Cultural Respect - Cultural Integrity
by Jaelle Shadowdancer, Clan Leader, Greenwood Clan, Toteg Tribe

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                         My first encounter with this concept came somewhen about 1994 on a BBS, in one
                         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 I
                         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 in the
                         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 short, it
                         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, or choose
                         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
                              amusing/educational interlude?

                         There are many other considerations involved as well, but by now the point should
                         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 and
                         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 play
                         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" and
                         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. Both will
                         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. The
                         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 another
                         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
                         tribal elders.

                         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 a cultural
                         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 person
                         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 you have
                         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 in
                         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