Authors Note: I’m not an Elder or Medicine Person, so I’m aware I have no authority to say who’s allowed to use our medicines and in what way. I simply want to explain how I feel and why.
I’ve noticed a lot of well-meaning non-Indigenous people have really taken a liking to our traditional Ceremony. This has me feeling a mixture of a few intense emotions that I’ve needed to unpack for a while.
Specifically, I've seen trendy hipster stores selling ‘emergency smudge kits’ with sage and a smudge bowl, maybe a feather, all promoted on Instagram. Or a non-Indigenous yogi selling dream-catchers to wear around your neck like a necklace. Or self-proclaimed spiritual healer who uses sage to smudge her clients and promotes it on Instagram. Or most recently, a non-Indigenous man leading a “medicine picking” excursion teaching others to pick sage.
The teachings I received taught me to never pay for medicine, and to never boast about it (by posting a picture online), so when I see these images in my timeline I know these people haven’t received teachings to use these tools, or the same teachings I’ve received, at least. But does that mean they’re not allowed to use the medicines? Absolutely not, at least I don’t think so… but I’m not sure…
On one hand, I’m happy to share. Traditional teachings have taught me to respect the environment and remind me that all living things are connected, that there is a greater force at play in the world than just simple humanity – we’re a small piece of life in the vast universe. It would be great if the world knew Indigenous teachings. I feel like the world could benefit from it, maybe global warming could be stopped… and commercial farming of animals would stop, maybe the world could know peace? Lofty goals yes, so the more people who know the ideology behind traditional teachings, I think, the better.
However, part of me wants to see the teachings shared properly. When I see a non-Indigenous person giving teachings about Ceremony or using our medicine in a public place like a settler event opening ceremony or somewhere public, I immediately questions their authenticity. Where did they learn this Ceremony? Do they understand the power behind the tools they’re using?
I recognize that this initial desire to be upset, question and confront the person is partially because, for so long, we weren’t allowed to practice our Ceremony legally and that makes me want to fiercely protect it. The government of Canada and residential schools forbade us from practicing our “indianness”. Recently at a family dinner my Dad, Aunties and Uncles were reminiscing about being beaten at residential day school. My Aunt shared being slapped by a priest when she was 6 years old for accidentally bumping into him in the school hallway. He wound up and slapped her hard across the face. My Dad shared witnessing being forced to watch his friend get beaten with what he would only describe as “extreme violence.” I understand that our parents didn’t teach us our language or Ceremony because they didn’t want us to experience the same shame and abuse they went through.
So when I see a non-Indigenous person publicly practicing Ceremony and using Medicines I instinctively want to hoard it and feel protective of it. My immediate reaction is to think, “Why do they get to use Indigenous Ceremony when my family was beat for being Indigenous?” It’s like they get to pick which part of my culture they want to adopt while brushing aside the bad stuff. Bad stuff we didn’t have the (white) privilege to avoid.
Essentially, they’re choosing which parts of our culture they want to appropriate. They can walk into a store and buy a knock off of our beautiful beadwork or art without having to worry about being followed in that store for being too brown and a security threat. They can use our most sacred tools, and our medicine, without having the blood memory of being beaten for using those medicines.
If you had to unwillingly give up your babies to be sent to be abused at residential school, would you still want to use those medicines? Because that's the price that was paid.
It all seems so backwards to me. And hurtful. A different kind of hurt that I can feel really deep down in my soul. They took everything from us. But then they gave it back and are now taking the parts they feel are of (financial or spiritual) benefit to them. It fills me with rage.
I’m not an Elder, or a medicine person, so I realize I have no authority or wisdom to be the “Medicine Police.” In my more empathetic moments I think “Maybe these settlers received teachings from an Elder to use these medicines?” Not all teachings are the same so maybe they received a different message? It’s totally plausible. And I realize these settlers have no ill intent. They’re just ignorant.
In my ideal world, I wouldn't feel anything when I see these things posted online. I try to believe that if the Medicines are bringing positivity to someone buying these things, then what's the harm? Is it still appropriation?
I don’t know what the answers are. But to all the settlers using our Medicines and Ceremony online – please be aware of your white privilege, and that you are appropriating a culture that my family was beaten for practicing.