The Nazi at the Seder Table
and the Myth of the Universal Sweat Lodge
I was talking to a Jewish friend about the pretendians. She said she doesn't understand why white people think it's OK to mimic Native American ceremonies. I told her that she gets it, while many other non-Indians do not, because she knows what it's like to have a culture.
Because she has an ethnic cultural identity, she would find it ridiculous if a bunch of white Baptists from Iowa decided, after seeing the movie Yentl and reading some stuff on the Internet, to hold their idea of a Seder with all their Baptist friends. And then if they were really on a roll, to declare themselves Rabbis. Because, you know, they are "Jewish in their hearts".
Rootless people do ridiculous things. And mainstream white Americans often have no sense of what it is to have an ethnic identity. So they have no understanding of how ceremonies, beliefs and customs are rooted in particular cultures. They also don't get it that not all of us are rootless, and that even melanin-deprived people come from somewhere. All of our ancestors had earth-based traditions. If you weren't raised with them, it's just a matter of looking a bit further back and doing some work. Yet too many "white" people just want to take what they think is the easy way out, and steal from other cultures that seem more "exotic" to them. These things are only "exotic" when you're a clueless outsider.
A witty blogger who often has hilarious things to say about newagers disappointed me with this comment: "If non-Natives want to take part in these traditions ... it may be no different from, say, a Presbyterian sitting in on services at a synagogue."
Now, it's not the best idea to compare genocides. I know a number of Native folks who have made comparisons to the Holocaust in these discussions, assuming that it will have more of an emotional impact on white people. Many white people know more about the Holocaust than they do about American history from the perspective of Native Americans. Ironically though, some of the Jews I brought this up with felt it was insulting to Native people to make that comparison, as the genocide against Native peoples in the Americas has not only taken far more lives, but due to the severe, ongoing oppression of Native peoples it is still taking lives. The Native peoples and cultures are in far more immediate danger than the Jewish ones. So, not an exact analogy, but bear with me.
Even if for the moment we leave aside the well-known, unanimous declarations opposing non-Native involvement in Native religion, I think a more apt analogy would be that of a non-Jew inviting themselves to a Seder. More aptly, a non-Jew who has had zero exposure to Jewish culture, and whose grandfather or great-grandfather was a Nazi. Seriously, we're talking about genocide here.
So this German guy with the Grandfather-history-dilemma talks his kind Jewish acquaintance into letting him tag along to the Seder. The outsider, who has never been to anything Jewish in his life, pays close attention and think it's pretty cool. He likes the way it makes him feel. His family are atheists, and for the first time he feels connected to a culture and religion.
Now the German guy could have chosen to be humble and patient; he could have continued to participate in his friend's life in a mutually supportive and respectful way over time, and maybe he would have been invited back to other things if the people liked him. Not that that would make him a Jew, but maybe he could have been an ally. But he wasn't patient, he didn't really care about his new friend's family, and he didn't much care for all those restrictive rules and customs. And there were ways that the cultural differences made him uncomfortable. So, three months later he decides to hold a Seder himself. With modifications and "improvements". After all, he's been to a REAL SEDER before. He knows his stuff now. He even learned from Elders! (His friend's grandmother was there and said hello to him.)
His Jewish friend tells him that's not cool, and anyway, it's the wrong time of year to hold a Seder, even if he was a Jew, and even if he had a community of Jews supporting him in this endeavour. The non-Jew calls the Jew "a hater", declares himself a Rabbi, puts an ad on Craigslist for participants ("Everyone Welcome! We're no haters here!") and charges other non-Jews money to attend his "Seder". It's a great success.... among the non-Jews.
It's wrong and disgusting even if he stopped before advertising and charging for it. But imagine the insult if he goes on to set up a multimillion-dollar business, selling pieces of this Jewish family's history and customs in get-rich-quick schemes. Imagine if then he goes so far as to kill people by telling them to fast in the desert like that Jew, Jesus, while drinking communion wine, singing songs from "Fiddler on the Roof" and chanting Islamic prayers (because, you know, they're all "desert cultures"). And yeah, he's still calling his made-up ceremony a "Seder". Maybe now it's the "Seder Warrior Training". And for part of the $10,000 fee, you'll get a rabbi costume, too. What?
This is how ridiculous James Arthur Ray and his ilk look to those who are part of ethnic cultures. Obviously, with the cult leader thing and the deaths, DeathRay is one of the worst examples. But it's a continuum of ridiculousness and offensiveness.
"But Sweatlodge is Universal"
On one Neopagan blog where the Death Sweats were discussed, a number of people spoke out against cultural appropriation. What a relief. Maybe things are slowly changing in some quarters. Maybe it's taking something this drastic for people to wise up. But of course there were more than a few comments to the effect that Sweat Lodge is "universal", and that James Ray's criminally negligent homicides had nothing to do with cultural appropriation.
Most of our ancestors were hip to the fact that fire and water together make steam. Many of them figured out that steam can be enclosed in some sort of structure for bathing and humidifying purposes. Not that hard to figure out, really. Even white people can manage that. But steam alone does not a religious ritual make. And for those cultures that had, or still have, prayers and songs and ceremonies associated with sweating, beyond those basics of steam and a structure of some sort to hold it, the ceremonies are culturally-specific; they are based on the unique cosmologies and beliefs of a particular group of people. Steam does not mean the same thing in every culture. Fire does not mean the same thing. Darkness does not mean the same thing. The Earth and the Sun are not conceptualized in the same way, or gendered the same way... ditto for all the other natural phenomena and spirits and powers that may be called on or named in a ceremony.
If some non-Native is going on about their "universal" or "European" sweat that involves "rounds", a "lodge", "grandfather stones", "sacred bundles", "sage", "animal powers", "all my relations", and "the four directions".... sorry, that's a fake Plains-style sweatlodge. Even if they've tacked misused and misunderstood names from European cultures onto it.
More recently some have tried to claim sweatlodges are also "Celtic". Here we go again. Unless the participants are heating up a small, drystone, dirt-floored, taigh an fhallais or teach an allais structure with a fire inside, then once the floor and entire structure is hot sweeping the fire out completely and covering the floor with particular plant matter, then lying on the floor and praying in Gaelic ... no, it's not Celtic.
A note for those outside the Celtic field: "Celtic" does not always equal Gaelic. "Gaelic" is a subset of the broader, "Celtic" language grouping.
The only surviving "Celtic" sweathouse structures I am aware of are found in the historically Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland. While we have many old Gaelic prayers for healing, and an understanding of how the spirits work in Gaelic traditions, we have only fragments of Gaelic sweathouse ceremonies; and beyond the bare bones of prayer in a warm, enclosed space, what we have really bears no resemblance to Inipi (or sweat lodge ceremonies by other Native American cultures).
Some have claimed the Burnt Mound (fulachtaí fia) sites in Ireland and Scotland were once "sweatlodge" sites. While these sites may have been used for bathing (and cooking, and dying cloth, and brewing beer - basically an outdoor, multi-purpose kitchen), reconstructions have shown that the structures probably resembled (surprise!) Irish dwellings and camps more than any Plains-style sweatlodges. The oft-cited but faulty Birmingham "reconstruction" was nothing of the sort. An English youth group tried building a sweatlodge based on their ideas of Inipi; they didn't even base it on the English archaelogical site they were "reconstructing". Serious archaeology fail. But some Neopagans and Newagers still cite it, as they want to believe they have a right to do fake Inipis.
You will find people on the Internet, even some I was once on good terms with, who are trying to tack Gaelic names on their outsider fantasies of Inipi. Don't buy it.
I have a work-in-progress article about the use of Gaelic sweat traditions, but I haven't finished it as I am so dismayed about the appropriation out there, and concerned that anything I put out about it will just be abused. You can read it if you want. Maybe one of these days I'll finish it.
Of course there are some ceremonies associated with traditional saunas in the countries where they originated: protocols of use, stories of spirits who attend, songs that are sung at particular times, and sometimes prayers. Some of these rituals still survive in Latvia, and I've heard of survivals in related cultures. Due to the Northern influence in Scotland and Ireland, it's quite possible that the stone sweat houses in Gaelic-speaking areas were based on sauna, and are not even indigenous to Ireland or Scotland. If anyone is seriously interested in Gaelic sweat traditions, that's where they should probably look for parallels, or to the sweathouses in Portugal, rather than trying to co-opt what they think Indians do.
Perhaps the biggest mistake these appropriators make, both in the Americas and in Europe, is the assumption that commonalities of steam and sweat somehow override the fact we're talking about different religions. Even if the structures did turn out to be similar (which they haven't), why would that mean the ceremonies would be the same?
If someone is telling you their eclectic rituals which are clearly based on First Nations ceremonies are "universal," or "Celtic," they're just showing their ignorance.
In closing, In community
If you're going to learn anything from Native ceremonial ways, or Jewish or Gaelic ones for that matter, let it be this: the importance of community, culture and tradition: the songs you grow up singing and hearing, the foods your family eats, the ways you have of speaking to one another, what you do when someone is sick, or a death has happened, or a child born; the phrases or words from your native language that are still used even if you aren't fluent in the language, the political and intellectual things that matter to you because of the hardships your people have survived as well as the victories they've won, and all the ways you are different from the homogenized mainstream melting pot. The ceremonies grew from this matrix, and that's how they have survived. Without that cultural matrix, without the particular religious and cultural beliefs that surround them, you cannot fully understand the ceremonies. And even if you could, the ceremonies are part of the lifeblood of the communities where they live. They can't be bought and sold in watered-down form by outsiders.
Or, rather, there are newage hucksters doing exactly that. But it's bad craziness and junk-food for the soul.
Worse, it's carrying on a tradition of imperialism.
If you come with the intent to steal, there's nothing spiritual about being the Nazi at the Seder table.
And I just know someone will read that and say, "But if we have the sincere Nazis, or descendants of Nazis (Not their fault!) at the table, we will heal them!" Sorry, but someone who really wants to heal from that ancestral wrongdoing will not force their way into where they are not wanted. And if they are truly spiritual and invited in good faith, they won't pretend to be something they are not, they won't steal, and they won't tell the Jews (or Indians) to STFU when they are told to take their hands out of the cookie jar.
And guess what. I was just about to post this when I found this: Qabalah Tree of Life Journeys. Wow. Looks like old DeathRay is a fake Jew, too. The Newage cult leader will sell you the Kabbalah, and he guarantees that if you do it his way, it will make you money. Because for him and his ilk, that is their only god, and the ring of the cash register their only prayer.
And in a cool bit of synchronicity, in the time between my writing this, sending it around to friends for feedback, and finally posting it, Jim Kent of The Rapid City Journal wrote something very similar: "Stealing religion ignored if it’s Native". I'm glad to see others covering this. And, given the degree of training and community recognition required, his comparison of Native ceremonial people to Catholic Priests is in some ways more apt than my comparison to Rabbis. But I chose to stick with the Jewish analogy for the genocide parallels. No analogy is exact. But as so many non-Natives are so clueless about this, we are all struggling with analogies to try to get people to see what's going on here. Check it out; it's a good piece.
Oh, and thanks to everyone, of a variety of ethnicities and perspectives, who gave me feedback on this. Any mistakes are my own.