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The Cultural Appropriation Debate

The spreading process is not only the result of nonindigenous spiritual seekers (usually referred to as New Agers) being attracted to the wisdom and resources of “traditional” religions. Indigenous shamans who travel, share and teach are themselves agents too (although in some cases the provenance of indigeneity becomes blurred, resulting in the denouncing of “plastic shamans” or “plastic medicine men”).3 De la Torre (2011: 153) would add a third phenomenon to Csordas’s two. Along with the transnationalization of ethno-American traditions by indigenous and nonindigenous agents, indigenous people themselves are borrowing from the smorgasbord of spiritual resources on offer in the global religious marketplace, and this has resulted in a revival, and arguably renovation, of native traditions. Waldron and Newton (2012: 67) emphasize this reciprocal borrowing in their article “Rethinking Appropriation of the Indigenous” in the Australian context:

[C]ultural appropriation goes two ways; some indigenous people have drawn upon New Age ideology; and the documented genuine commitment of a few New Agers suggests potential for a more positive and grounded future relationship between the two groups. In relation to cultural appropriation, there is a continuum of behaviors and attitudes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

These authors (and Sanson in the previous chapter of this volume) point to convergences and collaborations between indigenous and nonindigenous practitioners, leading them to conclude that “there are signs that a shift away from absolute condemnation of cultural borrowing” is occurring both among indigenous peoples and among scholars (Waldron and Newton 2012: 65). The discourse on cultural appropriation is still fervently alive, but it has become more complex and perhaps less heated as a result of multidirectional borrowing, escalating globalization, the urbanization of indigenous peoples, and ongoing shifts in power relations between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples in postcolonial contexts. The very notion—and condemnation—of cultural appropriation from indigenous peoples relies on an idea that cultures are discrete, essential- ized, self-generative things with a perennial, inalienable and incontestable authenticity, an idea that is increasingly hard to sustain in the globalized world.

I see that now, but did not when I began this research. As I noted in the introduction to this book, my ideas and feelings about indigenous identity politics were formed in New Zealand during the 1980s and 1990s, when cultural appropriation was a fraught issue nationally. Maori were vigorously challenging a variety of situations where they saw their taonga (treasured property, including land, language, sacred knowledge and other cultural material) being stolen by Pakeha (New Zealand-born people with European ancestry) in further acts of colonial subjugation and dispossession. Pagans, who were almost all Pakeha, were acutely concerned about respecting Maori spiritual and cultural traditions and Maori ownership of them, and were determined not to appropriate these traditions. Like many liberal-minded Pakeha descended from the colonizers, I was susceptible to feeling inherited colonial guilt and readily embraced the Maori position in regard to cultural appropriation.

Such debates about the appropriation of indigenous peoples’ spirituality were of course happening in many contexts around the world at this time. One area of debate coalesced around the burgeoning of neo- shamanic schools run by people who had been taught by indigenous shamans, including one-time anthropologist Michael Harner, who developed his “Core Shamanism” after learning from shamans from a number of Native American tribes and extrapolating the common elements while omitting culturally unique ones (Harner 1980). Along with his colleagues, Harner has taught Core Shamanism to thousands of nonindigenous Westerners around the world. Robert Wallis (2003: 49) summarizes the charges made against Harner and other nonindigenous neo-shamanic teachers and practitioners: they decontextualize shamanic practices from their cultural settings; they universalize, psychologize, individualize and romanticize indigenous shamanisms; and they reproduce notions of cultural primitivism. Nonetheless, the Western appetite for shamanism has continued to grow in the last three or so decades, along with the number of those—indigenous, nonindigenous, and with mixed ancestry—offering to teach it.

In the course of learning about (Pakeha) Dawne Sanson’s (2012) PhD research with Maori healers, begun in 2006, I was confronted with the fact that among many Maori the discourse about cultural appropriation had shifted during the twenty-first century, and was no longer an overriding preoccupation (although it has not disappeared). Waldron and Newton (2012: 77) report a similar situation in Australia: “Indigenous [Aboriginal] responses to New Age beliefs indicate ambiguity and cooption rather than negative resistance.” They quote Jane Mulcock (2001), who came to acknowledge that the line between appropriating group and appropriated group was hazy and that “cultural exchange was an ordinary part of everyday life” (cited in Waldron and Newton 2012: 78). I have discussed my position on cultural appropriation here because it influenced the way I approached my research with shamans in Malta. As a result of listening to them, learning from them, sharing in their rituals, thinking about the changing world we all share, and contemplating the themes of this book, I came to see things differently.

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