothing to do with this stupid "cultural appropriation" BS that's become such a crazy amongst the social justice movement.

      The whole point of being an Eclectic Pagan/Witch/Wiccan is that you are taking bits and piece from various different practices and faiths. You are looking beyond skin color and are expressing respect for these practices.

      To say that someone can't do something, which has been occurring since the days when Babylon absorbed the Gods of Sumeria (the same with Rome and Greece) is ludicrous.

      Magic and the practice of the Occult heavily relies on taking from the practices of other cultures and mixing them together, sometimes even changing things up a bit to make it your own.

      Religion and Magic are beyond race and nobody should ever feel as though they can't do something simply because their skin color isn't dark enough.

      That type of mentality is exactly what the whole Civil Rights movement was about. It's nothing short of discrimination to suggest that the normal absorption of the cultures around people is somehow no longer allowed to one, single race just because a subculture of entitled little shits want to play "professional victim" and are being supported without question by those who are terrified of being called "racist" if they dare to use common sense.

      I am an Occultist and I am unapologetic in my practice of using whatever I damn well feel like from any religion, culture, whatever...

      I have been doing this long before this little ultra-PC fad began and I will continue to do so long after it has faded from memory.

      Oh, and I am Indian....keep your NA crap......and I don't really give a rat's unwashed ass if someone wants to incorporate the practices of my people into their craft. If anything, it's a way to show respect as the people who do so obviously have positive views on my culture.

      After all, I incorporate the practices of other cultures into my own.

      Like I said, that's the entire point of being Eclectic.

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      Concerned 13 months ago

      This was a well-written article and I would very much disagree with RJ. Most often those who aren't affected by racism don't see it. Hence the idea of "privilege."

    • RJ Schwartz profile image

      Ralph Schwartz 17 months ago from Idaho Falls, Idaho

      Great idea although a bit hypocritical as you are basically stealing the ritual practices from those groups to write this hub - there is no racism in paganism or witchcraft - you claim to be a witch but your just a SJW pretending to be one.