F is for Feathers
I noticed recently that a lot of polytheists I know went through a phase of being obsessed with Native American tribal cultures as children. I am not exempt from this. I inhaled every single Lakota story I could get my hands on. I read at a very high level and no one put any holds on what I could and could not read, so I had no barriers between myself and this sort of knowledge. Something about the Lakota way of looking at the world and at the realm of spirits resonated deeply, especially the parts about how they respected and used the bodies of wild animals they hunted.
Some of this is certainly down to the superficial way Native contributions to history have been taught in U.S. schools, which generally consist of something like “and the Pilgrims and Indians sat together and ate a lot of pumpkin pies and that is why we have Thanksgiving. The Natives were noble savages who loved the earth. Let’s make handprint turkeys!” Virtually nothing about the brutal genocide the overwhelming majority of tribes have faced and continue to face crept in to our studies. In fact most of the time there was no distinction between tribes, and on the rare occasion different peoples were mentioned it was usually in accordance with how many white people they’d dared to kill. Their names were always English; their actual names, in their language, were never used.
But I think the other side of this coin is that if you are a person with shamanic or animist leanings at a young age, there are virtually no role models. The only spirituality I could find that was at all associated with animism or shamanism was Lakota spirituality. I was very in to the Hellenic gods as a child, but again it was in a superficial picture book way. I never considered that they could be worshiped in the modern day. Even though the Lakota had suffered much, I understood that they had managed to stave off extinction. That they had kept these stories and ways alive as best they could, in the face of so much death. That made it real in a way the Greek gods could not be at the time.
So why am I telling you this? Because F is for Feathers, in the sense that feathers often hold a sacred meaning for both Celtic polytheists and many Native tribes. I read an article awhile back by a Native woman who was making an admirable effort to steer non-Natives away from appropriation, which is a needed and valuable effort. (Note: I recommend Beyond Buckskin for not only producing lovely Native-made designs intended for everyone to wear without appropriating, but also because she discusses this very topic quite a bit under her Appropriations tab). The only exception I took was that the author gave the greenlight to wearing and using “Euro feathers.” When I pointed out that these feathers are often sacred to us as well, she was very gracious and kindly amended that part of the article.
The whole experience brings me back to solidarity and how no one can get what they need by stealing from each other. Since this post is about appropriation obviously that is a blatant method of theft designed to impoverish the affected community. However, the other way we steal from each other is by assuming that there is only so much love, respect, and consideration for the oppressed and that we must each fight to have what meager scraps there are.
In part this is true. The world is an inherently unfair and unequal world, where shocking atrocities are common place. The ruling groups care little if at all for those beneath them, and your arbitrary characteristics are still used to make life altering decisions, despite these characteristics having no correlation to the type of person you are inside. However, when we perpetuate this idea within our own oppressed, marginalized, or fringe communities, we are acting in accordance with what the oppressors want most. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book.
The answer to this problem is solidarity and a firm stance against theft. When we consider the position of Celtic polytheists and the position of many Native tribes we can’t draw a perfect comparison. Generally, Celtic polytheists as a whole enjoy many more privileges than the average Native community can hope to claim. However, oppression and systematic genocide have often factored in to both experiences, and through that we can build bonds. The feathers are symbolic of this bridge work. Because we know what it means to wear raven, eagle, and owl feathers (and likely more, depending on your beliefs) we should realize how painful it usually is for a Native person to watch those not of their group or those who have no connection to the meanings therein flaunt their thievery by wearing those same symbols, symbols which often signify great accomplishment within the tribe itself. Many times, the person appropriating has benefited from that same genocide and enjoys at the very least white privilege, if not more, and the dirtiest insult on top of all that is to degrade the sacred symbols.
Coming in to Native spaces and telling them they should get over it, calm down, take a joke, or otherwise ignore this theft is ignorance of the highest degree. Coming in to a Native space and demanding entry because one is a polytheist, pagan, shaman or whatever is likewise terrible behavior. Don’t take from them. Establish your own faith and your own symbolism. Explain your use of feathers as clearly being separate from Native traditions and react calmly if you are challenged. Turn your energies to your spirituality and walking in a sacred manner on the earth.
The reason the author of the article I mentioned reacted as kindly as she did was in part because of how I phrased the issue. Too any times a person sees a write up asking for basic cultural respect and shreds the entire work, usually because they don’t want to admit to their privilege or that their behavior has hurt others. When you must ask for a correction, use respect and validation. You can’t act in a righteous manner without doing this, and I will go ahead and say that I feel your spirituality will always be missing something if you can’t work with others in this way. While in ancient times we often cared little for these types of sensitivities, I believe strongly that as we update our faiths for the modern world we must include what we now know about ethics, respect, and privilege.
A prayer to you, oh deities of careful and measured speech
Guide us so that we may walk lightly and in a sacred manner on this earth
With all our guardian spirits in attendance