Editor’s note: This article is from the award-winning Echo magazine of the Communication Department
With the world on lockdown in March 2020, people found themselves with a seemingly endless supply of free time. Some turned to baking bread or knitting, some started exercising daily, and others turned to spirituality.
Malia Valentine, whose grandmother was from the Unangan tribe of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, says the pandemic has also led people to seek healing through ancestral roots.
“I think building a relationship with yourself and your own ancestors, and the story of your own ancestors can really bring a lot of healing, and, I think, a sense of belonging which is maybe sought after looking at the culture of others,” says Valentin.
Valentine said many Americans no longer have a strong connection to their own ancestors and cultural backgrounds. As a result, some have turned to cultures that are not their own.
Using white sage to cleanse a room or a person is one such popular practice among the spiritual community that originated from the indigenous communities. It is used in purification, an indigenous practice in which sacred herbs are burned for a ritual. Now, due to overharvesting of the plant, indigenous peoples and conservationists have warned that white sage could be in danger of extinction.
Chakras, yoga, spirit animals, and dreamcatchers have also been repurposed and mass-marketed to the general public, ignoring the initial cultures from which they originated.
“It’s so much easier to see that sage plant, or that song, or that ceremony as just one object, some sort of isolated object that exists on its own, ready to be consumed,” Valentine says. “Instead of seeing it as its own entity, with its own deep, deep, deep stories, and its own vast network of relationships.”
Valentine meets with Indigenous communities across the country, helping them protect their lands and sacred sites; currently, she works with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of Northern California.
While doing this work, Valentine says, she saw firsthand the damaging effects of cultural appropriation.
“There’s this pretty strong sense of land entitlement on the mountain, and in the spring, and even when the Winnemem Wintu are there, and they’re asking, ‘Please respect these sacred places.’ People are really adamant,” Valentine says. “The people I’ve mostly interacted with are white, or at least white-looking, and still really have a right to be there.”
Valentine says she has seen people become aggressive when asked to leave a sacred site, which is difficult for the tribes to deal with. People sometimes view aspects of Indigenous culture such as white sage or spirit animals as isolated objects, rather than honoring the historical context and meaning behind them, she says.
Samantha Andersen, a 23-year-old pagan witch from Huntley, Illinois, began exploring spirituality when she saw her sister using tarot cards. Tarot cards are used for divination, originating in 14th century Europe. They were used for board games until around the end of the 16th century when people started using them to predict the future.
Now, there are several types of tarot cards. The practice is open, which means that anyone who wishes can learn to read tarot. But not all practices are welcome for all, and more and more people are borrowing from cultures that are not their own.
“People sometimes take certain aspects of certain practices and combine them all into one,” Andersen says. “And I think that’s where some of the problems come from. People take little practices that they think are really interesting or very popular, and they’ll kind of use them without really knowing where it came from, or what it actually means.
Lesley Calvillo, co-founder and president of Call of the Cauldron, a witch club at Columbia College Chicago, says the club hosts sessions dedicated to stopping the cultural appropriation of witchcraft. She says many of their members are younger and take on a culture for lack of knowledge.
“It’s a great thing, especially with white sage, or the term black magic, or different things like that,” says Calvillo, who has been practicing witchcraft for three years. “It’s very widespread, and few people realize it’s offensive, or an appropriation. Again, I wish people would do more research. But also, we need to have more open conversations about it.
Alex Kropp, a 20-year-old Chicago witch, says much of modern spirituality is derived and adapted from cultural practices, but it’s important to know when practices can be shared and when they’ve been stolen. Kropp says research is the best way to find out which practices are open and which practices are closed. Cross-checking with several sources is essential.
If people want to learn more about indigenous tribes and their work, says Valentine, they must first build relationships with other communities by helping them and learning from them. Going in with an open mind to really learn and help can help make those connections and help people find the healing they need, she says.
You can read the full Echo issue 2022as well as previous issues, on our website.