Reclaiming Ancestral Wisdom in the New Age Revival
December 18, 2019 12:47 PM   Subscribe

“Metaphysical healing has always been a part of our indigenous culture,” [Kesaine] said. “We are healers—we have always been healers.” My immigrant mother is a Korean herbalist and healer. Our little immediate family of four, adrift in America on our small migrant boat, survived on her life-giving victuals. Her daechu-cha, long-infused Korean jujube tea full of free radical-fighting antioxidants, was not dissimilar from her smile: it took hours of warmth to produce, but its deep sweetness was a dazzling reward. We descend from a long line of healers who have practiced this same medicine. My mother somehow translocated Korea to California, where she planted the same crops and taught me to sun-dry and grind spices, make mushroom tea and ginseng wine, and ferment organic cabbage.

"New Agers are responding to a genuinely felt emotional need within dominant society. Despairing of their feelings of spiritual emptiness and the lack of meaning in their lives, New Agers look to others for succour rather than seeking transformation from within. [...] It has been suggested that when New Agers see how "white" people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their "whiteness". They do this by opting to "become Indian". In this way they can escape responsibility and accountability for "white" racism (Smith 1994:70). This dissociation also allows the individual to continue to benefit from the colonialism of which they are part, but to not take responsibility for it. Certainly, New Agers want to become only part Indian. They do not want to acknowledge First Nation struggles for cultural survival, treaty rights, self-determination or an end to substance abuse. They do not want to acknowledge that which would deny them their romanticized vision of Indian reality. Rather, New Agers see Indians as "gurus" who exist to meet their consumerist needs." The New Age Movement's Appropriation of Native Spirituality: Some Political Implications for the Algonquian Nation, Susanne Miskimmin.
posted by stoneweaver (41 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I appreciate the points regarding the historical (and current) appropriation and exclusion experienced by non-white people in the West, but really don't like the conflation of that with treating any of the actual practices as legitimate, as with the first article's blithe description of yonic crystal eggs and astrology clients.

Crystals, vibrations, balancing metals, that's all nonsense. It's not nonsense because it's not from a white Western culture, it's nonsense because it's nonsense. The people doing this aren't "healers", they are at best peddling nonsense and at worst con artists and snake oil salespeople preying on cultural beliefs to hawk their nonsense. Again, this has nothing to do with Western or not: a Christian preacher promising to heal people with the power of Jesus in his hands or someone treating people based on the Theory of the Humors is just as bad.

I feel like a lot of this awful, often predatory nonsense is wrongly shielded from criticism by painting any legitimate questioning as racist or the like, which only harms the people being duped.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:08 PM on December 18, 2019 [27 favorites]


How very brave of you.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:12 PM on December 18, 2019 [13 favorites]


Thanks for this. I have a lot of this stuff that I would explore but end up feeling disgusted about fellow white people who always co opting local First Nations language and practices and then declaring they can't be racists. Very informative.
posted by kanata at 1:16 PM on December 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


How very brave of you.

This is exactly what I mean about shielding illegitimate practices from criticism, often with this kind of irrelevant mockery.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:19 PM on December 18, 2019 [18 favorites]


Dude, listen. This post is for POC. I absolutely 100% guarantee that we have heard everything you have to say. Like multiple times. Could recreate your comment from comments left on every single post about our practices.

And that’s not what this post is about. It’s about white people coming in to spaces that aren’t theirs and taking things that aren’t for them. Destroying knowledge by using things inappropriately. It turns out that science doesn’t even agree with your take, and more and more tribal elders are being sought out by scientists who are validating what has been known for generations.

So no, I’m not shielding woo white people. I’m rolling my eyes at someone who thinks their voice is important and needed to save us poor backwards people.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:28 PM on December 18, 2019 [30 favorites]


[Public Service Announcement: If you're a white person without connections to the traditions mentioned in the articles, please take extra care not to dominate a conversation that's not about you. Maybe approach reading these links in a spirit of learning, e.g. paying attention to what's true or useful or illuminating, rather than focusing automatically on whatever can be debunked.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 1:30 PM on December 18, 2019 [8 favorites]


This is exactly what I mean about shielding illegitimate practices from criticism, often with this kind of irrelevant mockery.

Come on. You're showing your ass here. You are talking to someone who actually has the background and experiences to interpret the cultural context here, and instead of learning from her, you choose to tone police her? Take a step back and think about why you chose to start the thread off with, as stoneweaver says, utter irrelevance.
posted by Conspire at 1:32 PM on December 18, 2019 [15 favorites]


Is there any reason not to generalize Miskimmin's argument wholesale from the Canadian setting to the US?
posted by PMdixon at 1:32 PM on December 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


I feel like a lot of this awful, often predatory nonsense is wrongly shielded from criticism by painting any legitimate questioning as racist or the like, which only harms the people being duped.

Traditional healing practices can retain cultural value despite being not-very-effective in the medical sense (although some are, and the placebo effect is in any case valuable up to a point). You don’t have to respect every claim about their medical effectiveness, but you can express that scepticism without denying or denigrating their cultural value. Or you can... just not. To the extent that cultural value is leading people to prioritise ineffective medical treatments (which isn’t a given!), that’s a problem for the community to lead on solving, not well-meaning white saviours.

Edit: I failed to preview - mods, feel free to delete if this is overtaking the conversation.
posted by inire at 1:36 PM on December 18, 2019 [11 favorites]


Is there any reason not to generalize Miskimmin's argument wholesale from the Canadian setting to the US?

I would, in fact, encourage that generalization. While there will be specific differences, much of what she has to say is absolutely accurate. And the border runs right through plenty of tribal territories.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:40 PM on December 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


As we're discussing cultural value, I think it's important to also recognize that we're not talking about just culture in the sense of a fixed, unchanging "traditional" set of values - I think these practices shift also with the current body of PoC experiences in Canada/America. Like, I think as we move forward, a lot of cultural practices like this resurge and get recycled for the purpose of dealing with experiences of racism - there's a lot of community of color to be sought around these ideas, for example. In some ways, I think we should contrast this with more acceptable religious practices: seeking out a black or Korean church doesn't usually strike many people as odd, because of its closer proximity to Christian hegemony, for example. So it begs the explanation: why are white people seemly so much more offended and eager to act as saviors when PoC bond over their own spiritual and cultural beliefs?
posted by Conspire at 1:52 PM on December 18, 2019 [10 favorites]


Ok I am continuing this derail for one more comment because just this week a neurologist sought out a healer I know to ask what she was doing because her dad should not have been doing as well as he was. The hospital thought he was going to die. Unsaveable. People don't come back from there, ever. And now he's home from the hospital. One of the top neurologists in the country pursued lunch to learn from a healer because he didn't understand what was happening and wanted to be able to give that treatment to all of his patients.

Dismissing anything that didn't come through Western Channels absolutely is killing people. It is preventing good science, and is detrimental to our health and wellbeing.

To bring that back around - a big reason the dismissal happens is because white people come in to spaces, take things they don't understand, make a mess of them, and then present them as though they are authentic practices. They take whatever easy trappings they happen to land on and just extrapolate out from that, as though it's meaningful outside of cultural contexts and loads of other information and knowledge.

It's like if someone were to find out about how amazing a drug is, take it without consulting a pharmacist and then it kills them because of a drug interaction. It's not the fault of the drug. It's the fault of people not consulting authorities who know something and can help them use it effectively.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:55 PM on December 18, 2019 [20 favorites]


"In some ways, I think we should contrast this with more acceptable religious practices: seeking out a black or Korean church doesn't usually strike many people as odd, because of its closer proximity to Christian hegemony, for example. So it begs the explanation: why are white people seemly so much more offended and eager to act as saviors when PoC bond over their own spiritual and cultural beliefs?"

This thisssss this THIS.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:56 PM on December 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


No no no no. My Uncle had cancer and switched over to traditional Chinese medicine to battle it. I watched him waste away in front of my eyes while the apothecary selling him the lie made out like a bandit. Fuck masquerading "traditional" and "alternative" medicine as anything but the sham it is.
posted by dazed_one at 2:24 PM on December 18, 2019 [18 favorites]


To bring that back around - a big reason the dismissal happens is because white people come in to spaces, take things they don't understand, make a mess of them, and then present them as though they are authentic practices. They take whatever easy trappings they happen to land on and just extrapolate out from that, as though it's meaningful outside of cultural contexts and loads of other information and knowledge.

Ok, yeah, no. I mean, if any of this, crystal healing, yoga, etc actually worked, then why don't some of these practitioners go to medical school, become a doctor, and find a way to incorporate this into medical science.

White people swooping in and taking the cultural healing practices of Indians is wrong, but that doesn't mean that those culutral practices actually work.

Sangermain's comment was probably not the best start off with, but I'm not going to let it look like all people of color are on the woo-woo train. Some of us agree with that it's nonsense that doesn't work and appreciate it when white people speak up about it as well since you get a lot of pushback from poc believers when you say that.
posted by brandnewday989 at 2:24 PM on December 18, 2019 [15 favorites]


“Ok, yeah, no. I mean, if any of this, crystal healing, yoga, etc actually worked, then why don't some of these practitioners go to medical school, become a doctor, and find a way to incorporate this into medical science.“

Why do you think they aren’t? Bring citations and facts please
posted by stoneweaver at 2:47 PM on December 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


Why do you think they aren’t? Bring citations and facts please

No. The burden of proof is on the person claiming a needle placed in the base of the neck is going to cure a cancer better than chemo.
posted by dazed_one at 2:52 PM on December 18, 2019 [6 favorites]


Who has made that claim here or in the post
posted by stoneweaver at 2:54 PM on December 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


FWIW, the first link and second link are dramatically different. If you read the first link and you are tempted to come back and write an argument regarding the merits of e.g. "The Yoni Egg Shadow Integration Workbook: Your 28-day Astrological Guide through the Womb Wellness Journey, which provides prompts for womb healing meditations, daily dream journaling, chakra check-ins, and decoding of the reader’s astrological birth chart over the 28-day cycle", then I suggest skipping that step and reading the second link, which is about the dynamics of New Age cultural appropriation of spirituality in general and not about alternative medicine.
posted by value of information at 2:57 PM on December 18, 2019 [12 favorites]


I'm finding it very much disappointing that the discussion has derailed into "does it work or not", when there are much more nuanced points about appropriation and power made in especially the second article too. I would encourage people to read it more closely instead of assuming the white noise tossed up at the start of this discussion is all that's to be said here.
posted by Conspire at 3:00 PM on December 18, 2019 [15 favorites]


Without a doubt one of the biggest shortcomings of western medicine is that it almost entirely disregards (either discounting, not dealing with, or actively denigrating) the fact that there is a HUGE social dimension to wellness and healing. Otherwise we would not be in a position where wealthy/white westerners seek out and casually appropriate the healing traditions of other social groups, transforming them into weird aspirational status markers.

It's absolutely worth exploring why people are not having their needs met while both acknowledging the demonstrably helpful role (at least in social/personal wellbeing reporting) of non-traditional medicine while not taking the methods at face value, placing the true value where it lies, in the relationships between the people involved rather than in "resonances" of things like crystals.

Nobody should abandon their vital, empirically demonstrated treatments in favor of crystals, but there's something more than a colonial appetite for exoticism and "authentic spirituality" going on.

That's unambiguously a part of it, but the reason it is so pervasive is that right now, medicine does a piss poor job of the social and cultural aspects of healing and wellness because it's not cheap and it's not something easily monetized.
posted by tclark at 3:04 PM on December 18, 2019 [23 favorites]


And add me to the commenters here who found the second article significantly at odds with, and also better than the first. This thread is fighty in part because the first article is framed in a way that comes across as focusing on some really shaky, and potentially dangerous treatments (putting crystal eggs into your body is ABSOLUTELY risky and bad-idea territory, full stop).
posted by tclark at 3:10 PM on December 18, 2019 [6 favorites]


Conventional medicine bombards us constantly with studies showing dire adverse health effects of alienation and social isolation, so it's hard for me to see how affirming traditional healing practices could fail to have at least the very positive effects of helping to alleviate such conditions.
posted by jamjam at 3:12 PM on December 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


I'm finding it very much disappointing that the discussion has derailed into "does it work or not", when there are much more nuanced points about appropriation and power made in especially the second article too.

Yeah - especially in being so lazy as to pull in arguments about the efficacy of acupuncture which was not mentioned anywhere in either piece AFAICT.
posted by PMdixon at 3:16 PM on December 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


It's like if someone were to find out about how amazing a drug is, take it without consulting a pharmacist and then it kills them because of a drug interaction. It's not the fault of the drug. It's the fault of people not consulting authorities who know something and can help them use it effectively.

I’ve been getting soooo many ads for trips to all-inclusive resorts where you can get an ahuyasca cleansing and I’m just like Nooo don’t fuck with the spirit like that...
posted by joedan at 3:36 PM on December 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


Additionally, I agree there's a lot of horror stories of PoC, especially elders, not seeking out appropriate medical care for serious ailments. But I think it's also worth examining how this is a response rooted in trauma because Western medical systems are dismissive, inaccessible, and colonist. In many cases, not seeking out care from Western healthcare systems has been the correct response, because doing so often has a cost for PoC - if not physical, emotionally and financially from being ignored, degraded, or mistreated. So while I agree that seeking traditional or alternative medicines for serious ailments like cancer is the case where the learned behavior breaks down, I think shirking Western medicine for traditional care has been in many cases over many people's lifespans, the correct response: even if the treatment is not effective, these people get connected to a community of origin as a nexus of care, as opposed to being treated inattentively and inhumanely by outsiders. I don't think it's doing anyone any good to typecast these people as backwater or uneducated or stubborn: they've followed these strategies because they made the correct choice that leads them to the best outcome in many cases, and yes, it breaks down in this specific instance, but who can fault them for reaching to something that has always worked out better for them?

I'm saying this as a hard scientist myself who would never reach to these kinds of treatments - I'm literally pursuing a PhD in cell biology and computer science. Even from my vantage, I think that framing this as a "facts vs. superstition" debate erases that there are horrific potential costs every time a PoC interacts with the Western medical system, and prevents us from empathizing with people who are making legitimate cost-benefit trade-offs in their decisions.
posted by Conspire at 3:40 PM on December 18, 2019 [37 favorites]


It's important to remember that culturally-based alternative medicine isn't all a monolith either. There's a huge difference between the social role, of, say, TCM in Chinese communities, and the herbal remedies based on shamanic traditions made by the Korean mother in the first article.
posted by airmail at 3:43 PM on December 18, 2019 [7 favorites]


putting crystal eggs into your body is ABSOLUTELY risky and bad-idea territory, full stop What? 100% risky — nope. Please stop making declarative, derailing statements like this that aren’t even the point of the article. If you want to rail against Goop or whatever this is so not the place.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 3:51 PM on December 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


Yeah, Goop is actually one of the things being railed against here.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:57 PM on December 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


(I phrased that badly because ugh fuck Goop.)
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 4:16 PM on December 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


(me, too. Same reason. but we understand one another)
posted by stoneweaver at 4:42 PM on December 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


I must have seen a hundred outraged and contemptuous comments about vaginal crystal eggs here, but not one about the enormous and horrific disaster precipitated by the installation of gynecological mesh in hundreds of thousands of women:
Gynecological mesh: The medical device that has 100,000 women suing
A common surgical implant has generated the largest multi-district litigation since asbestos. 60 Minutes reports on one of the device's manufacturers, Boston Scientific, now facing 48,000 lawsuits


Editor's note: On April 16, 2019, the FDA ordered Boston Scientific and another company to stop all sales and distribution of gynecological mesh used for the transvaginal repair of pelvic organ prolapse. "The FDA has determined that the manufacturers … have not demonstrated a reasonable assurance of safety and effectiveness for these devices," an FDA release announcing the order reads. In 2018, Scott Pelley reported that Boston Scientific was facing 48,000 lawsuits claiming its gynecological mesh could inflict life-altering pain and injury.
And I don't think that's an accident. Outrage and condescending contempt about the silliness and irrationality of folk medicine and traditional healing are whipped up by mainstream media to distract from the truly outrageous and far more consequential — and in this case preventable by more thorough testing — disasters of conventional medicine.
posted by jamjam at 5:24 PM on December 18, 2019 [21 favorites]


When she practices divination in her horary astrology, she provides “yes” or “no” answers to questions and allows clients to take the time to process the answers; at the end, she gives spiritual counseling.

Imagine seeing someone for guidance and they give you time to process the answers. That would be amazing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:46 PM on December 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


Just because it isn’t mentioned in the post or on the PDF and doesn’t seem to have come up, the Susanne Miskimmin piece is from 1996. There has been a TON of work in this area — much of it by Indigenous scholars — since then, and in the meantime the target has moved a lot too. It’s a classic article, it’s just *quite* classic. Apologies if I missed that citation being made earlier.

Here’s a link to an official open source version with full citation.
posted by spitbull at 6:06 PM on December 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


but really don't like the conflation of that with treating any of the actual practices as legitimate

I got the impression that the writers of the linked articles are demanding to be heard, not demanding to be agreed with. Those two things are easily, and mistakenly, conflated when we get into arguments around stuff like this.
You don't have to see any of the practices described as legitimate to find the articles interesting and thought provoking. I don't, and did.

A while back a friend who was taking a religious studies class pointed me in the direction of Russell T. McCutcheon's “It’s a Lie. There’s No Truth in It! It’s a Sin!” - which is among other things a (rather rambling) reflection on how to acknowledge the problematic nature of a belief system without either occluding or sanitizing the people who practice it. Reading the second article kind of reminded me of it.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:13 PM on December 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


Reading this, I began to think about the recent essays about the resurgence in astrology and tarot amongst queer folks. There is a real spiritual need that isn't being met nearly well enough by mainstream culture, and we have to look somewhere for it.

It's often framed as though the oppressive culture were going around appropriating spiritual elements it found fun and entertaining, and erasing everything else in the name of Good Efficacious Science (i.e., the "does it work" discussion above), but that misses an important aspect: the oppressive culture also erases its own history.

To read about medical history in the west is to read a horror story. Cures worse than their diseases! Blood-letting, amputation, burning! It's all very lurid, leading you to a sense of great relief once The Good Scientists took over from the awful ignorant healers of the past. And it misses a great deal of folk medicine that was kinder, more in touch with native botany and mineralogy, and more receptive to indigenous ideas than might be expected. These more gentle cures are forgotten, because they don't fit the narrative of a medical science that progresses cleanly from barbarism to its current perfection. This forgetting leaves behind a vacuum. I think about the mindfulness meditation that is so popular, and how heavily it borrows from Buddhist traditions, while traditional western meditation practices that centered on Christian prayer are just...gone, vanished.

I don't think it's any wonder that white westerners borrow or appropriate spiritual and folk practices meant to comfort and soothe, or get sold fancy new spiritual toys and technologies; our culture has been so busy stripping those out for centuries, until we're all jittery wrecks.
posted by mittens at 7:58 PM on December 18, 2019 [14 favorites]


If anyone is interested in listening to physician with a Native American background( i believe Lakota) who works melding traditional healing practices with the modern medical practices I recommend checking out Lewis Mehl-Madrona.
Disclosure : I have worked with Lewis and is worth a listen to. I am south asian physician who does family medicine and routinely incorporates “complementary” practices. Mainly because healing and fixing pathology are not always the same thing.
posted by roguewraith at 8:12 PM on December 18, 2019 [7 favorites]


stoneweaver: Yeah, Goop is actually one of the things being railed against here.
What? The first article is absolutely not railing against Goop, not really.

Goop appropriated only a previous invention of a fictional Chinese practice that appropriated and distorted Chinese spirituality and culture to market expensive and dangerous bullshit to white women with more money than sense. The author of the piece isn't reclaiming the culture of PoC in any meaningful sense by promoting a racist high-margin device that does little more than produce toxic shock syndrome. All she is doing is adding her brush to Goop's efforts to paint a profitable whitewash over the lives and practices of people that American culture has no respect for, and expecting to get away with it in spaces like these by sprinkling in a loose smattering of the vocabulary of college anti-racism without any of its substance. The distorted imaginings of New Age spirituality are so bad, there isn't really anything real there to 'reclaim.' She is just re-appropriating the many profoundly racist aspects at the core of New Age spirituality that the second article describes with compounded fabulist inventions. That doesn't do anything to address how deeply fucked up it still is to market your shitty imagining of other people's culture to white America or how fucked up it is to sell expensive poison to women.

However, New Age spirituality is in many ways inherently abusive not just in its racist reliance on appropriated imaginings of indigenous practices, but in the wild abundance of missing stairs that comes with the complete absence of effective cultural practices for excluding predatory narcissists from positions of power or influence, the ubiquitous fraudulent business practices that dominate the $3.72 trillion corporate industry associated with it, and the extraordinary amount of medical harm it causes. These things shouldn't suddenly be considered ok or above criticism when they get targetted at PoC, maybe they just get somehow shittier?
posted by Blasdelb at 6:34 AM on December 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


This isn't about eggs. This isn't about any practice. This is about appropriation and changing of different cultures into something new age religion. This is the fact that in America these spaces are dominated by mostly white women. That people, especially for PoC, are looking for community and acceptance and understanding and this poor approximation isn't good enough. It's alienating. It's taking away something. It's taking real people and their real actual beliefs and values (however accessible or inaccessible they may be) and turning them into something not quite right. That it is missing key parts of identity and history.

Yes there is much to say about the efficacy of beliefs. But it isn't about someones lucky shirt or the right side of the bed or a god or goddesses or crystals or how much one does or doesn't access medical science. We all have beliefs that aren't based in science. It's about people and their communities and their present and their histories.

Religion and spiritual beliefs are foundations of communities. Of identity. Of shared values. When it gets stolen and changed how does one navigate that? That's what we could be talking about here. That's what we could explore together. That's what we could listen to.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:46 AM on December 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


[Couple comments removed. There is room in the grand scope of MeFi threads for a discussion that focuses on the cultural context and history the links are approaching vs. just diving into arguments about western medical practices and efficacy and skepticism. Please make an effort to apply the "is my comment adding something to this post" question to the post and the context, vs. trying to adapt the context to whatever familiar lines of commenting the subject in general raises for you.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:39 AM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


The classic paper in the second link, and the much larger field that it has inspired, demonstrate pretty clearly that New Age spirituality and its associated pseudomedical industry are fundamentally colonialist enterprises. I don't think that anyone here is arguing with this well-established thesis. However, the first link participates in and promotes exactly the colonialist appropriation that the second link highlights rather actually than doing anything to fight it. It's not just the uncritically presented racist and bullshit eggs, the western appropriations of sound bowls and crystals into things that can be consumed as part of billable hours also just fundamentally can't fit into a 'reclaimable' framework. The problem here isn't just that its white people who are selling and prescribing things like jade eggs, though that is also a problem, it's that white people made them up to sell cheap jade for dear prices while lying about their alleged relationship to Chinese spirituality. Continuing to bullshit about other people's cultures from a position of national if not racial power isn't really so different. There is no truth or foundation here in alternative 'wellness' culture for Americans of color to reclaim underneath the 3.72 trillion dollar predatory colonialist structures that white Americans built to fleece others, it's just predatory capitalism all the way down.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:44 PM on December 19, 2019 [5 favorites]


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