Yes! You Are Guilty of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural AppropriationCultural Appropriation and Paganism. Cultural Appropriation and Magical Practice. I honestly don’t know if what I am about to write is going to come across as sensible or insensitive, controversial or common sense. I do know it has been on my mind since I started doing research for my Palo Santo and White Sage article. It seemed too big a can of worms to open at the time.

But what the hell, here goes!

First, a note on my perspective: I am a white American woman. I had a privileged and positive upbringing. Curiosity and learning about other cultures was encouraged in my home. My parents were collectors of American Indian art, and I learned a lot about the meanings and the stories behind pieces in our home. Like a lot of budding witches, I first learned about modern witchcraft during high school. My early practices were eclectic as f**k, with little regard or research into where things came from.

I was absolutely guilty of cultural appropriation. Still am.

So are you.

What is Cultural Appropriation? defines cultural appropriation as “the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.

I see this all over the place in pagan practices and in magical practices. To use the above example, it came up as a reason besides the “endangered” status for why we shouldn’t use palo santo or white sage.

Both of these are from practices unique to native peoples of the Americas. But for the beginner witch or energy sensitive, they often just hear “Use this to clear negative energies!” without any of the original source it came from.

I have seen it express itself in other ways: adding deities to one’s practice without cultural connection or study, incorporating eastern traditions right alongside Celtic ones, mojo bags used by that specific name with no additional connection to hoodoo… These cultures, practices, and studies all have their own weight and history. By just adding it in under the umbrella of “eclectic” we are doing the cultures and ourselves a disservice.

Appropriation or Appreciation?

Does this mean don’t use anything that does not come from your own culture? Do I hate eclectic witches? Absolutely not on both accounts!

What this means is I want you to take a moment and acknowledge where the traditions you use come from. Study and learn, and then you can both better appreciate the cultures different magical practices come from. Look at what you do and ask, “Why?” Once you have done that, you can better decide whether it can be used in an educated and appreciative way, or if the negatives of appropriation outweigh that.

But how do you know?

One thing I strongly recommend is that if you can find someone actually of the culture in question, talk to them! We are an amazingly global world thanks to the internet, so if you don’t know someone personally, chances are you can still find someone online who either has already given their opinion on the subject, or are willing to give it.

We are all human, so opinions on where the line between appropriation and appreciation is are going to vary. You will also find some people who take offense at use of things from their culture or religion when taken out of context, and you will find some who want people from other cultures to learn about their traditions to keep them alive. Give all these opinions serious weight.

There will also always be culturally tinged words and stereotypes that will be offensive. If you find out you are using one of those… stop it. Stop it now. If you find yourself saying, “I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway,” stop it now.

Should I Care?

Well, think you should. But I can’t make you. It is a choice you need to make for yourself.

Nothing that we do exists in a vacuum. Most magical practices and many pagan paths encourage you to be sensitive to the energies and the world around you. They say that in order to change things, you need to first understand them.

How can you do that if you disconnect yourself from these rich cultural histories?

And frankly, if you are coming from a place of privilege, and then using parts of cultures that have been oppressed, undervalued, enslaved, and claiming what is their’s as your own, aren’t you repeating patterns that we should be breaking?

But on the other hand… like a lot of Americans, my cultural heritage is thoroughly mixed. If you take the time to study traditions that arose in America – after European colonization, that is – you find that much like our language we borrowed bits from all over the place and combined them into new “American” things. Some of these traditions arise from not having a clear idea of our own culture. That very disconnect has drawn more than a few pagans I know to their current paths.

To the outside, to people in other countries and cultures, we do sometimes look absolutely ridiculous trying to claim the heritages of our great-great-grandparents. But does that mean we should not learn those traditions? That we should not study those faiths?

How much do we care before sensitivity overwhelms our desire for connection?

I’m betting if you made it this far through my ramblings, you care a bit.

What Should I Do?

Want to be better about cultural appropriation in your own magical practices? Here are some of my suggestions:

  1. Study, study, study! Learn everything you can about why you do what you do.
  2. Evaluate. Are you adding something that is trendy right now, or what someone else recommended to you, without knowing where the practice comes from?
  3. Including something from another culture? Learn its importance within that culture first.
  4. Talk to people. Find out whether others consider the practices you are using are appropriation or not.
  5. Look to your own culture or family history. Start with seeking to appreciate where you came from to give your path a stronger foundation.
  6. Decide. Only you can determine whether to use practices from other cultures or not. Whatever you decide, stand by that decision with knowledge of what you are doing.

Any other suggestions, or thoughts on cultural appropriation? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in learning more about cultural appropriation? Check out these books from Amazon!

Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation

Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition (Contributions to Zombie Studies)


Endangered? More About White Sage and Palo Santo

It’s been going around a lot lately: two of the most commonly preferred plants for smudging, white sage and palo santo, have been declared endangered. As I keep hearing different versions of this, I know I can’t be the only one… well, confused. So I’ve done some digging for all of us, and hope this can help everyone cleanse their spaces, clear negative energies, and invite good vibes in peace!

Is White Sage Endangered?

First, the really simplified part: no, white sage is not listed as endangered. What it definitely is, though, is over harvested.

There is strong evidence of individuals harvesting white sage from protected lands and private lands. The craze for white sage over the last few years has drastically increased demand. Any time that happens, there are going to be people who take advantage of it, and in these case in both illegal ways and ways that are dangerous to the wild population of the plant.

How About Palo Santo?

A slightly more complicated answer for this one: Yes, but…

First of all, Palo Santo, or “Holy Wood,” is a name given to more than one species of plant. One of these species, Bulnesia Sarmientoi is endangered. The most commonly found variant of Palo Santo found in stores, with its golden yellow wood color, is Bursera Graveolens.

That said, it too could be threatened if wild harvesting at a significant rate is allowed. Traditional practices only cut the dead wood, which is much better for sustainability.

What about cultural appropriation?

That is a much bigger can of worms, and I will gladly go into it in a future blog posts. Pagans have a history of picking and choosing sacred practices from a lot of cultures, and I can’t decide for you how to feel about that.

What can I do if I want to keep burning these?

A couple of simple suggestions:

  • A lot of the white sage and palo santo on the market are farmed. This is good for continuing the species! Look for where your herbs are coming from.
  • Do not purchase white sage or palo santo that advertises it is “wild crafted.” This is harvesting the plants from their natural environments, which are what we want to preserve.
  • Double check what species you are buying. If you don’t know, don’t buy it.
  • Burn your white sage or palo santo sparingly. A little bit goes a long way.

What can I do instead of burning these?

First option, there are a lot of other plants you can burn instead:

  • Blue sage and desert sage also come in smudge bundles, and are not currently threatened.
  • Lavender, rosemary, and several other plants make good smudge bundles.
  • Frankincense and myrrh are related to Palo Santo, and also not threatened.

Or, there are options other than burning herbs for cleansing spaces. Take a look at our past blog post about cleansing methods for some other ideas.

What is Crooked Treehouse doing?

We already have a fair amount of white sage and palo santo in stock. When we next order, we will be taking a closer look at our suppliers. I will say we live far from where these are grown, so we can’t go to a farm and check for ourselves, but we will do our best to support sustainable harvest practices.

We also have many other sage options in stock, and all clearly labeled. So how about trying out some blue sage instead?

More about White Sage & Palo Santo

Easy Ways to Cleanse Negative Energies

Hello and welcome! It’s been an amazing couple of months since I opened up the Crooked Treehouse. I’ve loved talking with my new customers – you guys are amazing – and wonderful old friends. I get asked lots of questions, so I’m going to try and answer some of the more common ones here. So I hope my witchy advice helps!

A lot of us have had a tough 2018, and are feeling like the world is set against us one way or another. When we’re stuck in patterns where nothing seems to go right, we look for ways to start things new. A great way to start is with cleansing. Remove those negative energies and start fresh!

Here are 5 really easy ways to cleanse negative energies!

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Take a bath

It might sound silly, but the best place to start is always with yourself. You can cleanse energies from your home all day and night long, but if you don’t cleanse what you carry with you you’ll just bring it back in again.

Make sure you can take a nice, uninterrupted soak as long as you might need it.

Add some salt to the water to absorb negative energies. Add a couple of drops of a cleansing essential oil that you like the scent of, such as lavender, lemon, frankincense, or sage.

Take a nice hot soak. Clear your mind as you cleanse your body. When you’re done, rinse off the salt and oil with clean water.

Sweep Your House

This is one of the things I do regularly for a quick house cleansing. Start at the farthest part of your home. Focus on sweeping away the negative energies along with sweeping the dirt away. It’s a 2 for 1 cleansing!

Sweep it all the way out your door. Make sure you don’t just leave it right on your doorstep where it will get tracked back in. Or, for a quick cleansing, just sweep away the area at your front stoop, encouraging those energies not to enter!

blue smoke wallpaper
Photo by Tetyana Kovyrina on

Burn Sage or Incense

Sage smudging for cleansing is an ancient tradition with its roots in indigenous cultures. The use of fragrant smoke in ritual is common in many cultures worldwide. While the themes are old, this particular use is much newer. Sage, and sometimes other herbs, are tied together in a fragrant bundle. This is lit so that it smolders, its smoke cleansing the negative energies in that place.

You can also similarly use incense to cleanse a space. Either way, carry it with you from room to room to bring the smoke into your whole home. Open your windows so that the smoke is carried away, taking the negative energies with it.

Are you like me and have someone in your life allergic to sage or smoke? There are also lovely smokeless smudging sprays out there. Spray where you need it and let the scent cleanse your space!

Salt the Corners of Your Home

Salt absorbs negative energies, so placing it in the corners of your home or by your windows and doors can help absorb what is there and keep new negative energies from coming in.

If you don’t want to sprinkle salt or have granular salt in bowls where it might make a mess, try a salt lamp! Plus, they look pretty. Why not have your space cleansing also be decorative?

Light White Candles

Think about the energies you want removed as you light your candles. Then visualize their warm light clearing away those negative energies. They don’t have to be special or scented… though don’t forget about the power of scent discussed above.

These all stand alone, or combine as needed for a deep cleanse!

Have a favorite thing to cleanse negative energies? Let me know in the comments! And please feel free to share this article with the image below.

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