Indigenous rights and cultural appropriation

Indigenous rights and cultural appropriation

One of the very important issues that Thayer addresses in her thesis, The Adoption of Shamanic Healing into the Biomedical Health Care System in the United States, is the appropriation of indigenous knowledge. Thayer’s study provides us with an insight into the cultural changes occurring within our society and the increasing fascination with shamanic healing. She asks – what does shamanic healing mean to Westerners and why do they want to practice it and/or receive it?
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One of the very important issues that Thayer addresses in her thesis, The Adoption of Shamanic Healing into the Biomedical Health Care System in the United States, is the appropriation of indigenous knowledge. Thayer’s study provides us with an insight into the cultural changes occurring within our society and the increasing fascination with shamanic healing. She asks – what does shamanic healing mean to Westerners and why do they want to practice it and/or receive it? 1

She notes that more and more Westerners appear to be disillusioned with conventional Western medicine; she asks – what does shamanic healing appear to offer that other health modalities do not? Furthermore, she poses this question: Is shamanic healing strictly an issue of the individual, or does it extend into other areas of concern of social, psychological, and environmental significance?1

Some have expressed the notion that people of European descent should look to their own traditional past, rather than emulate unrelated indigenous practices. It has been argued that shamanic rituals are steeped in locality, both environmentally and spiritually, and should not be replicated elsewhere with effect or without insult to the spirits.1

Thayer states there are many examples that involve the blending of indigenous practices with biomedical practices. She outlines many challenges associated with the appropriation of indigenous knowledge with respect to Western shamanism. Adoption of shamanic healing practices must consider three key elements:1

• indigenous knowledge/shamanic knowledge
• proprietorship/ownership
• spiritual sensitivity/sacredness.

It is not surprising that she states:

The health-craze in the West and scientific advances in the medical field have spurred attempts to commodify indigenous healing rites, as well as the use of medicinal plants.1

Even well-intentioned ecotourism has honed in on indigenous resources and rights. Among the most degrading effects of ecotourism are the marketing of indigenous heritage, cultural identity, and sacred rituals.1

Thayer recounts a poignant story she heard from an anthropologist working in South America about an indigenous community that was considering to raise and sell some of their local plants to a multinational corporation for processing and sale in the cosmetic industry. While many of the members of the community were in favour of this arrangement because of the income it would generate, the shaman was opposed because no one had asked the flowers. The shaman stated the flower spirits had concerns about working beyond their indigenous locality and the synergistic effects of mixtures not ever concocted before. Therefore, Thayer explains that when anyone works with the spirits of other beings, as most already may realise, there is a needed ethic of reciprocal exchange and communication.1

Slade states that smudging with palo santo has become the latest craze; however, her article questions the sustainability of palo santo and also questions if you are non-indigenous persons should you even be using palo santo as a spiritual aid. She cites Professor Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and author of Native Appropriations blog, who states for centuries native Americans were forced to practice their customs such as burning white sage in secret, until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. Keene is concerned that smudging has just become another form of entertainment to be packaged and monetised. She claims that Native American spirituality is for sale by all the culture vultures and white shamans who sell fake ceremony. However, she asks – Who is benefiting from the sale of these products? Not Native people.2

Keene argues that when choosing rituals, people should consider their own heritage. Slade is very mindful and respectful of this; however, our individual histories are not necessarily neatly packaged as we release our own complex heritages and that culture and identity are much more fluid than we once thought.2

Slade reports that according to a Peruvian colleague, most palo santo is grown for export and has lost much of its traditional significance:

While brujo (witch doctors) and curanderos (shamans) once used palo santo to remove spirits and malicious energy and even carved branches into voodoo-like figures, in modern Peru, the plant is now mainly burned as an insect repellent. Shamanic uses have decreased; it’s more profitable than spiritual.2

Slade concludes while respect for a culture’s traditions, even sharing them, can foster a deeper understanding between people, it must be done with rigour and consideration and acknowledgement of the past history.2

As Keene explains in her essay:

What I care about is the removal of context from conversations on cultural appropriation, the erasing of the painful and violent history around suppression of native spirituality, the ongoing struggles Native students and peoples have in practicing their beliefs, and the non-Native companies and non-Native individuals that are making money off these histories and traditions without understanding the harm they’re enacting.3

Amongst indigenous peoples, some advocate that sharing their practices with ‘the white man’ may be the only hope of survival at this point. For example, Grieves cites David Mowaljarai, a senior lawman of the Ngarinyin people of the west Kimberley, addressing a gathering of white people in his country:

We are really sorry for you people. We cry for you because you haven’t got meaning of culture in this country. We have a gift we want to give you. We keep getting blocked from giving you that gift. We get blocked by politics and politicians. We get blocked by media, by process of law. All we want to do is come out from under all of this and give you this gift. And it’s the gift of pattern thinking. It’s the culture which is the blood of this country, of Aboriginal groups, of the ecology, of the land itself.4

Tacey refers to the consuming of Aboriginal cosmology as an example of the most recent imperialist appropriation of Aboriginal culture. Tacey states not only have we stolen their land, destroyed tribal culture and the environment, but we now ask for their spirituality as well. Tacey argues that Euro-Australians cannot graft onto their souls fifty thousand-year-old dreaming stolen from another tradition.5

He explains:

Such stolen property would not take root in the white soul, and may inhibit or block a developmental process already taking place. We know we are spiritually bereft, but the way ahead may not be by means of a return to animism and ancestor spirits.5

Tacey claims for the Western psyche, this may be a regression to a world view which predates modernity and may engender enormous tension between the soul and intellect. The way forward for the Western psyche is not to return to animism and ancestral spirits. We need to develop spiritual kinship with the land but the Aboriginal cosmology may best serve as an inspiration to create our own cosmology, rather than as a template upon which to build our own.5

Tacey claims:

We cannot tack on Aboriginal spirituality to our rational consciousness, but must change our consciousness from within by burrowing down into our feared and walled-in unconscious to find an answering image to Aboriginal spirituality.33

He cites Jung, who says that it is easier to take on the spirituality and trappings of an exotic cosmology than face the poverty of our souls and begin a dialogue with the inner life. However, he claims we have to risk an encounter with the others within ourselves, whatever the cost to our rationality and whatever the impact upon consciousness.5

Townsend states the popularisation of mystical and non-Western belief systems such as shamanism for trendy, ‘instant’ Western consumption has been criticised and that the search for transcendence epitomises the shallowness and superficiality of much of today’s supermarket culture. However, she also believes neo-shamanism and the rest of the New Age mystical movement is not a soon-to-be-forgotten fad of a secular, consumer-oriented society, but represents a major trend with the potential to radically transform the beliefs of Western society.6


1. Thayer LL. The adoption of shamanic healing into the biomedical health care system in the United States. Open Access Dissertations, 2009: 60. doi: 10.7275/yeb2-e116
2. Slade R. Is your palo santo habit hurting the environment? Retrieved Sep 7, 2020, from
3. Keene A. Native appropriations. Retrieved Sep 12, 2020, from http://native
4. Grieves V. Aboriginal spirituality: A baseline for indigenous knowledges development in Australia. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 2008; 2: 363-398.
5. Tacey D. Edge of the sacred – Jung, psyche, earth. Daimon Verlag, Einsiedeln, 2009.
6. Townsend JB. Neo-shamanism and the modern mystical movement. In Doore G. ed. Shaman’s path – Healing, personal growth and empowerment. Shambhala, Boston, 1988: 73-83.

Image credit: Mongol on Jurkie Shaman with drum, Central Asia. Credit: Wellcome Collection.