Decolonization and Pagan Relationship with the World

This might get a bit complicated but I want to write a bit about the concept of decolonisation and how this should be part of how we are as pagans.

Luckily for me, somebody else has expressed this in a much better way than I could ever come up with so I’m asking you first of all to listen to this conversation with Dr Amba J. Sepie, who brings this up in a very understandable and absolutely bang-on-target way.

I don’t expect anyone to just listen to this just because I have told them to, so I’ll try with quotes and paraphrases to explain its relevance to the ethos around The British Druid Order, and how this removes the BDO from the fringes of western neo-paganism and places it within a wider , global understanding of the world and our human place within it from an indigenous (and essential) understanding.

This isn’t so much about selling the BDO to you, it is about the importance of exploring paganism, folklore, tradition, connection to the land, in whatever shape or form you can, and listening to, and learning from other cultures who have more recent experience of being disconnected. Not to copy them out of context, but to learn from them.

So, here is the conversation…

From the beginning, Dr Sepie brings up something that I have frequently found to be the case within druidry at least – Druidry has a more ‘mature’ population, and it is generally accepted that people have to go through their life and become who they are first, before coming to druidry (though hopefully that seems to be changing in recent times). And many of us (from personal experience) have had problems or difficult pasts that we have had to overcome, or are working on overcoming.

Those kind of openings that you might have connection to when you’re a child are sometimes difficult for people –  or it would seem not just for me –  difficult to actually be  integrated into life because we’re pushed in particular sorts of directions and I would also say that those kind of openings are enhanced by a lot of negative childhood experiences which I won’t go into, but they seem to be double-loaded. For example you’ll have psychics for instance who also struggle with dyslexia and alcoholism and have difficult childhoods, those sort of things seem to go together….Like the conditions of your life push you in that direction but then of course you have to take time out to deal with the conditions of your life in order to actually align with what might have been highlighted for you in childhood and what might actually prove to be the reason for your survival in difficult circumstances…

…you know one might say that you’ve got to kind of take the time to be a match for what it is that you really feel compelled to do and also have the confidence to say “well you know, I can actually be a weird adult,  and I can actually pursue this and I can make a life from it and I can study it and use it for something …”

During the conversation, Dr Sepie defines colonization :

….colonialism is a particular process, which I’m sure we’re all somewhat familiar with, that has about a 500 year history, and it’s a process of actually dis-embedding people from place in some very violent ways, that has landed on particular group of people. Now colonialism in my way of thinking,  is the last part,  or the most recent part of what I consider a very, very long-term process of colonization which to some degree affects everybody. Now it’s important to make the distinction because the two terms quite often get confused with one another and so you can’t really talk about decolonization without first making that distinction ….

Colonisation has a very long history,  and that history involves systematically dis-embedding people from places and traditions over a long period of time,  so that the process itself becomes forgotten.  So we really end up in a state of amnesia.

Now,  the link here to colonial processes is important because my contention is that indigenous people have a living memory of this process. They remember in broad terms what happened and how it was done, and and have tried to hold on to some of what was attempted to be eradicated. So there’s an understanding, and most,  if not all cases have an understanding of what that experience of loss involves.

Now the difference between that and what westernised people’s have,  is that most westernised  people’s tend to have absolutely no idea that there might be another way of functioning. There might be hints of it, we might feel like…”oh there’s something not quite right…” but the full weight of what has been lost over a long period of time,  through very similar processes to what was experienced with colonialism, is really outside of memory and it’s really it’s very difficult to suggest that at one point everyone’s ancestors were living emplaced in deep relationship with particular places, with other species and with each other in an entirely different manner.

But I mean when you think about it it’s completely logical because obviously we didn’t always live like this and we’ve all clearly got ancestors and at some point whether by force or by choice, those ancestors became a part of this process which is now appears as normal, if dysfunctional – normal, so when I say I think an extremely deep decolonization is required, what I’m suggesting is that we’d look very closely at what we call westernised normality and we interrogate that for what is functional versus dysfunctional and that we look very closely at what aspects of that lean towards what I would call ‘blood thinking’,  so –  war, violence, destruction, self – interest above cooperation,  over and above what things in that might actually be repurposed to be sustainable – when I say sustainable I mean in the sense of sustaining healthy communities, sustaining human well-being, flourishing,  not being immediately destructive to the environment and the other species that surround us, so saying decolonize everything is really saying “let us look really closely at what these stories we’ve been talking about has left us with, and let’s reference and speak to those who have a memory of this process and can actually articulate what it is like to live properly as a human on the planet and say “Well, what do think? What do you think happened to us? And what shall we do about it?”

And what is really interesting is that since at least the 1970’s the elders from different indigenous traditions have really been saying the same thing,  saying ‘OK you western people have forgotten who you are, you’ve lost your circle, you’ve forgotten what it is to live well… this process that happened to us also happened to you, you just don’t remember it and you need to re-indigenize to place’

This doesn’t mean become indigenous in the sense that links politically to rights and resources and identity and colonialism, it means reconnect to particular places using the principles that have been preserved in traditional and indigenous ecological thinking. And that means relationship, respect,  reciprocity, reverence… the principles of redistribution,  sharing,  that means an understanding for what the human is, their intuitive capacities for raising people,  interacting with each other according to right relations, and really returning to what in North America and Canada are called original instructions.

And the conversation continues, that this process of decolonisation isn’t about getting rid of western culture, it seems as if this was always meant to have happened, it is about tweaking it and removing the dysfunctional parts, shifting the good parts, re purposing it all and rebuilding a new world… this is something that we’ve said before about why many of us are involved in the BDO, it’s not about making money, or selling courses, it’s because we think that what we have is valuable to the world, if more people thought in similar ways it has to be beneficial in some way.

As Dr Sepie puts it…

It’s important that we feel that we use the process to  switch on a level of empathy and a level of strong understanding of the fact that this is a shared human experience, and that your pain and my pain are the same,  in an ancestral way – I don’t mean in an immediate moment way – that you have to really feel it but then you have to say right I get it now –  what is the best use of the particular interests,  the creativity the talents, the passions or whatever that I or those who are around me who I am mentoring or teaching. What is a good use of those things and service to the future generations that are coming,  and how will I now take that understanding and push it forwards for the benefit of others, which is I think a really sort of deep non-altruistic version of service.

We actually are understanding that we’re in a sequence here of those that have come before us now,  and who’s coming next, and we’re not gonna see the end of this process in our lifetimes. We’re not going to see a world that is significantly better than the one that we have right now, but we can make one if we appreciate our continuity in terms of our human shared human experience.

And then there is discussion of ‘Sorry Business’ in Australia, which is linked to the misconceptions of apology (the sorry business of ‘sorry’ business) versus healing ritual. The comparison is made between current day people apologising for actions done by their ancestors, and the requirements of real Sorry Business for such a context (where the ancestors of the colonised and the colonisers sit down with one another and engage in collective grieving). The conversation brings up  the concept of ancestors, not as people from times long gone, but as people present within you and with you. By sitting and discussing, both parties bring their ancestors with them, and healing takes place for the past… but in western society saying sorry now only has a current context of admitting responsibility in a legal sense… This brings up concepts of ancestry and of responsibility, and that we too will one day be ancestors, and so will our grandchildren.

The concept of ancestry that makes sorry business possible isn’t accessible from a colonised mindset…

…the idea of the ancestors being present with you,  here and now,  in you, and the future generations, as your individuality kind of falls apart and that cosmology,  it’s almost inconceivable to transmit that understanding, the necessity to de-colonise it to a colonised – in this case a politician – to actually say no, this is actually not about simple crimes against particular people in history,  this is not the point.

It might look like the point as you say from a legal perspective, but it is far bigger than that and actually to try and comprehend that the moment that is being lived right now , say,  for sorry business to happen,  this moment that is being lived,  in that moment there is a mingling of the waters between the ancestors of the colonised and the ancestors of those people who have suffered genocides in Australia and yet the mingling of those waters raises the distinctness of those crimes.

Now if you don’t have a sense of ancestry as being important or as ancestry as being in the now or the creation time or dreaming being now, as well as the lives of all those who have gone before you and blood and in spirit then how do you even get close to that in any meaningful sort of sense?

….. other than and try really hard to push into perhaps education for those new ones that are coming into a different way of thinking about this, because ancestry is not family, it is bigger than that. Ancestry is not your genealogy or ancestry and that’s an inconceivable thing just to say, that sitting with this, sitting with us together requires  being present to it firstly, and to ask a calm strongly colonized and very fearful person like a politician that you mentioned to actually come emotionally to the party to sit with it to being that participated …. its just…

I feel this is important, for many of us have ancestors who have been colonisers/settlers  and have played a part in disconnecting/destroying indiginous people and cultures around the globe. We do need to acknowledge that and to to make amends and apologise for their actions, I feel we also need to go a step further than that, and remember our ancestors from times before then, or we can leave ourselves in a kind of limbo where we are stuck between other Peoples’ cultures and the colonising culture that we are stuck in today. We have been the colonisers, and need to remember that taking other cultures practices against their wishes, is still another way of colonising.

As well as the conversation, Gordon White has also hosted a 33 page article ‘More than Stories, More than Myths’ written by Dr Sepie, which is included in the shownotes on his podcast, the link for the download of the pdf file can be found by clicking this link 

How is this Article Relevant to Paganism?

Or specifically, how is it relevant to the BDO? … Why should you read it?

In a nutshell, what we are trying to do, within our ‘pagan bubble’ is not completely isolated from what other communities/populations are trying to do globally. We can continue within our own frameworks and focus, and also know that we are part of a bigger picture. It gives us a much bigger goal when we can see how we fit into a vast human jigsaw.

So again, I will try to illustrate the similarities between this and our pagan studies through quotes and paraphrasing.

Starting with why nearly all druid studies begin with bardistry, storytelling, and myths.

What we have now, at best, is written accounts of our native stories. These are frozen in time from when they were put onto paper, and need to be ‘worked with’, brought to life, brought up to date. Bardistry is not memorizing and repeating stories that no longer have relevance to us. The ones that have been retained through the past couple of thousand years, have, I believe, survived for a reason – our ancestors made sure that they were preserved and would survive longer than they would. It is up to us to pick them up again and engage with them.

(see previous blogs looking at Blodeuedd here and here)

Dr Sepie writes:

 

…for instance, re-telling, or allowing stories to be remade across individuals, time, and traditions. Re-telling is common practice within a range of indigenous storytelling traditions, and does not yield to the notion that stories have a ‘fixed’ or static form. This is a practice considered as antagonistic to the goal of early ethnographers and folklorists who have sought to ‘collect’ these stories or codify them in textual form….

…Translation into English has also had its difficulties, given that many languages do not possess the subject-object rules necessary for a direct transfer of meaning and, further, there many are concepts implied within traditional worldviews that do not have any equivalents in a ‘western’ conceptual lexicon. Determining what is ‘nature’ and what is ‘culture’, for example, cannot be ascertained when people do not subscribe to these categories.

Something that is also important, I feel, is that as druids/pagans/whatever, we should be part of the wider culture that we live in. It has become normalised that pagan organisations and groups have no opinion on social problems within our society. They have opinions as individuals, but not a collective pagan voice. This is something that the BDO has tried to change. It is my experience, as a pagan, that the further I get into paganism, the more it changes the way I see the world around me working, and there is no separation between what I see as a person, and what I see as a pagan. It is important IMO that we have living traditions, rather than hobbies that we indulge at the weekends and at festivals.

The Haudenosaunee, speaking to the United Nations in 1977 (Mohawk 1978), called this ‘West’ a culture with a ‘sickness’ that had emerged from certain civilizing processes over time, cutting the western people off from their ancient roots. They called for an urgent critical historical analysis of these processes and offered remedy as if an ‘elder looking into the affairs of a young child’ (ibid, p. 83). The Haudenosaunee identified continuity between the experiences of those afflicted by colonialism, and those who were colonized earlier, through essentially the same processes, but with a more serious and destructive result. “It is the people of the West, ultimately, who are the most oppressed and exploited. They are burdened by the weight of centuries of racism, sexism, and ignorance which has rendered their people insensitive to the true nature of their lives” (ibid, p. 91)

Also as pagans we place a lot of value on folk traditions and customs, we are generally interested in looking at our histories and researching family trees, and connection with particular places where we live, as well as making pilgrimages to more famous places that we feel drawn to at times. We do not have a ‘finished’ task in re-membering all this. Modern paganism is still relatively young, only a couple of generations old. Each of us as we work towards re-membering our past get us collectively a step closer to decolonisation and working towards healing the ills of our modern society…. the following quote also applies to us, if you think back not only to iron-age invasions, but the examples given also occurred on larger scales throughout our history, during the enclosure movement,  industrial revolution for example.

Whilst, as decolonization scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) has argued, colonialism is a remembered phenomenon, experienced since the Age of Exploration (and one that has made minorities of the indigenous people who were once sovereign in their lands), I posit that the colonization of the mind and body goes back further, into ancient ancestral places long abandoned by those who have since stretched across the world. Traditional and indigenous peoples possess a living memory of their colonization, a generally violent transition with tragic consequences, made even more potent by the thoroughness with which traditional ways of living were destroyed…

…Modern examples of colonialism in action are illustrative of how this works: note the focus on breaking the bonds of tradition, with place, and between elders and the younger generation. Families and communities are often physically displaced from their homes (to reserves, reservations, ghettos, or urban sectors), severing their kinship with place. A sector of the community can be employed in (or bound to) work away from home, compelling labor from husbands, fathers, and sons for mining, logging, and other industrial labor forces. Finally, child removal policies (such as in the Americas, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Greenland, and elsewhere), directly impact the ability of communities to pass on traditions through child rearing and education, with profound intergenerational effects.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and does not include assimilation by choice, or assimilation as a result of forced economic adaptation or acquiescence to political regimes…

…Colonization now continues through the global distribution of secularized westernized institutions and power structures which undermine and ultimately, replace, the cosmological foundations of non-western cultural complexes with a post-Christian, techno-capitalist, scientifically-privileged, and isolationist culture which has the proven capacity to re-orient both axiology and praxis over a number of generations. I argue that the core socio-ecological issues we face, as a species, are a by-product of this very long and complex process of colonizing people the world over with an anti-ecological, myopic, and dislocating philosophy, resulting in an artificial and unsustainable worldview that, nonetheless, appears coherent and familiar.

We also have a belief in ‘spirit’ – taken from the BDO FAQ page on our website, “We are animists, that is we see the world and everything in it as imbued with spirits who it is possible for us to connect, converse and commune with. These spirits manifest in earth, stone, water, fire, sky, clouds, rain, storm, sun, moon and stars, hills and valleys, rivers, streams and lakes, mountains, forests, trees, plants and animals. Some manifest as the Faery Folk, as our ancestors or as the old gods of our lands. We are Pagan, by which we mean that we accept the reality and validity of many gods. Because of this, we are inclusive and tolerant of other faiths.”

We, and others like us, have long been seen as ‘weirdos’  or a source of embarrassment within modern western society, but I see a parallel here within Dr Sepie’s work..

Knowledge can also be directly received, described as ‘spoken in your head’. In Australia, one of Deborah Rose’s Aboriginal teachers, Old Jimmy Manngaiyarri, explains how he knows which way to go. He says the earth ‘tells’ him. When Rose asks, “How does it tell you?”… [she]…. is left frustrated by this description, asking: “How do we learn the attention that would enable us to admit earth ‘words’ into our lives?”

The suggestion I want to make to her by way of response has been outlined already: recovering our instinct, our intuitions, and remembering what we are through displacing the veil of artificiality that has resulted from these lengthy processes of
westernization. A particular kind of intimacy with habitat and knowledge of how the human animal ‘works’, is modeled beautifully within these traditional and indigenous ways of being if we choose to pay attention to the instructions given in countless ethnographic accounts….

…What are permitted as legitimate topics of inquiry in an academic context can be heavily restricted, with the exception of those modes of scholarship which engage a degree of political correctness with regards to ‘cultural otherness’. Gillian Bennett (1987), a folklorist who studies afterlife beliefs, writes that: “No-one will tackle the subject because it is disreputable, and it remains disreputable because no one will tackle it” (p. 13). I have elsewhere called this racist, as the ‘magical gloss of cultural difference’ allows for just about any phenomenon in non-westernized contexts, whilst simultaneously banning the serious investigation of intuitive faculties ‘closer to home’, aligning these with religion, or even madness (Sepie 2016a)

 

Arola writes that there is simply no distinction in a Native American worldview between natural and supernatural, animate and not. Hallowell’s account did not necessarily mean the old man had spoken to a stone, just that he would not close off the possibility that such an interaction might teach him something. “If we approach the stone as an inanimate object in advance, assuming that it is nothing but a mute object that sits in front of us [ . . . ] we will never encounter a stone as anything more than such a mute object” (Arola 2011, p. 557). In this way of being, the same is true of mountains, rivers, and weather.

 

Wolff recounts a story from time spent in Sumatra (in an aptly titled chapter called Learning to Be Human Again) about a walk he takes with a man called Ahmeed, when they came upon a snake in some bamboo (ibid, pp. 144–70). Ahmeed stops and motions, be silent—no talking, stay still, quiet. A large snake crawling along the ground crosses their path, maybe fourteen or more feet in length, uncommon in size and on the ground instead of a tree. Wolff, curious as to how Ahmeed knew the snake was there, questions him at length. All he would respond with, given the absolute lack of any signal from the snake prior to the encounter, was that he knew. He had neither seen, nor heard it, but he knew.

The remainder of the chapter details how Wolff himself comes to learn how to pay attention, to find water, to hear the tell of a tiger (in Malay ‘rimau’) and to recognize himself as a human in-relation to the knowledge and voices of the larger ecological unit in which he comes to recognize his connection to the whole. Once Ahmeed realizes the transformation that has taken place, he asks Wolff:

“Do you turn off the seeing?” Yes, I told him, I had to [ . . . ] “Good,” he said [ . . . ] “You
are alone [ . . . ] It will be difficult for you to see because you do not have the village around you.” He used the word kampong, suggesting not only a settlement, but especially the extended social relationships of a village, or a Sng’oi settlement (ibid, pp. 166–67).

 

Dr Sepie  concludes her article thus:

I, like many others, was not taught how to be in-relation-with the ‘pattern that connects’—as Gregory Bateson (1991) famously phrased it—with the world around me, with other humans, and with other species. I was born already colonized. I descend from a variety of variously hued migrants without a clear blood memory or place to which I might whakapapa—to use a genealogical word borrowed from the indigenous nations of my country. I have no such word that can mean anything close to the same thing and the English language is all I know. The processes of colonization have converted and distorted all histories that might have aided me in knowing to whom, and to where, I belong. I know only that I lack any ancestral memory of a relationship with place, and have no knowledge of how to find, nor kill, nor be respectful toward, my own food.

I can attest, however, to the idea that it is possible for us to become aware of what we are being ‘told,’ and that we can learn, despite familial, social, or geographical disadvantages, to do this in modest ways. There is a difference between the chattering of my mind (in Abram’s opinion, enhanced by literary culture), and the arrival of intuitive knowings or intuitive experiences with more-than-human nature as a component of waking consciousness. This confirms (to me) that we can begin from where we are, learn to pay attention to the conscious web of relations, and trust those intuitive moments that happen when we recognize what it really means to be a human, born on the earth, who is also, animal. We are not (as dictated by the fantasy of human exceptionalism) somehow more human according to the degree we move away from nature, but less human by way of this presumption.

The objective of decolonization, as a global project, is to reassess our collective, diverse, cosmological assumptions with respect to all our relationships, in a manner that allows for the reconfiguring of the dominant perceptions of humanity, and recalibrates human relations with otherness of all kinds. If decolonization is ultimately oriented towards improved human-to-human and human-to-earth relations as the initial goal (if decolonization is thought of as relational and processual), an increased awareness of connection with the wider multispecies environments within which we are all embedded must involve caring for it. Conservation follows connection.

I am immensely grateful to Dr Amba Sepie for her hard work and dedication to bring this into the public gaze. Please, if you have read this far, sit with the points raised and consider how you , we, all fit into this, whether you consider yourself druid, pagan, or whatever, we are all human animals first.

For anyone interested in reading more about this , Dr Sepie’s PhD can be read at the following link – https://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/handle/10092/15916

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