Cultural Baggage on Spiritual Journeys

BaggagePart of my current angst is to retrieve and unpack the cultural baggage I have around my spiritual beliefs. I imagine big heavy suitcases covered with the customary black scuff marks that indicate multiple trips through baggage claim. Some of mine probably have tattered “Gate Check” tags because I keep trying to drag them on board while the flight attendants shake their heads and everyone behind me in line sends me poisonous glances.

Ok, maybe I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. But you get the idea.

I wonder if  part of our society’s unconscious racism is that we think only indigenous people have a cultural spirituality. Some wanna-be-native white people natter on about indigenous connection to “the land” (cue the soaring music) and the “ancestors” (pan a shot of firelight) and the “animals” (zoom out on moose, elk, salmon). I don’t mean to minimize the differences between indigenous religion and euro-american religion.

George Tinker says:

Did you know that trees talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don’t listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don’t I suppose they’ll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees; sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.

When we talk with non-Indians about nature, there is really nothing you can say in universal Western concepts that is going to make a lot of sense. I think that Western people who come into an Indian environment and attempt to preach take along their own set of categories and use it to deal with Indian people they meet.

(Source: “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks, and Indians”, Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004) 105-125)

The thing is, while we need to take responsibility for them, those western/scientific/enlightenment categories aren’t all we white people have. The lie of whiteness is that all white people are the same, that our pale skin strips us of our connection to the land, ancestors, and animals of our origins.

forestMaybe I feel this way because I have a strong connection to land, more specifically, to trees. I have seen plenty of nice trees in my life, but the pine forests of my Oregon home ring in me like nothing else. I thought I was just romanticizing it until I went back to my ancestral home. Near Gdansk/Danzig, Poland where my grandparents are from, the forests meet the sea. The rhodies bloom among the trees near the house in Lamstedt, Germany where my father was born. My body remembers.

I went to Marienkirche in Gdansk where my Tante Ursula remembers praying as a child. It was nice but it didn’t ring in me. The forests rang in me. The sea rang in me. I am still navigating my way through what this means, but my suspicion is that when we started writing big thick theology books and stopped praying to Our Mother, we lost something. I’m a good Protestant who adores systematic theology. All that organization. Tidy, neat boxes. It makes for good theologizing… and empty prayer and stale worship.

So that’s what I mean about my cultural baggage. My baggage isn’t actually my culture: it’s the veener of whiteness that masquerades as mine. That baggage includes believing that I don’t really come from anywhere or have any place, so it is ok for me to steal someone else’s land or religion or both when land and religion are one interconnected thing. I don’t want to steal, or let my community steal in my name. I want an authentic relationship to land and religion, however messy, complicated, guilty and confusing it might be.

The forests ring in me. The sea rings in me. Mama God knows my name. I just keep listening, letting that sound echo its way through my body, following it back. If I follow it long enough, maybe I’ll find my way clear to a kind of being and believing that isn’t just good for me but good for the world.

How does your culture influence or intersect with your spiritual beliefs and practices? I’d love to hear from you!


  1. Oh Yeah! I resonate with what you said about “empty prayer and stale worship.” What I find really meaningful – yes, learned from another culture not my own – is Touching the Earth, a ritual I learned at Plum Village, the community of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddist. The ritual is calling to mind ancestors, those we love, those we have conflicts with. And after mentioning each group of people, we lie prostrate on the ground, or floor, and feel the earth’s energy moving through us. That’s what comes to my mind when I hear the phrase at church, “Let us be in an attitude of prayer. Maybe it’s close to what our Native American brothers and sisters feel.

    • Interesting. New Agers say to keep your feet barefoot in the dirt in order to allow radiation poisoning to leave your body.

  2. For me, there is no separation between culture and faith. As a Native woman I often remind non-Native people that they have their own indigenous spirituality and it is important for them to find it. No matter how far back into their family’s history they need to go. But, they must find their own and stop trying to steal ours.

    Thank you for this post. It rings true.

  3. As a child, I attended a Romanian Orthodox church in Detroit, because my maternal grandparents were immigrants from Romania. My family was fiercely determined that we would all be Americans, so my brother and I were not taught the language. In worship, I was inundated with incense, icons, chanting–the drama of the liturgy. All in a language I didn’t understand. So at my very core, “God” is mystery, beauty & sensuality. This experience of the Sacred has been a blessing. Thank you for this post, which brings me back to the roots of my deep & abiding faith!

  4. I get how the body remembers ancestral things that the current soul has no memory of. So many ramifications of that! Recently I read that scientists were finally conducting a study if the cells have memory that they pass on to their replacements. Medically my understanding is that all cells in the body replace completely every 7 years and so doctors saw no reason why pain would continue beyond that time and the requirements of insurers being the almighty dollar – thusly diagnosing chronic pain conditions as mental illness. But life itself tells us that the body has memories that the mind does not have just as you experienced.

    Even ancestral foods, if unknown, once introduced without the “ancestral” appendage – the ancestral foods will be craved not due to culture training but because the body knows and the body wants it.

    Ditto, borrowing traditional medicines from other cultures can work but it is best to borrow traditional medicine from your personal ethnic heritage and most “white” people have been separated from that knowledge. So in my view many “white” people are the most impoverished group in these senses. Many traditional medicines are tied in with the religion/spirituality. For example Black Seed Oil is written of in the Koran and what Mohammed had to say of it. . . . that it will cure anything except death. Kefir, well known for health aspects – your immunity lies in your gut aspects – supposedly was a godly or Mohammedan gift – the original grains. All that I have explored, Chinese, NDN, Ayurvedic NDN – all traditional medicine is tied up with their religious spiritual beliefs.

    That’s all for now. How it intersects with my spiritual? IDK.

  5. My daughter has a huge connection to trees. When she was three, she said the tree out front was the oldest, and would walk in circles around it. I didnt promote that story at church, or others about my daughter’s innate spiritual practices, because i was worried that she or i as her mother would be judged as not being christian. I have a strong tie to ancestors who visit me, but i dont talk about that with my christian family as well. Its all too pagan for them. But its natural for me. And im strongly celtic, and celts have a long tradition of having ties to the ancestors, and of being too pagan.

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