On hte BridgeRecently, I found myself in conversation with a diverse group of alternatively oriented, North American,  health care providers, some of whom integrate shamanic practices into their work. As often happens, talk turned to our various efforts to situate ourselves in the broader cultural framework. Inevitably, this proves a thorny conversation.

Identity issues cut deep, exposing the painful questions underlying the increasingly tenuous fabric of Self. When engaged in conversations about our fundamental beliefs about Self we may find ourselves asking: “Who am I? What claims may I make about my experience of Me-ness? In a world that appropriates and commodities everything, how do I understand and situate Self?”

Speaking with my colleagues I was reminded that conversations about traditional modes of living and healing generate additional anxiety. Ethical questions abound: “What constitutes appropriation? Given we learn to be adults through acts of appropriation, what may we respectfully borrow from others? Does our use of another’s knowledge diminish the other? “

My colleagues attempted to circumvent these raw issues by positioning themselves squarely in the “Post Tribal”. At that point I stopped talking and simply listened. While I see myself as situated in the uncomfortable potential space between tribal and urban, I identify strongly with my tribal heritage. From that point of reference it seems to me the idea of Post Tribal is fraught  with problems.  The greatest of these is that it effectively erases the sovereignty and authorship of the world’s thousands of active tribal cultures. In so doing it effectively dismisses any claim to ownership of knowledge, traditions, and practices these cultures may make. The idea of the Post Tribal threatens, once again, to leave tribal people behind and alone. It borrows freely and selectively from Indigenous understanding, and uses these decontextualized bits of knowledge to strengthen the very citadel  of individuality that tribal ways of knowing challenge.  This seems, at best, disrespectful, and at worst genocidal. Either way, such attitudes inflict great harm on the souls of tribal and non-tribal people alike. There must be more heart centered ways for us to negotiate these issues.

Most of my teachers walked the “Soft Path,” the way of the Heart. On this path we are encouraged to balance mind and heart, and to be courageous warriors of the Spirit. We are advised to wrestle lovingly with difficult questions and the challenges of our time. Yet we are also to stand up to tyranny in all its forms. From the place of the Tribal Heart, we can understand that in a world of eight billion people most of us will not live on the land, in tribal communities. That must not stop us from acknowledging and honoring diverse knowledges and ways of living, no matter how easy it would be to do otherwise. Rather, I believe we must, if we are to survive as persons and as a species, tend the garden of diversity, protecting and nurturing the myriad forms of culture and biological life that make Earth home.

As we consider the way onward we may well ask ourselves:”How are we to hold on to the best of the traditions from which we spring? What might we ethically incorporate into our lives from the beliefs and practices of other cultures? What shared knowledge might be of real use in our turbulent times, might aid all of us in moving towards sustainable lifeways?”

The path ahead is challenging and the view is at times bleak. Yet, we do not know how that view, or the terrain, may change around the bend, or on the other side of the mountain. I imagine we are called simply do our best as we walk on. Approaching questions of Self and appropriation with deep thought and great kindness is good to practice  as we journey along together.

– Michael Watson, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes portrait below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

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