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Rob Collins as Waruu West in ABCs Cleverman

Rob Collins as Waruu West in ABCs Cleverman [Publicity Still]

“Firstly, it’s The Dreaming. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as Hairypeople are not bound by what is,” says Waruu West (Rob Collins) in ABC’s latest original Australian drama Cleverman.  Found in the second instalment ‘Containment,’ this moment stood out. Collins, playing an Indigenous spokesperson on a TV news panel discussion, delivers the line with acid on his tongue, shifting in his seat and barely able to maintain his countenance to suit the panel’s format, which is supposed to represent the epitome of polite society in serious discussion.

In the world of Cleverman, the Dreaming is mentioned here with the same condescension it might be on an actual TV weekly news and current affairs panel. I’ve seen enough Aboriginal Elders and commentators on such shows to know that Collins did not have to look very far to inspire his character’s reaction in this moment. As an Indigenous man himself, Collins probably didn’t even need that.

In the make-believe dystopian near future of Cleverman, not six months before the action takes up with the first episode, the Dreaming just materialised in the form of the Hairypeople. What was once thought of as just an Aboriginal story and a monster to scare children, is now flesh and blood. They are an entirely different species of human that is stronger, faster, harder, covered in hair, and absolutely not a figment of some distant story derived from an uncivilised past. This narrative fact makes the host’s condescension in this scene all the more misplaced, purposefully nasty.

[Above: Q&A Monday 09 June, 2014. Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ “I am not the problem” speech, in conversation regarding John Pilger’s Utopia.]

This point in the show also created a moment during which, it was white Australian viewers’ turn to shift uncomfortably in their seats, if they had not already. In that scene, with its similarity to real day-to-day viewing, it felt like director Wayne Blair, and writers Michael Miller and Jon Bell were speaking directly to us. And I confess: it was my turn for a little bit of solidarity with my Indigenous Brothers and Sisters fist pumping. Waruu’s statement contained within it something that could easily translate to my own experience as a Pagan and a Witch: Our Mythos. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as the Otherworlds are not bound by what is.

Cleverman is a futuristic sci-fi narrative told using the contemporary language of television and chocked full of very real and very current issues. Included in its themes are Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, forced imprisonment, our nation’s crimes against humanity, as well as the physical, mental, and emotional trauma suffered at our hands by those most vulnerable: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, immigrants, and refugees. Additionally, the show includes the Scientific Frankenstein, the Shady Media Mogul, themes of fear, terror, racism, bigotry, atrocity, isolation, desperation, violence, and police brutality.

These details are all woven together in a sprawling story that we should in fact not be confused about at all. However, it is the twist with which it’s told that is the real highlight. The fictional Hairypeople are lifted directly from several Aboriginal Dreaming stories. They speak Gumbaynggirr, a language from northern New South Wales, as is the Namorrodor, the monster stalking urban Sydney. Indigenous actors dominate in both the Indigenous and Hairypeople roles. The Cleverman is a cultural facticity.

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West on Cleverman show poster

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West on Cleverman [Publicity Poster for SundanceTV]

Our reluctant hero Koen West, is Aboriginal, a refreshing change from what we so often see highlighted by Australian and international news. Koen, an opportunistic young Indigenous man who refuses to choose a tribe, has suddenly had the Cleverman superhero powers thrust upon him. The power is real and present in this show’s world. It is manifest in Koen, Waruu, in the Hairypeople, and in the short (but always sparkling) performance of Jack Charles as Uncle Jimmy the Cleverman who passes the nulla nulla (or waddi a warrior’s club) of the Cleverman onto Koen.

If Koen stands as a proxy for young Indigenous viewers, then the narrative comes with a dare: Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Dreaming is not static. None are left to wonder about the nature of that strength and power. It’s Indigenous and it comes from a very real place.

In this way, Cleverman is the Dreaming. The show is Indigenous story soaked with a real Indigenous past and a contemporary Indigenous experience. With the help of CGI and special effects, the show demonstrates how the Dreaming contains within it the ability to confront new issues and problems with no less potency. The Dreaming refuses to stay static.

The Dreaming is not at odds with western science, political systems, media, or indeed, the future. Rather, here, the Dreaming uses all these modern ideas and formats to its own end. Standing alongside these contemporary mainstream Australian institutions as equally valid and powerful, the show tells a story of change, of how it is made manifest in those who engage with it, and how it can reclaim itself – its Indigenousness – from those very institutions who have sought to diminish it. The Dreaming claims itself, as strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, in the now.

It is here, precisely at this moment, that Australian Pagans and Witches should feel the pangs of empathy. This is art as story magic.

In the first place, we should be familiar with the historical arc that underpins the show. In summary, cultural practices, myths and stories are outlawed, then, after a time, they are repackaged as oddities from a distant past for children’s entertainment. Then, finally, adults start taking these “oddities” back.

Pagans around the world know this story. In recent times, we have seen a major resurgence in many myths and folktales. Appearing on the small and silver screens alike, these stories are being torn apart and remade with entirely relevant themes and contemporary issues, and very often strictly for adults. Examples range from American Horror Story: Coven‘s unabashed, subversive femaleness in all its complicated and messy glory; to the miraculous image at the end of The Witch showing power embraced as the young protagonist is liberated; to Michael Hirst’s Vikings in which a historical Pagan worldview is given prominence over early Christian ideas. Even at Disney, the early and mid-20th Century children’s stories are being approached anew, with the likes of Angelina Jolie’s turn as the Mistress of All Evil in MaleficentWe get this.

However, these things – our myths, reimagined in the mainstream, artistic, and pop culture spheres – can serve to be a hindrance to the legitimisation of contemporary Pagan and Witchcraft discourse. They can be wildly disrespectful and further propagate tired tropes and negative stereotypes that influence the very real lives of the Neopagan and Witchcraft communities. These things do not exist in a vacuum. But at their best, they can serve as a powerful quickening to such communities, who, in turn, find the inspiration to readdress the magical and mythical narratives within the ritual space itself.

These modern retellings can normalise themes and ideas in the mainstream, which can then further legitimise those same ideas as they are contained within our contemporary discourse. The young and aspiring seeker of the Craft, for example, can find heroes and heroines in these places, urging them to look further.

Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Myths are not static.

As a story and as a Dreaming narrative, Cleverman excels at demonstrating that power is best realised through the creative vision, voice and bodies of those who are living a direct experience of it already. Inside contemporary culture, it further demonstrates the power of community support and participation required to push forward with these new narratives. Cleverman‘s mainstream success and positive reviews are a testament to two hundreds years of fighting to legitimise Indigenous voices.

This is a lesson Pagans in Australia can take away. It is a salient reminder that our own myths are strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, now.

Especially as Australian Pagan communities begin to increasingly realise their social and political voices, it is this thought that should stay in the back of our minds when we engage with Pagan discourse, writing, art, and craft, and reimagine our stories inside our ritual space to confront and work with contemporary and very real social and political issues. It is important to promote that same creative talent inside our communities in order to achieve change, justice, fairness, highlight social issues right now.

These ideas and concepts are all on top of the stand-alone joy of engaging with Australian Indigenous voices and creative talent as found through Cleverman. The final episode of season one was aired Thursday, July 7.  This particular episode felt like one giant teaser for season two. It left me wanting much more.

We left our anti-hero, Koen, much less “anti” and coming finally into his own, as all sides are baying for war. I agree with AV Club‘s Brandon Nowalk, whose review pointed out the first season was more promise than delivery in terms of story.  It was a season of exposition that has left a carefully crafted set of characters ready for the real meat of season two.

But that exposition can be easily forgiven. After all, there would only be a handful of people on this continent with enough knowledge of Aboriginal Law and Dreaming not to require background information. I can only imagine the culture shock and complete lack of context for those watching in the US and, shortly, the UK.

Thankfully, for those interested, there are a few helpful guides that wade into the dystopian near future of Cleverman‘s Sydney. This includes Zebbie Watson’s guide at Inverse, and The Guardian‘s episode by episode recaps. For some extra fun, check out the behind the scenes video with Adam Briggs and, one of my favourite Australian voices, Gurrumul Yunupingu and the inspiration for the Cleverman theme song.

Behind the Theme Song – “Cleverman” from Goalpost Pictures on Vimeo.

Paganism in Poland

Terence P Ward —  July 6, 2016 — 10 Comments

POLAND — This European Union member state is a bastion of Roman Catholicism, with as many as 37 million adherents (87.5% of the total population) today. Yet, even in Poland, one of the most Christianized European countries, Pagan religions are growing within the shadow of the Church. Today, that population is still dwarfed by its Catholic counterpart, but its loyal practitioners continue to cultivate a Pagan thriving subculture.

With the help of several Polish Pagans, we examine the diversity of Pagan practice found within the country.

Offering to Żerca [photo credit: Laszka]

According to Wiccan priestess Agni Keeling, Wicca is a growing, but still quite a small, Pagan path in Poland. To her knowledge, there are only about 50 initiates in the entire country. She herself has initiated people from her native land by first requiring them to travel to England, where she has lived for some years. It is difficult to find reliable sources about Wicca in Poland, although Keeling said that some books by Vivianne Crowley are being translated. The three Wiccans who spoke to The Wild Hunt demonstrated a real excitement about helping their religion expand.

The most popular Pagan path practiced in Poland is Rodzimowierstwo (“native faith”), an indigenous form of Slavic polytheism. Adherents tend to use a reconstructionist methodology to rebuild their native faith, which has not spread through the English-speaking world as widely as some other European-based Heathen religions.

Tomasz Rogalinski is one such practitioner. He first encountered the tradition in 1978, before it had acquired the standardized name. He was attracted to it because of his extensive historical knowledge of the Slavs.

Rogalinski explained more of the tenets of this native religion, which varies depending upon the source material. Binding all the traditions together are the beliefs in native Slavic gods, the offerings of mead and food (traditionally groats, white cheese, and bread), a code based on principles of honor, responsibility, and courage, and the “circles of responsibility,” which centers on family and widens to include community.

“The circles are a challenge [to be] understood in a positive way, not a negative one,” Rogalinski acknowledged. “It is looking for similarities and helping those who are nearest to us, it is not about fighting other people.”

As with Wicca, the resources for those interested in Rodzimowierstwo can be a mixed bag. Gniazdo is a magazine created by the Rodzimowiercy, but there are other publications that, according to Rogalinksi, mix traditional and New Age beliefs without providing any context.

He further explained that the tenets of Rodzimowierstwo “exclude creating religious mix or joining different faiths (in a way of joining patheons or following many paths). It does not mean that there is no possibility of conducting one’s life according to the rules taken from the other faiths (unless they’re contradictory to Rodzimowierstwo), fascination by the other culture or having friends, family or know the people who have the other dominant faith.”

Along with the practice of Wicca and Rodzimowierstwo, age-old folk magic traditions continue to be practiced in Poland. Verm, one of our interviewees, was taught folk Witchcraft by a grandmother and an aunt.

Tomasz Rogalinski calls Rodzimowiercy to ritual. [Photo credit: Laszka]

Tomasz Rogalinski calls Rodzimowiercy to ritual. [Photo credit: Laszka]

Many of these practices are somewhat tolerated in this largely Catholic nation, but that might be because no one has noticed them yet. According to Sheila, who is a second degree Gardnerian Wiccan, there are those who worry that, as the population of Pagans grow, this might change.

Sheila said, “Polish people (in general) are not very good in being understandable and tolerant. Most of us live in safe environment – with loving families and thoughtful friends, being quite anonymous while living in the big cities,” organizing largely through social media.

One result of Church domination is a form of syncretic polytheism. “The native religion of Poland could be a mixture of Catholicism with the old, Pagan customs and practices, including the magical ones,” said Verm. “It can be classified as polytheism, but instead of gods, there are Christian saints who had replaced gods and taken over their qualities. The interest in such practices is marginal, but is becoming bigger.”

Laszka shared a narrative that is common in other parts of the world where Christian traditions draw upon Pagan practices.

People bless the eggs on Easter, they decorate the table with green, they have a Christmas tree, they eat the meals that are traditionally connected with Winter Solstice, they hang mistletoe, they celebrate Pagan Dziady (the festival connected to death) and they have to add some invented holidays (e.g. Candlemas in the term when we have Weles’ festival, Saint John’s festival on Kupała, etc.). They just needed something to be at the same time of the year, because of the fact that Pagan festivals and traditions were preserved even despite the Christianisation.

Verm also is familiar with cases in which being public didn’t serve the individual well, highlighting a difference between the urban and rural experience. “I know some cases when people following other than Catholic paths are discriminated, especially in smaller places and in the villages where people point the finger at those who do not attend mass. Very often, those people have problems with finding or maintaining their jobs. I know the case of a girl who was diagnosed as mentally ill by a Catholic psychiatrist, because she wasn’t Catholic and believed in polytheism.”

“I don’t see persecutions preserved in the people’s minds,” observed Laszka. “There are some clashes, but it is more connected to political rather than religious reasons. Fortunately, in Poland there were no such cases as in the Ukraine, where the statues were destroyed on Włodzimierzowe Wzgórze/Starokijewska Góra.”

Rogalinksi said that, while there are “aggressive speeches of clergy” condemning minority faiths, it is not generally talked about by others. “Religion is not the subject of discussion; it is not discussed because of its personal character.”

Religious freedom is a right in Poland, and a group of 100 people can form a church, carrying with it lower taxes and the ability to teach the religion in a school setting. According to Rogalinski, Rodzimowierstwo has three of these formally organized groups.

However, in the view of Nefrestim, who is a second-generation Wiccan, the current government’s conservative bent does make practicing openly uncomfortable.

Drawning Marzanna in the village Jeziorzany in 2014 [Photo Credit: Jacek Świerczyński]

Drawning Marzanna in the village Jeziorzany in 2014 [Photo Credit: Jacek Świerczyński]

Estimates of the number of Pagans vary widely. The 2011 Poland census asked specifically about Rodzimowiercy, but not other Pagan paths. According to Sheila, many Poles shy away from the word “Pagan” even if they do follow such a path, but she believes that they number in the thousands.

Rogalinski downplays the official number of Rodzimowiercy (4-5,000 people); his own figure of up to 2,000 is based in part on activity, not just on self-identification. Laszka, who also practices Rodzimowierstwo, thinks the total number following the tradition is 10,000. Many of the Pagans are solitary, making their numbers difficult to estimate, but they appear to be concentrated in the cities.

Whatever the number, it’s small, and that carries with it certain limitations. Lacking reliable resources for many Pagan paths on paper or online, the alternative — seeking a teacher in person — can also be difficult, due to the low density of Pagans overall. According to Nefrestim, the city of Poznań hosts two esoteric shops. As it is in other countries, these businesses have the potential to become networking hubs as the Pagan population grows. Still, the client base has not grown large enough to support many such businesses yet; online shops fill that gap, especially for Pagans who don’t live in the larger cities.

Another issue with the small number of Pagans is that they tend to know each other, like residents of a small town, which is fine, until it isn’t. Verm said that long-standing disputes can make it difficult for Pagans to cooperate at times. Rogalinski laments that the only agreed-upon sites of worship tend to be cultural or archaeological monuments that can’t be used. He believes, this type of sacred place could bring Pagans together despite their low numbers.

Putting a different spin on that idea, Laszka said that Pagans can buy their own land for worship. “The main obstacle is that there is no possibility to have a traditional burial. Polish law does not provide it. We have been struggling for it for ages (our judiciary system is very slow and the case may even require the changing of the law).”

All told, while laws and aspects of the culture present very real obstacles for Polish Pagans, the small community does enjoy the freedom to practice and continues to eagerly expand despite the very large shadow of the country’s dominant religion.

“For the beloved should not allow me to turn my infantile fantasies into reality: On the contrary, he should help me to go beyond them.” – Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth

[Home / Movie Still]

[Home / Movie Still]

I resist watching movies. I have things to do, essays to write, shipping manifests to update, revolutions to plot, tea to drink. But his muscled arms are insistent; the scruff of his beard nuzzling relentlessly. We’re full fed on quiche and french toast with Irish butter and maple syrup reduction, and it’s raining. I give in.

He chooses the film, a kid’s movie. Home, it’s called.

I cringe inside – it’s animated, but not Miyazaki. How can I trust something that’s not Miyazaki? He’s the reason I’m a Druid, an anarchist, a fag. One day I’ll write that essay, “Oh, Hayao!” I’ll tell the tale of the 10 year old boy sitting in a leaking, cigarette smoke-filled Appalachian trailer watching a VHS copy of a VHS copy of Nausicaa: The Valley of the Winds and becoming right there an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist gay Pagan boy.

But this isn’t Miyazaki. It’s Dreamworks. “You’ll like this,” he says, and I’m sure he’s wrong. He doesn’t know that I’m pretty sure I hate this shit. But he also didn’t know that I was really certain I hated when a man feeds you bites of the breakfast that you just both made, guiding a fork-speared piece of thick bread dripping with butter and tree-sap toward your mouth, smiling. He didn’t know that I was certain I’d dislike syrup dripping into my beard, or that I’d been convinced I’d never smile and laugh and feel so deeply alive when he tongues it off your face and then kisses you.

Turns out I was wrong on all that, and the film starts on the tiny screen of my overheating $200 laptop. He kisses me, and I meet the Boov.

I didn’t like Rihanna either, though I’d let myself sing along a little (furtively) to Diamonds and What’s My Name. Because who doesn’t sort of want to say to a man, despite it being popular:

You’re so amazing, you took the time to figure me out

Or, even really–

Oh na na, what’s my name?

And especially if he reminds you a little of what Drake is supposed to remind you of, because pop is all symbolic containers into which we invest our dreams. Drake is an archetype; Rihanna another, and you play the song on repeat to awaken the encoded magic.

Post-Colonial Exclusion

The film’s plot is simple. A colonizing civilisation of aliens occupies earth. A young girl is looking for her mother. One of the non-conforming aliens caused a problem for his entire society and is on the run. He befriends the girl, and they help each other out while confronting each other’s differences. But the film is also a work of genius, particularly if you are a Pagan leftist wrestling with the disease of whiteness while locked in the arms of a Native man who makes you think of Brighid and Rihanna.

I do like Rihanna, especially in the film as Tip, or Gratuity Tucci, a girl from Barbados who’s cat saved her from being relocated to internment camps in Australia by the Bourgeoisie Boov. The Boov are an alien race with a highly-refined culture tasting as any other highly-refined product of industrialisation – bland, monotone, and certain of its own superiority. Displaced from their ancestral lands through traumatic displacement, divorced from any sense of community or the consequence of their universal exceptionalism, the Boov decide to make their new home on earth.

The Boov’s mission civilatrice is unmistakably Liberal, Western and Democratic (in case we miss the point, the capitol of their occupation is Paris.) The Boov have come from elsewhere, eternally fleeing their unacknowledged shadow and causing relentless, unexamined havoc in their search for a feeling of home.

Their last planet destroyed, the Boov select Earth, informed scientifically that the inhabitants will benefit greatly from the efficiency and cultural superiority of their new guests. But like Manifest Destiny or the last 80 years of US war, like British occupation of Africa & the Caribbean, or France’s great adventures in Vietnam and Algeria, the Boov re-organize the natives, relocating the primitive savages to places where they will be safer and happier with ice cream. And, as in all modern Democratic occupations, the colonized people are infantilised. The Boov set up pavilions in the center of the refugee camp orreservations where the benevolent paternalists can dispense knowledge to les enfants sauvages under proud banners proclaiming “Ask a Boov.”

Laying on the bed next to my First Nations boyfriend, his arms around me and his beard grinding occasionally into mine, I’d search his face, listen to his laughter, and try not to think about what happened to his people.

The Bourgeoisie and The Witch

It’s difficult not to think about Rihanna throughout the Dreamworks film. The choice for such a voice actor was brilliant. Perhaps more than most pop archetypes in currency. She embodies perfectly Franz Fanon’s post-colonial subject. Born in the former British colony of Barbados (like Gratuity Tucci), she is also the ‘exotic’ product of a Western culture machine which values her as financial capital yet pounces doubly in extreme jouissance at her experiences of domestic abuse.

Rihanna is both spectre and whore on the symbolic. Like Beyonce and other Black women singers, she is both a product of colonial oppression and also a commodified product within Capitalism, priced according to her appeal, rewarded when she entertains, and yet brutally punished when she bites the paternalistic hands that feed her – most of all when she reveals herself to be real. Like other peoples who stories we do not allow to be told, she is acceptable only when she remains a symbol. Otherwise, she’s a whore, which is another word for witch.

Speaking of which, the most poignant scene of Home is where Rihanna and ‘Tip’ become twinned in a parallel of the video for Rihanna’s song,”What’s My Name.” While the music video has Drake and Rihanna standing in front of a convenience store refrigerator, dropping a quart of milk on the ground (Brighid, I thought when I watched that), Tip and the rogue Boov are likewise before a display-fridge.

Tip is in the midst of pillaging the shop of the petty bourgeoisie to eat (New Orleans after Katrina, LA after Rodney King) while Oh – another Boov who is obsessed with the bohemian ideals of parties and friendships, rather than order and security – is doing likewise. Oh is running, because his search for authenticity has triggered a cosmic calamity. Oh has invited the whole universe to a celebration from which certain shadows must forever be barred.

Encountering the alien colonist, Tip locks Oh in a freezer, a trick most witches know. Tip even ‘cools off’ the aggressor by locking him in with…a broom. And in their ensuing conversation, we glimpse the entire core of Marxist post-colonial analysis of the colonizer:

Oh: What for are you did this? I am Boov, beloved by all humans.
Gratuity ‘Tip’ Tucci: I know what you are.
Oh: Excellent. Can I come into the out now?
Tip: No. This is what you get for stealing planets and abducting people.
Oh: Oh, you are thinking a mistake. Boov do not steal and abduct. No. Boov liberate and befriend.

The parallel between the Boov and the modern gentrifier or Liberal Capitalist was delightful, but there’s something even more fascinating here. Throughout the film, Oh quite clearly, and hilariously, seeks authenticity and a sense of community. He is completely unaware of the exceptionalist prison he inhabits.

He then gives voice from the freezer to the question unspoken by the spiritual tourist, the yuppie Yoga practitioner, or the Western Polytheist and Pagan:

Can I come in to the out now?

[Home / Movie Still]

[Home / Movie Still]

Oh speaks the traumatic wound of the colonist. In Provincializing Europe, Dipesh Chakrabarty addresses precisely that when he speaks of Europe’s self-classification as ‘modern and secular.’ The colonialist subject cannot see the exceptionalist prison it has made for itself. We are inside, desiring to enter into a world that is completely outside of us. Yet we occupiers by our refusal to see ourselves as non-exceptional, and we cannot comprehend that we have created the very categories of ‘in’ and ‘out.’

Suffering the same displacement from home as the Boov, the American, Canadian, or Australian ‘white,’ just like the modernized European, cannot help but see ourselves somehow ‘inside.’ Civilization, modernity, democracy, capitalism — these are all polite words spoken with our indoor voices, while all the rest of the world stands in the ‘out,’ the primitive, the backward,the fetishized as authentic, and ever so alluring to those of us who want something more than what the markets provide.

Is this not what Western Paganism is thus far, with our foreign gods on occupied, colonized, brutalised land? Our European fantasies of what it means to be native, grand flights of ravens and war hammers, wine and mead poured out upon soil still fed by the blood of the conquered, built upon the bones of slaves—we are still stuck ‘in,’ unable to come into the out.

Why was Rihanna born in Barbados in the first place?

Raven man, Raven gods

I sing Rihanna songs in my head all the time when I think of the man who coaxed me to watch Rihanna-as-Tip. Our first date, he brought me milk. The discount sticker was still on it; half-off, bought with his food stamp card, the only income he had.

“You said you’re always out of milk,” he answered, when I’d asked him why he got it for me.

I didn’t remember saying that. I take milk with my tea, perhaps I’d been out and grumbled how my cereal-eating roommates never bought milk and always depleted the gallon by the time I’d wake. Waking without milk for tea can ruin a day.

Brighid, I thought.

Brighid, I also thought as I watched the search for “home” in Home, the Boov displaced by the decisions of their rulers. They are like all us ‘whites’ in America, displaced from Europe, settled on lands cleared for us by soldiers and slaughter. But, of course, unlike the earthlings in Home the First Nations weren’t given ice cream when pushed onto reservations.

Brighid, I thought, when he first messaged me, a week before we watched that film. “The shelters are full tonight and I’m soaked. Can I crash on your floor?”

He’s Tlingit. Raven moiety. We’d met 16 years before. I’d crushed on him then. I crushed on him still when I saw him again. I’m still crushing on him now.

He’s Tlingit, Raven House. I worship a god named Raven. But I’m a white man on land cleared of natives, a bastard child of a slaughtering empire, housed while a descendant of the survivors slept in shelters and on streets.

Brighid, I thought, and Brân, but also, “what good the gods of whites here on this blood soaked land?”

It is I who want to come into the out. I am Oh, the rogue Boov, eager for the authentic but trapped in the chill of the world that made me.

“Yeah, come over” I’d said. “It’s cold out there. You can share my bed.” And a week later, we fell in love. And during that week, all I listened to was Rihanna.

The Body, The Home

He smashed a “tater tot” into my mouth that day we fell in love. I’d cooked an odd number, I tried to give him the last, he insisted it was for me. “Eat it,” I’d try to say, but there was suddenly shredded potato in my mouth and all over my beard, and I couldn’t stop laughing at the audacity.

It was, admittedly, a little less Rihanna and Drake than I’d been hoping. But utterly Tip and Oh.

Later in the film, Tip calls the Boov a liar. Oh protests, insists he is telling the truth. Tip stands her ground, and he demands to know why she’s certain.

Oh: I never lie!
Tip: Yes, you do! And you know how I know? Because every time you lie, you turn green!

And Oh is shocked, having never noticed such a thing about his people or himself. What caused such an alienation from the body for the Boov is never addressed, but Marxists and most Witches have known for quite some time what caused ours. From Silvia Federici’s Caliban & The Witch:

It was in the attempt to form a new type of individual that the bourgeoisie engaged in that battle against the body that has become its historic mark. According to Max Weber, the reform of the body is at the core of the bourgeois ethic because capitalism makes acquisition “the ultimate purpose of life,” instead of treating it as a means of the satisfaction of our needs; thus, it requires that we forfeit all spontaneous enjoyment of life (Weber 1958: 53). Capitalism also attempts to overcome our “natural state,” by breaking the barriers of our natural state by lengthening the working day beyond the limits set b y the sun, the seasonal cycles, and the body itself. (Federici, p. 135)

This is, of course, the self-same alienation of the modern European subject (Pagan or otherwise) from the knowledge of the body, the ‘out’ for which Oh longs to come into. It’s the tater tot smashed into the mouth; the muscular arms wrestling the body onto the bed to watch a children’s movie. It’s the knowledge lost for which a quart of milk spilled on the floor of a convenience store is the return.

It is also the moment the symbolic stares back from all our talk of gods and ancestry, magic and ritual and leers, lewdly.

What we have now –  our obsession and exploitation of those who are ‘out’ has not changed. Early colonists wrote of the indigenous peoples in the Americas with a mix of fascination and disdain, which is no different from the white world’s love-fear relationship with indigenous culture today. From British explorer and conqueror James Cook:

From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &c., they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air…

Of course, such observations never changed colonial policy; if anything, the certainty of conquerors that they fully understand the cultural forms of those they’ve conquered is precisely what enables the continuation of the violence. The colonial mind pieces together the worlds of the others not through the body and its experiences, but through the same analytical and empirical tools which have disenchanted us.

The Boov in Home do this too: human objects we consider deeply important to the functioning of society (like wheels) are deemed useless by the superior intelligence of the conquerors and thus destroyed. Being a children’s movie, we see no mass buffalo slaughters and deforestation. We don’t see the churches built upon sacred lands. We don’t see the mission schools.

Nor do we get a look at what life is quite like for the displaced Earthlings in Australia, only that they are quite compressed together. The internment villages look nothing like the shelters in which my lover slept for months, nor the Indian Community Centers in which he’d wait for hours to get medicine or help looking for housing.

But then again, we adults don’t look at those things, either.

“Love wants to reach out and manhandle us
Break all our teacup talk of God”
–Hafiz

The Boov search for home only because they flee an enemy that they have created. Their leader, possessing all the inherent right-to-rule that every authority claims (and no authority ever has) is heroic; at least until the actual founding horror of their displacement is revealed. They overthrow their ruler, replace him with the enlightened Oh. Presumably, they live happily ever after, co-existing upon Earth without reprisals from the humans who they oppressed. There is no blood in the streets – no Ferguson or Baltimore or Fallujah uprising. One can only hope whites would be so fortunate.

And yet perhaps within this children’s film is revealed precisely the path out of being a settler, addicted to our exceptionalist modernity. At the end, the humans teach the Boov to dance, almost violating their physical autonomy. Their bodies revolt against them, following the thread of wisdom that only the physical can accept. This is, of course, what the post-colonialists have always been on about. Only when we become again bodies can we see the oppressed as something beyond symbols. The homeless Native man, the Black woman singer — they can only be bodies to us when we are bodies to ourselves.

And the only way to do that, of course, is to love.

Is that now why, perhaps, we are so obsessed with pop songs about love? And perhaps also why post-colonialists like Frantz Fanon wrote so much about it. We do not know love, so we must have it sung to us, yet turn around and scorn the bodies which create those songs.

Perhaps to ‘come into the out’ is merely to join the rest of the world, which of course means giving up all the things which keep us in and everything else out.

  *    *    *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

Column: Pantheacon 2016

Heathen Chinese —  February 20, 2016 — 5 Comments

Pantheacon is an annual “conference for Pagans, Heathens, Indigenous Non-European and many of diverse beliefs,” which is held on the unceded land of Tamien Ohlone-speaking peoples in the city of San Jose, California. Pantheacon 2016 took place from February 12-15.

CA-map+ohlone-territory

[Courtesy Kanyon Sayers-Roods]

The inherent contradiction of a conference billing itself as being at least partially for “Indigenous Non-European” people while taking place on Indigenous Non-European land was highlighted and addressed by several events scheduled on Sunday February 14.

At 9 a.m., a panel was held on “Indigenous Experiences Inside and Outside the Pagan Community.” The panelists who spoke were Gregg Castro [t’rowt’raahl Salinan/rumsien Ohlone], Jacki Chuculate, Kanyon Sayers-Roods (Hahashkani-Coyote Woman) [Costanoan Ohlone and Chumash], Ryan Ts’ítskw Kozisek [Tlingit and white] and Michaela Spangenburg [multiracial Huron-Wendat].

The 9 a.m. panel was immediately followed by at 11 a.m. by “Native/Pagan Community Dialogue,” at which Ann-Marie Sayers (Mutsun Ohlone), caretaker of Indian Canyon, the only sovereign native lands in central-coastal California, and Director of Costanoan Indian Research, spoke. At 3 p.m., Ann Marie Sayers’s daughter, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, who had already spoken on the 9 a.m. panel, presented on “Finding Balance with Coyote Trickster Medicine.” Kanyon spoke eloquently on being taught the lesson of humility by and through trickster medicine to a packed room, and fielded many questions from the audience.

I have offered space within this column for the speakers from the “Indigenous Experiences Inside and Outside the Pagan Community” panel to write or otherwise publish whatever they wish, if they wish, with no edits or omissions. The time constraint of publishing within a week of Pantheacon has made that difficult, but the offer is continuous and open-ended with regards to future columns.

Kanyon Sayers-Roods recounted her experiences at Pantheacon in a short video which is too large to be uploaded directly, but which can be viewed here.

The questions I had asked, to which she was responding, were as follows:

My main question would be along the lines of: insofar as you feel comfortable sharing, do you feel like the Sunday 9 a.m. panel on “Indigenous Experiences Inside and Outside the Pagan Community” and your Sunday 3 p.m. presentation served your own goals well? How about the other things you attended that day?

To provide some context for the phrasing of this question, I think native-settler conversations (as the Sunday 11 a.m. “Native/Pagan Community Dialogue” was billed, for example) often have an element where settlers are still trying to “take” something from the conversation, even (or perhaps especially) when settlers are trying to be seen as “good allies.” But of course, you (both as individuals and as members of your communities and lineages) have your own reasons for engaging in such conversations, and for sharing your perspectives as you did. I really appreciated the 9 a.m. panel, and I recall that several speakers said that they really didn’t want the visibility of being on it but chose to do so anyway because it aligned with other work they were doing.

Anything that fell short of or exceeded what you were hoping to accomplish? Do you feel you and your ancestors were shown proper respect, or were there moments that you felt tokenized or otherwise disrespected? Any thoughts on how any of your experiences this weekend might influence anything you do in the future? And of course, let’s leave room in this conversation for trickster medicine to have its due, however it may choose to manifest.

Kanyon also offered the following additional thoughts in response:

There are times that I’ve been in the community/public where the sensation and energy is I’ve already conditioned me to feeling like a token Indian, specially around late October and early November. I call those months, “Rent your token NATIVE month” (also with that being said I do enjoy it a lot because that is my most lucrative month, actually being valued for the knowledge I carry and perspective that I share for the work that I thoroughly do everyday of my life ) so because I’ve already been conditioned in that type of environment, I have learned how to shield myself and protect myself so I’m not sure if I can properly assess my feelings if I were to claim I felt tokenized or commodified when it was present at Pantheacon.

I did appreciate those who had the willingness to attempt to voice their perspective with respect and courtesy. One of the things I voiced during one of my panels, was [that] at any given point we are ignorant to any information and what is important is how we walk forward when that new information is brought into our life. Walking with humility, attempting to decolonize our projected actions (less entitlement and privilege and outward energies that lack acknowledgement of how ones actions and words affect those around them–as well as seven generations in the future).

I will say this: I had an amazing time. I enjoyed all of the perspectives and opportunities to share perspective and insight to my life and experiences. Also [to] observe other people in their own native environment (pun intended).

Hospitality: Guests, Hosts, Hosted Guests, Guesting Hosts

A microphone and time were reserved for indigenous attendees to speak at the end of the 9 a.m. panel on “Indigenous Experiences Inside and Outside the Pagan Community,” and several members of the audience did indeed speak movingly and powerfully. As the event description stated, “Indigenous individuals have long been contributors at Pantheacon, and to the community as a whole; yet are often rendered invisible in pagan spaces through pervasive stereotypes, appropriation, and lack of awareness.” The panel provided space for acknowledgement that indigenous people have been present at Pantheacon for many years, but that they just haven’t been seen. Minutes before the room was cleared to make space for the next event, however, the founder and organizer of Pantheacon, Glenn Turner, walked up to the microphone and spoke, despite not identifying as native.

Let’s take a step back here and consider the question of hospitality. In a theological context, Anomalous Thracian writes that “when welcoming gods and spirits into your home and shrines and life, you are welcoming them as sacred guests.” At the same time, however, once the gods are enshrined within a space, you area guest in Their space when you step inside.” In other words, even when “hosting” on one level, one is still a guest on both the smaller level and the larger:

When hosting the gods, it is important to also remember that we are guests in Their dominions, travelers through Their domains of influence, dallying upon the doorsteps of Their infinities. Act accordingly, as guest or host or hosted guest or guesting host. […]

The laws of hospitality are ancient and to a certain extent elastic enough to stretch into different contexts, but always it is about the relationship between being welcome and being welcomed, and in this day, as I sit at a borrowed table, I find that this is as near to the heart of polytheism that I can perceive of in this moment. [Emphasis in original]

By analogy back to the inter-human sphere, one might be the host of a conference, for example, but one is still a guest of the peoples whose land one it is on, and a guest within the spaces provided for those people. A respectful guest would follow the rules delineated within that space. As the Thracian writes, “It isn’t about being a perfect host (there is no such thing, for all guests have different expectations) nor is it about being a perfect guest (there is no such thing, for all hosts have different expectations).” Being aware and respectful of those expectations would be a good first step, however.

[Credit: Klaus D. Peter / Wikimedia]

Matronae Aufaniae Altar [Credit: Klaus D. Peter / Wikimedia]

War: “Allies” and Accomplices

At a 9 p.m. ritual on Sunday evening, the Matronae — “a collective of indigenous Germanic and Celtic goddesses who were worshiped syncretically in the Roman Empire” — spoke through oracular trance possession again, as They had done six months earlier at Many Gods West. They too spoke about the importance of knowing the land upon which one stands: “Some of you know…find this thread and strengthen it.” They spoke of the storm, much prophesied at rituals in the past: “The storm is not coming. It is here.” They spoke of the war in which we cannot fight alone.

This war, then, makes alliances necessary. But the word “ally” itself has been stripped of much of its meaning. The phrase that kept coming to my mind on Monday morning, especially as I reflected upon my own experiences at the Pagans of Color Caucus and at the Pagans of Color Hospitality Suite, was “accomplices not allies.” The author of the article of the same name offers some thoughts on the distinction between the two terms:

In the worst cases, “allies” themselves act paralyzed believing it’s their duty as a “good ally.” There is a difference between acting for others, with others, and for one’s own interests, be explicit. You wouldn’t find an accomplice resigning their agency, or capabilities as an act of “support.” […]

Don’t wait around for anyone to proclaim you to be an accomplice, you certainly cannot proclaim it yourself. You just are or you are not. The lines of oppression are already drawn. Direct action is really the best and may be the only way to learn what it is to be an accomplice. We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence. [Emphasis in original]

“The lines of oppression are already drawn,” and “the storm is not coming, it is here.” For my part, I am looking for people who are already fighting, who remember that they know how to fight, and who exercise that memory. People who are fighting and living with a dignity and ferocity of spirit that can be recognized by any who share it. People whose ancestors are strong, whose ancestors walk close to them, whose ancestors are armed and fighting on their behalf. That’s why I go to events like Pantheacon. That’s why I write.

Dionysus said it this way once: “Under certain circumstances I love what is human”–and with this he alluded to Ariadne who was present–”man is to my mind an agreeable, courageous, inventive animal that has no equal on earth; it finds its way in any labyrinth. I am well disposed towards him: I often reflect how I might yet advance him and make him stronger, more evil, and more profound than he is.”

“Stronger, more evil, and more profound?” I asked startled.

“Yes,” he said once more; “stronger, more evil, and more profound; also more beautiful”–and at that the tempter god smiled with his halcyon smile as though he had just paid an enchanting compliment.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

SOUTH AFRICA — After years of lobbying by Pagan groups in the country, the South African Law Reform Commission has determined that portions of that nation’s Witchcraft Suppression Act are unconstitutional. Witches should be able to identify themselves as such, the commission found, as well as practice divination. However, the proposed replacement law still has its problems, according to members of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, because it singles out “harmful witchcraft practices” for regulation on the basis that they can cause “intimidation with the intent to cause psychological distress or terror.” SAPRA members are drafting a response to the bill and hope to see changes in it before it becomes law.sapralogoThe Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 is, like most similar laws in African nations, based on 1735 Witchcraft Act of the United Kingdom, which was itself repealed in 1951. SAPRA requested a review of this law in 2007, an effort which was joined by the South African Pagan Council and the Traditional Healers Association. That slow process has finally resulted in the release of a lengthy issue paper by the SALRC, an independent body created in 1973 to investigate South African laws and make recommendations to the national and provincial governments for reform.

In that issue paper, members of the SALRC agreed that by making it illegal to identify as a Witch, the act violates the right to religious expression guaranteed in the South African constitution. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that there is no definition of Witchcraft in the legislation. In other words, Wiccans and other Pagans fell into the same category as those who are more traditionally considered Witches in sub-Saharan Africa, a place where the word “witch” is often associated with people who use supernatural powers to cause harm.

Where the SALRC paper deviates from the hoped-for outcome is in how it tries to make distinctions between the different uses of the word “witch.” According to Damon Leff, who has been working on this cause for years, “The draft bill is focused on preventing accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts, human mutilations and ritual murder, and what the Commission calls ‘harmful witchcraft practices.’ ” In Leff’s view, that lumps together actions which should be unacceptable for any person to commit with beliefs that are protected.

We believe that existing laws may be used to deal with human mutilations and ritual murder – we already have a Human Tissues Act which prohibits the harvest and sale of human body parts, and murder is already illegal. We also believe that what the Commission calls ‘harmful witchcraft practices,’ in the absence of actual demonstrable criminal activity, cannot be proven in any court of law to exist without reference to belief, and since the Bill of Rights protects the right to belief, ‘witchcraft beliefs’ aught to play no role in the determination of actual criminal guilt.

The bill has apparently been structured to address concerns that the widespread belief in malevolent magic makes it possible for one person to cause very real harm to another by convincing them that they intend to cast such a spell. Leff provided a copy of the response that SAPRA is drafting, which lays it out thus:

Whilst certain crimes may indeed be motivated by belief, those crimes identified in the Commission’s definition of alleged ‘harmful witchcraft’ practices, specifically, intimidation with the intent to cause psychological distress or terror, may be committed by a member of any (or no) religious faith. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence to show that some Christians and Traditional Healers have in the past attempted to justify their criminal acts by appealing to their beliefs as motivation for such acts.

Traditional healers may also underlie muti murders, committed to obtain a specific human body part for the purposes of healing another. Children, the elderly and disabled are most susceptible to these kinds of attacks. The draft response reads:

SAPRA must argue that since the perpetrators of such practices, specifically those who trade in human body parts, do not self-identify as Witches or as practitioners of Witchcraft, but have in the past been identified as traditional healers or as practitioners of traditional African religion (who do not self-identify as Witches), the application of the term ‘witchcraft’ to such practices constitutes an equally inaccurate misnomer. Muthi murders have nothing to do with Witchcraft, because actual Witches are not the perpetrators of such crimes.

Instead, they argue, such crimes should be enforced under the existing Human Tissues Act, which was passed specifically to prevent such crimes.

From the SALRC issue paper, it appears that the Traditional Healers Organization has pushed for a clear definition of Witchcraft in a new law, and regulation of the harmful practices associated with it. Traditional healers, according to Leff, would never identify as “Witches” because of the strong cultural bias against the term, which has only been challenged recently with the spread of Wicca and related religions.

Proudly_Pagan_PFD_KZN_2009

Pagan Freedom Day in South Africa [Photo Credit: Ginney May / Wikimedia]

Another problem with the replacement bill, insofar as Pagans are concerned, is that while accusations of Witchcraft are banned, it doesn’t go far enough to protect those accused. The existing law has even been flouted by public officials. SAPRA’s draft response asserts, “Such a Bill must however not merely prohibit accusations of Witchcraft and punish those who do make accusations of Witchcraft which lead to harm against the accused, it must also provide the victims of accusation, living refugees of accusation, with access and means to victim support and restorative justice,” Since the lifting of apartheid, restorative justice has become a powerful concept in South Africa.

In short, SAPRA’s position is that laws should be based on verifiable evidence of wrongdoing, and no crime should be associated with a belief system such as Witchcraft, since heinous acts can be committed by anyone regardless of their religion or lack thereof. The comment period on the draft bill and related issue paper ends in April, and it could be another year before it is presented as a white paper, and submitted to parliament for consideration.

“If the SALRC goes ahead with the proposal, the Bill will be sent to Parliament for review before it is published, and only after that, could it become an Act of Parliament,” explained Leff. “We plan to stop that from happening.”

Healing Hearts at Wounded Knee (HHAWK), an organization comprised of First Nation leaders, has put out a call for religious groups and individuals to join them in a Global Ceremony to end massacre. And, Pagans are answering that call. The event is being held on the 125th anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29.

Healing Hearts Wounded Knee
Organizers explain that they are using the power of religious ceremony to break the cycle of hatred and conflict, and to heal multi-generational wounds. On their website they write,

Indigenous peoples around the world are bringing back ceremony, bringing back healing practices, bringing back the sacred into our lives. It is with the sacred that we can end massacre. It is with the sacred that we can heal. It is with the sacred that we can make this Great Turning to save our relations with one another, with our sacred planetary home, and with the Divine.

HHAWK is inviting both indigenous and non-indigenous persons to join in from wherever they are located around the globe.

Matt Whealton, a member of the Temple of Ra in San Francisco, was asked to record an Egyptian morning hymn for the the Healing Hearts at Wounded Knee Global Ceremony website. He first heard of the project at the Parliament of World Religions this past October in Salt Lake City. While there he met and had lunch with, Jean Fleury, the Tribal Peace Ambassador of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and also one of the organizers of HHAWK.

Whealton said, “As is often the case at the Parliament, people ask about one’s religious practice, especially if it is out of the mainstream. Over lunch with Jean, I described a bit about Kemetic Reconstruction, and my particular passion of working with the sounds of the ancient language in ritual contexts. I described the Morning Hymn from Egypt, how it might have been sung, etc, and she said ‘Well now, you have to sing it for me’. So I did, and then and there she asked if I could record it for the HHAWK website.”

Whealton said that after he finished singing, Fleury asked him a question that had a profound impact on him. She asked him if he knew that he was singing for the Ancestors out of Egypt. Whealton said, “To me that question meant something powerful. It meant and means that our own rituals and ceremonies as Kemetics, and Reconstructions in general, entail a kind of obligation to the ancient people who can no longer speak directly for themselves or through their own descendants. It meant that I have an obligation to speak justly for those Ancestors, and speak justly for their descendants too, even if they no longer recognize the ancient Gods and Goddesses. It meant that an indigenous person recognizes that song as meaningful in the context of reciprocal relations and obligations of family, land, tradition, and sacredness of Indigenous Culture even though the line of the tradition was broken for 1500 years and even though I was not born to direct descendants of those Ancestors.”

In addition to recording the Egyptian morning hymn, Whealton is hosting a small ritual at his home in San Francisco on Dec 29 to correspond with the Wounded Knee Ceremony. In addition, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, founder of a Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, is organizing a ceremony in Washington State.

From Opening Ceremonies of the Parliament of the World's Religions 2015 [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

From Opening Ceremonies of the Parliament of the World’s Religions 2015 [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

Whealton said that he was drawn to participating in the ceremony to help support the, “growing Indigenous movements that use ceremony and education to work towards a healthier environment, equality for minorities, and ending wars and their causes.” He says he spent time during the Parliament of the Worlds Religions at various ceremonies conducted at the Native American Sacred Fire just outside the convention center. This fire was maintained 24 hours a day throughout the conference, with Fire-keepers and ritualists from Ute, Shoshone, Maya, Maori, Mohawk, NaDene, Sioux, Leni Lenape, and Ojibwe tribes.

HHWAK says you don’t need to be part of a group to join in the Global Ceremony. Individuals can spend a time of quiet contemplation at noon on Dec. 29, or they can go to the website, or Facebook group and join in a ceremony at a location near them.

[These are the last 3 days to contribute to The Wild Hunt Fall Funding Drive. We are now 88% funded. Help us reach 100%! All of our articles take time, research and money to produce. The one below was written by our newest, very talented columnist Heathen Chinese. It is you that makes it possible for him to be here and do this work! Share our IndieGoGo link. Donate today and be part of the team that helps keeps The Wild Hunt going for another year. Thank You.]

The word “indigenous” is derived from “Late Latin indigenus ‘born in a country, native,’ from Latin indigena ‘sprung from the land.'” The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, the International Labor Organization and the World Bank all have official definitions of what constitutes an “indigenous” people or population. The UN definition includes several characteristics, the first of which is that indigenous populations are composed of the descendants of groups, which were in the territory at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origin arrived there.” In 1986, a caveat was added that read “any individual who identified himself or herself as indigenous and was accepted by the group or the community as one of its members was to be regarded as an indigenous person.”

Map of Ohlone languages, exact boundaries questionable [Photo Credit: Bruce Hallman]

Map of Ohlone languages, boundaries questionable [Photo Credit: Bruce Hallman]

In an interview with Alt-X Berlin, Laguna Pueblo novelist Leslie Marmon Silko offers her own interpretation of the term: “When I say indigenous people I mean people that are connected to the land […] for at least some thousands of years. You can see similarities in some of the struggles of indigenous peoples in Africa, in the Americas, in Asia.”

In the same interview, Silko draws parallels with pre-Christian European traditions:

I am very interested in the pre-Christian traditions in Germany and the British Isles, very interested in what the people were like before the Christians came up here. Because, in a sense, there are many similarities. I am not trying to say it is the same but, perhaps, there are some similarities of what happened with the tribal people that were once here, the people that were so close to the earth and the trees. And then Christianity comes in the same way it came to us.

Silko implies that at some point after Christianization, many Europeans were severed from their connection to the land, from being “so close to the earth and the trees.” However, today, many indigenous people throughout the world are in fact Christian, and it is possible to be Christian and retain the sense of being “connected to the land.” Therefore, the UN definition of self-identification and acceptance by the group or community is important to keep in mind. What exactly constitutes indigeneity is not for non-indigenous groups to define.

The UN definition of “indigenous” does, however, emphasize that indigenous populations typically occupy a “non-dominant or colonial condition.” As noted in the first sentence:

Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition.

Christianity’s aggressive evangelization efforts in California certainly fit into this description, and have been a source of recent controversy due to the Roman Catholic Church’s canonization of the missionary Junipero Serra.

Canonization of Serra

Serra was a Spanish Franciscan friar who founded the first nine missions of the California mission system, which operated from 1769 to 1833. On Sept 23 2015, he was canonized by Pope Francis, despite the objections of indigenous tribal bands and other organizations that have criticized the Vatican’s decision to grant sainthood to a man seen as “ultimately responsible for the death of approximately 100,000 California Indians and the complete extermination of many Native tribes, cultures and languages.” Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, points out that “the brutality of Fr. Serra is documented in his own writings,” referring to Serra’s letters to Spanish colonial officials requesting and justifying the whipping of native converts, especially “runaways” from the Mission.

The Amah Mutsun, who are indigenous to the Monterey Bay Area, have been among the tribal bands vocally opposing Serra’s canonization. On their website, they have compiled a list of news articles, letters to the Pope, news reports of demonstrations, and academic research related to the topic. Other groups opposing Serra’s canonization include the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians (Acjachemen Nation), the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians (Pecháangayam Payómkawichum) and The Morning Star Institute.

In early October, several weeks after the canonization, a commemorative statue of Serra at the Presidio of Monterey was decapitated. A week before that occurred, the statue of Serra at the Carmel Mission was splashed with paint, and the words “Saint of Genocide” were painted on a headstone. The Los Angeles Times reports that the latter incident is “being investigated as a hate crime because the vandals targeted ‘specifically the headstones of people of European descent, and not Native American descent.'”

No one has claimed responsibility for either action.

Demonstration at Mission Dolores, San Francisco, May 2 2015 [Photo Credit: Alex Darocy]

Demonstration at Mission Dolores, San Francisco, May 2 2015 [Photo Credit: Alex Darocy]

Walk for the Ancestors

Another response to Serra’s canonization has been “a 650-mile pilgrimage to each of the 21 California Missions, to honor the Indigenous ancestors who suffered and perished in the Mission system and assert California Indian rejection of sainthood for Junipero Serra.” The Walk for the Ancestors is being led by Tataviam descendants Caroline Ward Holland and Kagen Holland. The walk began on September 7 at Mission Solano in Sonoma, California and is planned to end at Mission San Diego on November 7.

The walkers meet with local indigenous people and hold a moment of silence at each mission site:

At each Mission, the walkers will join with representatives of local tribes and all those who come to stand with them. Words, stories and prayers will be shared, and a moment of silence will be observed at the mass grave sites of the ancestors. The walk will then continue southward, and anyone present at the gathering will be welcomed to participate.

Caroline Ward Holland has described the context for the walk as one of cultural trauma:

To me, the disease brought here [by the Franciscans] was secondary, in comparison to the ways they tortured our people, mentally, and physically. The stories of the atrocities are passed down. Mothers were giving themselves abortions so their children wouldn’t face a life of abuse. And you know, even when they left the Mission [after secularization], they had nothing. They took their land, they took their culture, they took their spiritual practices…so the people didn’t know who they were.

That’s why we’re talking about cultural trauma. I didn’t realize it was going on, until I really thought about it. I mean, it’s still me, and it’s hundreds of years later, and I’m still feeling this. You can feel it all around you at the Missions, too.

As they visit different missions, the walkers hear many stories, some of which they have shared on their website. For example, in San Luis Obispo, the walkers learned that the history of indigenous resistance can be found in the very architecture of the missions across the entire state:

The missionaries, still under periodic attack from flaming arrows and remembering the tiled roofs of Spain, started to experiment with making roofing tiles to protect the structures against the arrows. Very quickly, all of the California missions adopted the tiles as part of their construction.

In conclusion, every time you see the Mission-style tile roofs that are so ubiquitous in California, don’t think of Spanish colonial glory. Think of flaming arrows!

Refinery Corridor Healing Walks

Earlier this year, four walks were held in the Northeast San Francisco Bay Area, each of which ended up at one of five oil refineries in the area. These Refinery Corridor Healing Walks were organized by Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition (BARCC), a coalition between Idle No More SF Bay and local activists living along the corridor. Their website situates their walks within a longer history of healing walks:

There is a long history in Native America of these types of healing walks. The Refinery Corridor Healing Walks were inspired by the Tar Sands Healing Walks in Alberta, Canada, the Longest Walks, and the Peace & Dignity Journeys.

Prayers for the waters were conducted at the beginning and end of each walk, and throughout the walks:

We are walking as a commitment to Mother Earth and life on her beautiful belly. We walk as a commitment to clean air, soil and water. Members of Idle No More SF Bay conduct prayers at each refinery and toxic sites along the way. Prayers for the waters are conducted by Native American women at the beginning and end of each walk.

Shellmounds

Annual walks and protests led by Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC) have also been held in Emeryville, an East Bay city which built a shopping mall over remnants of the Emeryville Shellmound in the early 2000s. The Sacred Land Film Project describes shellmounds as “gently rounded hills formed from accumulated layers of organic material deposited over generations by native coastal dwellers. Often the sites of burials and spiritual ceremonies, these shellmounds are still places for veneration.” IPOC writes that shellmounds are seen by the Muwekma Ohlone as “shellmounds as living cemeteries where their ancestors rest.”

The Emeryville Shellmound was “once the largest of the 425 mound sites around the Bay” and was included as a landmark on a U.S. Coast Survey map in the 1850s. Hundreds of people were buried within it. The Sacred Land Film Project reports on its history:

In 1876, the site was partially leveled for an amusement park; when the park closed in 1924, archaeologists excavated more than 700 indigenous graves. The site was then razed to build an industrial plant that occupied the site until the late 1990s, when the city demolished the buildings and started cleaning up the toxic soil left behind. During that process, hundreds of human remains were found, some of which were reburied while others were taken to landfills or incinerated as part of the cleanup.

Corrina Gould, a Chochenyo Ohlone who is one of the organizers of IPOC, told Indian Country Today that “nearly 12,000 of these remains are currently in the possession of the University of California, Berkeley, locked away and piled on shelves.” Gould is working on creating a “Native women-led land trust, where the ancestral remains stored at UC Berkeley and other museums can be re-interred.”

Emeryville Shellmound protest, November 28 2014 [Photo Credit: Wendy Kenin]

Emeryville Shellmound protest, November 28 2014 [Photo Credit: Wendy Kenin]

Unburied Bones

The University of California – Berkeley is required by law to repatriate native remains for burial, but has been slow to comply. According to a 2013 op-ed by Professor Tony Platt in the Los Angeles Times, “In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Action, which required federally funded museums and universities to repatriate human remains to recognized tribes.” The Muwekma Ohlone are not recognized federally, but the rate of repatriation even to federally recognized tribes has been extremely slow: “UC Davis retains more than 90% of its collection (which caused one Native American activist to note that there are more dead Indians on the Davis campus than live ones). As of June 2013, Berkeley has repatriated only 315 of its 10,000 remains.”

Platt explains some of the reasons for this delay:

First, the process is slow and expensive, as claimants must make their ponderous way through faculty, campuses and university committees. Second, tribes unrecognized by the federal government have no legal right to make a direct claim. Third, and most significantly, because of unscientific work methods, most of the collection is unidentifiable as to provenance or tribal affiliation.

In the conclusion to his op-ed, Platt writes that in addition to “complying with the bureaucratic procedures spelled out in the repatriation law” UC Berkeley “should take responsibility for […] ‘a human ethical’ issue, namely, how so many well-educated, well-meaning professors and administrators eagerly violated the rights of the dead and tormented the living.” He suggests as possible courses of action “public apologies for decades of malpractice, accelerating the repatriation process and offering land or compensation for reburials.”

Indigenous Land Action Committee

Land has been at the root of recent conflict between UC Berkeley and the Indigenous Land Action Committee. A press release by the ILAC details a ceremony held at the Gill Tract, a UC-owned plot of land slated for development by the natural food chain Sprouts:

The multi-day ceremony began Sunday, October 11, led by the Indigenous Land Action Committee (ILAC), a group of indigenous people who organized the ceremonial observance to honor the land and the ancestors who lived on the land, to mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and to protect the land from imminent development.

Around 5:00 am on October 14, UC police forcibly removed Ohlone Hank Herrera from the land. Herrera told the police officers, “This land is native land, it’s Ohlone Land. [Ohlone people] cannot trespass on our land… where we lived for 10,000 years.”

Conclusion

Indian People Organizing for Change writes, “This is the homeland of the Muwekma Ohlone Nation. As new residents and visitors to their country, we ought to show the same respect we would expect to our far distant homelands and cemeteries.” While these words are addressed to those living in the East San Francisco Bay, they apply equally to any non-indigenous person living on indigenous land anywhere across the world.

Author’s Note: This article is not intended to represent or speak for any indigenous people or group. The author is not indigenous. This article is intended to be a introductory overview. Any struggles not been mentioned here are welcome in the comments below. 

 

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[Today we welcome guest writer Lyonel Perabo joining us from Northern Europe. The Wild Hunt is always seeking new voices and welcomes guests nearly every month. By doing so, we expand our ability to share the many diverse experiences found within the collective Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist communities worldwide. Submissions are always accepted. If you enjoy reading these guest pieces, consider donating to our Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive. We are completely reader-funded, and all your donations go directly back to a writers, including guests, and to bringing you their stories! Donate today. Thank You.]

In 2009, the Isogaisa festival was established by Ronald Kvernmo, a Sámi from the Norwegian side with a long interest in his people’s culture and spirituality and, more specifically, shamanism. Until the modern era, the Sámi people were, for the most part, Pagans whose complex religious beliefs and concepts were often embodied by their ´noaidi´ (´shamans´). Even after the effective colonization and conversion of Sápmi (´Sami-land´), elements from this Pagan culture were passed on in some form or another until the present day.

The festival takes place on the shores of the idyllic Lavangen Fjord situated at 68 degrees latitude North in Northern Norway.

The festival takes place on the shores of the idyllic Lavangen Fjord situated at 68 degrees latitude North in Northern Norway. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

According to Kvernmo, the Sámi pietist movement known as Læstadianism, which became prominent among Sámis in the later half of the 19th century, has some similarity to Shamanism. In many ways, the Isogaisa festival can be considered a manifestation of the desires of a new generation of Sámis looking to reconnect to their traditional culture and spirituality. For Kvernmo, the festival should also be considered within a wider context. It is part of a recent revitalization that Sámi culture has been experiencing, in general, after generations of colonization and systematic oppression. He said:

In Sámi society we have lost a lot of our culture, in part due to Norwegianization and state-sponsored racism, but now we have come, in the last twenty, thirty years, to a new time where Sámi culture is advancing and people can feel proud of their heritage. 

The concept behind Isogaisa is unique in the sense that it is the only festival focusing on Sámi traditional religion. Other Sámi festivals promoting Sámi culture are widespread in the Northern corners of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but none are as resolutely Pagan as Isogaisa. While Sámi traditional practices and religion are the main focus of the festival, Isogaisa has grown to welcome representatives and practitioners of other cultures as well. For Kvernmo, it is a token of hospitality and friendship and it is both natural and practical. He said:

It is important for Sámi people to have opportunities to advance their culture, however, we have lost a few things along the way. In order to recover those practices, we have to borrow them back from our neighbors. Our culture isn’t stagnant, it’s dynamic and we have been working closely for a time with some of our Northern neighbors like the Nenets and Kidlin Sàmi from Russia.

Sharing Faiths

At this year’s festival, another group in the spotlight were Latvians. A dozen Pagan Latvians, including members of the Baltic musical group Tai Tai, were invited to give workshops and presentations about their ancestral religion, crafts and music. During one such event, the members of Tai Tai performed a number of traditional songs, games, and dances. They explained their origins in front of a group of festival-goers who had were visiting from Russia, Norway, Finland and the U.K.

Latvian guests dyed yarn in a traditional way, using wild herbs. The festival serves as a way to share knowledge about traditional crafts.

Latvian guests dyed yarn in a traditional way, using wild herbs. The festival serves as a way to share knowledge about traditional crafts. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

If Isogaisa stands for something it is most definitely cultural sharing, a process which assists in fixing the tainted inter-ethnic relationships in Northern Fenno-Scandinavia. For more than 250 years, Norway, Sweden, and Russia have been hard at work erasing Sámi culture, traditions and ways of life. This is reminiscent to what indigenous peoples in North America and Australia have experienced over the same time period.

As a result, and even taking into consideration the recent Sámi cultural renewal of the past few years, age-old prejudice is sometimes still present in these regions. In Finland, for example, it is still common for non-Sámis to dress in (often poor-quality) Sámi traditional costumes when dealing with foreign tourists. The dichotomy between state-enforced discrimination and the packaging of a consumer-friendly Sámi culture represents the official ´Sámi policy´ of the Fenno-Scandinavian states during most of the 20th century.

Eva and Peter Armstrand represent one shining illustration of the way the festival works toward the sharing and celebrating of different cultures. While both of them are Swedish citizens, Peter is a Sámi with roots in the northern part of the country and Eva is an ethnic Swede from the south. They have been a couple and a team for several years now and have been practicing spirit-working, healing and traditional crafts together under the name Team Fourbears. In between a ceremony and a workshop, Eva was able to explain how they have been able to, quite literally, marry two distinct traditions:

In the beginning, these really were just one single tradition. Over time, we developed different names for the Gods and spirits but deep down, they really are the same figures. For us, it doesn’t feel strange, to blend these two traditions, on the contrary, it feels quite natural.

 

Will Rubach, Heidi Kim and Eva and Peter Armstrand perform at closing ceremony. Festival leader, Ronald Kvernmo watches from the stage.

Will Rubach, Heidi Kim and Eva and Peter Armstrand perform at closing ceremony. Festival leader, Ronald Kvernmo watches from the stage. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

Constructive Communion

During the four days of the Isogaisa festival, shamans, Pagans and other spirit-workers, coming from Northern Europe and beyond, gathered, exchanged, and worked together. Due to its collaboration with various alternative religious associations, Isogaisa has reached a certain prominence within the European alternative religion scene. Situated in the breathtakingly scenic Lavangen fjord, not far from the Norwegian-Swedish border in the Northern county of Troms, the festival is uniquely situated to be a meeting place with an international dimension. A good deal of participants and attendees are Sámi attempting to reconnect with their ancient traditions. Others are clearly closer to the New Age movement, and some could even be considered Reconstructionists.

What’s important though isn’t what sets the diverse Isogaisa crowd apart, but what brings them all together: a genuine desire to listen and learn from others. In a way, the festival could almost be considered a global networking event where people, who would otherwise never have the opportunity to meet, can hang out and build bonds. For example, members of the Latvian and Russian Sámi delegations spent most of the festival together communicating in Russian and ended-up professing brotherhood during the festival’s closing ceremony. Such genuine and beneficial outcomes are aided by the fact that the festival’s strict no-alcohol and no-drug policy.

The main ceremonies took place in the festival’s main Lavvu, a type of traditional Sámi tent. Most, if not all the courses, workshops and concerts take place within such Lavvus, which also make ideal shelter in case of bad weather. The festival central Lavvu is a massive structure, connecting no less than four such tents thus creating a central meeting space where hundreds can gather. This is also where the festival’s closing ceremony took place.

Tara LeAnn Eriksson and Tobias Kramp make an offering to the Holy Fire during the festival's closing ceremony.

Tara LeAnn Eriksson and Tobias Kramp make an offering to the Holy Fire during the festival’s closing ceremony. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

The various Shamans, speakers and artists who were part of this year’s line-up all took turns making speeches, performing songs and cordially paying their respects to each other. The general mood was positive, and no one received more praise than the festival elders, more specifically the female elders.

Among all the performers, Russian Sámi dancer Semen Bolshunov probably made the strongest impression. Outfitted in various animal skins, he performed a dance inspired by the shamanic traditions of his people, running around the festival sacred fire before collapsing on a pile of reindeer skins. Another highlight of the ceremony was the birthday celebration for Danish Shamanic Union member Per Søager. After being presented with a cake, he ended up being serenaded by no less than a dozen versions of ´Happy Birthday´ sung in many languages.

The closing ceremony ended with the performance of Eirik Myrhaug, a respected Sámi Shaman who led a final blessing of the festival grounds. And, when he finished, the 6th annual Isogaisa festival came to an end. All in all, Isogaisa lived up to its reputation, providing a fertile ground for those interested or involved with the Shamanistic and Pagan practices from Northern Europe and beyond.

Shamans hold their drums over the Holy Fire in order to warm them and obtain a clearer sound whiel drumming.

Shamans hold their drums over the Holy Fire in order to warm them and obtain a clearer sound whiel drumming. [Photo Credit: Linnea Nordström]

The festival grounds, situated among some of North Norway’s most beautiful landscapes, added to the feeling of spiritual and metaphysical yearning, which was so present among attendees and performers alike. The fact that drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited at the festival made it ideal for families, as witnessed by the countless children constantly running around the festival grounds. More than any other festival in this corner of the world, Isogaisa fosters a truly welcoming and homely atmosphere, making people feel like they come back, year after year, to their own family and people. With such an appeal, one doesn’t need to be clairvoyant to predict a bright future for Isogaisa.  

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[Lyonel Perabo is a MA student currently enrolled in the Old Norse Religion program at the University of Iceland. He has written for various news websites, blogs and student magazines in the Nordic countries Lyonel is currently working on his Master’s thesis, which seeks to analyze the way North-Scandinavian populations were perceived in Saga Literature and works as a tourist guide and local History blogger in the town of Tromsø in North-Norway.]

[Pagan Community Notes is a weekly feature that highlights short stories and notes originating from within our collective communities. If you like reading this dedicated news every Monday, please donate to our Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive today. We are now 40% funded. Help us raise that number! All of our articles take time, research and money to produce. It is you that makes it all possible! Share our IndieGoGo link. Donate today and help keep The Wild Hunt going for another year. Thank You.]
The Druid NetworkThe Druid Network (TDN), based in the United Kingdom, will be attending the Inter Faith Network’s Annual General Meeting for the first time. TDN was admitted into the government-funded IFN UK in the fall of 2014 along with the Pagan Federation.

TDN trustee and treasurer Neil Pitchford said, “I have the honour of being the first Druid to attend after I was chosen to be TDN’s first representative.”

The Inter Faith Network was founded in 1987 and serves to “to advance public knowledge and mutual understanding of the teachings, traditions and practices of the different faith communities in Britain and to promote good relations between people of different faiths in this country.” Originally, the IFN rejected both Pagan organizations but at last year’s annual meeting, the decision was reversed. This year’s meeting, taking place on Oct. 14, will be the first one since the groups were admitted.

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Starhawk announced that fans can still pre-order a limited edition copy of her upcoming book City of Refuge: The Sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing. Originally the limited edition copies were only available as a perk though her Kickstarter campaign. However, Starhawk has opened that offer up to pre-orders. Readers can also order signed copies.

City of Refuge picks up where The Fifth Sacred Thing left off. As noted on her site, the book “answers the timely question: how do we build a new world when people are broken by the old?” Starhawk is self-publishing the book supported by her Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $80,000. The book’s cover art, created by Jessica Perlstein, is now complete along with editing and other final details. Starhawk said that she expects the first group of books to be shipped in Dec. 2015.

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uri_logo_star1-250_250The Parliament of the World Religions (PWR) is now only three days away. Many of our organizations, as well as individual Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists, are currently packing up and beginning the trip to Salt Lake City, Utah. Already on the ground and in the city is Wiccan Priest and longtime Covenant of the Goddess member Don Frew, who is attending a lesser known interfaith function – the United Religions Initiative’s Global Council meeting.

The United Religions Initiative (URI) is a completely separate organization from PWR. URI’s purpose is to “promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.” This year, the organization decided to hold its annual Council meeting over the five days leading up to the Parliament, as many of their own members were already scheduled to be in Salt Lake City.

Frew, who is serving on the Council for a fourth term, has said that the meeting is moving along well and has been productive. Frew said that he will publish a full report on both CoG’s Interfaith blog. However, you may have to wait a bit for that report, because just as the URI meeting wraps up, the Parliament gets underway.

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IPD

Today, in some parts of the U.S., locals are celebrating Indigenous People’s Day. Long heralded as Columbus Day, this second Monday in October is now slowly transitioning to something entirely new. Columbus Day, as a national recognized holiday, has been a source of deep contention and intense debate for a very long time. As outlined in the linked Washington Post article, “Activists described the change as the first step in a larger effort to reclaim a more accurate telling of history.” The celebration of Columbus day “ignores a violent past that led to hundreds of years of disease, colonial rule and genocidal extermination.”

The push to change the holiday began to gain ground in 1990 and momentum is now quickly gaining. The Columbus holiday is slowly being abandoned throughout various regions of the country with the hopes of its eventual elimination entirely at the national level. The Associated Press reported that this year at least 9 different cities are now officially marking this second Monday as Indigenous People’s Day and others are looking to follow that trend. Current cities listed include St. Paul, Seattle, Portland, Albuquerque; Olympia, Washington, and Minneapolis.

In Other News:

  • The deadline is fast approaching on the Pagan Women of Color Media Project. This project, launched in August by Michigan resident Mistress Belladonna, seeks to celebrate Pagan women of color. She is collecting “images of real women of Pagan faiths so that other women who find themselves on these paths can look and say, ‘Hey, there is someone like me.’ ” The images will eventually be published in a book form. The deadline is Nov. 7. More information is available on the site.
  • Storm Faerywolf has announced the publication of his first book through Llewellyn. In a blog post, he said, “I’m pleased to be able to share with you all the beginnings of the manifestations of one of my long-term goals. I have wanted to publish a book about my take on Faery tradition for many years and that is finally about to happen.” The book is temporarily titled “Betwixt and Between: Exploring the Faery Tradition of Witchcraft” and will explore the BlueRose tradition. Storm did not provide a release date but said that he’d post updates on the blog.
  • And, in other publishing news, Foremothers’ of the of the Women’s Spirituality Movement: Elders and Visionaries will be released on Nov. 1. It is an anthology edited by Miriam Robbins Dexter and Vicki Noble.
  • It’s that time of the year again: Witches Balls, public Samhain rituals and, of course, the Spiral Dance. This year marks the 36th annual Reclaiming Spiral Dance. The traditional event is a ritual to “to honor [the] beloved dead and to dance the spiral of rebirth.” It is also Reclaiming’s biggest fundraiser. Organizers write, “We support our community by coming together as a community in this dance.” They welcome everyone to the Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco Oct. 31 at 6 pm. Tickets can be purchased on line.
  • Don’t forget! The Wild Hunt will be live tweeting from the Parliament throughout the weekend, Thursday Oct 15 to Monday, Oct 19. We will be using the hashtag #PagansPWR. Follow us @thewildhunt

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That’s it for now. Have a great day! And, don’t forget to support the Wild Hunt.

 

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.