SAC 2017 Decolonization Discussion Response

September 19, 2017 at 4:11 pm

. . . what follows is a response to the decolonization / cultural appropriation discussion that happened with some folks during the afternoon free time of the last day of SAC 2017.   A recording of it can be found here.  

For those unfamiliar with this controversial topic, which in recent years has appeared in many forms, and in many spheres of social activity, here is an overview, my take on it anyway.   As no culture has ‘it’ completely right, there is a very human and natural attraction to access elements which are felt to be missing from one own cultural ‘operating system’ by assimilating, or learning, from a culture(s) rich in those missing pieces.  Genes move thru all of nature, as do cultural memes thru societies.  The more positive of these movements include tributes to various social forms, and the feeding of artistic creativity;  synergies and celebrations;  the rescuing of traditions dying in their original context, or furthering of a tradition in new ways;  people feeling lost in one way of life being able to feel more healthy and whole in another;  the unifying force of sharing one’s spiritual traditions with those of another social group who can receive it, and so on. .  

Beyond this there is a gray area of relatively benign differences of opinion.  This comes when some cultural blending do not ‘feel right’ (a complex cocktail of emotions and identifications) to some people.   Usually this has to do with thinking that someone ‘doing’ (choose your verb:   wearing, dancing, singing, speaking . . ) something out of its native, or original, context are acts of (choose your descriptor:  bad taste, disrespect, inappropriateness, insensitivity .  .).   The ‘doer’, on the other hand, may feel the opposite, that s/he is just exercising their freedom to be themselves, do what feels right to them, to be expressive ~  and beside that, who has the right to tell them what they can or cannot do?   

The subtle and not so subtle conflicts of this gray area are dialed way up into volatile politics when the cultures involved have a particularly fractious history with each other, when factors such as conquest, forced dependency, profiteering, exploitation, and colonialism are woven into the mix.   Someone of that subjugated group might say, ‘you took our land, decimated our people, destroyed our way of life, and now you want to take the last thing we have left, our spirituality?   No!”   And a sensitive person descended from the subjugators may be consumed by guilt about the sins of his/her ancestors, and want to do everything possible to make amends.   Upon hearing just that voice they could see an opportunity to assuage the guilt.   They might then agree with and support, even champion, such a person, such a cause.   This is how ‘culture cops’ are born, on both sides of the so-called cultural divide. .  

In addition, the U.S. is at the forefront of a planetary project to work out harmonic resolutions to issues of conflict born of a great diversity of cultures, races, ethnicities, and so on, all living together in one nation, as one ‘people’.   There is for sure a situation where individuals have different experiences transversing the landscape of the average American city depending on what part of this spectrum of diversity they are associated with. .  

How then, does SAC fit into all this?

I want to first acknowledge we are living in intense, tumultuous times!  Increasing transparency in the collective, and a catalytic political landscape are surfacing instabilities at a rate that pushes to the extreme our ability to deal with it all.  SAC is not immune, and each year the event is challenged in new ways, each I trust, resulting in the guiding vision, and the protocols and structures that support it, becoming more honed, sensitive, adaptable, and strong.  
Like many transformative events, SAC exists as a social experiment, a relatively fluid space for us play with creating a better world.  I therefore give recognition to those who, like myself and other long time SAC allies to the cause, incline to be social visionaries and culture scouts.  With that said, SAC can not of course be all things to all people.   Though it is a communally held project, at its baseline it is a registered business, an LLC, of which I am the sole proprietor.  In that structure I am limited, as far as I am aware, only by the laws of the land, and my own desire to keep doing it.   This desire is driven by a quite defined model of social change and the positive feedback I receive in enacting it.  The larger community of SAC, the ‘we’ in what follows, are in resonance with this, or they wouldn’t keep coming year after year to contribute.  


Perhaps by clarifying this paradigm we can reframe the conversation to achieve a more shared understanding.  People can therefore make informed choices about whether to attend or not.  If one agrees with our foundational principles, then any feedback after attending would contribute to how to enhance these principles, make them yet more clear, accessible, and loving.   If one does not agree with our paradigm, and chooses to attend anyway, then its quite likely one is there to advance their own ego agenda, whether consciously or not.   This is not unlike someone going to a Buddhist temple, not to learn about Buddhism, but to tell the Buddhists that they should be worshipping Jesus instead.   Or going to a therapist as a client, and telling that person that they should change their therapeutic model, instead of just finding another therapist who works a more agreeable approach . . . 

I’d like to share a quote from a SAC Origin Story’ which has been posted for sometime on the event website. . I encourage all people new to SAC to read the whole thing to better understand what they are getting into.

“Singing Alive is designed to invoke, and maintain, ceremonial space and time.  Into this atmosphere are brought all manner of songs called to serve the awakening of humanity from the dream of separation, to assist with our conscious engagement in the great Game of evolution.   This is the common field of vibration from which these songs ‘sprout’, and which they seek to re-create on the physical plane.  For this reason, all songs ‘recognize’ each other, as do, at some level, those who sing them.  Each song is a thread of a yet greater story, a vast tapestry of teaching.  To communally sing these songs is to activate the story, the template of next octave planet earth.  This story can then ripen in our bodies and grow thru our lives.  As we choose to become the story, we become an offering to the temple universe.”

In this understanding, the genre of songs we work with @ SAC, are considered to be living beings, that we no more ‘own’ than we own the children we birth.   We feel kinship with them, take care of them, want respect for them, protect them, however they have their own lives, and we understand that they feel fulfilled, fill their life purpose, when they are sung in good ways.  They therefore seek to be sung, and we accommodate this by providing the best possible circumstances (a work in progress!) for their expression to do its melodic magic.   If anything, we feel our hearts and minds are being inhabited, dare we say ‘colonized’, by these songs, and we welcome it.   In the later years of SAC, a few have come who ask for more boundaries around the songs they share, and we have accommodated in various ways, such as not recording them, or not including a recording in the song compilation of that year. .  

I have long been a student of the songs that attend SAC and similar gatherings, and a systemized treatment of what I feel they are collectively ‘doing’ can be found in the last part of the aforementioned ‘Origin Story’.  The best I can sum up is that we humans and the songs are co-creating a pro-active peace event.   By this I mean peace as way of life, a culture, a Path.  It upwells as a generative force of happy living, a current by which nature re-balances itself, self-organizes.   This in contrast to peace defined by negation, as a mere absence of war.  The distinction is similar to describing health in its holistic sense, as a way of life, a Path of ever-increasing well-being, not as the generalized functionality that comes of an absence of illness.   And just as the holistic ’health seer’ sees past symptoms of dis-ease to one’s inherently whole, or healthy state, and then helps to nourish and strengthen it, so the pro-active peace perspective sees the natural altruism, or kindness, of an individual, and by extension society, and works to create conditions whereby it may maximally manifest in the world.   Hence, you don’t fight the illness / subjugator, you outshine it, outgrow it.   

To focus on what is right with something, instead of giving inordinate amounts of energy to what is wrong with something, is an approach to life.  It is also a spiritual law, as negative forces feed on being fought against, and instead wither where there is education, good will, honesty, forbearance, and most of all, Love.  This approach is foundational to SAC.  

Amma, the hugging saint, one of our great inspirations, does it by saying that setting good examples is preferable to telling others what they should or shouldn’t be doing;   Einstein suggests it, by saying, ‘no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.’;  as does the indigenous mother who wrote this article, who has had it with ‘wasted energy against appropriation and racism’, things she feels she cannot change, like other peoples attitudes, and suggests instead investing in what she feels good about, namely indigenous ways, that they are themselves the resistance.  

At SAC we endeavor to create conditions for this generative force (which has inspired many songs!) to reveal itself, to course thru us.   From my experience Divinity seeks out every crack and crevice, every tradition and idiom, to Voice its Songs.   Thatz what people are hungry for, to be in an environment that allows this Voice to activate an ever brightening love-light.  In such an atmosphere, attitudes that foster conflict easily lose their vibrational foothold, are ‘outshone’.  

To do this, we got a nature-blessed setting for our event, we got agreements, we got an ego agenda drop station, we got a portal to walk thru to enter sacred space, we got ceremonies of all kinds, ranging from forgiveness to grief, ancestor and gender honoring, we got community cohesion practices of all shapes and forms;  we got Peace-Tenders to help people with interpersonal challenges, we got elders in these Ways to hold space for traumas to emerge, and hopefully resolve, and most of all, we got songs native to this harmonic, that emerge and travel in this kind of altared space, and by singing them nearly non-stop, we work this force.  

And what if this force, aka spirit, wants us to learn and carry a song?   In my experience, there are rare cases where the actual writer of a song (and I say ‘writer’ because songs that are received, birthed, or ‘caught’ usually come thru people who don;t express ownership over them) does not not want it to circulate outside of their control.   Speaking for myself, I always try to respect such wishes when I have been aware of them.   There are PLENTY other songs out there that we are free to work with  . .  

Otherwise, if the song, or song tradition, ‘is held by another culture or race, who has the right to stop someone by accusing them of appropriating culture?  That is, who has the right to judge sincerity, to argue with spirit?  Many of the more experienced practitioners of these ways say spirit can take care of itself . .  .  Simply, they say that if one is disrespectful of these ways, then one reaps the negative results of that action.  This is a self-reinforcing spiritual principle, independent of politics.  Karma, ultimately, rules.’   This from an article I once wrote on the subject that can be seen here.   It suggests that when we are in places of deep reverence, of heart-felt communion with ourselves, with others, with the universe, forces greater than the ‘little me’ take over, and such songs may naturally rise in us, or attach themselves to us, via laws of attraction, or soul agreements that may precede this incarnation.   


Even with this said, this force, this Vibration of Peace I have been speaking of, exists as unfamiliar territory to most people.   One reason is that it has not, obviously, fully arrived in the world, though therein lies the adventure, the co-creative opportunity of merging with its emerging that SAC thrives on.   

Another reason is because it reveals itself when only one has done sufficient work on oneself to know thyself to the point of self-awareness of thy war-like ways.   It reveals itself when one has decolonized one’s own psyche of the beliefs of that inner oppressor, which, at its deepest level, is the hardened assumption that we are ultimately separate from one another.  As spirit, we know that we are all One with Creation.  To know it in our individualized form is to become conscious.   This is not to say separation does not exist as an experience.   It is frighteningly real for most of us, and is therefore true at it own ontological (reality) level.   However, one can hold both simultaneously, as, like Newtonian and Quantum physics, the two can co-exist, and i would suggest that much spiritual growth and creative potential can come from working with this paradox.   In service to this, I wrote about the importance of detoxifying one’s imaginal bandwidth, and the vigilance needed to maintain it in good ways, in an article titled ‘Imaginal Hygiene’.   

Yet another reason that people don’t understand this culture of peace, is that it can be confused with the anti-war kind peace.   This form of peace is at its best when dealing with time-sensitive, emergency situations, such as those that activate demonstrations or protests.  It is dualistic in nature, and plays by the rules of the ‘colonizers’.   It presumes an ‘us vs them’ dynamic;  it fights for peace;  it plays the blame game;  it says war is not the answer yet it can’t give an answer because it needs an opponent to sustain itself . . And I will say here, there is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of peace seeking.   Injustices often need to be stood up to, lies sometimes need to be called out, and there are emotions of anger, fear, and retribution that go with all this, and ways of communicating that carry these emotions. . .  

However, such re-active behaviors, and negative emotions are native to wounding, not to peace in its generative sense.  They are though inseparably linked. .  Why so linked?   Because the beauty of the wounding, that we all carry, some more than others, is that ~ and I are speaking archetypal here ~ without the wound, there is no learning, no ‘gift’, and the gift, as it relates to SAC, blossoms as the ever evolving culture of peace I have been talking about. .  

This is why the container @ SAC is so important, and why I and others are so protective of it. .  The more light is shone, the more deeply it defines the shadow. .  You can’t fight the absence of light, which is really no more than a disconnect, but you can bring more light to it, more connection.  As we hold space for surfacing wounds, we are doing so via faith in the infinite power of Love, and do our best to stay present and engaged.  We may see all kinds of  justifications to waver from this position, feel temptations to play the no-win game of the wound, and we may need to draw upon yet deeper resources of spiritual agency, of inner resolve, to stay with this trust.  Not easy!  However, dealing such challenges can gift us with a new found maturity, one we can apply to becoming more effectual instruments of service to the social good.  

I have been to enough shamanic healing ceremonies to know that when the container is not strong enough, the voice of the wound can take over and run its agenda. .  In such cases the ceremony usually collapses into chaos, and there is a lot of psychic fall-out, residual healing needed to recover from it. .  I don’t wish such an experience on anyone. .  

In service to the SAC container, let us at this point feel into what might be the gifts of the concerns that have been raised . . Here are two suggestions, both of which we have, to degrees, been doing anyway @ SAC, its just that now we may make them more explicit.   

The first is to make it a practice, a norm, to share the origins of whatever song one is offering to the extent one knows it and cares to share it, and if it feels right, to take a moment to in some way silently, or verbally, acknowledge those from whom the song is thought to originate. .  This facilitates connection, it broadens community, it activates an exchange of respect.  After such a sharing, if someone wants to offer a another version or source, pronounciation or meaning, it needs to be done with the utmost humbleness, especially if that person thinks their alternative is more ‘correct’.  Though such infromation can be useful, what is more important in the ceremonial space we cultivate @ SAC is honoring the place from which the song is shared.  As Krishna says in the Bhavagad Gita, ‘Whatever I am offered with devotion from a pure heart ~ a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water  ~ I accept with Joy’.

I would like to make a point here that when I share a song that originated thru me, I almost never voice the credit.   I like to see the song as a no strings attached gift to the world.   My greatest satisfaction comes when the song ‘takes off’ and begins a life where it travels far and is sung by many. .   and I am sure many people feel the same way.   What if my song becomes ‘misused’, ‘disrespected’, is appropriated to become say, a pop jingle or a right wing political anthem?   My view is, who in this world, songs included, lives a perfect life?  who doesn’t go thru phases of difficulty, of challenge?  and then, who can appreciate freedom better than one who has been imprisoned?   If I have faith in the sacred origins of the song, in the path of Spirit that i am walking, then I have faith that it is being used by the Universe for positive purposes I don’t yet, or fully, understand.  

Allow me to make an analogy from my herbal background:  Its similar to cheap standardized herbal extracts available in Walmart.  Such products may be a distortion of the healing plants, and ignore the high art of herbalism, but at the same time, by actually being in Walmart and in a pharmaceutical setting, they may awaken some person(s) to the possibility of looking to plants for healing, for help and guidance, who would otherwise never be exposed to such a way of seeing the world.  This may then open a whole new life path for this person.   

The second is suggestion is that, on Friday nite, we open one of the fire circles in a sky lodge with a ‘culture honoring’ ceremony.   This could take any number of forms, including ‘calling in’ songs that can zipper in names of various cultural groups, or individuals, associated with songs that may or may not be sung over the weekend.  Icaros that call in tribal peoples is an example.  Between songs, the ceremony could also give space for people to share special connections they have with such groups or individuals, possibly offering a raised awareness to the circle.   And. .  there is a potential of an artful symmetry, a trajectory from Origins to Originality by offering a Sunday night fire circle all devoted to collaging new songs from the potent DNA gifted to us by these varied spiritual traditions.   This is another form of exchange, as it evolves these traditions, keeps them growing, and fresh.  

I would like to at this point address some other points raised in the recorded discussion.  The demographic of SAC reflects the demographic of the area in which it is located, the Pacific NW.  This for the simple reason that over 90% of our attendees come from OR and WA.   Should we endeavor to become more diverse as a way to set a good example for the greater culture, and/or as a way to alchemize greater creativity and awareness as a community?   Maybe.  However, I am averse to any kind of forcing the issue.  For this reason I do not feel inclined to manipulate ratios of age, gender, race, or ethnicity to some ideal setting thru incentives or disincentives.  This not just because I think it would create compounding issues, but because I feel our work as a community is largely on the level of spirit, and we invite and create diversity on that plane of existence.  This has it own trickle down effect on the physical, one which, again, I feel no desire to rush, or get in the way of. .   

What we have done is keep the price of the event quite low comparable to similar events.  This accessibility levels the financial playing field for people to attend, and registration has been flexible ~ to a point – in accommodating people with financial needs.   The resulting low profit margin should also address ‘profiteering’ concerns that may crop up around the circulation of songs @ SAC, and if one still sees an economic imbalance in this free market we all live in, one can exercise their free will as consumers to patronize or not.

I would like to again emphasize that the reclaiming of communal singing, of sharing with others these deep places in ourselves, is so crucial to personal and community empowerment that we want the role modeling, requests, and compassionate feedback about how it is done to never be received by someone as controlling, policing, or somebody ‘doing it wrong’, especially given how vulnerable it is for many novice people to share songs with a group.   It is therefore important for those who feel the need to give feedback to refrain from the use of abusive language.  To instead be very conscious of their word choices, the tone of their voice.  If one would like others to be sensitive and respectful in their song sharing, it does well to set a good example with how one manages ones own energy. 

I have given a lot of thought to the quite complex subject of cultural appropriation over the years, taught university classes on it and related subjects, mostly on military bases where I engaged with some of the most disenfranchised populations in U.S., and written a few things, another one of which you can read here, if you wish.  In sum, I feel that the concept is at its best when it helps us feel into how we can be more respectful, more conscious of social injustices, racial blindspots, and economic exploitations.   Though it is a well intentioned position, it is often not well-thought out in its many aspects and implications, usually because it is activated by surface emotions that cover deeper, often unacknowledged layers, of anger, fear, etc.   This gives it highly subjective, inconsistent foundations from which to base interpretations of what is or is not respectful, who can or can not speak for a cultural (racial, ethnic, etc) entity, and how that entity is even defined.   Further, who ‘owns’ what in a culture, and who can give permission to use this or that?  And isn’t the position of ownership a property-based concept imported by the Euro-Americans to begin with?   And this is not even to go into discussion of what is the point of having cultural diversity if we are to be blocked from assimilating, borrowing, or learning from each other? 

Though cultural appropriation may have had more relevancy in a previous era where there were more ‘pure’ cultures to ‘steal from’, we have moved into an age of ecological-crisis, and with it a new set of priorities.   Cultures are rapidly cross-fertilizing in a race against time.  The single collective goal is one of survival as a species, and this project of social synergy needs all the adaptive advantages, all the positives, of all the worlds cultures to bear on the coding of a revisioned, revitalized humanity, and with it a revitalized planet.   And thru it all, it would do well for each of us as individuals to take on the responsibility of refining, evolving, and being true to our own values and visions of what is right action in the world.  This to contribute to the great container of change with a high resonant field of gratitude for all that we have given each other. .  

Though as mentioned, SAC honors the wounding necessary for our maturing as individuals, as a species, and we do our best to work with it when it appears, our main purpose is to explore the landscape opened thru its integration, the territory beyond, to forgiving, to moving on .  I heard a beautiful account of Salish elders who were guests @ the Blessed Coast festival in Canada this summer..  They say they are disclaiming the victim story with all its disempowerments.  They are ready to share what tools of remembrance they have, their songs, their ceremonies, so that all may benefit.   This kind of exchange is happening all over the world, and I consider SAC to be part of a way bigger movement of planetary healing.  May we respect such gifts from the varied peoples of the earth by doing our best to be worthy recipients, to be the peace we wish to see in the world.


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This response, published Sept. 30th, 2017, can field feedback in this blog format.  Eventually the whole thing will be rewritten as a statement that summarizes SAC’s approach to such issues. .