- Cultural Integrity
by Jaelle Shadowdancer, Clan Leader, Greenwood Clan, Toteg Tribe
My first encounter with this concept came somewhen about 1994 on a BBS,
of the metaphysical boards. Someone had posted something about chakras, and a
Hindu (I no longer remember if it was a male or a female) raised several
objections to the concept being used, stating that none of us could possibly
understand all that it meant, given our cultural backgrounds. As the discussion
progressed (or perhaps "regressed" is the better word) opinions got heated on
both sides, with one side saying "you don't know what it means, you're not Hindu
you didn't study it" and the other side saying "Knowledge is knowledge and truth
is truth, and you can't place boundaries on either."
It wasn't until years later that this discussion came back to me, and suddenly
understood what the Hindu was saying. We were using words to describe concepts
that had nothing to do with what the words meant. It was like the lot of us had
taken a single cooking class and were vociferously agreeing that orange sauce was
a lovely stand-alone, all the while pointing at an apple to show the fruit making the
sauce. Meanwhile an orange farmer looked on us in utter astonishment and tried to
tell us it was *apple* sauce we liked, not *orange* sauce. Unfortunately we were
marketing this stuff as orange sauce, and folks were buying it and believing it was
orange sauce, so the real orange sauce wasn't being found (thus hurting the orange
It seems a ridiculous metaphor, and yet the very same thing occurs daily
spiritual writings and teachings found both on the Internet and in publication. The
problem is that we are part of a society that values scientific analysis and
research, where with two or three studies we can consider something proven and
move on from there. Unfortunately we unthinkingly apply those same standards to
deeper subjects like Mystery, and expect a study or two will give a definitive
answer on what something is. While this may apply very well to solid, provable
facts, or suffice for a research paper, it certainly doesn't apply to things that
may take years of study to understand, or those which can only be experienced.
So what then do we mean by cultural respect, and how is it related? In
means just what it says - treating cultures with respect, just as you would treat an
elder of that culture, and not as some scientific fact to be proven or uncovered.
This sounds almost trivial and yet it is far from it. The idea here is to treat the
culture as a living being, one that can be injured, sickened, or sustained by our
actions. It sounds ridiculous now, but I invite you to follow this
thought-experiment to the end; perhaps it will help clarify a notoriously muddy
Step One: Suppose you've decided to learn
about a particular group of people,
called the Earth People. The first thing most of us do is to get a book or two, or
read a few articles, about this People. Two possible mentalities result from this:
you can accept what you have read as the facts so far, or you can decide to throw
out those bits that you've read that don't match the romantic preconception that
started your search. You'd be amazed how many people choose the second option
without realizing it.
This is a potential stopping point for learning: you can choose to go on,
to take what you've learned and say you've done your research. If you stop here,
you can simply move on with what you've learned and accept that you never went
deeper, or you can go on to write a paper about the practices of these people, cite
your sources, and say it's well researched. Many people choose to write this
paper, then set themselves up as authorities. What is frightening is how this can
propagate - suppose the paper read by you was written by someone who did the
same thing you are about to do? How solid are your sources? How intellectually
honest were you - did you allow your preconceptions to come through in the
paper? And will the next person coming to your paper walk away with a good
understanding of the culture of the Earth People, or will they learn more
mish-mash, write their own paper, and further the cultural muddiness? The choice
here is yours.
Step Two: Suppose you choose to continue
your research, and you find out in
your reading that the Earth People is really a blanket title for various tribes, the
White Clay and the Red Clay for example, among others. And you learn that
there's another very small group called the Tree People who live nearby and have
some similar practices. Many people take this kind of scenario and label them all
Earth People - White Clay, Red Clay, and Tree People alike. This takes us back
into the issues discussed in step one however, and there is no need to go further in
the discussion. Let's say you note the differences in the peoples, and in fact go on
to learn all there is to know - based on the available publications that is. Do you
truly know the Earth People? Or have you learned merely what other people have
reported about the Earth People? Can you honestly call yourself an authority?
Step Three: You have decided at this point
that the time has come to visit the
Earth People. You pack up your van and go stay with the White Clay. You spend a
year or two there, get to know several of the people, make a few friends, and
learn from their elders. Can you now consider yourself an authority? Most would
argue yes. However, there are a few points to consider:
Did you stay in the tribe's huts and tough out the
weather, or retreat to
your van/hotel/other living arrangement when things got rough?
Did you learn the tribe's language? Do you *think* in that language?
Have you learned a craft, or whatever other means the tribe makes its
living? Can you support yourself that way?
Does the tribe look at you and see "friendly outsider" or do they see
Do you look at the tribe and see your future, or was this an
There are many other considerations involved as well, but by now the point
be obvious. If you've come to the conclusion that I am saying it is impossible to
be a true authority on the White Clay people, you're close to the truth. What you
have become an expert on is your culture's interpretation of the White Clay's
ways. I will not say it is impossible to become an authority on White Clay, but
that would be something only the elders of White Clay could confer on you. And
even so, would you have the right to then go out and teach the White Clay's way to
the world? Are you then, in your core of being, White Clay? Do you know what it
was like to be raised as White Clay? Obviously not.
What you can do however, is take what you've learned of the White Clay
share it, not as "White Clay Wisdom," but as wisdom you have gained, from living
with the White Clay.
Lost in the translation
How does one person communicate with another? In most cases, it is through
language of one form or another. Is there anyone who has not experienced the
frustration of trying to explain something to another person, and not being able to
put to words that which you are trying to communicate? Even when we all speak
the same language, comprehension is not guaranteed by any explanation. I think
there are sufficient jokes available on the Internet showcasing various
misunderstandings due to regional slang, that I needn't address that obvious
factor. Another classic example is color - tell me, is teal green or is it blue? Are
all bricks, brick red? Clearly, having a word for something is no guarantee of
sense, nor is sharing a language a guarantee of clear communication.
How much worse then when wisdom attempts to cross language barriers. One
on words I particularly enjoy comes from the Spanish words for "to be:" Estoy
que soy, y soy que estoy. Estoy translates to "I am." Soy translates to "I am."
Thus, the literal translation of that phrase is "I am what I am, and I am what I
am," which is almost so trivial as to be a nonsense phrase. I'll spare you the
linguistic analysis, and supply the common translation (also somewhat of a
misnomer) that "soy" implies permanence, and "estoy" implies "at the current
moment." Suddenly the phase takes on a much deeper meaning - something like "I
am at the moment what the core of my being is, and the core of my being is what I
am at this moment."
Another point to consider is the proverbial arctic dozen-or-more-words-for-snow,
another language cliche. So many of us wonder how you can have a dozen words
for snow, and yet the cultures in which they existfound the distinction important.
Learning a language helps you learn how a culture thinks, which further improves
understanding. Not learning the language means you may not even be aware of the
distinctions made in the language, and thus in the thought of the speakers. These
distinctions may make all the difference in theworld, in communication. Furthermore,
unless you are able to think in that language, you will find yourself mentally translating
back to your native tongue, once again missing the concepts.
How then, can you learn anything from the experts of a culture - the people
themselves - without learning the language they speak? At best you find yourself
relying on a translator, who may or may not have a grasp of the concepts involved
in both languages. At worst you will miss out on any fine distinctions - which may
be critical. Without learning the language of a teacher, can you really understand
all that teacher attempts to impart, even if read from an expert translation?
Dropping (or adding) what doesn't apply
So many eclectics claim they "take what works and drop what doesn't apply"
call the result a complete spiritual package. I have no argument with that, until
they start throwing around words that describe the entire package, and not just
what was kept. Thus you learn of people talking about focusing chi with no
concept of meridians, nor any interest in learning about them. They give the
impression that what they speak of is the whole of the concept, without knowing or
considering the rest of the package, and in the end cheapen the original concept.
This folly is one I fell into quite often, taking the little I knew from martial arts
and thinking I knew something about chi. Then I married a man who once studied
Tai Chi, knew a little Chi Kung, and had some books on the subject (translations,
though he was picky on his translations). As I read a single chapter in one of his
books I realized that I had barely scratched the surface, and much of what I had
understood not only was wrong, but wasn't part of chi at all, and was something
else entirely! And yet I had spoken to others as though I knew what I was talking
about, and potentially had my words carry weight. All because one who taught me
decided what did and did not apply, yet called it Chi.
Sometimes you'll learn of things that make sense, and others that don't.
be tied together. You can attempt to untie the concepts and take what you want,
but if you do so please understand not only that the result is not the same as the
original, but that the piece that doesn't make sense was there for as much reason
as the piece that you kept. Perhaps that piece truly doesn't apply to you - due to
region, gender, or many other factors. Further, it just may be a coincidence that
the piece you kept "worked" for you, and that piece may turn out to be one of the
cultural irrelevancies to you. But understand then that what you take away with
you is only part of the whole. Don't represent it as the whole, because it may come
back to someone for whom that piece does apply. Things evolved as they did for a
reason; you may be promoting the next evolution of the concept, but that doesn't
make it the same as the original. The Soviet Union was not the Russia of the czars,
nor is it the Russia of today.
One thing often ignored and either added or dropped is regional influences.
region in which a culture or tradition evolved often had a huge impact on the
evolution of that culture or tradition. Would a culture that evolved in the arctic
contain wisdom about plants in the amazon, or vice-versa? Do either apply to
someone living in a temperate zone? Taking this further, some rituals, activities,
or offerings, are focused at the spirits of place. Do they really apply to one living
in another area, far from those spirits of place? How much learning about the
culture does it take to truly be able to tell the difference? How often is "Part B"
of something based in part off of an activity in "Part A" that was directed at a
spirit of place? How will the spirits of your own place react to activities focused
at other spirits - particularly if those two spirit groups aren't particularly
friendly to one another? There are many factors involved here, and even assuming
you are equipped to weed through all this and take what truly applies to you, what
you have in the end is not the same as what you had in the beginning.
Damage from outsiders
All the issues discussed above contribute to making what we learn from
culture not-quite-the-same as what the culture is itself. Many people look at the
changes and consider it "cleaned up" or "close enough" and call it the same thing.
Often the argument is that "people will understand what it is" if they hear the
buzzword they expect. The result is that people learn a thing, and come to
understand this new creation, and yet call it the original name. Suddenly the
original owners of their wisdom find themselves fighting for their own identity
amongst a room full of imposters - students of people who followed their own
vision, potentially created something wonderful, and yet used a label they were
not entitled to.
So many cultures suffer from this. Native Americans, Gypsies, Bushmen,
Aboriginals, Hindus - so many peoples have found pieces of their culture taken
away by well meaning seekers, who then taught what they learned. What they
taught however wasn't the original, but their own translation of what they
learned. The very fact that they left the tribe they had learned from highlights
the fact that these teachers are not actually of the tribes they learned from. In
the end, the words become tied to the concepts that these seekers learned, as they
learned them and not as they were. Subtleties are lost. People will learn from the
seeker, learn the buzzwords and throw them around. Eventually more people know
of the seeker's translation of the concept than the true thing as it is. Eventually
the true thing as it is, is lost.
This sounds extreme, but think of how many people have heard of the Dreamtime.
Can they even name the culture from which the concept came? Do they really
understand the concept? Perhaps it is a good thing that so many speakers at least
have heard of the idea. The only ones who can truly answer that question are the
One last point: if you do choose to take from a culture one piece and discard
another, do it with the full understanding of what you discard. Do not do so under
the aegis of cultural superiority. The culture which you study evolved that way
for a reason. Likewise, the culture you are from evolved that way for a reason as
well. There are no equivalencies. There are no superiorities.
So how does this all come back to treating a culture as you would treat
elder? Quite simply, consider these four concepts as though the culture was an
individual. For cultural immersion - do you know the culture well enough to be
comfortable with it personified, as comfortable as you would need to be to speak
for that person? For translation - can you really speak to those in that culture, as
you would to that culture personified? For fragmentation - are you speaking for
the culture as a whole, as you would be for a person as a whole, or are you
speaking only for one quirk of the individual, where if you catch him in a different
mood things will be different? Finally, have you said anything that could be
harmful to that person, either physically or by reputation?
To give the culture the same consideration and respect you would give a
requires more effort on your part. If you want to learn about it, you must do
more than scratch the surface. You must truly get to know it, learn to speak its
language, learn the whole of it, and never presume to speak for it, nor do anything
to harm it. The reward however is a true understanding - not just a knowledge - of
the culture which you learn, which will lead to a more effortless acceptance and
true understanding of its practices.
None of this is to say you cannot, at the end of your journey, share what
learned. By all means, share it; no knowledge is wasted, and other interested
parties may be inspired by your work to look deeper themselves. Do not however
present it as "The Ancient And True Ways Of [X Tribe]," nor should you share
anything that preempts the tribal elders' discretion in what is to be shared with
whom. Those do not belong to you, and are not yours to share. The wisdom gained,
however, is yours to share. You are free then to start your own path based on
what you learned. After all, if you have left The People to return to your world
with your newly acquired wisdom, then you're not really one of The People at
heart, now are you?
You are yourself, a shining example of your own culture's perseverance
learning, interpretations of wisdom, and understanding of living. You need no
jargon from another culture to explain to others in your own culture what you
have gained. Don't sell yourself short, nor risk dishonoring your teachers. The
only thing they will find mysterious about such betrayal is your need to do so in
the first place.
Copyright © 2004 by Jaelle Shadowdancer