I’ve struggled to understand a feeling I’ve had for some time now. Its hard to explain. And I’ve been carrying it for a long while – only now do I feel somewhat capable of communicating this feeling.
It started in elementary school when I had a hard time finding my place. I would befriend the Vietnamese twins but they would rather play with their cousin who also spoke Vietnamese and brought similar food for lunch and could sing and play games in a way that was familiar in their culture. I would join the hopscotch game of the girls who spoke Spanish but after awhile they would stop speaking English and ghost me in a way. I also never felt like I belonged in the white girl click – even though I was a white girl. I was being raised in a fundamentalist Christian religion that didn’t allow me to participate in most mainstream American pastimes. I had more in common with the kids who didn’t watch American TV, didn’t celebrate holidays in the typical materialistic American way and whose parents were more conservative about dress, than I did with the typical white American kids.
I remember feeling so at home and comfortable with friends of our family that I grew up with who were Mexican and whose Mom was like a 2nd Mom to me, she called me “Mija” like she did her own children and grand children. A term of endearment that when translated to English means, my daughter. Her kindness and generosity toward me was just from her, it did not extend as acceptance of this white girl by all Mexican people. I also had this feeling in Los Angeles where I grew up soaking up the local Mexican culture yet being acutely aware that I am not Mexican.
I am very aware that being white in America comes with privilege and that it is not right for me to complain about feeling like an outsider in my own community. It is not right for me to expect to be treated like an insider in another’s culture or for me to appropriate another’s culture in any way. I’ve always approached invitations for inclusion with respect, reverence and gratitude.
I have noticed this feeling also when I moved my family into a diverse and primarily African American neighborhood in Altadena, California. And again when we moved to Hawaii. I love the people and the culture, I listen to Hawaiian music in the car. I endure without complaint and with complete understanding when a stranger calls me a “haoli” in a derogatory way.
The feeling, if I can describe it is like an outsider looking in the window of warm cozy homes full of artwork, delicious food and a sense of belonging, from the cold sidewalk alone. Occasionally I am welcomed in but I know I will never be invited to stay forever.
I admire and have collected Native American art, handwork, tapestries and I admonish my children to purchase only authentically crafted dream catchers and Native American jewelry. We intentionally do not celebrate Thanksgiving out of respect for the struggles of the Native American people and have called the former Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day long before it was recognized by the local government. I am weary of cultural appropriation and at the same time long for the deep spiritual connection these people have with the land and environment.
What is it that these people with cultural roots have that I long for? There is a sort of culture of whiteness in America and I definitely have the privilege of belonging there but why do I find it so unfulfilling? And do I even have a right to want more, to have what isn’t mine? Is that my privilege and entitlement bleeding into my clarity?
When my daughter’s teacher sent home an assignment- to make a cultural dish from our family and share it at a potluck school gathering, I was lost. I make better enchiladas than, well than, ahem, what do Scottish people eat anyway? I explained to my daughter, we’re Scottish and German and you’re English and Swedish on your father’s side. I heard that one of my great grandmother’s had a German accent and my husband’s great grandparents spoke Swedish. I’ve never been to Scotland or Germany and I visited England once but didn’t like it much. My husband has never been to Sweden. I think I heard his grandmother made Swedish meatballs and on my side of the family – I got nothing. Wait, my mom makes potato salad. I think that’s German. We made potato salad for the project.
This culture thing was really a struggle for me. I identify as American, I am aware of my Scottish and German roots but they are only labels like a middle name with no real meaning attached. I have a Spanish last name because my first husband was adopted by his 3rd generation Spanish American step father. Even my German maiden name is a shortened and mis pronounced American version of the name of my distant German ancestors. Being American born and raised is in some ways weird and we only realize how weird we are when we meet someone who is not so American. Someone who has a sense of their cultural identity, their indigenous roots.
As I pondered and questioned my sense of un-wholeness, the feeling that something important was missing from my life – I started to realize that it’s not the culture of the Mexican people or the Hawaiian people that is showing me that I am not whole. That is making me conscious that something is missing in my life. It is their indigenous roots. I am a person without a sense of my own indigenous roots. Disconnected.
And more specifically it’s the spiritual connection that comes with having indigenous roots that I am missing. This is important. Americans largely are religious people. Christians mostly. Christianity required that converts cut off or re-brand their indigenous/pagan roots. Becoming and being American historically required losing ties to any previous culture. I think I may be more conscious of this wound because of my experience being raised in an extreme fundamentalist Christian religion. Leaving that behind and overcoming my adherence to a dogma that didn’t feel authentic to my inner knowing left me with a space. A space that most Americans fill with religion. Or some other spiritual practice, maybe a New Age perspective or AA or a Yoga practice. Or Atheism and science. Which I’ve also long held to be a spiritual path in a way. Americans fill the space, the capacity, the longing for connection to the earth and universe with these adopted spiritual platforms. Surrogates for our own lost indigenous roots.
If this has bubbled up for me and finally reached my consciousness in a way that I can express. I imagine i am not the only one and it is still swimming in the unconscious psyche of many white European Americans. A deeply buried trauma, a loss that has never been acknowledged. If the witch trials and burnings didn’t eradicate any longing for the indigenous ways then certainly our Christian upbringing over the course of several generations has long buried any awareness, sense of or longing for the indigenous roots of our people and yet we see the effects of this disconnect in the very fabric of America. We can’t look at a person with indigenous roots without seeing our own reflection and noticing our own indigenous deficit.
When an indigenous culture makes a stand against cultural appropriation in a way that asks white people not to share their holiday traditions- a deep sadness wells up inside me. Why? Because everyone has appropriated my indigenous traditions. My Celtic roots. To the indigenous roots of Europe belong Halloween and the Winter Solstice. Ground Hogs Day too was a Celtic celebration that has been long forgotten and forged into something barely recognizable. Christmas is the cultural appropriation of Celtic Winter Solstice celebrations with Yule logs and bonfires lighting the night replaced by elaborate electric light displays.
I don’t mind sharing winter Solstice with Christians and I don’t mind the Christian faith, in fact I’ve learned to look there for the threads of the Celtic roots and the mystical truths that resonate with my soul.
I do mind being asked to volunteer at my child’s school on Halloween – especially if the event is less than reverent. I do mind when I invite someone over to join my family’s Winter Solstice tradition and they treat it like a holiday party and cancel at the last minute. I also mind the version of Halloween that includes gruesome costumes and horror movie style celebrations. That is not what Halloween ever was about. That is the cultural appropriation of my Celtic roots.
I remember a few years back. Maybe many years back there was this move to re-wild. This notion that we urban dwellers in America should regain our connection to nature through submersive experiences. I think this is pointing in the right direction or maybe acknowledging on some collective level that which has been lost.
To the extent that reclaiming our indigenous roots would be healing – and by healing our own cultural wound conscious or not we could become more accepting and more tolerant and more kind toward others who show us our un-wholeness, I think it’s important. Do we have to give up Christianity? No. Just as Catholics in South America haven’t given up their indigenous roots. Or Hawaiians who attend western style churches haven’t given up theirs. There has to be a way to reclaim our white indigenous roots and still be Christian, if that is important to us. What if being Christian didn’t have to require uprooting our connection to our ancestors and nature?
Steiner said that severing our indigenous connections was important for the evolution of man away from tribal and collective ways of being and thinking so that we could become individuals. Christianity was a big part of that work. We have now reached the apex of individualism. Indigenous people around the world have been pushed out of their homelands, have had their way of life diminished and have largely changed the way they live from collective cooperative , self governed communities to modern societies where individual rights supersede collective responsibility. Steiner painted a picture of a future where we would come back together with our individuality fully developed, choosing collaboration and cooperation. Choosing higher consciousness in alignment with the spiritual realm, nature and collective responsibility in our communities.
I believe we each have to acknowledge our indigenous roots and even more if we are living on occupied Native American and Hawaiian land. That healing work is so important. It takes us out of otherness and puts us into alignment – with others and our own ancestral dna. Any religion that does not allow me to celebrate and honor my deep (albeit long forgotten) indigenous roots is oppressive. I cannot be whole and be well, I cannot see myself in the mirror of the other if I am denied my cultural and indigenous roots. Swede, Dane, Vandal, Celt – whatever calls to you deep in your knowing, whatever indigenous dna holds space in your being, honor it. And embrace it in a way that makes it not better than another’s culture, not superseding another’s culture, not assuming a main stream place in the collective but in context and alongside other cultural traditions.