After the Parliament: Who’s Indigenous? Who’s a NRM?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 9, 2009 — 208 Comments

The Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, has drawn to a close. The closing plenary by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso the XIVth Dalai Lama given, and some remarkable advances for modern Pagans at this massive interfaith event have been achieved. As we await post-Parliament reflections from Pagan participants, an issue of identity and language has emerged this past week that could spark some bitter divisions just as our interconnected communities gain greater respect and visibility among the world’s religions. In a post yesterday to the Pagans at the Parliament blog, Ed Hubbard, who has been covering the Pagan presence at the Parliament, noted a trend towards new definitions of certain Pagan traditions.

“The first Pagan presentation of the Parliament helped begin this change of identity and was called “People Call Us Pagans-The European Indigenous Traditions”, by PWR Trustees Angie Buchanan, Andras Arthen, and Phyllis Curott. The opening of the description is as follows: As the World confronts environmental devastation, we are beginning to appreciate the wisdom of Indigenous peoples who have lived thousands of years in sustainable harmony and spiritual connection with the Earth. After hundreds of years of suppression, most Westerners have forgotten that their ancestors once shared this wisdom as the Indigenous traditions of Europe.”

Apparently the term “European Indigenous Traditions” was used by some during the Parliament as a way to redefine Pagan faiths to non-Westerners unfamiliar with what “Pagan” (or “Neopagan”) meant, to shift relations with Abrahamic faiths that might be hostile to mere “pagans”, and to approach indigenous/native peoples suspicious of cultural appropriation. While redefining (some) modern Pagans as “indigenous” carries with it a host of issues and questions, there was also the matter of who among the modern Pagans aren’t considered “indigenous” (or even “Pagan” for that matter).

“Andras Corban-Arthen points out that Wicca, for example, cannot be seen as an indigenous Pagan faith practice and is instead a modern syncretic movement. Under this description Wicca therefore would not fall under the definition of Pagan, and would be squarely a New Religious Movement, while British Traditional Witchcraft could be considered a Pagan and Indigenous faith tradition.”

So if you are an initiated Gardnerian you get to be in the “European Indigenous Traditions” club, but if you practice some other form of modern Witchcraft, say, Feri, or Reclaiming, you may not be. If you are a book-taught eclectic, you may not even be considered “Pagan” under these new definitions. Now, these are very provocative statements, and I called Ed Hubbard yesterday in Melbourne to verify that his information was correct. He assures me that he has documentation for everything in his post, which he’ll share once he’s stateside. No doubt Arthen, and the other Parliament Pagan trustees, will soon be able to speak for themselves on this issue, and I welcome their clarifications on the matter.

So what does it mean if the Pagans who are representing us on the Parliament Board of Trustees are indeed willing to separate the “New Religious Movement” goats from the “European Indigenous Traditions” sheep within the global interfaith movement? How would we even quantify when a Pagan tradition crosses from “NRM” to indigenous? Claims of lineage? Claims of heritage? Would any proof be necessary? Or is this mainly a political act, with the “right” groups grandfathered in? Are book-taught reconstructionists “indigenous” while second or third-generation eclectic-tradition Wiccans part of  a “syncretic” new religious movement? It just seems like a minefield, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“So Pagan is redefined to include only indigenous religious movements? And Wicca is therefore not Pagan (despite its position as the forerunner of the Pagan resurgence of the 20th Century)? But British Traditional Witchcraft somehow is Pagan, presumably because it is “indigenous”? That’s just daft. There’s little plausible historical evidence for a continuous indigenous witchcraft tradition, inside or outside Britain, and what I know of BTW falls squarely within the history of Wicca as described by Ronald Hutton and others. I agree with Michael York that the Western Pagan movement does share some vital common ground with indigenous religions worldwide, and I am willing to be convinced that certain European Pagan traditions might plausibly be described as “indigenous.” But it flies in the face of both the recent history of the Pagan movement as a 20th and 21st Century phenomenon, and of what we know of the history of Wicca (including BTW) to redefine Paganism in this way. Plus, I’m not budging. I’m Pagan, and I know I didn’t delegate anybody at the Parliament to speak for me or to define me out of the religion!”Cat Chapin-Bishop, from a comment on the Pagans at the Parliament blog.

Other reacted more harshly, saying these new definitions were a case of “striving for false legitimacy”.

Now, there is always the chance that comments were misconstrued, or misunderstood. So we should await official word from the Pagan members of the Parliament Board of Trustees before we accuse anyone of trying to drive wedges between different Pagan groups. Context is king, and I don’t want to start any flame-wars for an off-the-cuff idea or mis-stated opinion. As for myself, I consider myself Pagan, and part of a larger Pagan movement, even if I wasn’t initiated into a British Traditional tradition, or privy to some sort of handed-down European fam-trad. I’m a modern Pagan, and I have no problem with owning both the “modern” and the “Pagan” part of that term. What do you  think? Are you part of a new religious movement? A European Indigenous Tradition? None of the above? Should we be building fences, or tearing them down?

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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