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Sukuun Holistics 

Healing Arts Center of Altadena

1927 N. Lake Ave. Altadena, CA 91001

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  • Rena Sassi

Appropriation in Healing & Birth Work



This last weekend, I accidentally ended up at a white hippie “healing” camping trip in Ojai that is still making me nauseous. I say accidentally because I thought it was a retreat for healers to share and trade skills. Wow, was I wrong!

Every time I think back to it, it’s not the naked people or the lost eyes or the lack of tradition that was rampantly in my face this weekend that is still irking me. It was the utter show of appropriation and complete disrespect for sacred traditions that is still nagging my mind and my conscience. The image of the white girl in a thong and a sacred Native American headdress jolted me out of my sleep both nights since I’ve seen her and is still making me sick to my stomach. Why? Why is that image in particular bothering me the most? Almost every single white person there was wearing at least one appropriated item or engaging in some kind of stolen ritual or practice. (And it was mostly white people, with a handful of token brown people ambiguously sprinkled about.) I saw Indian Bindhis, the Egyptian Onkh, tattoos in every non-latin script out there, ‘belly-dancing’ skirts, henna tattoos, traditional tribal body art and clothing, body piercings… and there’s so much more it makes my ears ring and my head spin. The opening ceremony was led by a white woman wearing a traditional Mexican Frida style flower crown and singing a traditional Mexican folkloric song in a heavy American accent. That was my first red flag, how is anyone singing in Spanish with a heavy American accent in southern California?! How could they not know or find a native Spanish speaker in Southern California?! I mean I think I would have a hard time finding a non-native Spanish speaker here in SoCal. This is so wrong.

Within 5 minutes of the opening ceremony I removed myself from the circle. I thought to myself, why am I sitting here judgmental and uncomfortable, ruining it for myself and everyone else? I can get up. So I did. And I kind of kept myself in that mode of just watching from a distance and not really engaging (but of course talking all kinds of smack in my mind and sometimes to my companions. Ok, I made a list) for the rest of my trip. And I was able to tolerate the debauchery and the hedonism in the false name of healing but the appropriation made me ill from the beginning. Then when I woke up last night again with the image of that white woman desecrating sacred Native American traditional headdress, I realized I really have to explore this in me. This woman in particular is haunting me. Why?!

I summoned some help to push her out of my thoughts and fell back asleep but then again this morning she rushed into my mind. And I realized I was upset with myself that I didn’t say something. Though everyone else was engaging in disrespectful and essentially racist behavior, she wore the most blatant display of insult and desecration of sacred tradition by wearing a glorious head piece that carries so much meaning. I do not know much about Native American Crowns but I know it is a sacred symbol to be honored and humbled by. I know that Native Americans were dismembered and murdered if they practiced their religions or spoke their languages. While I am quite used to seeing henna tattoos, ancient Egyptian sacred symbols, Bhindis and other smaller (in terms of size not value) ornamental symbols stolen from sacred traditions and though that is not an excuse for not being equally offended by seeing all of them again at this camping trip, the headdress really got to me. I haven’t been able to let go of it because I felt at the time that I should say something and I didn’t. And why didn’t I?

Well I told myself in the moment that it is not my culture and I do not have the right to speak for others. But that was an excuse. I know exactly why I didn’t say anything. I didn’t speak up then because I’ve tried to speak to white people about appropriation before and it did not go well at all. I had confronted a group of white women birth workers once about the appropriation of cultural traditions in their birth work. I was one of maybe three or four women of color of about 30 people in a closed Facebook group for the professional development of birth workers who had a particular training in a childbirth education program that I actually really loved and believed in. When I brought up that I felt personally offended by their use of certain traditions and stories from my culture and ancestry, I was met with mostly silence and one major attack who received a bunch of likes. She was the smart “woke” white woman in the group. When I practically surrendered after the first attack because it is a practice of the Sufi way not to argue and it was Ramadan so I was really not trying to lose my fast on this white woman, she just spat out more offenses. I came to the conclusion back then as many people of color do, that white people can’t and will not listen to us and it’s not our job to fix their racism anyway. Also my spiritual teacher advises us to sit with anyone as long as our hearts are at peace while in that person(s) presence. My heart was not at peace in that group and so in an effort towards self (heart) care and preservation, I quit that FB group and that whole program all together.

I thought I left that behind me when I left that FB group. But no, appropriation is not just a central problem in the birth world but also in healing, wellness and health in general. People working in healing often get excused or dismissed for their racism and appropriation because the assumption is that since they are coming from a place of good intentions, to heal, then they should be able to use whatever they need to use to foster healing. But look at what's happened to yoga and meditation; though perhaps popularized with good intentions, the traditions are now so far removed from their original sacred meanings and powers that the people by whom these arts and sciences belong to are often not even able to access their practices and benefits. So, I don’t care how many people were healed at that skeptical of narcissism this weekend, that does not excuse the white woman dancing around in a Native American head dress and thong. So there I was again, feeling as one of the few token people of color in the crowd that I had to say something.

And I thought that’s why I am still bothered by all of this, that because I didn’t say anything I still can’t let go of the image and the offense. But this morning it occurred to me that I’m still bothered because none of the white people said anything and that I had internalized the responsibility to say something simply because they have the privilege of not taking responsibility. But that’s where I was wrong. It wasn’t on me to say anything.

White people need to start checking themselves and their friends. We all know now that we are surrounded by open white supremacists and racists. But the silent majority of white people are the real problem. They would rather ignore these day to day micro-aggresssions that accumulate into a lifetime of experiencing racism, violence, exclusion, poverty, trauma than to tell their bestie in the middle of a rager that “Hey Becky, maybe that’s not the way the Native American headdress is intended to be used or worn." Because "universe" forbid that they be inconvenienced at all but especially when they are discovering themselves through naked yoga or whatever. I know white people in these healing communities in particular are not stupid. It's not that they haven't heard or don't understand appropriation. They are smart and they can think for a second and ask the following 3 excellent questions taken from this article on dazeddigital.com: “Am I reducing this to a fashion statement [or a commodity]? Are people of this culture the ones who are profiting off of this? Am I in an environment where this is appropriate?”

I mean this is not too difficult to do. We have been asking for more serious stuff like fix racial health disparities that have black moms and babies dying 4 times more than anyone else in this country for a long time now. We have been arguing and pleading and trying with white people on the more urgent stuff forever. And we have also been sitting uncomfortable and usually completely and literally imprsioned by white supremacy and racism since the dawn of this country. So this request to stop appropriating and start checking each other back in is not too much to ask. It really isn’t. Often in healing we have to get uncomfortable with ourselves before we are able to heal. When white people begin to confront their own and each other's racism to the point of making themselves uncomfortable-- it will bring us all healing, even white people.

"The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people." ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

*Photo taken from: Indians.org

Post note: In synchronistic irony, I had also been to FandangObon in LA the previous week. FandangObon is an annual gathering where keepers of sacred traditions willingly share their traditional sprititual and cultural dances and music on a platform of love, connection and beauty. It was the complete opposite of what I saw and experienced at the 'Healers' camping trip. It actually perhaps helped me to see more clearly that authentic gatherings for sharing and communing in sacred tradition to heal ourselves and our communities do still exist. And that is where my attention and focus should be.

#healing #tradition #birth #appropriation #healers

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