D is for Diaspora
One of the problems that I seem to always come around to, no matter where my seeking takes me, is the plain and simple fact that I do not live in the places where the majority of religions that neopagan belief and practice is drawn from occurred. I have no great pull toward the pre-Christian faiths of Europe in order to reclaim my ancestry, or get in touch with my roots, or honor the gods of my ancestors.
I live in the Diaspora. And, like many American pagans and polytheists, I sometimes feel like I don’t have solid footing.
It’s a bit more than feeling unwelcome, it’s a feeling of…it not being quite genuine, to me. While I have great respect for those who take a Reconstructionist approach to religion, I can’t ever see myself as being comfortable enough with notions of place and heritage to focus on one culture to that extent.
If I were say, Irish-American, coming from a family with a distinct cultural tradition traceable to a Place We Came From, things would be different. I might feel a little more comfortable taking up the mantle of a Gaelic Polytheist, in this example. I might feel like it was something that I belonged to that could be reclaimed.
But I’m not, and I can’t.
I don’t think I’m alone in this mental struggle. And I don’t mean to imply that Reconstructionists simply go forth guns blazing and live the lifestyle of the culture they’re reconstructing without any further thought. Recons are more than just SCA reenactors. And every single Recon blog or essay I’ve come across has, somewhere or other, wrestled with the fact that (if the author is not European), their religion must be practiced in a place where their gods of old were not worshipped.
I keep saying European but to be fair, Kemetics have this problem too, and anyone working in a cultural framework that is not the same as the culture that they currently inhabit. And to be really fair, this issue isn’t limited to Reconstructionists, but those with culturally-centered paths and serious-minded eclectics as well.
How does one reconcile these things? It’s this struggle that, I believe, gives rise to the frustration felt by many new Pagans, the idea that, if they are American, they don’t really “have” a culture, that they need to find other cultures, more vibrant and enticing ones, to fill in the holes in their hearts that their lack of culture has contributed to. There is a prevalent belief that in regular everyday American life there is something missing, and due to the great American Migration Myth that we are taught in history classes, there is an idea that that something can be found if we look abroad.
And then there is the tricky, dangerous idea that this something was here all along, and it was lost somehow, and it needs to be reclaimed. And this, I think, is where issues of Native American and First Nations appropriation come into play. That somehow modern non-NA practitioners can live “more spiritually” and get in touch with the spirit of the land they live in by adopting the practices of those whose land it was originally.
This is not an acceptable solution. Indigenous peoples have had their lands and their taken away from them, I have no desire to take their faith as well, just to feel like I’m practicing a “real” spirituality.
I have heard lots of Americans describe themselves as “mutts,” and what they usually follow that up with is that they have ancestors that immigrated from all over Europe. I’m a bit of a mutt in a different way:
My ancestry on my mother’s side is British, generally, and as far as we can tell, mostly English at that. I think there was one fellow in there who moved from Ireland to Shropshire but we don’t know if he was actually Irish or (quite possible, given the time period) an Englishman whose family settled in Ireland as part of the colonization of that land and the oppression of the Irish people.
My father is African-American, and as you can imagine, that makes any search for cultural heritage quite a bit more complicated. Most of his relatives have lived in Illinois for a good long while, and that holds particular interest because my dad’s family has been REALLY Catholic for a REALLY long time, and the part of Illinois they come from was one of the places of earliest European settlement in the state. A lot of the surnames on the family tree are French. And indeed, I probably also have some Native American heritage there, from back in the early days of Fort de Chartres and Kaskaskia, but that is too long ago and too little to lay claim to. Moreover, I have no direct proof, no documentation thanks to the erasure of slavery and forced migration.
I’m not even going to begin to look at African cultures for religious inspiration. Again, that is not my right.
But the issue is more, even, than not having a right to certain cultures. It’s the persistent little feeling that, unlike the idea of non-cultural modern America, I DO have a culture, and the place I was born and raised, the areas that my family has lived in in this country have shaped who I am and how I see the world.
The diaspora IS my homeland, as far as I’m concerned. And I want to do my best to be a pagan in this land, and relate to it in a way that feels genuine and relevant to me, and is respectful of where I came from and the others who were here before me.
My culture is thoroughly Midwestern and to be more specific, it is St. Louisan. Even without having French ancestry there is a whole hell of a lot of French culture in my hometown. I have grown up knowing (and fearing) the power of the Mississippi. I am very familiar with the probably not true but compelling superstition that the Gateway Arch protects the city by diverting violent storms. These an a thousand other little things I don’t even think about, things I learned about the world as a child and accept to be true, these are my culture. The gods that govern my homeland are the river, and the spirit of trade and the crossroads, and, with the immigration from Germany, the brewing of beer.
I’m not living there anymore, I’m upriver where the water isn’t muddy and the winters are much harsher and the European settlers were a bit different from the ones who settled St. Louis, but there is still enough of a similarity that I don’t feel like a foreigner here. And that’s good.
Funnily enough, the pre-Christian cultural areas that I got drawn into investigating actually map fairly well onto the landscape of my own American culture. Celtic animism and veneration of rivers meshes well, though I hesitate to offer prayer to Sequana when I’m standing at the Mississippi. I think I would like to keep them separate, out of respect. Whichever face of Gaulish Mercury it is that seems to keep pestering me has (UPG alert) an association with skill and trade and travel and crossroads, and again, that fits.
But this is not really a simple solution, and I think it’s going to require ongoing effort to balance and re-balance the Midwestern animism I’ve had all my life with the European deities who’ve only shown up in my life a couple years ago. It might be a lifelong task, and it will probably never be complete. But I’m not trying to create a legacy here, I’m not really building a religion for other people. I’m building it for me, based on my culture and my experiences, and that’s going to be different for every person depending on where they and their ancestors came from.
I hope I’m doing my disaporic faith right.