Continuing Discussions on Pagan Definitions

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 14, 2009 — 72 Comments

For those of you enjoying the wide-ranging discussions about Pagan identity that have emerged in the wake of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (specifically the categories of “Traditional/Indigenous”, “Reconstructionist”, and “Neopagan”), I’d like to quickly point you to some explorations of this topic going on elsewhere. First, Pagan scholar Chas Clifton explores the politics that underly terms like “indigenous”, and whether they can apply to contemporary Pagans.

“So are today’s revived and re-created Pagan traditions “indigenous.” I think not—not because they lack ancient roots, but because they are not generally connected to land claims and other current political issues.”

Meanwhile, at the Pagans at the Parliament group-blog, T. Thorn Coyle has posted a three-part reflection (part 1, part 2, part 3) on Nature Religion, and Paganism as an indigenous religion, while on the road in Tasmania. Thorn wonders if applying “indigenous” labels to certain contemporary Pagan groups might become problematic in the longer run.

“In these conversations about which Pagans are “indigenous” and which are “neo-Pagans” how long is it before indigenous comes to equal authentic and authentic comes to equal pure and pure comes to equal superior?”

I urge my readers invested in this current discussion/debate to read and comment on all of the linked entries, because I think they have some important insights and wisdom to convey. Also stay tuned to the EarthSpirit Voices blog, where Andras Corban Arthen promises a report on the “The Revival of the European Pagan Traditions” Parliament panel that seems to have sparked much of this discussion.

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  • Zoe McAtee

    I think Chas needs to take a research trip to Greece before he starts saying "they are not generally connected to land claims and other current political issues". It's all about the politics there – their situation makes American's look luxuriously free.

    • Jake

      Well, we are!

  • Jordan Stratford

    I agree with Clifton. I think the issue here may be one of "conversion". You can't, technically, convert to an indigenous religion because they are very closely tied to families. It's not enough to say that "I think Lapplander shamanism is cool, therefore I'm a Lapp shaman now" and have that occur within the context of indigenous tradition. (Now, personally, I think you can do whatever you like – we're discussing context here.)

    These distinctions of "recon" vs. "neo" vs. "traditional" seem to ask more questions than they answer, and I wonder if the debate will yield anything useful in the long run. But no harm in asking tough questions!

    • Nick Ritter

      "It's not enough to say that "I think Lapplander shamanism is cool, therefore I'm a Lapp shaman now" and have that occur within the context of indigenous tradition."

      Sure, but how about the following statement: "My family and the people they come from were forcibly converted to Christianity, and I'm going to practice the religion they were converted from." Does that count as conversion to an indigenous religion? I think I know how different people are going to address that statement, but I'm interested in comments anyway.

      As a larger question: if a population is converted from their native religion, is that religion no longer that population's heritage? In other words, is reconstruction by the descendants of "indigenous" practitioners of a religion such a far thing from practicing "indigenous" religion?

      • WitchDoctorJoe

        *Indigenous* as in the original peoples of an area of land, within the context that their are non-native invasives present within that area of land. Other wise there would be no need to specify them as indigenous would there?

        I would describe the whole of Paganism (as an umbrella term) as being "descended from" European Indigenous Traditions, which can be divided into groups like, Asatru, Druidry, Witchcraft, and others. Those groups can be labeled Neo, Reconstructed or Traditional. We will never all agree on any single system or description.

        • Erynn

          Some of this, like modern Druidry, I would suggest is more "inspired by" than descended from. Groups like OBOD, while they can claim a 200 or so year history in terms of lodge-style Druidism, don't actually bear that much resemblance to what the original druids were doing. It doesn't make them any less valid; they certainly have a much longer documentable history than, say, Alexandrian Wicca. It also doesn't mean they have a direct connection to actual Celtic druids.

          There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from something. Creativity is a wonderful thing. Credit where it's due.

      • Robin Artisson

        Why does everyone keep asking this question over and over, when the term "indigenous" has a clear and finite definition? "Indigenous" is defined simply as "originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country"- and it also means "inherent" or "innate". Why the need to muck it up further? I can only conclude for political reasons, or just for people to hear themselves speak! (I'm not referring to you, Mr. Ritter, just in general.)

        Populations that were converted away from a native religion still maintain that religion as part of their heritage, and reversion to it, even reconstruction of it (as many native tribes in places have had to do) does not make them "neo" or "recon" anything of the sort. They are simply practicing their indigenous ways, in a possibly newer form. But then, indigenous faiths are organic; they change naturally over time anyway.

      • Erynn

        I think that depends a lot on how much of that original tradition remains, and whether one still lives in the place one's ancestors lived in.

        • Erynn

          I'm glad that Andras clarified, and have been interested in the comments of Thorn and Chas as well. In all the wrangling, I think "contemporary Paganism" probably is the broadest term that works for most of the movement. Issues of both land and timespan are important when regarding our definitions. Some of my ancestors got to the US as recently as three generations ago. I live 3,000 miles away from where I was born, though I'm still a resident of the same national political entity. There is no way of stretching the definition of "indigenous" that could possibly include me. I'm not even living in the same home I was ten years ago. I may be very attached to the land and waters of Puget Sound and I may be making a very deep effort to integrate myself with the spirit of the land here, as well as to reconstruct Gaelic pre-Christian cultural and spiritual practices, but neither of those can make me indigenous.

          Gary Snyder talks about the process of "reinhabitation" and an idea of what "becoming indigenous" might look like. People whose families came to North American 400 years ago have a greater claim to being in some sense "native" because of that long connection. Where to draw lines is always, I suspect, going to be a huge point of contention. And it's going to require a certain amount of dialogue with genuinely indigenous peoples as well. I think it's the political mess surrounding our choice of words that makes this so very difficult.

          • Chas S. Clifton

            Anyone who reads and quotes Gary Snyder is on the right track.

            His book of essaysThe Practice of the Wild<img src="; width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> means more to me than almost any other philosopher/poet that I have read.

          • Chas S. Clifton

            Sorry about the Amazon HTML — I should have taken it out. CSC

          • Erynn

            Gary Snyder, though technically a poet and Buddhist teacher, is one of my favorite philosophers of ecological and mythic sensibilities. I think it would do pretty much any Pagan a lot of good to read him.

          • Soli

            Erynn, starting points with Snyder? I don't have nearly enough on my plate as it is.

          • Erynn

            Aside from the fact that his poetry kicks ass, "Practice of the Wild" and "Earth House Hold" are excellent starting places for his environmental philosophies. Be prepared for lots of Buddhist insights. He also did "He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village" on Native American mythologies, specifically Haida. He's very interested in indigenous spirituality and spiritualities of place. We can talk at some length at PCon this coming year if you like!

          • Rombald

            Continuing: The Japanese treatment of their own tribal people, the Ainu, was very similar to the US treatment of Native Americans. That is not even to get onto the topic of the Japanese Empire, which was as bad as the British Empire at its worst.

            China, also, has had a policy of assimilation, what would now be considered 'cultural genocide' of non-Han subjects, virtually since its existence as a civilisation.

            I do think Hindu culture has been subjected to repeated religiously based victimisation. However, in 1857, one set of victimisers, the Muslims, were among those fighting the British.

          • Pitch313

            I find, mulling over my lifetime of Paganism, that I am "Pagan" more thanks to the Land where I grew up (Northern California) and to some things that I experienced there. And less thanks to any particular Pagan Tradition (even though I am an adherent of several, including a couple that claim links to indigenous European ways).

            Maybe because a living practice nourishes active ties to place and through place no matter what the character and dynamics of a magical Tradition's locale of origin. I think that creativity and adaptability to particulars of place invigorate Paganism more than any Tradition's evangelizing this way or that for all.

          • Erynn

            I think these are two different species of indigeneity, if you will. Tradition and location are, in my opinion, both very important. Of course, as a reconstructionist, I'd say that, wouldn't I? 😉

            I've been in the PNW (Washington and Oregon) since 1981, most of my adult life. I've lived in the Seattle area longer than any other place. I love Seattle and the Puget Sound region probably as much as anyone who was born here. It's my wish to become "indigenous" in the sense in which Gary Snyder uses the word, without any claims of being Native in the political/genetic/tribal sense.

            That said, my reconstructionist practice is heavily influenced by the land and the climate here. It can't be otherwise if it's going to be genuine; Celtic religions adapted to the lands they found themselves in. The Pagan Irish revered local rivers, not mainland European rivers. Here, I revere the Sound and I revere the great mountain Tahoma. They are part of my sacred places and it shouldn't be otherwise.

        • Nick Ritter

          "I think that depends a lot on how much of that original tradition remains,"

          Certainly, this is going to be another of those matters of grades on a continuum.

          "and whether one still lives in the place one's ancestors lived in."

          Hm… Does that absolutely *have* to be a consideration? If we step back from it for a moment, it seems to me that religions travel with people. For instance, before the 900s, Germanic religion was not indigenous to Iceland (in the sense of originating in that place); yet, it must be admitted that, after pre-Christian Norwegians immigrated to Iceland and became Icelanders, Germanic religion was their "indigenous" religion.

          • Erynn

            To some extent it's true. Obviously Native Americans who were removed from their homelands and forcibly settled on reservations elsewhere are still indigenous. Yet can a reconstructed Druidism in North American claim in any real way to be indigenous, considering the loaded political potential of the word? I'm rather falling out on the side of "not really."

        • Rombald

          Yes, and also how long ago the conversion, forcible or otherwise, to Christianity took place. What is at issue here, as much as about religion, is how long a people can claim to be the descendants of an ancient people, and what is needed for that claim – a descended language, genetic descent, residence on the same land, or what?

          Eg. I consider myself ethnically English, although I have dashes of Irish, Welsh and African within the last 200 years. I also live in England, and speak English. I can therefore make a good claim to be indigenous, especially as I have traced my ancestry along some lines back to the 1400s, only a few miles from where I grew up and now live. However, I have no idea how much of my genetic material comes from pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, as opposed to Normans, Celts, Huguenots, etc., and I do not think that I could uncontroversially claim Anglo-Saxon Heathenism to be my indigenous faith.

          • @thelettuceman

            And then there are people like me who, through their maternal line, can trace back their family heritage and direct bloodline to pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon nobles in England. Granted the only sure proof we have is until the mid 1000s, so I'm not sure how much of my family existed prior to the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in the 500s. But my family has also been on this side of the pond since the 1600s, and have been thoroughly invested in various aspects of American culture and tradition.

            Do I consider myself ethnically English (or, perhaps, Anglo-Saxon), given that I have more of a "percentage"? And do I have a right to pursue any form of indigenous faith that my ancestors may have practiced, both pre and post Christianity? This is a general comment, too, I'm not trying to jump down anyone's throat or anything. I think it is problematic when people try to make claims of indigenous worship, and then the turn around and say to people like me that we cannot rediscover our heritage/bloodline/what have you simply because that's not how we were raised or whatever.

            I like to think of it as a homecoming, presonally.

          • Peter M

            (Continued) Christianity is often portrayed as the villain, robbing our European ancestors (the victims) of their original religions. I'm not sure this is 100% accurate. In some times and places people were indeed forcibly converted, but in others they were persuaded to convert, and in others they just gradually converted over time. Maybe some of our ancestors were converted at sword point, but some were also the rulers who urged their people to convert for political and financial reasons, some didn't care one way or the other, and some were even the Christian authorities themselves.

          • Khryseis_Astra

            One has to think of the worldview of those victimized. :) I don't doubt for a second that quite a few ancient polytheists may have accepted the Christian's god or his son. It was the *exclusivity* that wasn't selling, and had to come with threats of violence or actual violence, or the destruction of temples and sacred art, or the "borrowing" (which if you add in the violence becomes just plain theft) and repurposing of ancient symbols, imagery and holidays, etc., etc. It wasn't so much the Christian religion in and of itself that was the culprit, but the philosophy that went along with it that I call "One True Way-ism" which arrogantly insists that one's own belief = the only true belief, and that everyone else must be made to believe the same way.

            This is how those in modern Greece who worship the old gods view it:

          • Apuleius

            To whatever extent Christians were able to win converts by peaceful persuasion, this only highlights the monstrosity of their decision to use violence on a massive scale century after century after bloody century.

            However, once people converted, that was hardly the end of it. Ramsay MacMullen estimates that the minimum number of people murdered in Christian on Christian violence over "credal differences" (those are MacMullen's words) from 325 to 550 AD is at least 25,000. This is in his 2006 book "Voting About God", p. 56. The title of the chapter this is from is "The Violent Element". Like all of MacMullen's books it is a gem.

            If you have 1000 people and you ask them all to convert to Christianity, and you only shoot three of them in the head, and only beat five of them to unconsciousness, and the rest of them convert "voluntarily" — that doesn't count. It's like someone "voluntarily" supporting the government in the Peoples Republic of China.

            Whenever and wherever it has the power to do so, Christianity always and everywhere relies on violence to gain "converts". Nothing is beneath or beyond what they are willing to do. They even set up special rooms in the slave castles on the west Africa coast — which had both a baptismal font and a small blacksmith's smithy. Slaves were baptized and put in chains in these rooms, just before being packed into the ships that would take them across the ocean. Scholars disagree about exactly how many millions of these souls newly won for Christ died in transit, and how many millions survived to live as slaves in the Americas.

          • Peter M

            Apuleius and Khryseis_Astra – I'm not denying that Christians did bad things to ancient pagans. My main point is that as modern pagans, we only like to acknowledge our ancestors were victims, but not that they were also the victimizers. It's like ignoring one half of your family. One my ancestors may have been a priest of Diana who was tortured to death, but the soldier who tortured him may have been my ancestor as well. After all, the farther back you go the more ancestors you have.

            There's a reason for this, and I think it has something to do with our guilt about our place in the current political system and the cachet attached to victims. Maybe it's all a holdover from the Christian martyr complex?

          • Apuleius

            The whole "they were also victimizers" routine is strictly FOX News style "fair and balanced" obfuscation. There is an absolute, objective, qualitative difference between monotheistic and polytheistic religions when it comes to religious tolerance. Monotheistic religions are intrinsically intolerant, polytheistic religions are intrinsically tolerant.

            Of course Christians disagree with this unpleasant assessment of their religion. But this assessment has been consistently reiterated, reargued, and reverified over the last 250 years by Voltaire, David Hume, Edward Gibbon, JB Bury, Ramsay MacMullen, Perez Zagorin, and Jan Assmann, among many others.

            One must clearly distinguish between cases of systemic pervasive intolerance and cases that are rare and exceptional. The Apaches beat their wives and Native Americans were always fighting with each other, and they also committed atrocities against white people. That is all true. But those things are essentially irrelevant in a discussion of the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of European Christians.

            If you want to get psychological about it, try examining your own resistance to the simple facts of the matter, and your eagerness to complicate the simple.

          • BryonMorrigan

            Apuleius stated, "But this assessment has been consistently reiterated, reargued, and reverified over the last 250 years by Voltaire, David Hume, Edward Gibbon, JB Bury, Raffaele Petazzonni, Ramsay MacMullen, Perez Zagorin, and Jan Assmann, among many others."

            Oh pish-posh on your distinguished academic sources! 😉

            Seriously though, I've been finding myself debating these same concepts lately, and it all really boils down to people like us citing the scholarly works of academics, and the opposition responding with emotion and anecdote.

          • Rombald

            Would fewer slaves had been taken from West Africa had Christianity never prevailed, and Europe followed a path of economic development similar to the one it took, but with Greco-Roman Paganism as the state church? It's impossible to say, but my guess would be "no".

            Look, basically, I agree with you on a rhetorical level. I think that monotheism is generally intolerant, and polytheism is generally tolerant.

            My objection is more to your history than your rhetoric. The horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and the slave system in the Americas were not motivated by religion, but by a complex of economic and technological factors: Africa was much less technologically advanced than Europe; effective ocean navigation had been developed; their was land without sufficient workers in the Americas; and northern Europe had developed a ferocious appetite for crops that it could not produce itself, such as sugar and tobacco.

          • Apuleius

            There is no need for hypotheticals. We know who was responsible for the African Slave Trade, the genocide of the Native Americans, etc.

            And we also know that these fit a very consistent pattern: Christianity has always been spread by coercion and violence. And this pattern fits perfectly with the core theological principles of Christianity.

            The question is: when European Christians enslaved, conquered and colonized did they do so "as" Christians? The answer is "yes". The enslavement, conquering and colonizing was not somehow unrelated to their Christianity, it was a direct expression of their Christian-ness.

          • BryonMorrigan

            Apuleius stated, "If you have 1000 people and you ask them all to convert to Christianity, and you only shoot three of them in the head, and only beat five of them to unconsciousness, and the rest of them convert "voluntarily" — that doesn't count. It's like someone "voluntarily" supporting the government in the Peoples Republic of China."

            Exactly. The objective of forced conversion is not to exterminate all non-believers, but rather to exterminate enough to force the rest into submission.

            If tomorrow, the government of the USA (or any other Western nation) were conquered by an Islamic Fundamentalist state, with the arms and will to forcefully "convert" the country, most people would just convince themselves that the best solution would be to just worship Allah. Within a few decades, resistance would inevitably end, and most people would say that their conversion was "peaceful."

            The only "false" path is the belief that any path is "false."

          • Gede Parma

            As an attendee, participant and presenter at the Parliament of the World's Religions I was witness to quite a a few of the panels in question. I was present at the 'They Call us Pagan' panel (Angie Buchanan, Phyllis Curott and Andras Corben Arthen) and the 'Revival of the European Pagan Traditions' panel (Jonas Trinkutas and Andras Corben Arthen). As an initiate of a contemporary Witchcraft (non-Wiccan) tradition which is proudly syncretic (and I personally feel the words 'syncretic' and 'eclectic' are quite different in their scope and meaning), I was also extremely moved and inspired by the talk of Indigenous European Traditions.

            There seems to be a general trend in the NeoPagan community to dismiss remnants of or intact European folk traditions, which in my mind, is a backlash of Wiccan identity. Wicca, in its traditional form, is a poetic and graceful modern Pagan-Witch tradition which I believe is founded on the fragments of an older traditional Craft. However, it is too easy for many people who are either not initiates of the Wiccan tradition or who keep a 'safe distance' from Wicca and Wiccans (because of a dislike of possible fraudulent claims and faulty spirituality – is there such a thing?) to regard any tradition which claims historical authenticity, lineage and cultural inheritance (which underlies the very word 'indigenous) as a badly-cloaked falsity. This general trend has expressed itself in a large majority of published books on contemporary Paganism and it has influenced the opinions held by many newcomers to our traditions. It is a fine opinion to have, but what ever happened to decent and curious open-mindedness.

            As I heard the panelists wax eloquent on the revival of this particular definition and its acceptance by other indigenous peoples the world over, I knew in my heart this was a step forward for Pagans. Regardless of whether we fall under the Traditional, Reconstructionist or NeoPagan category (I believe many of us fall under all three, or two at least), we should be honoured and proud that there was solidarity in this celebration of our indigenous identity and cultural heritage. For too long we have fought tooth and nail against the past, when it is the past which has made us. We are the children of those times, we are the outcome. If we claim to honour our ancestors, let's walk that talk.

            I have studied, though minimally in comparison to many on this blog, indigenous issues and evolution of cultural identity. I am a humble author, priest, Witch and lover of the Mysteries – but if I could be so bold as to suggest that despite the common association of the word indigenous with land rights and political activism, to be indigenous is something that is essential to all beings of this planet – our Holy Mother. We are all born of the Earth and this makes us native, this is our indigenous heritage.

            We of European descent have been dispossessed of our cultural and ethnic identities. When a Westerner remarks of being 'Anglo', does he/she even understand the wealth and breadth of such a statement. For many in Paganism that statement forms identity, placement and awareness of one's part in the Great Mystery.

            Pagans embrace diversity in all its forms – it is our underlying commonality and unity. For a group of Pagans to embrace indigenous identity and cultural and ethnic heritage is a celebration of that inherent diversity in this beautiful biosphere we call Home. I for one embrace my nativity to this Earth and perhaps even to the Stars, and I am honoured to be a Pagan and Witch in these times. I have to say we keep things very interesting~

          • Khalila RedBird

            To all the discussion of "Christianity" did this or that, I offer a different point of view. I suggest that a religion is often used by people with a particular agenda as a tool to accomplish that agenda, whether the religion and the agenda have anything tying them together or not. Christianity itself was used, in the 4th century, as a tool to bind together what became the Holy Roman Empire — getting people under your control through the influence of their religion works very well. Even today, the jihadists and terrorists are not promoting Islam itself but attempting to make political, territorial, or financial gains. Like stage magicians, want-to-be conquerors wave the flag of religion — or force conversion to subdue people. Religion has been correctly termed "the opiate of the people", because it can distract people while real damage is being done to their well-being and freedom. If I control your relationship with the Divine, I control YOU.

            So, in the name of clear speaking, let's put the blame where it is due — on the intent and actions of the perpetrators, not on the religion itself.

          • Erynn

            I tend to think language and culture are far more important than genetics. Of course, I'm the classic USian Mutt. My family is more Polish than anything else, but it also includes Scottish, English, Russian, probably Czech, and Gods only know what else.

          • Peter M

            I think it is interesting Rombald used the word "victimization." Victimization used to be a big part of the Wiccan worldview, thanks to the now-discredited Margaret Murray/Burning Times theory that modern Wiccan practices were handed down from victims of the Witch Hunts.

            The modern ethnic groups social scientists call indigenous people are relatively recent or current victims of abuse by larger more powerful societies. Indigenous people might be stuck stuck on reservations, their land is taken, their children are taken from them, etc.

            Could using the term "indigenous religion" to refer to Asatru or Celtic reconstructionism be an attempt to take on the mantle of the victim? No one wants to be a villain, and any person who reads the Web or watches TV knows all about the villainies of our modern global society – oil wars, ecological devastation, economic discruptions,etc. Sometimes I think it feels better morally (but not physcially) to identify with the victim.

      • Khryseis_Astra

        And then of course you have the many people that are called by gods who have nothing to do with their ancestral heritage. :) I'm a Hellenic Polytheist, but to my knowledge, I don't have any Greek ancestors. (Anything's possible though: I'm a Heinz 57 "mutt" from the side of the family tree I know about! LOL) If I followed the religion of my most predominant ancestors, that would be Asatru, but those gods have never come calling for me. I don't think we need to call ourselves "indigenous" especially if it's going to be a synonym for ethnic heritage. We already have some out on the fringes that think people aren't "allowed" to practice a particular religion if they don't have the right kind of ancestry, and that's definitely not a direction I'd like to see things go.

        • Nick Ritter

          I'm not the sort to say that "people aren't "allowed" to practice a particular religion if they don't have the right kind of ancestry." It does seem that many who do have an ancestral connection to a religion feel that that has a certain meaning for them. My ancestral connection to my religion has a certain meaning for me; this in no way denigrates those who "are called by gods who have nothing to do with their ancestral heritage."

          I would like to see, however, that that "certain meaning" is not itself denigrated, nor those of us who do practice a religion connected with our ancestry considered somehow "improper."

          • @thelettuceman

            I completely agree. I feel that people have a more innate connection to a specific cultural or religious tradition through an ancestry or bloodline, but that should be by no means the only defining characteristic if they should pursue any form of worship that speaks to their soul.

        • Erynn

          Another Heinz 57 weighing in. And wondering what part of the various religions of my ancestry would be "permissible" pursue were a blood quanta involved. Quite possibly none. Sorry; Christianity doesn't interest me except as comparative theology.

        • Apuleius

          Anyone who grows up in the modern west is automatically going to be exposed to a great deal of Hellenic and/or Roman culture. In fact, Greco-Roman culture still has a pervasive influence in Europe and the Americas. And a lot of this influence reflects (although very often in a distorted way) the religious traditions of Hellenes and Romans. And since those cultures were so diverse and cosmopolitan, they are a good fit for anyone who feels drawn to them today, just as they readily welcomed people from all "ethnicities" back in the day.

          I am also a degenerate mongrel whose ancestors engaged in extensive race-mixing, especially of the Celto-Germanic varieties.

        • Rombald

          The Spanish and Portuguese Empires was explicitly Christian, and it is therefore not illegitimate to blame a large part of the post-Columbian atrocities in the Americas on Christianity. I tend to sympathise with the Japanese extirpation of Christianity in the 17th century (although the survival of the Kakure Kirishitan – Hidden Christians – up to 1870 does have a certain romance in itself). The Japanese did not care about Protestants (Dutch), but just Catholics, because they knew what had happened in the Philippines.

          The British Empire was much less overtly Christian. It is certainly nonsense to see British rule in India as being motivated by religion – the first missionaries were not allowed in until well into the 19th century – the East India Company saw them as disrupting the making of money. You're twisting history to make the 1857 War into a religious war – for one thing, it involved both Hindus and Muslims, and Islamic treatment of pagans has been at least as bad as Christian.

          The second biggest 19th-century empire, the French, was explicitly anti-Christian. Their justification for imperialism was the Mission Cvilisatrice.

          • Apuleius

            "The British Empire was much less overtly Christian. It is certainly nonsense to see British rule in India as being motivated by religion"

            You apparently know absolutely nothing about British Imperialism. But please, don't take my word for it.

            Below are the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, a member of the Governor General’s Council in the 1830s. Macaulay was the principle advocate for what came to be official British policy in India: to completely replace the indigenous educational system with a system imposed by the British:

            "We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and millions whom we govern — a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.

            "No Hindu who has received an English education ever remains sincerely attached to his religion. It is my firm belief that if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respected classes 30 years hence."

            Lord Macaulay (1800-1859)

          • Rombald

            Yes, I wrote "until well into the 19th century". Macaulay was writing when power was shifting from the East India Company to the British state, and his views were directly opposed to those of most of the East India company. British rule in India started in Bombay in the 1660s, and was well in place over most of the subcontinent long before the 1830s. Just read a bit about how difficult it was for Christian missionaries to get access to India before that date. Even after the 1830s, Macaulay's vfiews were not fully implemented, and were only ever one side of the policy. From the 1860s onwards, numerous Indians held senior positions in the imperial administration, and they were not mainly Christian.

          • Apuleius

            The failure of the British to make headway in Christianizing India does not reflect any hesitation or lack of enthusiasm with regard to the Christian "Mission" on their part. India had already proven to be very resilient in the face of monotheistic aggression going back to the first encounters with Islam. The British adopted what they felt were appropriate methods in view of the past failures of others.

            The British actively sought to Christianize everywhere that they colonized, the only exception being that they extended a "professional courtesy", so to speak, to their Islamic subjects who were not viewed as Pagans, and rightly so, by virtue of their monotheism.

            That Macaulayism failed to Christianize the Hindus is true, but this is simply another testament to the resiliency of Hinduism. Again, the fact that the British failed does not mean that they did not try. And where they failed others had failed before to convert the Hindus using far more aggressive tactics.

            If you would like to cite some sources that argue that the British were not interested in Christianizing their colonial subjects, I would be interested to know about those. If you are simply arguing that they were not as aggressive as the Catholics, that is very debatable. The British may have been less crude than the Spanish and the Portuguese (or at least somehow convinced people that they were) but they were far more efficient.

          • Rombald

            I did not state that "the British were not interested in Christianizing their colonial subjects". I merely said that the British conquest of India was motivated by economic rather than religious considerations. Missionaries were completely forbidden to enter India by the East India Company until the Charter Act of 1813, after which they entered gradually, but were not always approved of by those in power. Macaulayism was only one of several different schools of thought with respect to India.

            Look, I don't particularly want to get into a long debate, I am not a historian, and am certainly not an apologist for the British Empire, but claiming that British conquest and rule of India were driven directly by Christianity is absurd.

          • Apuleius

            The French are a pretty interesting case. Almost all of their colonial territories in Africa and the Middle East were in areas that were already Islamic and, therefore, not considered genuinely "Pagan" by the Christians. One exception was Madagascar, where the populace proved to be nearly as ferociously hostile to Christianization and Conquest as the Saxons were back in the day.

            Madagascar also provides an excellent example of how missionaries served as proxies for the colonial powers that back them. The Protestant missionaries in Madagascar worked for the British, while the Catholics worked for the French.

            The other main French colonies were in Indochina. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Indo-China has a long section on the history of missionary work in that region. The resistance to the gospels also proved to be quite strong in Indo-China:

            Despite ending up with little to show for it, the French sent tens of thousands of missionaries around the world as part of their empire building. The idea that the French empire was strictly "secular" and that its "mission" was strictly "civilizational" is based on ideology, not on facts. Or at least that is the case made by J.P. Daughton in "An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism and the Making of French Colonialism":

  • Robin Artisson

    To that statement of Mr. Clifton that you give above, I replied:

    "Indigenous" is defined simply as "originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country"- and it also means "inherent" or "innate". Asatru did originate in the Northern regions of Europe, and it is characteristic of what pre-Christian Europeans of those regions were doing.

    "Indigenous" does get tied up with politics, but that doesn't mean that we have to get tied up in the same manner. The term "indigenous", following this general definition that I cited, doesn't include a necessity for people to have been living in a certain land or practicing things native to that land in an unbroken lineage for a certain length of time; if that were the case, most Native Americans that were relocated would fail to be "indigenous" in description.

    • Gwendolyn Reece

      And people always move. As a totally politically incorrect, but historically acurrate statement, the Lakota were settled fishing/farming folk in Minnesota who were driven out on to the plains by invasions from the Chippewa/Ojibway in the 1700's. My family was already in the Applachian mountains by that point.

      • Gwendolyn Reece

        Not that anyone who is not me will read this or care, but I do just want to clarify that I didn't mean the previous post in any way to suggest that the Lakota are not indigenous or that their sacred ways that are based in their current homeland are not every bit as sacred as if they had been their since the dawn of time. Just to agree with Robin that these definitions are inherently difficult and problematic.

  • Chas S. Clifton


    Put down the dictionary. People who use the term "indigenous" as in "indigenous peoples" use it because they want something. They want their land back. They want an [Our tribe] Studies program at the university. They want reparations. They want to perform ceremonies at what is now a national park (Devil's Tower, Wyoming, for just one example).

    The term is completely politicized.

    Centuries have passed between Asatru today and the last time Norse religion was practiced on any large scale.

    By contrast, Australian Aboriginals, for example, are talking about issues that concern them, their parents, or their grandparents.

    Not the same thing.

    "Indigenous" implies a "non-indigenous" and, frankly, an attempt to assign blame for how some situation got screwed up, or some injustice, or some claim for damages.

    You could claim "damages" from the Christians, but what court would grant you standing? Too much time has passed! And who would you sue? The state church of Norway? They are Lutherans now!

    Best wishes,

    Chas Clifton

    • Robin Artisson

      Thank you for your response, Mr. Clifton. I'd rather not just put down the dictionary on account of how people take words and mangle them for their own purposes; I'm of the school of thinking that believes that studying the true origins of words and their meanings can clear up a lot of confusion! But I don't deny that words and their meanings are both things that change over time, and which get co-opted by persons and organizations with agendas. I just try to resist in what small, annoying ways I can. I don't want the fact that dictionaries actually do mean something to get lost. Words really shouldn't simply mean what different people want them to mean.

      I don't want damages paid to me from anyone, nor would I think any other Asatruar would. (I don't know, maybe they would, they are a diverse lot) but I've never heard of it. The spirit of the founding of the Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland wasn't one of social shock or contention; it was a thoughtful and very quiet recognition on the part of those heroes of the lasting and still prominent Heathen-based folk traditions and beliefs on the parts of many people in Iceland. This is why the Althing recognized it; they knew that the heroes in question were not just making up something out of their arses, but bringing attention to a real folk phenomenon.

      It's true that centuries have passed since Norse pantheonic Paganism was openly practiced by a majority of people. But the same thing can be said for the indigenous faith of the Mi'qmak people in Nova Scotia, who largely converted to Catholicism in the 1700's. And they have had to look to reconstructing aspects of their old beliefs- largely by "de-europeanizing" some of their sacred stories that were collected by Rand, a Christian missionary who spent his whole life with them. The work of people like Ruth Holmes Whitehead has taken marvelous leaps in this direction, showing us and them what their original stories might have been like. And I'd hate to call those Mi'kmaq traditionalists practitioners of a "new religious movement" or anything of the kind.

      I never intend to use the word "indigenous" as a blame word, and I guess I know others who agree. I'm not saying that you believe it should be either, just pointing out that I hate the political aspect of this debate.

      Best wishes to you!


      • Chas S. Clifton

        Robin, you can say you don't like the "political aspect," but I say that it is all about the political aspect. Claims of being indigenous are a political strategy.

        Speaking of the Mi'kmaq, I am just beginning to read The Mi'kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation, and Cultural Survival) at the suggestion of Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity Univ., UK), who has done a work with those who live in Newfoundland. In her slides at AAR, I noticed Plains-style tipis and headdresses. Yep, sounds kind of like a new [First Nations] religious movement to me!

        Or maybe it's Mi-kmaq reconstructionism. 😉

        Best wishes,


      • Chas S. Clifton

        Robin, you can say you don't like the "political aspect," but I say that it is all about the political aspect. Claims of being indigenous are a political strategy.

        Speaking of the Mi'kmaq, I am just beginning to read The Mi'kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation, and Cultural Survival) at the suggestion of Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity Univ., UK), who has done a work with those who live in Newfoundland. In her slides at AAR, I noticed Plains-style tipis and headdresses. Yep, sounds kind of like a new [First Nations] religious movement to me!

        Or maybe it's Mi-kmaq reconstructionism. 😉

        Best wishes,


        • Robin Artisson

          A small world indeed, Chas! I wouldn't be the one to tell these Mi'kmaq that they were on the heels of a new religious movement, or that they were reconstructionists, even; something in that rubs me wrong. Of course, you and I and all these people here are just sharing perspectives, and to an extent, hopes and dreams. It may be a very, very good thing that what we think and feel (and clearly we think and feel a lot) isn't definitive to anyone else, anywhere.

          I think that the wisest things I've heard said in this entire long conversation is that the situation is more complex than we can easily conceive of, and there is no easy way out of it. This mess of definitions, politics, perspectives, and arguments is entirely our "perfect storm"- what the members of the Ásatrúarfélagið think of themselves, or what the Mi'kmaq traditionalists think, is not affected by us, and nor should it be.

          Glad Yule!

  • Gwendolyn Reece

    Having observed and talked to various people, I think trying to establish some bridges between Pagan traditions and other indigenous traditions is a very, very young initiative and is mixed in its initial success. I hope this attempt continues because what I definitely saw opportunities for unity when I spoke to people from numerous backgrounds [or I should say, those representatives of the indigenous traditions that were the spiritual leaders…there were a number of people at the Parliament who were political people, not spiritual leaders and didn’t come from that perspective]. The truth is there are significant differences in practices, but we Pagans often tend to think a whole lot more like other indigenous people than people in dominant society. I’m not sure that other indigenous groups are ready to hear that or to believe it, but I think it will gradually become more obvious as we are able to have real dialogues. [Continued again…sorry]

  • Chas S. Clifton

    Zoe, do you mean the use of sacred sites or actual land ownership? In Australia or with some American Indian tribes, for example, it is the latter–quite a large issue.

    I am aware of issues in Greece from my viewpoint here and have blogged about it a number of times.

  • @thelettuceman

    Personally, of course. Not "presonally." My keyboard doesn't keep up with my fingers these days. -_-

  • Aranea

    Perhaps we need someone with a greater breadth of vocabulary. Or maybe there simply aren't words to easily describe people who are doing their level best to believe and practice as their ancestors did, living thousands of miles from where those ancestors lived and having very little to go on, within the context "indigenous".

    I am in no way indigenous to anywhere, I don't think; but should that make my religious practices any less valid, given the circumstances? I'm thinking no. I can hardly be blamed for the poor historical accounts of my distant ancestors, or the choice to come to North America by my more recent ancestors.

    It seems to me that the whole problem here is with the word; it's limited definition and it's courtroom history. Unfortunately I am not the great thinker that so many readers here are. Anyone up for inventing some new terminology?

  • apuleius platonicus

    Obviously there is a big difference between assessing the political dimension of indigenous peoples' struggles and blithely declaring "it's all about the politics".

    Religion in and of itself has always been central to both sides of "encounter" between European Christians and the peoples of the Americas, Asia and Africa. Religion played a central role in the resistance of Native Americans in their initial attempts to defend themselves from conquest and genocide, and it has played a central role in the ongoing struggle of Native peoples as they continue to assert themselves even after the European Christians "won".

    Religion also played a central role in one of the most well known and successful anti-colonial struggles: that of India. The great uprising against British colonial rule in 1857 (aka "The First Great War of Independence") had a very strong religious (as in anti-Christian) component. Chinese resistance to British colonialism also had a very strong anti-Christian component. Japan managed to avoid being colonized altogether in part by ridding the country of all Christian missionaries at a very early stage in the game.

    On the other side of the equation whether we are talking about the conquest of the Americas, the enslavement and later colonization of Africans, or European colonial adventures in Asia, these were always conducted in the name of spreading the Gospel, and this was taken very seriously by those involved. It was a central component of how Europeans justified to themselves what they were doing, and the vast majority of them sincerely believed that they were doing something positive. Just as the vast majority of westerners who give money to Christian missionaries to this day, missionaries who seamlessly continue the spiritual warfare that the slavers and conquistadors were part of, are quite sincere in their belief that they are helping poor stupid dark-skinned savages.

    It is not all politics. Resistance to Christianization, combined inevitably with a reassertion and often a restatement or even a "revisioning" of "indigenous" religiosity, has played a central role in indigenous history. To see an example of the kind of revisioning sometimes involved do a google search on Tenskwatawa. Also check out Gregory Evans Dowd's "A Spirited Resistance".

  • Nick Ritter

    I don't know that I'm a great thinker, but I do love words, and I'll give it some thought.

    I wonder if some of the issue is that "indigenous" can mean different things, depending on what noun that adjective is trying to modify. It doesn't seem to make sense, to me, to say that this or that religion is indigenous to a place. This suggests two different kinds of indigeneity: if pressed, I might say that my religion is indigenous to my *people* (among a group of related peoples), and that my *people* are indigenous to a particular *place*. If people move en masse to a place where they are not indigenous, and bring their religion with them, I still think their religion can be called "indigenous." An example would be the large migration of Germanic peoples to Britain in the 500s. Certainly, even though Anglo-Saxon heathenry didn't originate in Britain, it can be considered the *indigenous* religion of the Anglo-Saxons.

    I know people will say that the above scenario hardly matches people of European descent currently trying to practice the religions of their ancestors in former European colonies, or even in Europe itself, due to the broken nature of the tradition. Be that as it may; I'm just trying to think through different examples to see if we can find terms that sufficiently reflect realities.

  • @thelettuceman

    My sense of this whole argument was that the term "indigenous" was in no way meant to represent any form of validity over NRMs. It seems that concept is more being thrown in by people on the sidelines and the unfortunate assumption of people that "indigenous" is somehow "more right". It is difficult to divorce the term of indigenous from the political aspects of tribal rights and cultural preservation movements, but I think that people should try, at the very least.

  • @thelettuceman

    "Religion played a central role in the resistance of Native Americans in their initial attempts to defend themselves from conquest and genocide, and it has played a central role in the ongoing struggle of Native peoples as they continue to assert themselves even after the European Christians "won"."

    Which Native American tribes? I know several Native Americans who belong to tribes who, quite peacefully, converted to Christianity early on in their interactions with approaching Europeans. Your statement implies a blanket role that the struggles between Native Americans and European and Euro-American settlers rests solely on the shoulders of some greater religious crusade. This statement also lends itself to the belief that this response was a pan-American response and not one based on individual tribal decisions. Perhaps I'm just ignorant about this aspect of history, though.

    Regardless of how one wishes to spin it, colonialism is not about a religious angle. In essence it is about the politics, as well as economics and a sense of property. Religion, in the modern sense (as in not in the Christian Crusades), is often used as an excuse to enact larger political or economic events. Yes, people did justify their superiority through religion, but I hardly think it is fair to say that the conquest of the Americas/Africa/Asia was "always conducted in the name of spreading the Gospel". I really think you need to check your facts some more before making such accusations.

    There are missionaries who do continue spiritual warfare and cultural cleansing. This blog is full of accounts of those horrors. I think that people don't actually know what goes on to these peoples that the missionaries are trying to convert, and if more of them did, you know that a greater number of westerners who do donate money to support these causes would not continue.

    There are so many historical errors in this statement that I cannot even begin to wade through them. Japan managed to avoid being colonized all together by ridding the country of all Christians? Well in that sense you're correct, because they got rid of the whole of the European involvement (Expelled the Europeans and, by virtue of all Europeans being Christian, thus too expelled Christians). They were still allowed a piecemeal trading system with the Japanese state, even after their expulsion in the 1500s, but that country was strong enough to stave off the political and economic interests of European powers.

    China, on the other hand, was not. The period of European involvement in China saw that country at one of its weakest, and the incompatibilities (unwillingness?) in the Imperial system when adapting to a modern world paved the way for China to be carved up in the 1700 and 1800s by hungry European powers.

    I am, arguably, not an East Asian Historian, although I do know many who would love to get their hands on this. But claiming that religion was always the central focus of all political, economic, and colonial ventures is just daft.

  • Nick Ritter

    With regards to the historical situation of Christians in Japan; not only did the Japanese government expel European Christians, they also persecuted Japanese people who had converted.

  • Apuleius

    "Which Native American tribes? I know several Native Americans who belong to tribes who, quite peacefully, converted to Christianity early on in their interactions with approaching Europeans."

    European Christians practiced savage violence against Native Americans, in the name of Christianity, from the very beginning. Perhaps you have heard of a fellow named Christopher Columbus?

    There was never a single Native American who ever had the opportunity to "peacefully" make up his or her mind on the subject. That is the fault of the Christians.

  • Apuleius

    "The period of European involvement in China saw that country at one of its weakest, and the incompatibilities (unwillingness?) in the Imperial system when adapting to a modern world paved the way for China to be carved up in the 1700 and 1800s by hungry European powers."

    Actually China had certain strengths a the time. For example, they had a huge trade surplus with the British because Europeans didn't make anything that the Chinese were interested in buying, but the Chinese, long before Walmart came along, had lots of products that western markets were eager for.

    The British puzzled over this and finally came up with the obvious solution: Opium.The East India Company (which had sought and achieved a monopoly on the production and export of opium from India since 1773) started importing opium illegally into china and demanding payment in silver from industrious Chinese entrepreneurs who had been infected by the Protestant Work Ethic. When the Chinese government tried to shut down the illegal opium trade, the British fought a series of wars from 1850 to 1901. The happy result of these wars was the free flow of opium into China, the free flow of silver into Britain, the annexation of Singapore into the British Empire, and legal guarantees for the freedom of Christian missionaries to ply their noxious trade unmolested.

    The British were militarily superior to the Chinese, and were completely unscrupulous when it came to using that superiority even to the extent of forcing illegal addictive drugs on the Chinese for fun and profit. Chalking it up to China's weakness or unwillingness to modernize is like saying Poland was weak and unwilling to modernize in 1939 and that's why they ended up divided between Hitler and Stalin, which is true to an extent, but it leaves out the important fact that Hitler and Stalin were evil powerful bastards.

  • Al Billings

    And they did so almost entirely for political reasons. They were happy to tolerate the Christians for quite a while until they started becoming powerful in the wrong ways and allying with the wrong forces (from the point of view of those in power).

  • Apuleius

    The Christians in Japan openly advocated the violent extirpation of all other religions, which is exactly what Christians had already accomplished elsewhere. Eventually people took them seriously and dealt with the problem.

  • Erynn

    I'll agree that indigenous people bringing their indigenous religion with them to a new place is still "indigenous". After there's a multi-generational break, their descendants might not necessarily be able to claim that they're practicing an indigenous religion if they've lost most of it and are having to look outside the original culture to help patch it back together. I think this is particularly true of they've moved again and again during those generations of dissociation from the original religion(s). Anglo-Saxons converting to Christianity and their descendants moving to North America with Christianity as their many-generations religion whose subsequent descendants then attempt to piece together the original Anglo-Saxon polytheism would, imo, be hard-pressed to claim it's still indigenous unless they can pretty well nail all the rituals and socio-cultural context of the original religion(s).

    Of course, this has been the same thing I've been saying for a few days now. *shrug*

  • Al Billings

    That isn't actually what happened. I recommend reading some Japanese history. It wasn't a religious issue that drove their extermination, but a political one.

  • Apuleius

    Are you saying that the Jesuits did not "actually" call for the violent eradication of all other religions everywhere on earth? You are aware that the Jesuits lobbied for the exportation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition to Asia and the Americas? And that they were successful, resulting in the establishment of the Inquisition in the Indian state of Goa (in 1600) and also in Mexico, Brazil and Peru (~1570)?

  • Gwendolyn Reece

    Iam ineffably privileged to have been able to attend the Parliament, to hear some of the wonderful and inspiring Pagans who presented, and to have had the chance to talk with numerous indigenous elders from a variety of traditions. I do have to say that as soon as anyone tries to give a name to groups of people to describe some common characteristics, there are always a ton of problems. Naming is a treacherous enterprise. It can also be a sacred one because it can help bring unity from diversity. That’s part of the function of the act of naming which, in any tradition that has sound cosmology, is a sacred act. [Continued]

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  • Gwendolyn Reece

    For example, a top spiritual priority for indigenous people is having the bones of their ancestors returned from the museums. As a witch who directly communicates with spirits, you don’t have to explain this to me! I want the bones of their ancestors returned and I’m desperately hoping that there are still people who have the skills to help those spirits return to a harmonious state! Hell…I want Mummies returned, I don’t care if the Egyptians don’t want them back! Find dominate society people who think like that.

    I just think that we, as pagans, tend to GET these kinds of things…and many more. I am hoping that we can start having the real honest discussions, realize we do think a lot alike and often have some shared core values, and figure out how to stand in solidarity with each other when we have common cause.