Spirits of place and becoming indigenous

Can members of a diasporic community become indigenous to their adopted land? What if they are the descendants/inheritors of brutal colonization? Is indigeneity something to aspire to (is it even a word?), and if so, how does one get there?


Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), a native plant I don’t know yet.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just weird (I mean, weirder than the average weirdo who is into the kinds of metaphysical and magical stuff I’m into). Maybe it’s just something about my personal neurology. Maybe it’s because I’m still a magical newbie. But for whatever reason, all my experiences of big powers–I hesitate, more and more, to use the term “god/dess”–have been very localized. I’ve tried to take them with me when I moved, but it just doesn’t seem to work. Either I have limited experience with non-place-specific beings, or I am only able to really connect in certain places.

A while back I drew on Shinto as a model for a polytheism full of spirits-of-place. And just recently I became aware that there is a growing internet presence of Westerners who consider themselves Shinto or Shinto-Pagan hybrid believers/practitioners, for example here and here. It makes me happy to see that I’m not alone. I shouldn’t feel like I have to make a disclaimer here, but with the constant kerfuffle about cultural appropriation I feel like I do: Japanophilia among Westerners is not a new thing, and I don’t know what influence that might be having in the adoption of Shinto outside Japan. When I was doing archaeological research on/in Japan, other Americans would often accuse me of being a Japanophile (and yes, it was definitely an accusation). Sometimes that would then be followed by bafflingly irrelevant comments on how “weird” the Japanese are or bad things they did during the early- to mid-20th century colonization of Korea, “Rape of Nanking,” etc., not to mention assumptions that I am into manga, anime, and cosplay (which as it happens could not be further from the truth, though I have been known to enjoy certain Japanese variety shows). In other words, in the West you can find equal parts Japanophilia and Japanophobia.

I think about this a lot because Shinto is not like the “world” religions we tend to be most familiar with in the West–it’s not about what you believe, there’s no conversion necessary, and because it’s so intimately bound up with Japanese geography and ethnicity there has never been much effort to export it. Here in the US we do have Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Washington (State), a branch of a parent shrine in Japan, and St. Paul, Minnesota has Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora, which curiously enshrines (alongside conventional Shinto kami) Baba Yaga. The priests? proprietors? maintainers? of Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora identify it as an expression of Minzoku NEO-Shinto, which is defined thus:

“What is minzoku NEO-shintô? The technical answer is, ‘A universalist approach to existential Japanese folk religion practices.’ But what does that mean? To break it down, universalist means it’s open to anyone who’s sincerely interested, it’s not just for people of Japanese ancestory. Existential means it’s based on personal experience, not on scripture or dogma. Folk religion means it’s religion as practiced by the commons – the everyday people – and on a local basis; it’s not religion as taught in the seminaries, universities, or on a national or international basis.”

I am so down with that.

Shinto is a religion in the old sense of the word, but not as commonly understood in the West today–it’s not a “faith.” It is, more than anything else, a practice and a worldview. In Shinto terms, the “congregation” of a shrine is made up of ujiko–people born and living in the surrounding precinct, and usually descended through generations there; and sûkeisha–non-local people who for their own reasons feel committed to that shrine. A non-Japanese can become a sûkeisha, but never ujiko. I think for most Westerners, it’s more likely they would feel dedicated to a kami (spirit/god) than to a particular shrine, as most of us have had close to 2000 years enculturation within monotheistic, universalizing religions. Anyway, you don’t have too many road-to-Damascus-style conversions to Shinto, or rather if you do, it doesn’t matter much because in Shinto your personal beliefs are pretty much irrelevant as long as they’re not getting in the way of practice. Like all of Japanese culture, Shinto practice is a complex web of mutual obligations, consideration, and gift-giving. It’s amenable to evolution and to hybridization, as evidenced through its history. I sort of fell into Shinto while I was in Japan because I was already an animist philosophically, and my friends took me to shrines and showed me how to participate.

But I didn’t try to bring it back to America with me, though I thought about it and heartily wished we had something similar here. (By “we” I mean diasporic Americans and “mainstream” American culture.*) I have weird feelings about trying to translate Shinto to another continent, because while it’s eminently doable, is it right? Most of the Shinto kami are not universal–they are landform-specific. An American Shinto could honor the few universal kami, with certain modifications**, but it would also need to make room for many new kami, those that are specific to locales on this continent. Then you have to ask, do you need Shinto, or do you really need something entirely new? At some point you may end up where I am at, which is a completely individual animism with forms inspired by Shinto practice.

In the comments on John Michael Greer’s most recent post on his occult/magical blog, someone said something along the lines that they wished more American herbalists and magical types would learn to use their local North American plants rather than European ones. I agree on more than one level: First, every ecosystem has plants with purifying, cleansing, uplifting properties–usually more than one. Not only does using a non-local plant place a burden on that plant and its original community, it also arguably doesn’t work as well as a plant that belongs to the local ecosystem. There are probably exceptions to this but I think it’s a reasonable rule of thumb. Second, think of the hidden costs that are incurred in the transportation of the non-local plant to you. Not exactly eco-friendly. Third, I think everyone should be forming relationships with their local plants anyway (and not merely for their own benefit, ahem).

Consider: Have you ever thought about why white sage (Salvia apiana) is the favored herb for smudging nowadays? Because it grows around Hollywood. Seriously, that’s it: It has a very small natural distribution in the coastal sage scrub zone of Southern California. At some point white folk found out that Native Americans used it for purification, then Hollywood, the publicity capital of the world, got hold of the idea and bam, an industry was born. Now you have people in Europe thinking they need white sage to cleanse their haunted castles. Do you really want Hollywood to be the source of your sacred spiritual texts and traditions?

There were people on this continent before our diasporic ancestors arrived, who had already built up such relationships. Leaving aside the question of appropriation (which is becoming a major red herring anyway), it comes down to this: You can’t just use Native American ethnobotany as a cheat sheet to get around having to form those relationships your own damn self. They won’t tell you everything anyway, probably. Be respectful of existing traditions, of course, but ultimately, there’s no shortcut in this Work.

The same thing goes for the spirits and bigger powers here. The thing is, this is hard Work. We can’t just rely on tradition to tell us who, what, where, when, why, and how, because those traditions were built in and for other ecosystems. That means we also can’t rely on tradition for authority, justification, or legitimization. We’re on our own here. Had history gone a different way, had our ancestors made different choices, been subject to different forces, had there been no genocide, forced assimilation, and ecological destruction, we might have been able to harmoniously integrate our ways with the indigenous ones. We might have had partners in this Work. And I should note that some diasporic Americans did choose a more harmonious route, notably African Americans. But the European American ancestors opted to follow other traditions instead, so this is where we find ourselves. No matter what your race or ethnicity or cultural identity, you’re caught in this situation because it was/is the European Americans who hold the hegemony.

I started thinking about this while reading Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s (highly recommended) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. She suggests that diasporic Americans won’t really have a sense of commitment and caretaking toward this land, its flora and fauna, until they/we become indigenous. Perhaps we haven’t earned that right yet. But if/when we do, how will we become indigenous? What would it take for us to rewrite our creation narratives?

In his response to my comment on his post taking up this issue, Greer wrote:

“I suspect that in the long run, the thing that’s going to make Americans of European ancestry turn to the native resources of this continent is when they have no other choice — when that’s the only source of medicine and magic they’ve got. Certainly African-American conjure magic embraced quite a bit of North American herbal lore through exactly that process — and I’ve long suspected that the white population of this continent will only become, in a deep sense, native here, once they have gone through experiences of the kind they inflicted on the First Nations and the enslaved nations of Africa.

(My emphasis.) That’s a sobering thought.

As regards Shinto as a model for functional polytheistic animism(s) outside Japan, I would suggest that rather than try to import it wholecloth, we might be inspired by it to foster the organic growth of something indigenous, working with the local spirits and powers–or kami if you will–heaven knows we could use a better vocabulary for these experiences–of our bioregions. I suspect that, like so many paths that seem simple, it will make up for its lack of superficial complexity with sheer cussedness. It’s also a lonely path. I’m a solitary person by nature, so I rarely get lonely, but the one thing that is guaranteed to have my crying in my beer is the feeling that I am alone in this and maybe I’m doing it wrong. (Oh Gods, am I doing it all wrong?) It makes me feel like even more of a magical impostor newbie than I am. I sometimes have fantasies about immigrating to one of the countries my ancestors came from and finally just getting to relax into some pre-fab pantheon. But then I’m reminded:

“At the heart, to be a witch doesn’t mean that you manipulate reality to your liking. It means that you can see and call forth manifold possibilities. It means that your perception of reality goes beyond what has been handed to you. And that you can perceive the presence of freedom, and healing, in all things.”

(My emphasis.) When I was a kid my family used to laugh at me for being a stubborn little idiot, proudly insisting on doing something the wrong way just because I would be damned if I’d let anyone tell me how to do it. I remember my aunt saying, “You always have to do everything the hard way. You always have to reinvent the wheel.” So chances are, no matter where I found myself, I’d be banging the drum for us all to start from scratch. I guess I belong where I am–when I am, how I am–doing it the hard way.

*I would hate to think this little ol’ blog’s readership was limited to white Americans. I’m speaking from my own experience, and I happen to be a white American. I assume some of my readers are too. If at any point it seems like I am privileging that viewpoint, please say so. That is to say, I welcome perspectives coming from other perspectives.

**For example, Inari, the god of rice plants, becomes a god of the more abstract principles “food” and “abundance,” because Americans aren’t culturally co-evolved with rice the way the Japanese are.


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