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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The story of how Max G. Beauvoir came to practice the religion of his ancestors has been repeated widely since the report of his death earlier this week. Having returned to his native Haiti to apply his skills as a biochemist and to learn about the healing herbs used in that country, Beauvoir was called out by his dying grandfather as the one who would carry on the family tradition as a houngan. While Beauvoir was reportedly confused by the pronouncement, he took the directive quite seriously, using his polished manner to become an ambassador of Vodou to people both inside Haiti’s borders and beyond.

Haitian Vodou initiate and blogger Lilith Dorsey never met Beauvoir, but was quite familiar with his work. The fact that he wasn’t particularly interested in the religion growing up didn’t come as a surprise to her. “In his generation, they were told that it was bad, and in order to be progressive, to get ahead, you had to put away the old backwoods ways,” Dorsey said.

Vodou was not recognized as a religion in that country until 2003, and Beauvoir’s advocacy had a lot to do with that. Dorsey described the Temple of Yehwe, which Beauvoir established in Washington, D.C., as “one of the few open and authentic temples in the U.S. You can call them up, go there, walk in.”

Beauvoir attended college in France and the United States, and his scientific background made it easier for him to put a “nicey-nice face” on Vodou, Dorsey believes, because his Western education gave him credibility many practitioners do not have in mostly white societies. His establishment of a Vodou temple in the United States capital, however, was more an act of survival than ambassadorship. In 1986, Beauvoir fled Haiti after the ousting of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Duvalier’s father had recruited houngans for his secret police, called Tontons Macoutes. When the family fell from power, there was backlash against the priests.

At the time, Beauvoir told the Orlando-Sentinel that more than 1,500 Vodou practitioners were killed. However, other sources put that number as low as one hundred. That period of unrest eventually eased, and Beauvoir returned to a home, which he then converted into a temple. He provided rituals for paying tourists, which was seen as controversial in some quarters, and made him the subject of a critical book by journalist Amy Wilentz.

Max G. Beauvoir [Courtesy Photo]

Max G. Beauvoir [Courtesy Photo]

With his training in biochemistry, Beauvoir worked toward a scientific understanding of the various herbs and plants used by houngans in their practice. He argued that the priests, who vastly outnumber western-trained doctors in Haiti, should be formally relied upon as part of the country’s health-care system. He also consulted with ethnographer Wade Davis, who wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow as a result of research into the process of making zombies in the Vodou tradition. Unfortunately, that nonfiction account was turned into a movie in 1988 by director Wes Craven, and is credited with reigniting the zombie craze in America. That may have been good for fans of flesh-eating undead, but it did nothing to improve how Vodou is portrayed in Hollywood.

Beauvoir was an outspoken critic of those kinds of misperceptions about Vodou, and his open practices were intended to shed light on a religion that is so often represented as a primitive combination of zombie-creation, animal sacrifice, and sticking pins into dolls. Even the spelling of the religion can be contentious: acceptable are “Vodoun” and “Vodou,” while “voodoo” is generally viewed as derogatory. An obituary of Beauvoir at NBC places “voodoo” in quotes. The media outlet did this to call attention to the fact that this better-known spelling is incorrect, and then it used “Vodou” for the remainder of the piece. Clearly, someone was listening to what Beauvoir had to say.

Nevertheless, his legacy is mixed. While he worked to be an ambassador, Dorsey added, “It’s hard not to associate him as someone who sold out.” His links to the Duvaliers and support of their multi-generational regime also taint his work in the eyes of some Haitians, such as Michel Nau, who wrote this comment on the Huffington Post obituary:

It’s not true when Beauvoir said: “Voodoo is the soul of the Haitian people and nothing can be done without that cultural basis.” I am from Haiti, and I don’t consider Voodoo as my soul, and part of my culture, and I have been doing a lot without it. Another voodoo propaganda when he said: “In 1987, many Voodoo practitioners who were killed by the Christians in the chaos that broke out after Dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier fled Haiti.” This has nothing to do with Christianity, or being Christians. These voodooists who were killed were Tonton Macoutes and henchmen of the Duvalier regime.

”Just as a carnival band went by the house, grandfather, a voodoo priest turned to me and said, ‘You will carry on the tradition,'” It was not the sort of thing you could refuse. Beauvoir told. Just like his father and grandfather served Papa Doc Duvalier, after returning home in the 1970s, Beauvoir became adviser to the Baby Doc Duvalier.

Even with those criticisms, it seems clear that Beauvoir was a consistent champion for his religion. Dorsey points to a letter he wrote to Senator Jesse Helms in 1999, after the firebrand politician dismissed aid programs to Haiti as “amounting to witchcraft.” Vodou remains a minority religion that can be referred to in a derogatory fashion, such as in the phrase “voodoo economics,” and it was that mindset that Beauvoir fought against.

When the largely independent houngans of Haiti decided to create a central structure in 2008, they selected Beauvoir as its Ati, or supreme leader. This was perhaps more thanks to his ability to counter such bias than his skill as a priest himself. By embracing two societies, Beauvoir was more able to counter bias toward a religion often dismissed as primitive.

Vodou Alar [Photo Credit: Calvin Hennick / Wikimedia]

Vodou Alar [Photo Credit: Calvin Hennick / Wikimedia]

“It’s ghetto and dirty otherwise,” said Dorsey. “He had a voice that was easily understandable,” and he didn’t “sound like a Haitian.” This ability, for example, allowed Beauvoir to be heard when he was countering allegations that the 2010 cholera outbreak was caused by black magic; the disease was later determined to have been introduced by United Nations relief workers from Nepal. And, his unique voice allowed him to be heard when speaking out against the widespread belief in the 1980s that all Haitians had AIDS.

Not everything Beauvoir did was seen in a positive light, but his legacy is largely one of lifting up his religion and his country in a world that mostly dismisses both.

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Attorney Robin Martinez has the cultivated voice of an old-time radio news anchor – just deep enough to be resonate, clear diction, and a confident tone. It’s undoubtedly a valuable tool when he is called upon to make oral arguments in a case, but it’s just as easy to imagine him using that powerful voice in the context of ritual magic, which is part of his Pagan practice. The values that led Martinez to Paganism are, in fact, the same ones that led him to now be involved in one of the many local court battles being fought over the Keystone XL pipeline.

Robin Wright

Robin Martinez

Over the years, The Wild Hunt has followed the proposed tar sands pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta to Texas when completed, through the eyes of Pagans, watching from afar. Most visible to them and the rest of the public is the permit that operator TransCanada needs in order to bring the pipeline over the international border and whose fate lies with President Obama and the State Department.

Martinez has a different perspective. He is fighting on the front lines of a local skirmish that is attempting to block Trans Canada’s ability to pass through the state of South Dakota. States’ rights are alive and well in the Western US and, while Obama can halt the project in its tracks, his blessing won’t necessarily stop the ground war.

Martinez describes himself as Pagan, but not following a particular tradition. “I have a strong environmental ethic,” he said, “and a strong sense, like a lot of us who are Pagan, of the interconnectedness of all beings. It’s so much bigger than us; we’re just a part of that web.”

It’s that belief in protecting the earth and all its creatures that led him to oppose the Keystone XL personally, and his profession gave him the opportunity to do what many Pagans can’t: take it to the courts. “I have been lucky enough to have been blessed with a set of skills and abilities — and a law license — that allow me to do whatever I can to help protect the Earth from being degraded and polluted.”

Fossil fuel use and the consequences of extracting and processing it, are top on Martinez’s list of things humanity needs to stop doing if the planet is to survive, not to mention the species. The Keystone XL pipeline represents, what he considers, a particularly egregious form of fossil fuel to extract, because the thick tar sands of Alberta can’t even be put into a pipe without a lot of work. This type of oil, bitumen, is designated “sour crude” because it has a high sulfur content, and is embedded with a lot of sand. It’s extracted through a strip-mining process. Then, the sludge is heated up, so that the sand can be removed. Finally, diluents are added in order to get it flowing. According to the American Petroleum Institute, the mixture includes “natural gas condensate, naptha or a mix of other light hydrocarbons.” .

Alberta tar sands in the early 20th century (source: Wikimedia Commons)

“What bothers me about the Keystone XL is that it’s an enabler of tar sands exploitation,” Martinez said. “It’s an awful process, and the tailings from separation are leeching out into what were pristine waters. It’s easy for large energy companies to engage there, because only indigenous peoples live there, and they’re bearing the brunt. The land and water damage is heinous. It’s flat-out evil.”

In South Dakota, there are also indigenous peoples in the cross hairs of history. Four Sioux tribes, among others, have joined the court case, in which Martinez is representing the organization Dakota Rural Action, a grassroots group focused on protecting agriculture and promoting conservation. “One thing I never want to lose sight of is that this is a life or death matter for them. Being an outsider to that culture, I never want to lose sight of that. They’re the ones that would bear the brunt if something were to go wrong. That’s the physical nature of pipeline slicing through those states, and what might happen to water resources in that region in the event of a breach.”

One of the causes of pipeline breaches is the corrosiveness of the product shipped through them. Industry documents on tar sands maintain that diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is not more corrosive than other petroleum products. However, according to Scientific American, the processes, which remove sand and add dilutents, create “the most viscous, sulfurous and acidic form of oil produced today.” That is one reason that the physical nature of the pipeline is of great interest.

To make matters more worrisome, Martinez calculates that, between federal and state regulators, there will only be one inspector for every 5,800 miles of pipeline. In addition, the highly-specialized skills needed to become an inspector make the regulators subject to the revolving door known as “regulatory capture.” Consequently, Martinez refers to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration as “the little agency that couldn’t.” He is focusing on the engineering aspects of the pipeline, and will seek to make the case that the risk of breaches is unacceptably high.

Alberta tar sands production in 2008 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

This is not Martinez’s first time defending ideals which are aligned with his world view. He’s an active member of the National Lawyers Guild, first set up in the 1920s when the American Bar Association refused admittance to Jewish attorneys, and those of color. From the guild’s website, “We seek to unite the lawyers, law students, legal workers and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people, to the end that human rights shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests.” Martinez said that he met his co-counsel for this particular case, Bruce Ellison, because they served together on the NLG’s environmental committee in the Midwest region. Ellison has considerable experience representing indigenous tribes.

In South Dakota, a quirky law interacting with national politics provided Martinez with a legal opportunity. “The permit was granted in 2010 with very little opposition from the public utilities commission.” he explained. However, “if work was not started within four years, it must be recertified.” Work on that section of pipeline was likely delayed to see if Obama would approve the permit to cross the border.

“All of a sudden, there was grassroots opposition. Farmers and ranches, four major tribes, Bold Nebraska, my client Dakota Rural Action” rallied in the interest of property rights, water security, and in defense of cultural heritage, which would be disrupted by this massive project. Even so, it has been an uphill battle against a well-entrenched opponent. Martinez is working the case pro bono, which he admits has “taken a chunk out of my income for this year.”

South Dakota is one of the poorest regions in the country, so there is still a big difference in how much money each side can bring to the table. “We’re scrambling to find $20,000 to pay for expert witnesses,” Martinez said. “The CEO of TransCanada can find that in his couch.”

There’s also the hurdle of the “Chevron deference,” a legal standard which arose from a 1984 Supreme Court decision. The EPA under George W. Bush began using a more relaxed interpretation of the Clean Air Act, prompting the National Resources Defense Council to sue. The court determined that, so long as the interpretation is reasonable under the law, courts should defer to the administrative expertise of the body doing the interpreting.

In this particular case, the administrative body is the South Dakota Public Utilities Board, which must balance the public interest in the energy security and jobs promised by pipeline supporters against the risk of environmental and socioeconomic damage highlighted by opponents. Preparing for the case includes wading through thousands of documents provided by TransCanada, many of which the company wants kept confidential. “Some of them I agree on, like the details of cultural surveys of paleolithic sites, because they’d essentially become a treasure map. Other, like worst-case spill scenarios, we’re arguing over.”

Look for a media push from the South Dakota tribes. Members of the four major Sioux nations will be riding into the state capital from four directions on horseback and gathering for a huge rally. The effort is in recognition of how difficult a fight this will be, but even while the deck may seem stacked against the local effort, President Obama can change all of that with the stroke of a pen. “If Obama denies the permit, I would file a motion to dismiss the next day,” Martinez said. How victory is achieved doesn’t matter to this attorney, who is confident that “the fight would go on without me.” What does matter, and guides him as he sifts through documents and develops a legal strategy, is a simple concept: “Our Earth is a sacred place.”

KATHMANDU, Nepal –This past Saturday, at about noon local time, Nepal was struck by an 7.8-magnitude earthquake said to be equivalent to 20 thermonuclear bombs, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. As of this writing, the death toll is reported at over 5,000, and that number is likely to rise as information is gathered from the remote areas closest to the epicenter.

Nepal Earthquake 2015 [Photo Credit: Krish Dulal via Wikimedia]

Nepal Earthquake 2015 [Photo Credit: Krish Dulal via Wikimedia]

As is often the case with powerful disasters, there is a strong desire to help. However it’s not always clear what assistance is going to be the most effective. The Wild Hunt spoke to Peter Dybing, whose experience on the front lines of disaster relief for the 2010 Haiti earthquake gives him a unique perspective on the issue.

Disasters like this have several phases, Dybing explained, and each phase has its own needs. An earthquake of this severity,which occurs roughly every 75 years in this region, will likely require both immediate aid and longer-term, sustainable solutions. The first step in providing aid, however, is assessing both the needs, and how well the surviving infrastructure can support aid workers. “If you don’t have everything that your people need,” he said, “they become part of the disaster” with each additional body needing food, water, and shelter – items already in short supply.

What is known so far is that many Nepalese survivors are sleeping on the streets. From what Dybing understands, water is likely in short supply in the more remote areas, where it must be trucked in along mountain roads. One organization that is particularly good at not becoming part of the problem, Dybing said, is Doctors Without Borders. “They bring all their teams, shelter, food, and water, and can be up and running in 24 hours,” he said.

Most NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, are not quite so nimble. In evaluating which organizations will be able to provide the needed help effectively and quickly, he says, it becomes a question of existing contacts and area infrastructure. In Haiti, he said, “We looked for a school to set up as an incident command base, because it has everything we would need.” For the Nepal response, Dybing expects that relief will be coordinated through India; navigating geopolitical tensions is but one of the challenges that relief organizations must be prepared for in order to be effective.

"Kathmandu - open spaces have become home for thousands of people afraid to return to their houses." [Photo Credit: Walter Lines / Flickr]

“Kathmandu – open spaces have become home for thousands of people afraid to return to their houses.” [Photo Credit: Walter Lines / Flickr]

Having contacts on the ground and a knowledge of the lay of the land is critical to being able to funnel money to where it is most needed, Dybing added. And, the Pagan community itself has just such a resource in the form of the Patrick McCollum Foundation, which has put out its own call for donations for earthquake relief.

“Patrick is the man,” Dybing said. “The idea that he could have a better idea where the needs actually are, and where to send the money, is an awesome thing. The issue is that there’s not an accountability put in place, so you have to trust the person, but I trust Patrick implicitly.” And, because the foundation is based in the United States, it’s required to spend all the donations made for Nepalese earthquake relief on exactly that.

McCollum, who was unavailable to comment, has traveled extensively to this part of the world, which is why his foundation is well-positioned to direct relief efforts. While the organization is primarily focused on social justice and world peace, Dybing said that, right now that specific mission is less important than McCollum’s knowledge about the needs and existing infrastructure in Nepal. “The logistic piece is huge,” Dybing said. “It can cut response time from 10-15 days down to three or four.”

Another small organization that is skilled at fast response is Heart to Heart International, which earned Dybing’s respect in Haiti for quick, effective deployment, followed by its working toward more sustainable, long-term solutions. As for groups with infrastructure already on the ground, Dybing named the Australian Red Cross.

Larger NGOs have what Dybing calls a “long logistics tail,” and take more time to get mobilized. “We were treating trauma victims in Haiti for nine days before the American Red Cross showed up,” he said. While these bigger organizations, like Care International, can’t provide immediate relief, the need in Nepal is probably going to last for years to come, so donations to these larger organizations will not go to waste.

People line up for clean water. [Photo Credit: Walter Lines / Flickr]

People lining up for clean water. [Photo Credit: Walter Lines / Flickr]

It’s also possible, he speculated, for the Pagan community to come together to provide some kind of longer-term, sustainable relief, perhaps targeting the small number of animists living in that nation. Out of a population of 26.5 million people, 3.1% report following Kirantism, which is a tribal religion with strong animistic and ancestor-veneration elements, and another .4% consider themselves animists. By comparison, 1.4% of those counted on the last Nepalese census called themselves Christian.

Just yesterday, Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) announced its ADF Cares – Nepal fund, through which money will be sent to Global Giving for longer term relief. “Pagans raised $30,000 for Doctors Without Borders after the Japan earthquake, which was the first time we did that as a community,” Dybing noted. “It blew the doors off the myth that Pagans are poor.” He speculated that such a sustainable effort might involve individuals contributing $30 a month for some years, allowing aid workers in those populations to eventually train Nepalese replacements to continue the effort.  With this level of destruction, Dybing added, “Two weeks isn’t going to cut it.”


LIMA, PERU –The environmental activist group Greenpeace has long stood for defending the Earth and all of its creatures, a mission which earth-centered Pagans are likely to support. The organization has been on the front lines of fights against whaling, the toppling of ancient trees, the single-minded pursuit of oil without regard for secondary damages, and has also lobbied for full nuclear disarmament, sought safer alternatives to toxic chemicals, and encouraged sustainable agriculture over genetically modified organisms.


On Dec. 8, however, a group of Greenpeace activists, seeking to attract the attention of United Nations delegates attending the climate talks in Lima, wound up attracting the world’s attention in a bad way. They placed a large message in support of renewable energy adjacent to one of the nearby Nacza Line drawings. While the words themselves were formed using large pieces of yellow cloth, the footprints left by the Greenpeace members irreparably damaged this UNESCO Heritage Site, according to Peruvian authorities.

It’s not difficult to imagine how this publicity stunt came to be planned. Environmentalists the world over have been focused on the talks in Lima, with hopes that substantive progress might be made towards addressing the growing crisis of climate change. As more extreme weather events shake the support of climate-change deniers, stronger calls for developing renewable energy sources have surged. With the talks being held in Peru, so close to the highly visible, very recognizable line drawings made by the Nazca people centuries ago, placing a non-permanent message near these iconic symbols must have seemed a perfect choice for those involved in the stunt’s planning.

What Greenpeace members apparently did not know about this highly restricted area is that the drawings were made by scratching into the dark ground to reveal the lighter soil underneath. They have been preserved for the 1,500-2,000 years since their creation largely by the dry desert climate of the region. To prevent footprints, which would similarly last for centuries, those few people who are authorized to walk near the site wear special shoes; shoes that the activists did not use.

This was a case where leaving only footprints and taking only pictures was not enough to leave no trace, and a firestorm has erupted over the action. Peruvian Deputy Culture Minister Luis Jaime Castillo said, “Peru has nothing against the message of Greenpeace. We are all concerned about climate change,” but he denounced the stunt as a “true slap in the face at everything Peruvians consider sacred.” Those involved were able to leave the country, but Peru’s government has demanded to know their identities and is considering legal action; attacking archeological monuments can carry a penalty of up to six years. One of those involved has been identified as Mauro Fernandez, an Argentine who coordinates the Andean Climate and Energy Campaign.

Greenpeace did issue an apology. However, it did little to quell the mounting criticism, because the apology focused on the “moral offense” inflicted on Peruvians, rather than the damage caused by the mile-long trek made through the desert to lay the message out. This is damage for which there is no known way to repair. After pictures made that damage evident, a more remorseful statement was published on Dec. 12:

The decision to engage in this activity shows a complete disregard for the culture of Peru and the importance of protecting sacred sites everywhere. There is no apology sufficient enough to make up for this serious lack of judgment. I know my international colleagues who engaged in this activity did not do so with malice, but that doesn’t mitigate the result. It is a shame that all of Greenpeace must now bear.” — Greenpeace U.S. Executive Director Annie Leonard

Executive Director Kumi Naidoo has since stated that Greenpeace will cooperate with the investigation, saying that “There cannot be any defense for what happened.”

Drawing of a colibri [Photo Credit: BjarteSorensen]

Drawing of a colibri [Photo Credit: BjarteSorensen]

This situation brings into conflict two common Pagan values — veneration of the Earth and the honoring of sacred land and indigenous religious practices. Alane Brown, a Dianic Wiccan and a professor at Fort Lewis College who recently returned from working for the Peace Corps in Peru, said, “I was shocked by Greenpeace’s action and see it as a crime against Peruvian heritage and deeply disrespectful of Peruvian ancestors.”

Unfortunately, the general Pagan reaction to the Greenpeace incident has been somewhat muted. Many individuals and groups reached for this story declined to comment on the situation and the implied conflict of interest. How far should we go, as Earth stewards or activists, to protect the planet’s resources and the future of our environment? Activism at what cost?

In my previous article describing my experiences with Paganism in Australia, particularly in the state of Victoria, I mentioned that the local Pagans, who I have talked to, are interested in exploring Aboriginal culture and spirituality. American readers also seemed interested in hearing more about this subject as well. As I have mentioned, this subject presents some special challenges. Today, I explore some of those challenges.

didgeridoo [Photo Credit: betta design via Compfight CC BY-NC 2.0]

didgeridoo [Photo Credit: betta design via Compfight CC BY-NC 2.0]

Let’s begin by acknowledging a basic reality. It is no easier or less complicated for an Australian Pagan to get authentically involved with Aboriginal spirituality than it is for an American Pagan to get involved with Native American spirituality. You’ll see this isn’t the only parallel.

While we use the term ‘Aboriginal’ to refer to the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and nearby islands, we ought to remember that there has never been a single, homogeneous Aboriginal society. The broad term includes 900 regional groups with distinct languages, beliefs, and practices.

British colonisation of Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay in 1788. We don’t know with certainty how large the Aboriginal population was at that time. Some ecologists estimate it may have been 750,000 to a million (1). What followed is the familiar story of colonialism and colonisation: the spread of virulent diseases, the appropriation of land and water resources, the introduction of alcohol, opium, and tobacco, violence, exploitation, dispossession, the spread of European settlements, forced religious conversion, the establishment of racist institutions, and the general obliteration of the languages, literature and culture of native peoples.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, by 1900 the recorded Indigenous population of Australia had declined to approximately 93,000 and the belief that the Indigenous Australians would soon die out was widely held. While Australians are well aware of what happened next, most Americans know little about the Stolen Generation.

Up until as recently as the 1970s, the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments removed Indigenous children from their families. Newspaper articles, reports, and other documents suggest that motivations included child protection and fear over the mixing of racial groups. Aboriginals were referred to as blacks (they still are) and the government wanted to “breed out the colour by elevating female half-castes to white standard with a view to their absorption by mating into the white population” (2).

In Australia: A Biography of a Nation, Phillip Knightley wrote:

This cannot be over-emphasized—the Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-coloured skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. If their parents protested they were held at bay by police.

The exact number of children removed is unknown, but the Bringing Them Home Report stated that “not one family has escaped the effects of forcible removal”.

On 13 February 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to Indigenous Australians.

Kevin Rudd on screen in Federation Square, Melbourne [Photo Credit: virginiam via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0]

Kevin Rudd on screen in Federation Square, Melbourne [Photo Credit: virginiam via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0]

Fast forward to today. Aboriginals have not recovered from the atrocities they experienced. In June 2013, the estimated Australian Indigenous population was 698,583 people. That’s about 3% of the total population in Australia. The Overview of Australian Indigenous health status confirms what many can imagine. Aboriginals live in remote communities, and have poorer health, lower education, greater problems with alcohol abuse, earn less, are at greater risk for self-harm and suicide, and die sooner than non-Indigenous persons.

It’s a bleak picture, but it’s not a hopeless one. A great number of Australians care very much about the state of Aboriginal people and there are many private and public efforts to improve Aboriginal health and well-being as well as promote reconciliation.

Wurundjeri: Traditional Owner Acknowledgement Plaques by ANTaR Vic

Wurundjeri: Traditional Owner Acknowledgement Plaques by ANTaR Vic

As I mentioned above, there is no single, homogeneous Aboriginal society. I use the term “Aboriginal spirituality” only for convenience. How to pin-point it? We can talk about the creation, ancestral, and totemic beings, but that misses the point. There is next to nothing I can tell you about what’s left of Aboriginal ceremonies because I am not privy to them. It is “secret business” as one reader commented in my last piece. What we’re really talking about is culture and one that is inextricably tied to the land.

Aboriginal Australian groups had a deep spiritual and cultural connection to the land. Their forcible removal by European settlers severed them from the cultural and spiritual practices necessary to maintain the cohesion and well-being of the group. All the Dreaming stories, the tales of timeless time, tell significant truths within each Aboriginal group’s local landscape and these establish the structure of their societies, the rules of behaviour, and the ceremonies performed to ensure continuity of life and land.

Many Aussie Pagans would love to have greater access to Aboriginal wisdom. I’ve met one Pagan man that traveled to remote areas of Australia and spent time with some Aboriginals and learned a great deal.  There are opportunities to visit cultural centres, public events, and there’s volunteering. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult and there is an invisible line in the sand. Aborigines are distrustful, and who can blame them. Australians are sensitive to the plight of Aborigines and often paralyzed by a sense of helplessness. I rarely hear Pagans here talk of cultural appropriation, but they all know what it means and they know Aboriginal spirituality is mostly off limits.

In Australia, we’re often working with inherited materials from the Northern Hemisphere that don’t always apply well. That’s why I love the science and technology publications from CSIRO and why one of my favourite Pagan bloggers down under is Inga Leonora at Australis Incognita who studies native Australian Flora and Fauna in her Craft. I’ve taken up bird-watching, which gets me out in nature and has helped me learn more about the native wildlife and the seasonal shifts through their migration and breeding patterns.

In the U.S., Pagans balance the myths and rites of a foreign Pagan religion with those of the land we inhabit. It’s no different here in Australia. The best way to learn about native spirituality is to learn about native land.


  1. Neil Thomson, pp153, “Indigenous Australia: Indigenous Health” in James Jupp (ed), The Australian people: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their Origins, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  2. C. E. Cook to Administrator of the Northern Territory, 7 February 1933, National Archives of Australia, Commonwealth Records Series, Department of the Interior file A659/1; 1940/1/408

Cultural appropriation is not a new issue and definitely not new within Paganism. The story of American capitalism has created a strong foundation for what has continued to be one of the most important, and yet challenging, discussions underlying the modern Pagan experience. Conversations of cultural appropriation reach outside of the boundaries of this spiritual world and intersect with various other aspects of our everyday society, leaving a complex web to untangle.

For example, the New Age sector’s use of various aspects of Native American* cultures, as well as the selling or misappropriating of that culture, has continued to drum up controversy. Indian Country Today Media Network recently published an article called Selling the Sacred, exploring the objectifying of Native religious and cultural “secrets” in New Age arenas. The article highlights several places that claim to certify people as Shamans or even award a Masters Degree in Native American Shamanism.

[Photo Credit: Media123 CC lic. via Wikimedia Commons]

[Photo Credit: Media123 CC lic. via Wikimedia Commons]

Native Americans are not the only marginalized culture to be openly appropriated in the United States by New Age practitioners and even Pagan communities. Hindu deities and traditions have become more popular among some people, along with aspects of African heritage as well. It is just as common to find djembe drums in a Pagan fire circle as it is to find candles in a ritual. The line between appropriation and cultural exchange can be a very fine one. It is not only about the intersection of capitalism, but also colonialism enters into the equation.

There are many things to consider. When does exchange become more about honoring another culture rather than just adopting it while leaving its roots behind?

The growing eclecticism of Pagan practitioners make these distinctions more challenging to unravel. How do we determine the boundaries of respectful cultural exchange within modern Paganism when individual understandings of this concept are so vast and varied?

The complexity of exploring the nuances of cultural appropriation versus exchange are not easily defined by one set of criteria. Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Anthropology at California State University – Northridge, answered questions about the layered intricacies of the often controversial concepts of appropriation and exchange.

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo Credit Tony Mierzwicki)

… while on paper one can try to distinguish appropriation from exchange, in practice, it’s much more complicated. Cultures come into contact with one another in many different ways, and some of those involve violence. Nonetheless, cultural exchanges do emerge from those contacts — all the time. Think of cultural exchange as a crossroads. In folklore, the crossroads is a liminal place of magic, but it’s also a dangerous place, a place where death and destruction can happen. Crossroads deities are tricky (Eshu, Loki, Odin) and fierce (Hekate). Yet from that destruction and trickery, new life arises. It’s kind of the same with cultural contact and exchange.

Usually, when defining cultural exchange, the premise is that the two cultures entering into the exchange are on equal terms: neither is more powerful than the other. Cultural material — narratives, verbal lore, music, material culture, foodways, magical techniques — are shared as part of the process of intercultural contact. Thus, for example, when the Irish settled in New York City after fleeing the potato famine in 1848, they found that all the storekeepers in the neighborhoods where they could afford to live were Jewish. They didn’t have any lamb or pork, but they did carry Kosher corned beef. Thus, corned beef substituted the kinds of meats they had eaten in their homeland. That’s the reason we think of corned beef and cabbage as “Irish” food today — it’s really Irish American food, born of that cultural exchange.

Appropriation happens when one culture conquers another, destroys or damages their culture and substitutes its own as the dominant culture, then borrows elements of the subjugated culture, re-contextualizing them for their symbolic value.

So, for example, the destruction of Native American cultures by European Americans, followed by the use of decontextualized elements from those cultures (feather headdresses, sweat lodges, jewelry, fringed clothing, architecture styles, concepts such as “spirit animal”) as icons of authenticity or spirituality is an example of appropriation.

All this is easy on paper, but more challenging on the ground, because in reality, cultures are seldom on equal footing in terms of power. Moreover, cultural borrowing and exchange happens constantly. We are moved to adopt elements we find attractive or advantageous through a process called “mimesis” (imitation).

Attempting to keep your own culture “pure” and free of any appropriated or borrowed elements is just as noxious as free-wheeling appropriation: it leads to a kind of cultural fascism, like what we see now developing among certain kinds of right-wing, nationalist Paganisms in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Basically, avoiding blatant cultural appropriation is about respecting the feelings and rights of other cultures with which you co-exist. It’s about recognizing when there’s a history of power-over, exploitation, and cultural destruction, and being mindful of that … It’s about power dynamics — and those are frequently subtle.

In light of the complicated, interwoven and challenging prospect of analyzing what might be culturally appropriative and what might be considered respectful exchange, several other people have shared their thoughts to this complex topic. The personal insights of these practitioners show a myriad different angles and ideals that mirror such diversity in thought and practice.

Lupa Greenwolf is an author and artist that has worked with shamanic aspects in her personal practice. She is the editor of the 2012 anthology Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation published by Immanion/Megalithica Press. Lou Florez is a Rootdoctor and Orisha Priest in the San Francisco Bay Area. His spiritual work focuses on the liberation of the body, and he works as a southern-style Tarot and Dillogun reader at a metaphysical shop in Oakland, California. Kenn Day is the author of several books on post-tribal shamanism, including Post-Tribal Shamanism: A New Look at the Old Ways published in 2014 by Moon Books. Janet Callahan is an author of several published works and is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Tribe.



The problem in a more practical sense is that, in the U.S. at least, there is no established shamanic path in the dominant culture, and so people who come from that culture (like me) have to choose either to try to shoehorn ourselves into an indigenous culture that we may not be welcome in let alone be trained in, or research cultures of our genetic ancestors and find that we are no more *culturally* German, or Slavic, or Russian than we are Cherokee or Dine’. Or we take a third road, which is to try to piece together from scratch some tradition that carries the same basic function as a shamanic practice in another culture, but which is informed by our own experiences growing up in the culture we happened to be born into.

As to how to realistically avoid appropriation to the best of your ability, while also honoring your own need for spirituality and the spirits/community you serve? A lot of it is a matter of educating yourself on where you’re coming from versus the origins of the traditions you may be inspired by, and how your own cultural experiences inform your own practice of similar-but-not-the-same traditions. One of the problems I have with core shamanism is that it claims to be “culturally neutral”, or at least a lot of the practitioners thereof claim it is. And that’s basically impossible. Your culture ALWAYS affects how you approach everything, from spirituality to communication to food. So try to be a shaman of your own culture, not of someone else’s (unless specifically invited).

I think the biggest problem is when non-indigenous people wholesale take indigenous practices, and then claim to be indigenous themselves. That’s part of what makes it tougher for people who are genuinely trying to create a practice for themselves while remaining as culturally sensitive as possible, because we get lumped in with those who outright lie about who they are. So you need to be honest and clear about where your practices come from and what inspired them, what’s your own creation and what came from others.

I’ve had people tell me everything from “You shouldn’t use the word ‘shaman'” to “You shouldn’t use a drum with a real hide head” to “You shouldn’t work with hides and bones at all”, all because I’m a European mutt. For a while I kept backing up and backing up and acquiescing to whoever criticized me–and then I realized that if I gave in to every criticism, I’d have no practice left at all. So I very carefully reviewed what my practice entailed, did my best to claim that which I created myself while also being honest about how other cultures’ practices inspired me, and that’s where I drew my line, where I would back up no farther. I don’t consider myself a neoshaman any more, mostly because I don’t use specifically “shamanic” practices like journeying, and use the term “naturalist pagan” for what I currently practice, but I still work with hides and bones, I still have my totemic practice, all in ways that I have developed for myself over the years. – Lupa Greenwolf, Author

Lou Florez

Lou Florez [Courtesy Photo]

Experiences of appropriation have left me alienated and displaced in community. At its core appropriation is a form of violence and aggression against brown bodies and brown communities. It is a minstreling, a racist caricature that tells more about the frame of mind of the performer [appropriation is a performative act] then it does about the original practice or cultural significance. Not only does it cause harm through this mimicking of symbols and actions, but it further creates difficulties for seeing real images of brown people and our gods on community altars due to the fear of appropriation.I think that honesty is of utmost importance in these matters because there is a difference between a ritual inspired by a different culture versus one that claims a lineage in that specific tradition. My litmus test is this question, have you been given license to do ceremony and teach from these communities? Just as I would never read a book and pretend to be an authority in Gardenarian Wicca, you can’t read one book and think that you are a rootworker, conjure doctor, or a First Nation “shaman.” – Lou Florez, Rootdoctor and Orisha priest

Kenn Day

Kenn Day [Courtesy Photo]

Cultural appropriation is damaging both to the culture that is being taken from as well as the one who is taking pieces without context. The loss to the culture appropriated is obvious. The damage to the one doing the taking is more subtle.Back in the late 80’s I coined the term “post-tribal shamanism” to differentiate between the teachings I received and those of tribal cultures. However, many people make the assumption that, if you are practicing ceremony with ancestor spirits, then you have taken your practice from a native tradition. This is no more true than it is to assume that only tribal people have ancestors. The call to practice shamanism is found in every culture. Just like everything else, it appears differently in each culture, yet it is still recognizable.The most important difference I see between the shamanism practiced in tribal cultures and what I teach and practice is that the tribal practices are focused on supporting, healing and maintaining the most import unit of that culture: the tribe itself. Our situation is dramatically different, in that the most important unit of our culture is the individual. This is where our practices need to be directed. Too many traditional practices are simply not appropriate for use with individuals, just as what I do would not be appropriate for tribal people. – Kenn Day, Author and Professional Shaman

Janet Callahan

Janet Callahan

The history of cultural appropriation makes me more cautious when I encounter a new group or teacher or situation. I ask more questions about what is planned, look more at the history of who they’ve learned from, and so on. I want to make sure I’m not walking into a situation I can’t ethically support.

I think people really need to do their homework. They need to understand not just the physical aspects of a practice, but the bigger picture in terms of culture and language and what is really going on (and to do that, frequently you realize it’s not actually possible to take it out of context).

My immediate family is not “Traditional” (which is generally used to mean those who follow tribal ways rather than being Christian and otherwise following white ways), but portions of my extended family are. And what I understand now, that I think is lost outside of the culture, is that religion/spirituality and culture are woven together. They are not separate entities. And that means that taking something out of context loses much of the value of it. – Janet Callahan, Author

As the framework of culture continue to evolve and change, so does the black and white definition of what constitutes appropriation. The context of how something is regarded, shared, explored or used may vary within different cultures and different time frames. This means there is not a clear definition of what is and is not an acceptable with regards to the use of elements from another culture. Context is everything.

Instead we are left with a list of considerations that should be given to cultures, people and histories that are not our own, and a level of awareness that reminds us that everything is not open property just because we wish it to be so. Releasing the conditioning of post-colonialism in America reminds us that everything is not ours to take, everything is not ours to sell and everything is not free. What prices are paid when cultural treasures are taken from a people?

Kenn Day spoke to the complexity of learning to navigate our relationships with living cultures. He said, “These living cultures can be dealt with respectfully in much the same way as many modern seekers have approached native traditions of shamanism, by approaching them with humility and asking to learn from the lore keepers of that people. This means recognizing that their traditions are not yours to take. They can be gifted, but even then they remain within the territory of that people. It is demeaning to have elements of your culture taken out of context and displayed for the entertainment of those outside your community.”

How do we as modern Pagans respectfully exchange with other spiritual cultures? What are we giving in exchange for the knowledge that we gain and using for our own spiritual experiences? How can we respect the context, culture, history and people of the cultures we are exchanging with? All of these are questions that should be evaluated on an ongoing basis within any spiritual community that is growing and evolving.

 *   *   *

*Author’s note: I am very aware that many of the different names and labels, which are commonly used to refer to the indigenous of this land, come with traces of colonialism. Since there is no universally-respected term that can possibly fit all native indigenous/Native American/American Indians/First Peoples, I want to acknowledge this fact and communicate my sincere desire to be respectful.

There are many surviving ancient and sacred spaces around the world. Some are protected and used for spiritual practice; some have become popular tourist destinations; and some are left to the whims of a changing culture. These sacred spaces range from human constructions to natural lands built only by the elements. From the ancient Greek temples in Agrigento, Italy to the ruins in Arizona’s Wuptaki National Monument, these spaces resonate with many contemporary people in their work to honor, reconstruct, practice and celebrate time-honored religious traditions, the associated cultures and surrounding ecology.

Unfortunately, many of these unprotected spaces, whether purely natural or human-engineered, are open to threats posed by modern construction in the name of so-called “progress” and industrialization. One such place that has recently drawn international attention is the mountain of Mauna Kea on the “Big Island” in Hawai’i.

"Mauna Kea from the ocean"[Credit: Vadim Kurland, Lic. CC Wikimedia]

“Mauna Kea from the ocean”[Credit: Vadim Kurland, Lic. CC Wikimedia]

Mauna Kea rises over 13,000 feet above sea level and is a dormant volcano with surrounding lands that feature native species of plant and animal. The area has long been held sacred to the native Hawaiian people and is a definitive part of ancient religious beliefs and practices. At the same time, the mountaintop was discovered to be one of the best places on Earth to study astronomy. These two realities have to come into conflict.

Today, Mauna Kea has 13 observatories on its summit funded by over 11 countries. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists discovered Mauna Kea’s optimal conditions for telescope viewing. When it was finally possible to reach the mountain, the University of Hawai’i (UH) was granted a 65-year lease to develop the land for research. By the late 1970s, other organizations began to request authorization to sub-lease that property. Those agreements are what has led to the large number of telescopes on the mountain today.

Protests began almost immediately after the first UH telescope was completed. Locals were concerned not only about the destruction of a sacred religious space but also about disturbances to the indigenous wildlife, some of which is native only to that area. In the 1980s, the state published a development plan and environmental impact report. In 2000, the plan was updated “to include community involvement” and the Office of Mauna Kea Management was established.

However, it was only a few short years later that a new $1.4 billion Thirty-Meter Telescope was proposed for the summit of Mauna Kea. This colossal telescope, called TMT, would be the largest and most advanced in the world with an optical ability 10x greater than any working telescope. According to an AP report, “The telescope should help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.” Headed by Caltech and the University of California, the project is being funded jointly by interests from the United States, Japan, Canada, India and China.

Proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope [Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation  via Wikimedia]

Proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope [Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation via Wikimedia]

In 2011, the Hawai’i Board of Land and Resources gave preliminary approval for the sub-lease and construction of the telescope. Despite legal actions and protests from locals, the Board gave its final approval in April 2013. The date for completion would be 2022.

Opponents filed an appeal in May 2013 in yet another attempt to stop the project. The appeal reads:

Mauna Kea advocates are seeking justice in Hawai‘i courts … It is unfortunate when public citizens are forced to go through court proceedings when developments such as the TMT Project are systematically granted permits by the BLNR despite these projects not meeting the criteria as outlined in Hawai`i State law … We must proceed ahead and be idle no more. Mauna a Wakea is still sacred.

One of the laws that is being broken is a building height code. The proposed TMT would become the tallest building on the island. Along with environmental concerns and a destruction of sacred space, opponents also point to a direct violation of state codes.

The first appeal was eventually denied when the courts upheld the Board’s decision to allow the sublease. According to reports, four individual opponents, Kealoha Pisciotta, Clarence Ching, Paul Neves and E. Kalani Flores, were not giving up and have since decided to take the issue back to court in four separate cases representing only themselves. Despite the threat of future court action, the TMT Observatory Corporation felt comfortable moving forward and set the groundbreaking ceremony for Oct. 7.

What the TMT Observatory Corporation didn’t expect is what happened on that day. Protestors blocked the road leading up to ground-breaking ceremony site. They spoke out, chanted and held signs that read things like “Your Mother is Not a Commodity” or “Too Many Telescopes.” The vans carrying attendees were forced to slow down or stop entirely. Much of this was captured on video:

Later the same group of protestors interrupted the ceremony itself. Led by Pua Case and Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, they stood before the crowd of attendees and addressed investors. In a desperate emotional appeal, one woman says to a group of Japanese men, “You let Mount Fuji stand; Mount Fuji is sacred. Our Mauna Kea is just as sacred as Mount Fuji. Please hear us. Hear us … She protects us.”  This was also caught on video:

The protests were echoed in Palo Alto, California where a group of people stood outside of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation offices. The Foundation is one of the American investors backing the TMT project. The California protest was led by Kauʻi Peralto, a Hawaiian cultural educator at Stanford University, and was also supported by the Santa Cruz Indigenous Solidarity, the Wintun tribe of Northern California and many other concerned individuals.

In a blog post, Kealoha Pisciotta a native Hawai’in, local activist and president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, described best the meaning of the mountain and why all of these people have come together to stop a project that would otherwise seem beneficial to human understanding and scientific discovery. Pisciotta describes Mauna Kea as the “temple of the creators,” which is home to the deities that gave birth to the Hawaiian people. It is the meeting of Earth Mother and Earth Father. She writes, ” Mauna Kea in every respect represents the zenith of the Native Hawaiian people’s ancestral ties to Creation itself.”

The mountain is featured in many Polynesian myths and religious stories. It is considered a place of calm and a place of peace. She writes:

When we look to Mauna Kea, we look from Mauna Kea and we look within ourselves to find our responsibility to Mauna Kea and hence our place in the world. We move through time and space back to our beginning, to the time when the Pō (darkness of creation) gave birth to the Ao (light of creation) … We feel honored that we are allowed to be there, humbled by the majesty and greatness of Mauna Kea.

Another activist, one of the protest leaders, and a Hawaiian cultural educator, Pua Case regularly incorporates the mountain into her own personal spiritual practice. She told a San Francisco reporter:

Almost no matter where I look, there’s something foreign there. I can never just pray as you would in a forest where there are just trees — where no matter where you faced,  it would be just you and your forest, you and your gods, you and your spirit. I’m afraid if there’s one more thing, I can never really look at my mountain and pray without having to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ 

Case was unfortunately unavailable for interview but did briefly say that the spiritual practices of her native people are very complex and connect deeply to this mountain.

Last week’s protests did successfully halt the TMT groundbreaking. However, the project is still moving forward, if only delayed. Case, Pisciotta and many others pledge to continue the battle to save their mountain, their sacred space, their protector and, in doing so, preserve a specialized local ecology and a piece of native Hawaiian culture.

When people think of anthropological museums, they might recall the famous British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Smithsonian in WDC, or New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Very few people would consider Atlanta, Georgia home to a place that cradles any of the treasures of ancient civilizations. But it is. Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum is one of the country’s top small anthropological museums. Its area of focus has captivated local Pagans and Heathens for years.

[Photo Credit: Monika&Jim/Flickr]

Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University [Photo Credit: Monika&Jim/Flickr]

Founded in 1919, the Carlos Museum has been growing its collection of art and cultural artifacts for nearly a century. Its beginnings can be found with a collection of Asian works brought back by Methodist missionaries in the 1870s. Over time, Emory University grew and along with it, the museum. Today it houses over 16,000 art objects from “ancient Egypt, Nubia, Near East, Greece, Rome, ancient Americas, Africa, and Asia as well as a collection of works on paper from the Renaissance to the present.”

In displaying these pieces, the museum says, “[We show] meticulous care for the legacy of ancient civilizations and the learning opportunities innate in each artifact.” In its Greek and Roman exhibit, you might see a marble “Statue of Venus” (Roman, fourth century B.C.E.) In its Asian exhibit, you might find the red sandstone “Figure of Ganesh” (India, eighth or ninth century).

Over the last 15 years, the Carlos Museum has become known particularly for its impressive and sizable ancient Egyptian collection. Originally, the exhibit centered on artifacts acquired in the 1920s, including the oldest Egyptian mummy in the Americas. Then, in 1999, its collection grew substantially after the purchase of 145 artifacts from the now-closed Niagara Falls Museum.

Most of new pieces were funerary in nature including, in part, 10 mummies and 9 coffins. The items had originally been acquired by a collector in the 1850’s and placed on display with what, National Geographic called, a “tacky, freaks of nature”  exhibit at the old museum. After examining the pieces, Emory professors discovered that one of the artifacts was the lost mummy of Ramses I. Emory returned the mummy to Egypt “as an act of goodwill.” An Canadian Egyptologist told National Geographic:

Ramses was from northern Egypt, and the family’s god was Seth, the god of storms. The night of the reception [to open the new exhibit] there was a powerful storm, with thunder and lightning and hail; a tornado just missed us. It was a very unusual storm for Atlanta. I think it was Rameses, letting us know that he’s happy to be going home.

In addition to its remarkable permanent collection of ancient cultural artifacts, the Carlos Museum also sponsors exhibits that celebrate contemporary cultures through art. For example, in 2012, the museum sponsored an exhibit on Tibetan Sand Mandalas created by Buddhist monks. A talk was given called, “Reflections on Artistry, Spirituality and Community.”

In a similar exploration of spirit and expression, this year’s visiting exhibition is called “Grandfather Sun; Grandmother Moon: Wixárika Arts of Modern Western Mexico.” In a press release, the museum says:

[The Wixárika’s] stunning beaded objects and pressed-yarn “paintings” span the sacred to the secular, from prayer bowls used on their pilgrimage ceremonies to masks made expressly for collectors. Brightly colored, precise, dynamic and detailed, these works depict their sacred sacrament, the peyote cactus, the deer, the sun and the moon, shamans, maize plants, jaguars and scorpions.


Prayer Bowl [Courtesy of the Carlos Museum]

Prayer Bowl [Courtesy of the Carlos Museum]

This new exhibit celebrates the Wixárika people, “often known as the Huichol, the indigenous people of modern western Mexico.” The museum explains that local artisans often sell copies of their sacred objects in order to maintain their lifestyle and culture, and to remain on their lands. The museum goes on to explain:

The Wixárika strive toward balance in themselves, between humans and nature, and in the spirit world. Their ritual life is oriented toward maintaining harmony. All phenomena are considered interrelated– particularly humans, maize, deer and peyote– and interchange forms. For instance, in mythic times deer became the peyote cactus, which now is “hunted” on the annual pilgrimage to the northern deserts. Shamans (mara’akame) mediate the natural balancing of the cosmic realms and the transformations that occur in other realities. Art is used in rituals, its bright colors meant to attract the attention of the spirits that are believed to control all natural phenomena including rains, the crops, time, and the sun and moon.

As the literature and its employees will remind you often, the museum’s primary purpose is one of education and conservation. With the help of Emory University faculty, museum curators work to provide a public resource and learning center, as well as a student research and teaching facility. The museum offers regular lectures, symposia and brings in special exhibits, like “Grandfather Sun; Grandmother Moon.” For children, they offer camps and classes. This fall’s lineup includes subjects like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics, an introduction to the sacred heroes of Mayan culture, or the Manifestations of Vishnu.

For those not in Atlanta or those not able to attend events, the museum sponsors blogs managed by archaeologists in the field. Currently the museum’s website is hosting “iSamothrace: Framing the Mysteries in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.” In June, several archaeologists blogged from Israel on “iTell Halif.” Last winter, the Senior Curator of the Egyptian collection and the assistant curator of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, both blogged from a dig “iMalqata.”  In addition, the museum maintains an online in its digital gallery.

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica [Photo Credit: Madman2001/Flickr]

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica [Photo Credit: Madman2001/Flickr]

It doesn’t stop there. The Carlos Museum also sponsors podcasts that “use works of art in [its] collection to spark conversations between distinguished members of Emory’s faculty … Each podcast brings together experts from different disciplines to look at museum objects in new and unusual ways.” Past podcast topics include: “The Shock of the New: Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and the Religious Imagination,”  “The Power of the Goddess,” “Seeing Shamans,” and “Drinking with a Siren.” These interdisciplinary podcasts have won local awards. For the younger set, the museum has created Odyssey – an interactive journey into the ancient worlds.

Not everyone has the means or ability to visit the sacred sites of the ancient worlds in order to enhance religious practice, or to experience the beauty of distant cultures. Not everyone can witness first-hand the lands that were once, and still are, attributed to their own Gods, or experience the powerful rituals and cultural expressions of indigenous societies. Fortunately for those living in the American southeast, the Carlos Museum attempts to bring a taste of those wonders to Atlanta. Through the the cultivation of ideas, conversation and research, the museum gives locals and visitors the opportunity to explore and to be inspired by the spirit and culture of ancient worlds and modern cultures through its art.

For only the second time in its 16 year history, the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER) issued a Declaration. ECER is an international body composed of delegates from 12 different countries which assist European ethnic religious groups in opposing discrimination. The organization focuses on ethnic or indigenous religions, not modern occult or syncretic neo-religions. ECER was founded in 1998 and drew up its first declaration, with a second addition, in the same year.

ECER decided to write a new declaration after the death of krivis (supreme priest) Jonas Trinkūnas of Lithuania, who was ECER’s founder and first president. The group wanted to restate its mission and renew its commitment during a time of transition. It also wanted to address some of the problems that ethnic Pagan groups in Europe still face.

The Wild Hunt spoke with Andras Corban-Arthen, current President of ECER and delegate from Spain, about the declaration. We placed the full declaration below in bold; intersected with it are excerpts of our interview with Mr. Corban-Arthen which clarify or address the section preceding it.

Andras Corban-Arthen addresses the ECER meeting held in Lithuania [photo credit Corban-Arthen]

Andras Corban-Arthen addresses the ECER meeting held in Lithuania [Photo Credit :Mapiva Yapakn ]


We, the delegates from twelve different countries convened at the European Congress of Ethnic Religions in Vilnius, Lithuania, on this 9th day of July 2014, join our voices together to make the following declaration:

We are members of diverse European indigenous ethnic cultures who seek to revitalize and reclaim our ancestral religious and spiritual traditions. We honor those who went before us, who gave us our life and our heritage. We are bound to the lands of our ancestors, to the soil that holds their bones, to the waters from which they drank, to the roads that they once walked. And we seek to pass that heritage to those who come after us, whose ancestors we are in the process of becoming – our children, our grandchildren, and the many generations yet to be born. We send solidarity and support to those other indigenous nations, races and religions who are also engaged in the struggle to preserve their own ancestral heritages.

Our ethnic religions are the product of the history of this continent; they are the living expressions, in the present, of our most ancient traditions and identities. At a time when the world is precariously balanced on the edge of environmental and economic upheaval, largely as the result of imbalanced individualism and rampant greed, our religions promote very different models of spiritual and social values: living in harmony, balance and moderation with the Earth; the importance of family and cooperative community; and respect and honor for all forms of life.

Yet, in many countries of Europe, the practice of our religions is impeded, restricted, and sometimes forbidden.

Cara Schulz: In the declaration you note that, in some European countries, the practice of indigenous religions is impeded. Are there particular countries where this is so? And what challenges, specifically, are faced?

Andras Corban-Arthen, President of ECER: The situation in Europe is complicated. On the one hand, in some countries — such as Greece, Russia, Lithuania — opposition against paganism is spearheaded by mainstream religious entities, particularly the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The impediments can range from the purely bureaucratic — religious authorities privately pressuring government officials to deny legal status to a pagan religion; to the publicly hostile — vitriolic condemnations of, and false accusations against, pagan religions by prominent Christian clergy, often right from the pulpit, which can profoundly sway public opinion; to outright physical violence against pagan individuals as well as sacred sites by religiously-fueled groups of thugs who, in some cases, appear to have been (unofficially) incited by the churches, as has happened in Italy, Poland and Ukraine.

On the other hand, in countries such as Germany and especially France, which have become largely secular, there has developed a widespread cynicism and mistrust toward religion of any sort, including paganism. The impediments found in such countries have more to do with apathy and dismissiveness than with outright hostility, but they are impediments just the same.

We urge all European governments to fully comply with, and actively enforce, the provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion to all citizens as stipulated in the Treaties of the European Union, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the European Convention of Human Rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other similar conventions and agreements, and to refrain from granting preferential treatment to some religions over others. We also ask that this equality of religious preference be reflected in the European educational systems.

CS: Do you think the EU will take practical action to help those who practice indigenous religions?

Corban-Arthen: That is certainly one of the outcomes we would love to see. For a nation to join the European Union, its constitution must first meet the Copenhagen Criteria, which ensure the freedom of religious choice and practice. In theory, a country which fails to comply with the protection of such a fundamental human right can be sued in the European Court of Justice. In practice, that’s far easier said than done. The EU is much more of an economic than a political union, and the enforcement of human rights has been very selective. A pagan group would need to have incontrovertible evidence, a large enough organization and membership, really good legal resources, and substantial funding for such a lawsuit to be successful. Needless to say, there don’t appear to be any pagan groups in Europe — certainly no ethnic ones — that meet those criteria. Part of our plan for the ECER is to start compiling some of the necessary resources so that eventually we might get to the point where some agency of the EU will respond favorably toward us.

We urge all our governments to actively engage in the preservation and protection of European indigenous sacred sites – be they human-made structures or natural settings. We further ask that free and open access to those sites be given to ethnic European religions which seek to use them for the purposes of worship and spiritual celebration.

CS: You’re asking for access to religious sites – are there specific sites you have in mind that you can’t access for religious purposes?

Corban-Arthen: There are lots of sites in many countries which, while open to the public for educational or touristic purposes, are off-limits for religious observances — any who attempt to engage in ceremony are customarily forced to leave by the police, and in some cases have even been arrested. Then there are those sites which remain completely unavailable, mostly because they are controlled by the churches. An example that comes to mind right away: the largest known altar dedicated to Perkūnas — the Baltic god of thunder — in Lithuania, lies in the basement of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Vilnius, and the church refuses to grant access to it (even just to see it) to anyone, often to the point of denying that it actually exists. Romuva has been lobbying for years to gain access to it, without success. A couple of years ago, a large number of young Romuva members organized a flash mob to temporarily block access to the cathedral, in the hope of galvanizing enough public sentiment that the church would be forced to grant access to the shrine; unfortunately, that didn’t work, either, though it did start some public debate about the issue.

We do not seek ownership or exclusive rights to those sites – the land does not belong to us, we belong to the land.

We object to the use of the term “pagan” by extremist political groups of any kind, as it reflects negatively on our reputation.

CS: You object to the term Pagan – why is that?

Corban-Arthen: We don’t object to the term “pagan” — in fact, both the ECER as an organization, as well as many of the ethnic member groups, have been using it for a very long time. Our objection is to the misappropriation and misuse of that term by extremist right-wing groups throughout Europe (neo-fascists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, skinheads, etc.) When such people openly label themselves as “pagans,” the churches, the politicians, and the media have a field day tarring religious pagans with the very same dirty brush. We felt that it was important to include some allusion to this in the declaration, if nothing else to create some distance between us and the extremist factions. I understand that the language we chose has been somewhat unclear, since I have now fielded this same question several times. Unfortunately, when you have a group of people who speak a variety of different languages, and you are trying to come up with wording that is understood by and acceptable to everyone involved, sometimes the result will be less than ideal. I hope this clarifies our intent.

Finally, we urge all peoples and all nations to place the well-being of the Earth – who is, literally, our Living Mother – above any and all other priorities.

We send this message in kinship, love, and respect.

Andras Corban Arthen (President), Anamanta, Spain/U.S.A.

Ramanė Roma Barauskienė, Lietuva
Martin Brustad, Norway
Nina Bukala, Werkgroep Hagal, Netherlands
Alexander Demoor, Werkgroep Hagal, Belgium
Valentinas Dilginas, Kuzšei Žemaicĭai, Lithuania
Sören Fisker, Forn Siđr, Danmark
Federico Fregni (Board Member), Societas Hesperiana, Italia
Marianna Gorronova, Czech Republic
Lars Irenessøn (Board Member), Forn Siđr, Danmark
Irena Jankutė-Balkūnė (Board Member), Romuva, Lithuania
Runar Kartsen, Forn Sed, Norway
Daniele Liotta (Board Member), Movimento Tradizionale Romano, Italia
Silvano Lorenzoni, Federazione Pagana Italiana, Italia
Anna Lucarelli, Movimento Tradizionale Romano, Italia
Sachin Nandha, United Kingdom
Zdenek Ordelt, Czech Republic
Elisabeth Overgaauw, Werkgroep Hagal, Netherlands
Eugenijus Paliokas, Šventaragis Romuva, Lithuania
Staško Potrzebowski, Rodzima Wiara, Polska
Prudence Priest, Romuva, U.S.A.
Marina Psaraki, Y.S.E.E., Greece
Vlassis G. Rassias, Y.S.E.E., Greece
Valdas Rutkūnas, Romuva, Lithuania
Ignas Šatkauskas (Board Member), Romuva, Lithuania
Øyvind Siljeholm, Forn Sed, Norway
Dovile Sirusaitė, Lithuania
Eleonora Stella, Societas Hesperiana, Italia
Inija Trinkūnienė, Romuva, Lithuania
Ram Vaidya, United Kingdom

In our interview, Mr. Corban-Arthen discussed ECER’s focus on ethnic religion. That focus can make Americans uneasy as media reports often conflate anything that focuses on specifically European ethnicity with racism or antisemitism. Corban-Arthen says that’s unfortunate, because “while there are certainly some people who fit that pattern, there are far many more who don’t.”

Ritual at ECER, [photo credit Vytautas Daraskevicius]

Ritual at ECER, [photo credit Vytautas Daraskevicius]

He also says that many people are unaware of just how much of indigenous Paganism survives in modern Europe. “…particularly in remote rural areas, which are not only outside the typical tourist routes, but also quite outside of the modern mainstream culture of the countries in which they exist. Some of them have been, to varying degrees, syncretized with Christianity, though it is often not difficult to separate the two. Some have survived as folklore. Some, much harder to find, appear to be unbroken survivals largely untainted by Christianity.”

Identifying and preserving those remnants of ethnic religions is important not only to those reviving the religions, but also to those wishing to incorporate indigenous practices in various forms of neo-Paganism. Corban-Arthen says that we need to realize the changes brought about by modernity which threaten to destroy what remains of European indigenous traditions. He says, “The Lithuanians and the Basques, for instance, are struggling to preserve their cultural identities, including what survives of their ethnic religions and their sacred places, just as the Lakota and the Wurundjeri are struggling to do the same.” Corban-Arthen sees hope, though.

He says indigenous peoples from around the world have started to invite representatives of European ethnic traditions to their gatherings and conferences. Large interfaith organizations such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions are now including European ethnic traditions in their indigenous assemblies. The same goes for intergovernmental, social justice and human rights organizations such as the United Nations.

“We may see, in coming years, an increased awareness of the survival of European indigenous religions, of the difficulties they face, and of the circumstances that led to their near-extinction. The European Congress of Ethnic Religions is committed to help that happen,” notes Corban-Arthen.

Nearly daily there are news reports on abuses inflicted on people who have been accused of witchcraft. Just today the Zambia Daily Mail reported that a man was killed and another beaten over such accusations. These horrifying cases occur all over the world with a concentration in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, India and Nepal.

In most of these attacks, the victims are not Pagans or Witches in a western sense and are not likely practicing any form of witchcraft. The accusations are simply used as weapon against the unwanted who are more often than not women. Fortunately with the continued growth of the international women’s movement, these acts of violence are becoming the subject of real concern and decisive action.

Women in Nepal. Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank SB-NP01

Women in Nepal. Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank SB-NP01

Today we can report that Nepal, the country with the highest concentration of attacks, has taken some concrete steps to curb and, hopefully end, witchcraft-related violence. According to the Republica:

The government is working to finalize a draft of the ´Witchcraft Act (Charge and Punishment) 2014 to take stringent action against those involved in the inhuman treatment of females accused of practicing witchcraft. 

The new Witchcraft Act was prepared by Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (MoWCSW), a federal department dedicated to the legal protection that particular segment of the population. On its website, the Department states:

Its mandate is to empower women especially those who are economically poor … socially deprived or at a disadvantage.

The most recent draft of the Witchcraft Act states that the accuser can be fined up to 1,050 USD and given up to a ten-year jail sentence.  According to the Republica, the act makes it clear that “torturing women through thrashing, slandering, smearing them with black soot, pouring acid on them or forcibly feeding them feces, on the charge of witchcraft, will be considered a crime.”

This is the first time that the Nepalese government has legislated the meaning of the term witchcraft. While that definition may be a far cry from that found in the U.S. or Europe, the effort will potentially alleviate some of problems and, thereby, open opportunities for more progressive and aggressive work towards eradicating the problem.

A good example is South Africa which has had a Witchcraft Suppression Act since 1957, later revised in 1970. According to this law, accusations of witchcraft carry with them a fine of over 30,000 USD and up to ten years in prison. While the law has certainly not stopped the problem, it has provided a legal grounding that serves to elevate the conversation within the country. Today South Africa has an active Pagan organization, South African Pagan Right’s Alliance, that can openly fight against these senseless accusations as well as work with government officials towards a legal dissection of the modern meanings of witchcraft.

Nepal hasn’t reached that point in the process. Like the original South African law, the new Nepal law makes the accusations illegal but also fails to specifically recognize or allow for Witchcraft as a legitimate magical practice found within folk religious traditions or modern Paganisms. According to the Republica, the new Act will permit police investigations of those legally accused of witchcraft.

As with many of the areas that suffer from witchcraft-related violence, Nepal’s problem is grounded in deeply-rooted cultural beliefs. As reported by the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), the “belief in witchcraft” is embedded in the country’s “strong animistic and shamanic tradition.” Nepalese Shamans work with the spirit world to heal and assist the living but bokshi or “witches” are considered detrimental influences who only can bring harm to society.

The report also cites the problematic influence of the so-called Witch Doctor who often holds a good deal of power over a village. For the right price, these men will perform spiritual investigations to locate the source of a bewitchment. Their accusations are often guided by the whims of their clientele and not a concern for the general well-being of the population. (WHRIN 2014 Country Report: Nepal)


Currently there are multiple organizations in Nepal fighting to protect women from the horrors of witchcraft-related abuse. One of these organizations is The Woman’s Foundation of Nepal founded in 1988 by a group of concerned female college students. While its mission is to help Nepalese women in general, the organization is an active participant in the fight against witchcraft-related violence. Its website states:

Often widows in Nepal are termed “bokshi”, or witches, and are subject to extreme abuse and discrimination. Many of the victims have led very difficult lives, and once accused of being a ‘bokshi’, are beaten, tortured, or forced to commit degrading acts such as eating human waste, or the meat of other humans … In cases where women are being abused for “practicing witchcraft,” WFN directly supports the victims by removing them from that dangerous situation, treating them medically if necessary, and supporting them legally to file a case against their accusers.

The Forum for Protection of People’s Rights, Nepal (PPR Nepal) is another similar organization who worked closely with WHRIN to produced the 2014 Nepal country report. PPR Nepal says, “The magnitude of gender-based violence in Nepal is extremely high. Among the various forms of violence, witchcraft related violence especially against unprivileged women e.g. widow, poor, helpless is widespread in the country.”

As with other countries experiencing high levels of witchcraft-related violence, Nepal continues to struggle with extreme poverty, lack of education and sub-standard medical care. Advocacy organizations are not blind to the bigger problem within that bigger framework. Therefore their work often incorporates education, medical treatment and job placement.

With the new Witchcraft Act in place, the NGO advocacy groups and the Ministry will have another tool in their pocket to support their work. While the law is certainly not a panacea, it does provide the legal fuel needed in their fight to protect the rights and health of the women of Nepal. Over time, this Act and others like it may lead to opportunities for inter-cultural work and inter-religious education that will grow a better global understanding of the many meanings of Witchcraft.