Posts tagged ‘anthropology’

Society for Disability Studies and Karen Nakamura

Interesting- account of anthropologist Karen Nakamura’s studies of Deaf/deaf and schizophrenic communities in Japan. Wonder if there’s anything relevant to disability issues in Shinto or Zen Buddhism?

Mad Trans Dreams

I spent the last four days at the Society for Disability Studies conference (SDS). This conference has a lot of serious problems, including high financial cost, plenty of jargon, and ongoing racism. It’s also amazing in some ways, including great people, better accessibility than any other academic conference I have attended, more undergraduate presentations than any other academic conference I have attended, and fantastic conversations. I decided to go mostly because it would give me a chance to hear presentations by people whose work I admire. One of those people is Karen Nakamura.

I first heard Dr. Nakamura speak at a queer disability symposium at NYU a few years ago. I was so excited about her work that I rushed out to buy her most recent book—Disability of the Soul: An Ethnography of Schizophrenia and Mental Illness in Contemporary Japan. In Disability of the Soul, and the accompanying short films, she shared some…

View original post 1,083 more words

June 19, 2015 at 3:24 am Leave a comment

Shamanism Part 2: Is Cultural “Neutrality” Possible?

One of my questions for thought and discussion in my last post was-

“Is a culturally neutral shamanism- or any spiritual practice possible? Why or why not?”

Most of my questions don’t really have “right or wrong” answers, because they are designed to make you think, question your assumptions and work on developing your spiritual path. I admit this one however, was a bit of a “trick question” intended to test what assumptions you might have of cultural neutrality.

From a social science standpoint it’s impossible to be “culturally neutral” or truly “generic”. I often see American Pagans attempting to do this, especially within a particular region- this is “generically North American Indian” or “generically Asian”. The results are often very watered down, ineffective and often offensive and mis-representative of hundreds of distinct ethnic and regional cultures, all in one ritual or book! The pan-Indian ritual will be Disney’s Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves,  and the pan-Asian ritual in the next room ends up looking like a cheap hippie version of this Katy Perry music video.

Basically, to be “culturally neutral/generic” you need to stop being human. Humans, are by definition social animals and need each other for our physical survival and mental sanity. Culture is by definition, shared and co-created over a long period of time. If you are still thinking “But I don’t have a culture!” I suggest you read this article- Body Ritual among the Nacirema and that might help you to view things differently!

I know some of my co-religionists were wondering about my choice to include shamanism in my Approaching Paganism series. Most of them would simply state “shamanism is practiced in some Central Asian cultures, and if you’re from outside of that context, you just shouldn’t use the word”. I understand and empathize with that position, but the fact is I am explaining modern Neo-Paganism in its many varieties as it is, rather than as I would like it to be. I might have an easier time influencing people who are totally new to Paganism(s) and shamanism in any form, but by simply accusing people of cultural appropriation, I’d be shutting down any potential conversations with Western/non-indigenous people who have been following a neo-shamanic path for years. Being an American who gets politically and socially classed as “white”, I have a lot of opportunities to challenge racism and cultural insensitivity from people with similar backgrounds. But I have to find the best way to use those opportunities to calmly invite people to learn more and challenge their assumptions and sense of entitlement, rather than just shutting down conversations by playing “I’m a Better Ally Than You!” trump cards. And I realize, that I in turn always have more to learn about these issues myself!

It also seems a bit hypocritical to me to judge people too harshly about this, since after all I call myself a Druid. A lot of people in broader Neo-Pagan-dom would consider that “fair game” simply because it’s of European origin, but it’s more complicated than that. There are living Celtic cultures, and while they don’t have a continuous unbroken tradition of druids, they still have opinions about people who call themselves “Druids” particularly when they come from English or Anglo-American cultural backgrounds and think they are entitled to grab anything pretty and shiny with knotwork or tartan patterns and call it “Celtic” without bothering to learn anything more about distinctions between Celtic cultures, languages and their histories of suppression and erasure.

June 3, 2015 at 8:06 pm 2 comments

Shamanism- Part 1: Origins, Spread of Use of the Term

Going back to the Pagan Pride definition of Paganism(s) that I use in my first Approaching Paganism post- one component is-

Practicing religion or spirituality based upon shamanism, shamanic, or magickal practices

We’ve already covered magic, but what’s shamanism? Well, that is a complex and rather controversial question!

Basically, a shaman is a spiritual specialist within the context of a hunter-gatherer culture- especially Central Asian, Mongolian or Siberian, who engages in altered states of consciousness (or trance) to make contact with the spirit world for purposes of healing, discovering information, or facilitating transitions between life and death.

When I first entered the Neo-Pagan scene in the Twin Cities area, it took me several years of exploring and research before I found out that shamanism had nothing to do with North American Indians, in spite of how people often presented it to me. I encounter people who say things like: “Hi, I’m Starry Owl, I follow a Cherokee shamanic path, and like my name, my totem animal is the Owl.” If “Starry Owl” was hanging out with actual traditional Cherokees, she would probably get some strange and possibly offended looks (or maybe just a lot of eye-rolling…) The word shaman comes from the Evenki language in North Asia, and came to be used by missionaries and later anthropologists for spiritual practitioners of other neighboring peoples, and eventually more globally for indigenous peoples around the world. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade’s book- Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, greatly popularized the broader use of shamanism in anthroplogy, even if that was not his intent!

Michael Harner, a New Age author later wrote Way of the Shaman, beginning the Core Shamanism movement in wealthy, industrialized countries. He claimed that shamanism could be boiled down to certain essential core traits, that could be used as a framework to create a culturally neutral shamanism so it could be adapted by Westerners without ripping off any one indigenous culture. He based his “generic shamanism” on a combination of Siberian shamanism as described by Eliade, with spiritual techniques and cosmology from the Jivaro people of the Amazon. Harner kept making money by writing books, and running workshops marketed towards mostly white middle/upper class Americans and Europeans. Many indigenous activists, traditional spiritual practitioners as well as anthropologists and other scholars (indigenous or not) have accused Harner of cultural appropriation, that is taking practices and ideas from indigenous cultures and exploiting them for personal gain and profit. Harner has claimed that he has in fact, helped indigenous people who have lost parts of their shamanic practices with his Foundation For Shamanic Studies.

Some Key Differences Between Classical Shamanism & Neo-Shamanism

From here on out, I’m going refer to Evenk, Tungus, and other closely related Siberian spirit-work as classical shamanism, and some Western New Age or Neo-Pagan ecstatic/visionary spiritual practices (including but not limited to Core Shamanism) as neo-shamanism.

Being a Shaman is a Calling- Not Generally a Choice

Sometimes there are particular “signs” that a child- often at puberty, sometimes at a younger age, may have certain abilities or has been chosen by spirits for a particular role. The child (with parents’ approval) will then commonly be singled out for special training by an older shaman. In many cultures, the shaman-in-training will also learn general skills that everyone else in the community learns, as they will for the most part be making their living as a farmer, herder, hunter, craftsperson etc. In some cases, in larger communities, a shaman may be entirely supported by the community and devote themselves mostly to spiritual pursuits. Sometimes this also happens as a result of cultural change, and interest from outsiders in shamanic practices, (spiritual tourism) which can have mixed effects on the culture. A shaman that has a more liminal role, at the edge of society- revered and respected, yet also feared and perhaps only called upon in times of great need. Sometimes this fear is added to due to influence from other religions and cultures.

Shamans Serve a Specific Community

Classical shamans serve their particular ethnic and geographic culture. They do not generally perform ceremonies or other spiritual duties for people outside of that community. As mentioned before, this has changed in some places due to pressure from Western spiritual tourists. Neo-shamans typically follow a solitary path for emotional, spiritual and psychological self-fulfillment (sometimes shamanic practices are regarded as being therapeutic) and they usually don’t serve a broader community, unless it’s to teach neo-shamanism to other people in workshops, write books, etc.

Shamanism is Often Seen as a Difficult Path, Not a Fun Thing to Dabble In

Various cultures have the concept of shaman-sickness, the idea that various physical and mental symptoms have a spiritual cause indicating a shamanic calling, and a trans-formative process that a person must accept exists in multiple cultures. This is a lot like the ordeal of initiation I discussed earlier in my post on mystery traditions, and indeed mystery traditions may have shamanic roots. This of course makes things messy quickly when a culture with these concepts is in contact with Western medicine, and doctors see the “patient” as having physical problems that need treatment, while their family members view it as a spiritual matter.

Gender and Traditional Shamanic Roles 

In classical Siberian shamanism, the role is typically performed by men. In other cultures, the shaman may typically be a woman, or can be of either sex. Sometimes a person who is regarded as neither man nor woman- or who is biologically male but *socially and spiritually* considered a woman, has a shamanic role. In neo-shamanism, while perhaps stereotypically seen as slightly more masculine, people of any gender are typically accepted as being able to be shamans.

Being Descriptive, not Prescriptive

I am a social scientist of sorts (political science to be precise) so I tend to try to at least initially describe social phenomena in such a way that is descriptive rather than prescriptive. As in “this is what some people do, what they call themselves, some possible reasons reasons and motivations for why they do it” rather than initially labeling that behavior as good or bad. As you can see here, what was once a culturally specific term has become more widespread and imprecise in meaning, which has the potential to spread misinformation about various cultures and traditional religion, and sometimes distortion and commercialization in cultures that are often struggling for their very survival. To be frank, New Age and Neo-Pagans are probably going to keep calling themselves shamans in both ignorance and knowledge of the origins of the word, especially since they are usually far removed geographically and culturally from people who have a more direct claim on the term. Flatly condemning people for doing that will probably not change their minds. Instead, I suggest we work on changing the culture of “Anyone who reads a book/takes a workshop is Now a Shaman!” (Though we can certainly add Witch, Druid, etc. to that list!) More on that in Part 2.

Questions for Thought/Discussion:

Where did you first hear of the term shamanism? How was it defined and presented to you?

Is a culturally neutral shamanism- or any spiritual practice possible? Why or why not?

Is the spread of interest in shamanism in wealthy, industrialized countries helpful or harmful to people in those countries, as well as indigenous cultures around the world? Can it be both?

What influence do New Age/Neo-Pagan publishing, workshops, classes, festivals and conferences, and spiritual tourism (i.e. to sacred sites, gurus, shamans etc) have on your spiritual development?

June 2, 2015 at 12:23 am 3 comments

Gaining a Global Perspective

I’m excited to see how international my readership has become. While more than half of folks who view my blog are located in the U.S. (whether that means they live there or are travelling), it’s also fun to see where else my readers are located I recall seeing: Argentina, Jamaica, United Kingdom, Brazil, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Japan, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, the Faeroe Islands. I myself follow blogs written by people in Canada, Portugal, New Zealand, the Philipines, Kuwait, Israel, France, Germany, Britain, Australia…not sure where else!

I also keep an eye on the search terms that lead people to my blog- some I’ve noticed recently: mental illness and paganism, “I’m wiccan but mentally ill, mental health prayer wiccan, pagan flower communion, perennial philosophy unitarian, jack in the box origins, trickster, pop culture paganism. I do have plans to write more on mental health & spirituality- when I first started writing on the topic, I could find very little about Paganism specifically, let alone any one Pagan path or any mental health conditions beyond depression and anxiety. I’m glad to see more people writing on the topic, though of course there can be mixed results sometimes when people start giving amateur advice! More on that later.

Well I was thinking about to have a truly global perspective as a blogger. It’s tricky enough keeping a multicultural view just within the United States that includes all the regional variations. I’ve also only had the opportunity to travel to Canada & Mexico- far more than many have- but then again just the traveling I’ve done within the country is far more than some do as well. The awkward part is that growing up, we are taught very little about world history and other cultures. Even what we learn of U.S. history tends to be limited to A Series of Wars, Conquest and Cool Stuff Done by White Guys, with heavy emphasis on memorizing dates of battles. What we learn about Europe is mostly limited to Britain, France and Germany (mostly military related) and aside from the Italian Renaissance and the Spanish empire, the historically Catholic nations of Europe are ignored, and Eastern Europe is a shadowy realm of feudalism and communism. Africa is That Country That Has Starving Children that Angelina Jolie sometimes adopts, Asia (China & Japan) is Exotic & That Place That Has All Those Smart Kids that Dumb American Kids Need to Work Harder to Compete With and South America is Where The Drugs Come From.

So yeah, you get it we’re ignorant. You already knew that, I’m sure! The tricky thing is, when the rest of the world knows more about your culture than you know about everyone else’s- but at the same time which parts can you assume they know and which can’t you? So I try not to- I try to remember to explain origins of distinctly American holidays and customs. But there are other differences I have to remind myself of, especially since I write about topics that tend to be “off the beaten track”- that is when I look up info about a particular country, I’ll have to do more digging to find out how say, autism, bisexuality or magic are viewed there, and if these concepts even exist in their languages! One thing that does give me an advantage, is I live in an area with many immigrants- refugees in particular from Southeast Asia, Eastern Africa and many other places. Having these folks as neighbors, co-workers, classmates and friends has challenged my “Of Course Everyone Does That” style assumptions, as I’ve ended up explaining “Why Do Americans Say/Do X Thing?!!” to them, and they’ve done the same about their own customs and habits.

May 27, 2015 at 3:39 am 3 comments

Culture-Based Religions

Culture-based religions are often otherwise called ethnic, tribal or indigenous religions- all those terms have more limited connotations, hence why I came up with a more general one.  The label of “folk religion” is also sometimes thrown in with these by anthropologists, though that is a little different, so I’ll treat that separately. Individuals or groups who practice culture-based religions may or may not identify with the word Pagan, especially if they belong to a (more or less) continuous living tradition.

A culture-based religion can be contrasted with a universalist religion– which typically has a prophet, or series of prophets and claims to have a moral code & message for all of humanity- such as  Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai’ism. Strictly speaking, we can’t really divide all religions perfectly into either category- for one, universalist religions are of course, influenced by the cultures from which they originate, though they tend to adapt themselves- and often syncretize (combine) with culture-based religions. For example, Shinto in Japan is quite seamlessly syncretized with Buddhism, so much so that Japanese people often don’t label themselves as being Buddhist or Shinto(ist). They just *do* Buddhist and Shinto-related practices.

That there is the clincher. The religion is an inseparable part of the culture- to the point where if there is a word for the religion, it’s often one invented in response to foreign missionaries- frequently with a meaning like “The Kami Way” (in the case of Shinto) or Old Custom (Forn Sidr- Danish) “traditions of our people” and so forth. Just as the word people call themselves in their own language simply means “People”, “People of the Mountain/River” etc.

To join a culture-based religion, one typically needs to be ritually adopted into the culture, if possible, or otherwise immerse themselves as they can into the culture. I have seen some people divide culture-based religions into “closed” and “open” traditions- and while that does help people understand that they can’t join anything they want to, I believe it’s an oversimplification. We’re not talking about joining or converting to any specific religion at this point, we are merely exploring and learning.

When newcomers enter the Pagan community, they often ask for suggestions on which tradition or pantheon they might start out with exploring. In the United States, Canada, Australia and other multicultural colonized countries, people are often told “Start with the traditions of your ancestors”. After a lot of observing of other folks journeys as well as my own, I actually recommend against that advice. Why? Because culture is more important than ancestry. Honoring ones’ ancestral roots is certainly an important part of many traditions, it’s not that I’m discouraging. But we are often very disconnected from the cultures of our ancestors. If it is our calling we can certainly make the effort to re-connect. But to begin with- I would look again at those questions I asked in my previous post- what aspects of culture were you raised with? What other cultures are you familiar with?

For myself- I was raised by college-educated liberal parents, multiple generations removed from my mixed British Isles ancestry- so fairly conventional mainline Protestant American culture, with its various holidays (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Independence Day) I was always interested in learning the origins of holiday customs, and read up on all of them, as well as any fairy tales and mythology books I could get my paws on. I came to identify more with my Irish heritage, and have been studying the language, history and culture, Druidry and Celtic Reconstructionism. However, I have to admit that this has been a somewhat artificial process- all a choice on my part. I wasn’t raised with much in the way of Irish culture, other than with an awareness of being Irish, some knowledge of history of the Potato Famine, “No Irish Need Apply” signs and so forth. Lately, I’ve been pondering more about how to incorporate my mixed cultural influences- I don’t mean so much by ancestry, but more by environment. I talk with Druids from across the pond, in Britain and there are various things that strike me about our cultural differences- a lot them simply being- who the heck would I be, even as a “white” culturally Protestant American, without influences of Eastern European Jewish, African-American and many other cultures? I don’t belong to any those cultures, but I carry pieces of them with me.

What is culture? It’s all the stuff you take for granted. This is the way we do things of course! Any other way would be weird or rude or just “not feel right”! Most of it is less visible than all the things we point to when we’re trying to be multicultural (holidays, food, music).

May 16, 2015 at 8:36 am 6 comments

What is Bioregional Animism?

Last post I mentioned bioregional animism. What the heck is that you might ask? Well first off-

Animism– belief or philosophy that the world is full of spirits- this may or may not mean that *everything* has a spirit- but at least it typically includes living things, and often rocks and other natural features. It may also include human-made objects, particularly ones that have a lot of significance and history attached to them.

Now to unpack some baggage attached to this label- the term animism has its origins in anthropology, in older and Western-centric view that more “primitive” cultures first had animism and totemism, before developing polytheism, henotheism, monotheism and then (depending on the person interpreting all this) atheism. Some people reject the use of “animism” for this reason. However, with the rising influence of ecological thought, some people have been developing a philosophy of New Animism, that takes this idea of many spirits seriously and has more respect for indigenous worldviews and their regard for “non-human persons”. I would caution that I have encountered some attitudes on new animist websites that seem to have a Noble Savage or Michael Harner-style “Core Shamanism” influences*. We definitely need to be wary of those ideas!

Bioregionalism– a bioregion is an ecologically & geographically defined area that is smaller than an ecozone but larger than an ecoregion and an ecosystem. It is defined by watershed, soil and terrain characteristics. Bioregionalism is an ecological, political and cultural philosophy that considers the role of bioregions as central to making decisions in the best interests of the inhabitants (human & non-human) and the land. Bioregions cross state/provincial and national boundaries, so they can require international cooperation. In the United States & Canada, the bioregion that has developed the strongest identity- even with its own flag and independence movement- is Cascadia, in the Pacific Northwest.

Now for these various ecological divisions- I’ll start with the biggest, then work my way down to the smallest. There are varying systems used by different governmental and non-profit ecological organizations, so I will consult several.

On this website– Earth is divided into 6 Bio-Kingdoms, 35 Bio-regions, and 156 bio-provinces

Eco-zones– a different system based on plate tectonics

What type of biome do you live in? The same biome can be found in many different bioregions, depending on climate, latitude, soil types etc. For example- desert, forest, tundra though they get more specific than that.

Eco-zones & Eco-regions in Canada

Eco-regions of North America– Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wikipedia

Eco-regions in Minnesota

*A good critique of Core Shamanism by Lupa, a bioregional animist can be found here

April 9, 2015 at 1:56 am 1 comment

A is for Anthropology & Sociology

A couple days ago Dan & I visited the Minnesota Science Museum for their exhibit on the Maya. I felt that they did a great job, there were many original artifacts, as well as reproductions, and videos discussing different aspects of Maya civilization both ancient and modern culture. This reminded me of the importance of studying anthropology as a modern Pagan. With the tools of anthropology we can look at religions like the Maya that have been suppressed by Christianity, syncretized and later revived as well as uninterrupted traditions, like Hinduism and Shinto to give us an idea of how polytheistic/animistic traditions can be practiced in a modern context.

In college I did not take any anthropology classes, but I did study sociology. Anthropology is the study of human beings and their cultural development, sociology is the study of human society. Basically the two disciplines are coming from different directions, but sometimes study the same subjects.  Sociology started out as a way of attempting to understand social changes caused by urbanization and industrialization in the 19th century. Anthropology from what I understand, in part came from British and other Europeans trying to understand pre-industrial cultures that they were colonizing. Indigenous people were often exploited and misrepresented for the promotion of academic careers, and their cultures were harmed. Because of that there is a lot of suspicion from Native peoples toward anthropologists. Modern anthropology has moved beyond its colonial past, but it still has many Western biases. Those are important things to keep in mind.

So here’s my idea for Pagan Blog Project 2014: For at least half the letters I will be blogging about different concepts & ideas from anthropology and sociology that I think would be useful to Western culture-based Neo-Pagans, Polytheists and others in understanding our own religions & subcultures, and in building understanding with indigenous (non-European) traditions.

 

January 4, 2014 at 1:59 am 1 comment

Older Posts


Calendar

April 2020
M T W T F S S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930  

Posts by Month

Posts by Category