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The politics of a religion of stolen place

I write this post on unceded Coast Salish territory, the ancestral and traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. As an uninvited guest on this land, I benefit from this land, its resources, and colonialism. Though acknowledgement is not sufficient to redress those wrongs, it is important for me, as a descendant of settlers and colonialists, to remember where I am situated physically and historically.


Ten years ago, those kinds of acknowledgements were the marker of a radical event – far left environmental protests, the memorial walk for missing and murdered women – but they have become extremely common, to the point where the local literary festival includes one. The City of Vancouver itself made an official acknowledgement a couple of years ago. Sometimes these words are said with solemnity and sometimes in a very perfunctory manner, and some acknowledgements are better than others, but at least there’s a moment taken to remind everyone that the land we stand on has a history and that where we put our bodies is political.


I’ve also read that the various Coast Salish First Nations peoples have traditions of seeking permission before entering the traditional territories of another people and of being welcomed through an opening ceremony, and our current territory acknowledgement has been positioned as a part of that tradition.


My Paganism is an embodied religion grounded in the time and space where my body is located. I aim for rituals that use our bodies, our senses, and our movements to honour and celebrate what’s happening in the natural world around us. I can’t separate my spirituality from the body I was born with nor from the natural, political, economic, and cultural systems I was born into. I am a white, English-speaking, able-bodied, cis-woman born and raised into a middle-class family in Canada. I have huge amounts of unearned privilege because of the body, place, and time where I was born. Some of that privilege touches upon the earth itself, as it is why I can claim to own a small piece of land.


I don’t think I’m alone in seeing my Paganism as being about the actual land I’m on. And most Vancouver residents will have heard these acknowledgements before – as I mentioned, they’ve become very common – so it seems very weird to me that I have yet to hear anything like this at a Pagan event.


This topic came up at Silver Spiral’s Pagan Symposium and I’ve been contemplating the question of why Pagans don’t (in my experience) acknowledge ever since. A Silver Spiral member raised an important theological point: For her, casting a Circle takes us out of the physical world to a literal in-between – a place that is not a place and a time that is not a time – so she would find it jarring to have a physical, political reality invoked in that Circle. However, setting aside the question of the politics of taking a piece of unceded land and taking it out of time and space, we were agreed that before we move into sacred space and after we cut the Circle, the physical space is relevant. We came to an easy agreement that both political and theological needs could be satisfied by making acknowledgements before casting the Circle.


So if the problem is not theology, than something else must be going on. My first thought is that I might be overestimating the political involvement of my fellow Pagans. Perhaps they don’t go to the kind of progressive events, conferences, and workshops that make a point of territory acknowledgement. Perhaps these speeches are less common at suburban events, where many Pagans live. Perhaps a lot of Pagans attend mostly Pagan-run events and end up in a bit of a cultural echo-chamber. And perhaps when they do hear it, they don’t really know what it means and they don’t think about how it might apply to Pagan use of the land.


There may be something else at play here too: the mostly-white Canadian Pagan’s complicated relationship to First Nations’ culture. There are still some Pagans who elevate any drop of First Nations blood they can claim, who like to accessorize their faith with Native tools and art, and who often seem to engage in the “Noble Savage” mythology. Most Pagans – or, at least, most Pagans I know – seem to look down on these practices, realizing that cultural appropriation in Paganism is a real concern and that as a community, we need to build and maintain our own identities and not steal other people’s, especially when those people are still around and have suffered very real hardships in order to keep their traditions in the face of attempted cultural genocide by some of our ancestors. I wonder, though, if in our justifiable concern about stepping on cultural toes, we’ve gone so far that we’re at risk of erasing First Nations’ existence from our concerns.


Finally, and most cringe-worthy, I think our community has a bit of a prosecution complex. Though we have for the most part laid to rest the myths of the so-called “Burning Times”, I think we still want to embrace our minority status. Not to say that being “out” as Pagan doesn’t sometimes have negative consequences, but we are not a group that faces daily discrimination like that caused by racism. I confess that I do wonder if some parts of our community have subconsciously avoided the standard “unceded territory” speech because that would be acknowledging that we are privileged.


My question to the Vancouver Pagan community is simple: Why don’t you currently acknowledge traditional territories? What do you think would happen if we did?


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