“There is a spirituality indigenous to every land. When you move in harmony with that spirit of place, you are practicing native (not Native) spirituality.”
— Loren Cruden, The Spirit of Place 1
“For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island. . . . Europe or Africa or Asia will then be seen as the place our ancestors came from, places we might want to know about and to visit, but not ‘home.’ Home — deeply, spiritually — must be here.” — Gary Snyder, Practice of the Wild 2
“But can non-indigenous people really presume to become native? . . . What kind of nativeness is possible and to what extent can we become native to the land?”
— David Landis Barrett, At Home on the Earth 3
Since enrolling in Jon Young’s Kamana Naturalist Training Course, 4 the word “native” and all that it implies is frequently on my mind. The Kamana course teaches us to “see with native eyes,” as Young puts it, and emphasizes that this ability is not for Native Americans only but is a learned skill. Once introduced to the concept of “becoming native,” I seemed to find it everywhere.
Using the word “native” is tricky business. (Coyote and Raven are most likely behind the debate, don’t you think?) Many of us in the Goddess and Pagan movements who have European ancestry have been exhorted by our teachers to seek out our own ancestral roots rather than participate in cultural imperialism by taking on Native American spiritual practices. “White folks were wild once too,” we are reminded, and out of respect for the Native peoples and in acknowledgement of the wrongs done to them by our ancestors, many of us have turned away from studying Native American spirituality. We have instead studied the pre-Christian cultures and spiritual practices of our European forebears.
My studies of the Celtic goddesses and myths of my own ancestral heritage have been rich. But a problem arose for me when I realized the obvious: that I don’t live in the land of my ancestors. I live here, in North America. More specifically I live in the Pacific Northwest, the Cascadia Bioregion, part-time in an inland second-growth forest and part-time on an island in the San Juan archipelago. As I fell more and more in love with the land where I live, I learned the stories and myths of the first peoples who lived here. At the same time I began my naturalist studies. It became very meaningful to me to compare the myths of my Celtic heritage with the myths of the Northwest, especially the stories of the plants and animals who live in both places (like the magical hawthorn tree and the salmon of wisdom).
I had an opportunity to balance the two — the local and the ancestral — in ritual space last May at an island Beltane gathering. I was given the task of standing for the West at a ceremony in which the group walked in procession to each of the four directions in turn on our hosts' property. On a bluff facing west and overlooking the water and islands beyond, I told the local tribe’s story of Salmon Woman, who promised that she would always bring the tribe abundance as long as they treated her salmon children fairly and well. I then taught the crowd to sing “Ave Stella Maris,” a song to the universal Ocean Mother, as we passed a cup of May wine.
Loren Cruden speaks of this challenge of finding the balance between place and ancestry: “If you are from a race or culture that isn’t Native American, you can still feel a soul connection to the spirit and form of this land. What seems to be emerging in North America is a path derived from the same spirit of place that the Natives tuned to, but that expresses itself through a marriage of ancestry and place. . . . Ancestry gives form and continuity to spiritual practice; place gives immediacy and manifestation to power.” 5
But there is another, more important reason for becoming native to your place: the earth needs it. David Landis Barrett writes, “[The earth] needs people who live in a native way, who consider themselves people of the land. European-Americans have been so destructive to this continent and its indigenous peoples in large part because we have rejected the notion that we are native to the earth. We have insisted on our transcendence and so devastation has followed in our path. To seek a new sense of nativeness — a slow and stumbling process to be sure — is one of the ways we can begin to live well with the earth and all its peoples.” 6
How then, as non-indigenous peoples, do we become native to the land where we live?
It is not as simple as saying, “I grew up in California, so I’m a native Californian.” That is certainly true on one level, as it is also true that “native” means a group or culture that is indigenous. But I would propose that we learn another meaning for the word “native.” Barrett suggests that it “can point to an individual’s way of living and state of mind, referring to someone who realizes a deep embeddedness in nature, who has a subtle understanding of the land and an abiding identity with place usually found in aboriginal people.” 7 Or as Gary Snyder says, “. . . if you know what is taught by the plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can truly feel more at home.” 8
These days I am learning to be “in on the gossip” of my Place — I watch as the Steller’s jays squabble over the sunflower seeds I set out for them and notice the towhees and juncos quietly await their turn at the feeder. I know where the chickaree (Douglas squirrel) hides her stash of seeds and nuts in the autumn, and what part of the woods holds the most luscious mushrooms. I know the slough where the great blue heron lives and when the tree frogs will begin their chorus in the spring. I know where to harvest wild onions in the summer and where to find nettles in the earliest days of spring. I know how far north the sun sets at midsummer, and how low in the sky it rides at noon in midwinter.
This, then, is how we become native to the land: by loving her well, first of all. By observing, being aware, studying, and participating in the life cycle of the land instead of dominating it. We do this by keeping nature journals, by gardening with native plants, by sitting so still the birds forget we’re there. We do it in ways too numerous to list or count.
Being native is not something that we are, it’s something that we do. We are, if we so choose, always in the process of becoming native to the land. And it’s a process that we will never finish. There will be always be more to learn.
1. Loren Cruden, The Spirit of Place: A Workbook for Sacred Alignment, Destiny Books 1995, p. 3.
2. Gary Snyder, “Practice of the Wild,” excerpted in At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place, A Multicultural Anthology, University of California Press 1999, p. 99.
3. David Landis Barrett, editor, At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place, A Multicultural Anthology, University of California Press 1999, p. 8.
4. Jon Young, "Kamana Naturalist Training Program," <www.kamana.org> [Note: When I took this course, it was a paper correspondence course. Now it's an online membership site.]
5. Loren Cruden, The Spirit of Place: A Workbook for Sacred Alignment, Destiny Books 1995, p. 3.
6. David Landis Barrett, editor, At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place, A Multicultural Anthology, University of California Press 1999, p. 9.
7. Ibid, p. 9.
8. Gary Snyder, “Practice of the Wild,” excerpted in At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place, A Multicultural Anthology, University of California Press 1999, p. 98.
©1998 Joanna Powell Colbert. Do not reprint without permission. Thank you.