A fundamental issue in practicing nature-based spirituality has to do with not only your relationship to the land but the relationship of the land in relation to your blood ancestors. Many druids, including those of caucasian descent in North America and Australia, live on colonized lands, and this creates a very complex web of relationships and challenges. Common questions for those picking up a druid path in these circumstances are: how do I practice druidry or other forms of nature-based spirituality on lands that are colonized, especially if my ancestors participated in that colonization? How can I create meaningful relationships to the land, recognizing that the land’s original inhabitants may harmed, dislocated, or no longer present? What sacred knowledge, places, or information should I access? These are fundamental, pressing questions if those of us in this position are to create meaningful, ethical, and rich place-based druidries.
The Challenges and Complexities of Colonialism
Let’s start by unpacking a bit of this complexity. In my role as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and being present at many druid gatherings up and down the US East Coast, I have been part of a variety of conversations about this issue. In talking to those of white ancestry (which is my own ancestry) and multiple friends who are indigenous North American who are also druids, what I can say is that these issues are very layered and complicated.
These issues usually include:
- If you live on colonized land, and you are concerned about the legacy of colonialism, there’s always an underlying concern about how to connect with the land and not perpetuate this history.
- This is also impacted by local contexts–some people live in regions where indigenous people still live, while others (most of us on the US East coast) live in regions where they were forcefully relocated or exterminated. Who lived there and who still does is a factor in these discussions.
- For some white people (myself included) our ancestors were here in colonial times in North America, which means they were likely directly involved in stealing, murder, pillaging native peoples, and eradicating native cultures. This is a blood ancestral legacy that we have to address.
- I’ve heard some white druids explain that they feel more like a “tourist” in landscapes where they were born because they are so deeply concerned with this issue, that they wonder if they have a “right” to connect with the land or if they should at all. The further they go into druidry, the more these questions may surface.
- For druids who are doing any serious land workings, animism, and other practices tied deeply to the land itself, these issues come up in sharing online, group rituals, or community building. For example, after sharing land healing practices on this blog, I’ve been told many times I have no right to heal the land that I’m living on or work with it in that way.
- There has been a history of cultural appropriation by white people of indigenous traditions, tools, and practices. This continues to this day.
- The matter of sacred sites is another serious issue–traditional indigenous sacred sites, like Serpent Mound in Ohio, are obviously off limits. But this means that those of white ancestry living in colonized lands don’t really have existing sacred sites–we have to essentially create them anew.
So, as we can see from this list, there are many basic questions about how to do the right thing, decolonize this horrible legacy, be respectful and honoring to existing and past tribes, but also deeply connect to the earth and build something new. None of this stuff is easy. Given this, each of us has to figure out a way forward that is both respectful of the past difficult history with also wanting to deeply connect.
The Radagast Experience
I’ll now share a brief story that helped put some of these things in perspective. I recently had the chance to visit the Czech Republic for a work trip–each morning I offered workshops and consultations and every afternoon, my host and friend would take me on excursions to see the countryside. One of these was to the village of Pustevny (“hermit”) on Radhost mountain in the Moravian-Silesian Beskids mountain range on the edge of Czechia and Poland.
The village was quaint and done in a traditional folk style–with artwork quite similar to the same kind of folk art we have here in Pennsylvania tied to the PA Dutch folk art style. I found myself eating Halushki (a traditional family food) in a beautiful restaurant adored by familiar folk art, and despite the fact I was 8000 miles away from home and didn’t speak the language, I found myself feeling truly at home on the land. I have ancestral heritage tied both to Germany and to the Czech Republic, and my cultural tradition here (PA Dutch) is heavily influenced by this region.
At the bottom of the mountain, as we were getting ready to ride the ski lift up to the top, my friend told me that we would see the statue of Radagast. After some discussion, it became clear to me that Radagast was a pre-Christian deity tied to this mountain, a guardian spirit who protected the land, the hermits, and traditional mountain people. Up on the mountain was also a church dedicated to the conversion of this region to Christianity. You can guess which one I wanted to see! I did fret a bit as I had not brought an appropriate offering with me–I was going to visit my first old-world pagan site and I wish I had been better prepared.
After a delicious meal, we hiked the rest of the way up the beautiful mountain, claiming stone steps and a winding path lined with trees. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. The clouds were filling the skies and we could see for miles and miles around us. The beech and spruce forests on the edges, the rowan berries bright on the trees. After about a 15-20 minute walk, we came upon Radagast. I could feel the ancient energies of the place–and I felt so welcomed. Radagast was immediately friendly and gracious, speaking to me, accepting my meager offerings–a stone, an Awen chant, and a piece of my hair. We connected deeply and I got the sense that an abundance of people who visit this place see the statue as an oddity, a tourist attraction, and an interesting piece of history, not as a religious site. My Czech companions shared what they knew about Radagast: he was from pre-Christian times, and this site was a place where he had a shrine. Although the official story is that his statue was destroyed by Christians, it is locally known that the statue was hidden by pagan priests and is still somewhere hidden. Radagast is known for offering hospitality and protecting those who live on the mountain.
We did not walk to the church further up the path that day. I’m quite grateful we did not, because I’m not sure what I would have done if I had to go there. It was already too emotional. Instead, we decided to walk down the road to the bottom of the mountain. Radagast blessed us with huge amounts of King Bolette forest mushrooms. My companions and I were delighted, and one told me that she had never seen such a harvest. I knew why of course–I had honored Radagast, and thus, he gave us a boon in exchange.
What this experience did for me was turn the tables. It took me from perpetually being in the role of holding having a colonial legacy–which is woven into the cultural history of where I live–to that of being colonized. It was a profound experience. This mountain, colonized by Christianity, has only had the Radagast statue back in its place since the 1930s. For many years, the only thing you could do is walk to the church that proclaims its triumph over paganism. Even the Wikipedia entry about Radagast is colonized by Christianity–rather than being about Radagast, it uses the framework of the first published source to describe the “demon” Radagast from a Christian point of view.
Healing the Cultural Legacy of Colonialism
For years, I have understood in an intellectual way that I, too, practice a religion that has been colonized and essentially eradicated by Christianity. Christianity destroyed the ancient druids, my spiritual ancestors. Today, followers of more extreme versions of Christianity in the US, continue to threaten pagan festivals, shops, and druid rituals (with increasing frequency). Everything that I practice is the result of recreation, reconstruction, and building anew. These are facts, and I understood those facts. But standing on the mountain in the Czech Republic that day, seeing the statue of Radagast–who was, in essence, a pit stop along the way to the main attraction of the church that celebrates the eradication of one of my literal ancestral religions…it was embodied. It was visceral. And it made me very, very angry.
As I continue to reflect upon this experience, one of the big takeaways for me is that my own role is even more complex than I initially thought. I, too, experience the daily effects of being in a colonized religion. I, too, understand what it is like–however many centuries removed–to lose something valuable and irreplaceable. Because I am white, my lived experiences are radically different and much further removed….but this doesn’t change the fact that these things have happened. What it has shown me is that context matters–on the land in Pennsylvania, here, I am a white person who is gaining the benefits of a centuries-old colonial legacy. But on Radhost mountain, I am the colonized, looking upon tourist attractions that celebrate the destruction of that which my blood ancestors held sacred. This has put into stark contrast that issues are not a simple either-or situation. There are layers here, important layers, layers worth exploring.
So how do we, as white druids living in colonized lands, move forward? I have some suggestions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think the most important suggestion I have is that we do need to deeply engage with these issues and find ways to help heal these longstanding traumas. So here are some of the things I’ve been doing; maybe you have more to add to this list.
1. Druids and those practicing other pagan and earth-centered religions can be strong allies to all indigenous peoples. We have a lot in common in terms of our love of the land, our desire to protect it, and our desire to connect with more of our own ancestral ways of knowing. I suggest that we work to support the rights of indigenous peoples to their own sovereignty, land, and traditions. I suggest we become good listeners, and learn how to be good allies rather than bringing in our own outside ideas. Support indigenous individuals in our community and ensure that their voices are heard. Being allies and supporters is one way we can begin to heal these horrible wounds. You can consider this work both at a local level and also at a national and international one.
2. I think it is likewise very important that druids have a working understanding of the indigenous tribes who live–or who used to live–on our landscape. This helps you understand the cultural and social history that is woven into your immediate landscape. For me, two primary tribes were present where I live: the Susquehannock, who were murdered and eradicated, and the Shawnee, who were forcefully removed to Oklahoma. The Shawnee are still in Oklahoma, and I’m on their mailing list–anytime there is anything I can do to support them, I do. I honor both in my rituals and ceremonies as ancestors of the land. I have also made it a point to read the scant histories and records (written by white colonizers) of the Susquehannock. They may be gone, but they are not forgotten.
3. In honoring the ancestors of the land, I believe it is critically important to be engaged in tending the wilds, land healing, and other direct work on behalf of the land. It is important because prior to colonialization, we know that most tribes lived in balance with their ecosystems–in fact, here, where I live, the Eastern Woodlands tribes were some of the most ecologically balanced and egalitarian communities to ever exist. The legacy of colonialism shifted that balance, and it is up to us to do what we can to right it. This is part of decolonizing work. Further, we know from many historical accounts, including M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wilds, and from modern indigenous teachers like Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk, that this is a vital role for humanity. Perhaps it our most important role–that of being caretakers and guardians of the land.
4. Further, in order to support and respect indigenous people’s sovereignty, we should be on the lookout for cultural appropriation and seek to eliminate it from our own practices. Unless you are specifically invited into a tradition by a native person or the tradition is putting on a public event, you have no right to that traditional knowledge. This, I believe, is critical for healing to happen.
5. This means, for many druids, building anew and building our own connections with the land is really important. I’ve been doing a lot of that work with my Sacred Trees of the Americas and TreeLore Oracle project–the goal here is to build new magical knowledge and traditions for us–that are based on our own relationships with the land and cultural histories, and not appropriating others.
6. I think the other important thing here is to simply be with the land. Regardless of the colonial legacy, you inhabit this land and you are present, here and now. Don’t be afraid to connect. Don’t be afraid to learn and grow with the land. The land needs people like druids, especially now in this time of such destruction and climate change. Your land may have nobody else.
I would love to hear your ideas for addressing these complex issues. I look forward to more conversations.