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Romanticizing

The ways in which contemporary Paganism and nature religions may romanticize and essentialize indigenous animist societies are encapsulated in Andrei Znamenski’s (2007: 274) statement that “[t]o many Western seekers, the Native American represents the archetype of the ancient, the ecological, and the spiritual.” This romanticizing is often concurrent with ignoring the unjust circumstances of marginalized indigenous peoples around the world, as demonstrated by Andy Smith’s critique of romanticization of Native American spirituality:

Indian women are suddenly no longer the women who are forcibly sterilized and are tested with unsafe drugs such as Depo provera; we are no longer the women who have a life expectancy of 47 years; and we are no longer the women who generally live below the poverty level and face a 75 per cent unemployment rate. No, we’re too busy being cool and spiritual. (Cited in Gallagher 2009: 580-81)

There is also an exoticized othering inherent in the western lure toward the traditional practices of colonized cultures, which Znamenski terms “the beauty of the primitive” of shamanism in the western imagination (2007). This is illustrated by Graham Harvey’s tongue-in-cheek comparison of shamans with the shepherds of the Pennines, who are also “close to nature,” and “important to the lifestyles of their neighbours”; being a shepherd is just as much an “archaic and increasingly marginalised or abandoned lifestyle” as being a shaman, yet urban westerners “do not run workshops on shepherd’s whistles or on urban or Celtic shepherding ... One cannot become a shepherd by correspondence course” (1997: 109).

Perhaps most significantly, the romanticizing of indigenous animism may involve what Kay Milton terms “the myth of primitive ecological wisdom” (1996: 135), rooted in a romanticized version of the old cultural evolution approach of the likes of Tylor, and in many ways is just an inverse of it. Lotte Hughes (2003: 44) notes how some westerners regard indigenous people as “beautiful beasts in a human zoo”; indigenous people who live within nature reserves report being treated by tourists as “an extension of the wilderness.” Harvey discusses how, just as the modern dualism between nature and culture has become inversed, with the wild uncontrollable savagery of nature now revered as being pure and free, the attitude to “closer to nature” indigenous people is now one of a romanticized respect:

Indigeneity in both colonialist and contemporary stereotypes is constructed as “natural,” but the evaluation of “wilderness” has radically altered.

What was once alien and inhuman and therefore bad is now autonomous, diverse and therefore good. In relation to whatever “nature” might mean, indigenous people who were bad when nature was bad have become good as nature has become good. (Harvey 2003: 8)

The problem here is that the divide between human and animal, wild and domestic, nature and culture, is so deeply ingrained in the western imaginary (see Soper 1995) that, however benevolent one’s sense of the “closeness to nature” of indigenous people, it still belies a sense that these nonindustrial societies are not fully human. A respect for indigenous ways of knowing and living that does not romanticize and essentialize them requires a deep-rooted rethinking of the categories of nature and culture (see Descola 2013; Haraway 1991).

Here, it is worth bearing in mind that the insights of indigenous animism do not necessarily fall under the realm of the “religious” or “spiritual.” While contemporary Pagans may regard their animism as religious, many examples of indigenous animism are not “religious beliefs”; rather, they are ways of knowing, social structures and systems of thought. To automatically ascribe them to the realm of “religion” is to fall back into the mistake of what Mary Douglas calls “the myth of primitive piety,” the “popular thinking about us, the civilised, and them, the primitives, that we are secular, sceptical ... and that they are religious” (Douglas 1975: 75, cited in Lerner 1995). While western romanticizing of the spiritual wisdom of the indigenous may appear benign relative to other forms of cultural imperialism, emphasis on indigenous ways of knowing in religious terms can be seen as contributing to the subordination of these worldviews. Elizabeth Povinelli suggests that the subordination of indigenous worldviews is due to ascribing them as beliefs rather than knowledge, as well as “popularly imagined as preceding it in social evolutionary time” (1995: 505, cited in Graf 2012).

 
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