I Do Not Want To Do Ancestral Medicine With White People: Why White People Should Not Practice

Updated: Dec 7, 2018

By: Gloria Lucas

A lot of traditional healing takes place with like minded people who share similar struggles. If I am gonna heal I need to know I will be surrounded with others that are familiar with my pain. I can only heal if I feel safe.

Last year, I attended a Native American event seeking support and guidance. During that time, I was experiencing burn-out and a lot of irritability due to exhaustion and I could not find ways to replenish. After the event ended, I was invited to be part of a womxn’s sweat lodge that took place on the premises. My first reaction was: "I am not ready for this.” I was not familiar with the protocols of the ceremony and quite frankly questioned whether I should take up space in a Native ceremony. I didn't even have the required skirt. But after being offered a skirt and encouraged to take part, I abided.

The sweat ceremony was tough but it revealed so much to me. I was in a dark wet floor in a small Inipi with a variety of womxn that I sensed were suffering. I initially noticed that there were a few white women present but considering that I was new I thought that they were light skin natives. Whatever the case may have been, I was determined to just do the medicine. The heat, prayer, and camaraderie provided me the clarity I needed to continue doing the work. I left knowing that the medicine was sacred and it was a privilege for me to be part of this ceremony.

The second time I did sweat ceremony it did not go as expected. I experienced and witnessed microaggressions that left me feeling hurt and quite frankly angry. Unlike the previous year there were a lot more white women that had no affiliation with indigeneity than the previous year. During the course of the ceremony, I heard racist statements and witnessed microaggressions that reminded me that even sacred spaces are not safe from historical and ongoing legacies of colonialism and the current pervasiveness of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation feeds this idea that the benefits of Native American spirituality are for everyone and therefore all people are allowed to consume and in some cases profit as they wish without any historical and ethical analysis. These ideas signify the cultural humility/sensitivity and self reflection that white people tend to lack. Additionally, it demonstrate that white people have a lot of work to do if they want to properly understand their role in all of this.

Additionally, I felt hurt that white women were telling me how to practice the medicine that my ancestors did. It hurt to hear white women know and sing the prayer songs in traditional languages. It was then that I realized I do not know these cultural and linguistic practices because my ancestors were either killed, displaced, and forced by Europeans to assimilate and acculturate. Nevertheless there I was, a lost descendant of the Nahuatl among other unknow indigenous peoples, and some of the white womxn participating in the ceremony had more knowledge of the customs of my ancestors than I did. That is fucked up.

The worst part was that I failed to recognize all of the microaggressions quickly. But on my way home I thought “what the fuck just happened?”

Then I thought, Am I crazy? Am I too sensitive? Am I being too much?

While the white women left feeling peaceful and accomplished I was left feeling alienated by my own ancestral traditional medicine and I was left grieving.

The next day I felt a knot in my throat and my spirit felt agitated and it reminded me of how people of color always carry the burden for white people. Not only do we experience stress when white people “don't get it”, but we constantly witness our personhood and customs get disrespected. However, when we don't catch or call-out the outright racism or microaggression immediately we feel like we failed.

I recognize that the elders and tribal affiliated people must have their reasons for hosting open sweat ceremonies and I am in no position as an outsider to tell indigenous people from this land how to or who to share traditional medicine. I can however set my own boundaries when doing ceremony to protect myself and share my experience so that white people can do better.

With that said, here are reasons why white people should not practice Native American medicine:

  1. Because sweat lodges are not steam baths they are sacred ritual! Native American ceremony is not just a healthist or new-age trend. There is a history and purpose to every medicine.

  2. White people have their own European ancestral ways. There are well-recorded European pagan pre-Christian spiritualities and rituals. Pick up a book!

  3. White people's survival does not depend on Native American spirituality but it does for Indigenous peoples. Traditional medicine is critical for indigenous peoples. White people will not die if they don't practice Native American medicine. Period.

  4. White people cannot decolonize because they inheritably and inevitable benefit from inherited power and stolen land & resources.

  5. White people need to to focus on educating other white people instead of taking up space.

  6. Native Americans endured hardship and violence for preserving their customs and white people didn’t. Native people were killed by government officials for practicing ceremony. Native and First Nation children were forced in boarding school to Christianize. Natives practicing Native spirituality is political resistance but not for white people.

  7. When the ancestors risked their lives to preserve the knowledge they were doing it for the children, youth, and their descendants, not white people.

  8. I know I am not the only Brown person to have felt this way. So why should white people be on a voyage of “self discovery” at the expense of jeopardizing very needed indigenous spaces?

  9. The whole field of psychology has been centered on whiteness. Odds are there are more widespread applicable resources for white people.

  10. A lot of traditional healing takes place with like minded people who share similar struggles. If I am gonna heal I need to know I will be surrounded with others that are familiar with my pain. I can only heal if I feel safe.

  11. Historical trauma is real. White supremacy has caused a lot of injury and continues to hinder non-white groups of people. If we are gonna share culture and medicine there needs to be equal amount of power on both sides and that is not the case.

  12. Besides consuming Native American cultures what have you (White people) done for indigenous people lately? Hint hint. If you went to Standing Rock this still does not grant you permission.

  13. Why do white folks feel like they can practice Native American medicine and ceremony? Entitlement and ownership are part of white colonialism. Have you checked your entitlement lately?

White folks, you must question where you take up space. Unlike white people, Black, Indigenous, people of color have to constantly question where they take up space not because we are granted the option but because our safety depends on it. If you are a white person, you must acknowledge that you benefit from white supremacy, stolen land and resources even if you do anti-racist work. Lastly, someone’s white ancestors persecuted Native Americans for practicing ancestral traditions and yet a couple hundred years later white people are benefiting from it. I am sharing all of this not for white people to experience guilt but for white people to create less harm.

Although this experience was painful, it provided me with a clearer understanding of my boundaries. I have the right to protect myself and I have the right to do medicine with people that I feel comfortable with. This experience taught me to not put up with injustices and whiteness when I am seeking healing. I have permission to address my feelings and to get up and leave when my needs are not being met. I don't owe my politeness or my comfort to white folks.

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