Sweat lodges, vision fasts, smudging with herbs: whose practices are these?

SmokeAs I continue to tell you the story of the sacred time in the sweat lodge, I am troubled by a recurring theme that has arisen over the years, about cultural appropriation, or misappropriation. I just came across this article from 1993 in the New York Times, Spiritual Seekers Borrow Indians’ Ways.

Clearly, this has been an issue for much longer than 16 years. Tibetan Buddhism borrowed from the earlier nature-based tradition called Bon, appropriating symbolism and ritual practices from Tibetan peoples into this branch of Buddhism. Early Christianity appropriated pagan symbols and ritual into Christian practices. Throughout history, conquerors have incorporated spiritual and cultural elements from the people they conquer. It is a method that helps to overcome the conquered people, and it is also a form of theft. And, it is part of the mysterious process of combining different groups of people together into something new. This happens also through the intermarriage and mixing of blood of the two peoples.

Then there is the question of reincarnation! When I was learning yoga, I had the definite feeling that I was doing something very familiar, and I knew that I must have lived in India in a previous life and practiced yoga then. If so, as a Caucasion woman born in Canada, of German Mennonite parentage, is it cultural misappropriation to teach yoga to others? Or do I have a legitimate claim to this teaching, through my own past life knowledge?! This is a delightful idea to contemplate, in part because I know how ridiculous it will seem to some readers, for numerous reasons.

I have a similar feeling of homecoming when I sit in circle on the earth, and the sage bowl is passed around to purify each person in the circle. I feel I have landed. My heart opens to the earth and the people in the circle, but also to something even bigger. Perhaps it is to a stream of history, people, and events that have gone before. Perhaps it is to the beloved mystery that is the oneness of the universe that we live in. Something about this sacred practice of purifying with sage brings a feeling of lightness and connection into my soul.

When I studied ecopsychology at Naropa University, we had a short course on cultural misappropriation, to make us aware of this danger. We were encouraged to study our own family and culture’s ancient traditions. I know that for me, with German Mennonite heritage on both sides, I have been influenced by this flavour of the sacred. The strongest value I am aware of, the defining characteristic of the Mennonites, is the practice of non-violence. The refusal to fight in wars. And stories about how my ancestors have followed or failed to follow this practice were told to me as a child. It is one of the strongest values I hold today, yet the way that I really learned to practice it was through the practice of ahimsa or non-harming that I was exposed to when I attended a Buddhist Vipassana meditation retreat and when I studied to be a yoga teacher!

I personally cannot identify as a Christian, whether Mennonite or otherwise. Too much harm has been done in the name of Christianity. Too many wars have been fought, and people and cultures destroyed by the followers of this religion. The idea that a single book contains all that is true, which is used as a weapon of hatred and suppression against people who are different (women, people of colour, lesbians and gays), is crazy! So when enjoined to look at my own family and culture’s traditions, at first I come up against a block. But if I look a little further, the picture opens up. If I look at my extended family, which includes relatives by marriage, I find we are German Canadian, Chinese Canadian, African Canadian, Italian Canadian, Austrian Canadian, and First Nations. I have American relatives too. And these are just the connections that I know about. The deeper truth is of a global connection and interconnection.

And I believe this is also true of earth-based practices. Before the advent of the monotheistic religions of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, which are only a few thousand years old—much younger than the lifetime of humanity—people lived on the land and practiced sacred rites that fostered connection to each other and the land. Sitting in circle. Sitting on the earth. Fasting alone in the wilderness. Smudging with herbs (think of the use of incense in Catholic rituals if you doubt what I am saying about appropriating the practices of earlier sacred rituals). Building stone circles. All peoples in all lands have done these things. It is in our DNA as people on this planet to resonate with these ancient ways. These ways belong to all of us.

That is one part of the picture. Another part is that the sweat lodge ceremony Smoke 2that I will be writing about comes from the First Nations and Native American people of this continent. Some of the words are from the language of the Lakota people. Aho matakwe-asin! All my relations! It opens my heart to hear these words, and to say them.

The ways and values of the people who are still close to the land are ways we all must learn, if we are going to stop the destruction of the earth in time to make continued life on earth possible for the species that remain. May it be so.

This doesn’t mean everyone should go to a sweat lodge, or on a vision fast. But it does mean everyone needs to understand that we are interconnected, with each other and with the earth. We are interdependent. I just came across information about a workshop that helps modern, “scientifically-minded” people to understand this! Originally developed for the World Wildlife Fund, this workshop is unlike any other you may have experienced. In a few short hours, you will develop a deep appreciation of the complex links between diverse global issues such as population, wealth, consumption, pollution, climate change, natural resources, species extinction, and even war. More importantly, you will learn what we can do as individuals and as a society to build a truly sustainable future. The May 21 evening workshop is called Systems Thinking… About Our World. Check it out!

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