Culture, Dignity or How to Become Native European
As you may be aware, the art of ritual smoke cleansing is highly contentious at this moment. Native American peoples have spoken out against the cultural appropriation of their traditions, not in the least their practice of smudging. And without a doubt, love.bound was inspired by this practice. Where does that put us in terms of cultural respect? How can we fulfil our mission of bringing the message of plants to you in a way that respects tribal identities and heals wounds of the past? We had a hell of a time figuring this out ourselves and we're finally ready to share some of our first notions with you. Chime in on any topic via firstname.lastname@example.org if you ever feel the need to - we're open to your ideas.
photo by: Anna Perger
love. at first scent: a spontaneous human-plant connection
Before telling you about our views on the cultural, I need to tell you about my personal experiences that led me to create love.bound. Context is important. Some three years ago I lived in a small cabin in the forest with a dear friend. She was very much into witchcraft, yoga and even did psycho-active mushrooms to connect with nature. At the moment you're reading this, I partake in these interests and practices zealously, but at that point I was much less open minded. Her and I sometimes meditated together, but otherwise she blazed the trail in our spiritual development. Note the word 'sometimes' here, because more often than not we would argue and bicker.
One full-moon night I came home to find her dancing to tribal sounds in our living room. At first, I wasn't into it at all. I found the atmosphere alienating and hostile, and honestly was annoyed that I wasn't able to come home from a long day of work in peace. I immediately left again to walk in the moonlit misty meadow nearby. The pale light calmed me down and I decided to return home. As I entered the room I instinctively started dancing along with my housemate. There we shared feelings of enmity, but also dignity. We were frustrated with each other as feelings of mistrust and hate had built up over the past weeks. You know, the 'you drank my milk' type of hate. But nevertheless we knew we were in this scene together, not knowing where this impromptu rhythmic ritual would take us. We would sometimes dance together shortly, and quickly turn away from each other, as to let the other know we had no intention of bonding or peace-making.
We danced for hours in a wordless trance. The only sound we uttered were growls, maniacal laughter and deep breathing. This went on for hours. As the night progressed, we realized what was going on. We were changing and starting to trust each other. Into what I did not know. I had never done anything like this before, but I felt I had to persist. Already tired, we kept dancing song after song, deep drum after slow flute. Hours later, I found myself convulsing and gagging on the floor. I imagined my hands growing into claws and felt a thick, fiery gall burning in my stomach. On all fours and in a pose reminiscent of how transforming werewolves are depicted in popular fiction, I started to hiss and imagined blowing thick clouds of black smoke. For the first time in hours my friend spoke: "Keep going." She stood over me, chanting in tongues. Later she would explain that she had never done this as well, and that she acted out of instinct. I felt the smoke getting blacker and thicker. She paced to the kitchen and grabbed a bowl, as if she knew what was going to happen. When she placed the bowl in front of me I threw up from deep inside my stomach. It was a thick, dark slime, perhaps the amount of two raw eggs. Under her instruction, I buried the rancid slime in the snowy forest ground (naked, that somehow felt better).
When I returned to the warmth of the house I felt reborn, like I had just let go of something heavy and toxic. Inside my friend had just lit a white sage stick. I lay on the ground face up, staring at the ceiling. I felt clear-minded and tranquil, and asked my roommate for the sage stick. I hadn't ever seen one up close. And I really can't describe to you how its scent made me feel - nor do I feel the need to waste words on an experience that cannot be verbally described. Suffice it to say that I felt like a new person, like I just went through a passage ritual and the sage seemed to incarnate what was on the other side. Peace and ease, in a very matter-of-fact way. I felt the need to take this feeling with me, so I firmly pressed the smouldering sage stick into my chest, making a scar. It felt good to know that the plant would be a part of me from that moment forward. I felt neither pain nor hesitation, only effortless purpose.
I am telling you this story to illustrate the spontaneity and depth with which I connected with this plant. I had no idea of its existence, let alone the cultural meaning of white sage. This plant, I felt, came to me and I instinctively welcomed her. Sharing this experience was my purpose for creating love.bound.
photo by: Anna Perger
.bound: sharing plant knowledge in a cultural context
During the joyful process of creating the shop with lovely Luka, I became familiar with the cultural meaning of white sage. I heard sounds of abuse, bad faith and most of all misunderstanding. At first, I shrugged off these rumours as something I wouldn't have to busy myself with: my bond with sage was personal and untainted by even the awareness of the grief that was felt over its use by people like me. As such, there would be no need to examine my actions and motives whatsoever.
But as time went on, it became clear that the way in which I came in touch with sage was the result of distinct cultural flows. That fateful white sage stick imprinted in my chest was, well... a white sage stick, most likely imported from North America. Not only was it brought here as the result of a horrible process of invasion, the white sage plant itself is in fact sacred to many indigenous Americans. And currently it's being harvested from reservations without permission or the proper rituals the natives deem necessary to upkeep the relation with the sacred plant. Sacred. What a word. Today, many of us Europeans really can't get our head around that term, as we no longer feel as connected to nature and the divine as we once did. So I won't pretend to understand what this means to the Native Americans, I can only say that I understand that it hurts. And as much as I'd like to deny my connection to this history, it's undeniably there.
And when designing our own smoke cleansing bundle, we made, well... a bundle. When you look at it, you could easily mistake it for a Native American crafting. Here again, I cannot deny the influence of that overseas culture. It is the same culture that my own Dutch ancestors brutally took land from, as they did with the slaughter of the Lenape Indians in New York and New Jersey. And even though I may not have perpetrated these crimes myself, I certainly benefit from them everyday day. The prosperity I enjoy today in one of the wealthiest countries is built on such atrocities. And here I am, selling a Native American inspired product.
Before coming to a conclusion, I must admit to a final and crucial aspect in which Native American Culture has shaped me. As you can imagine, my experience with white sage and the spontaneous ritual was a lot to process. Not only had I felt myself turning into what I would describe as a demon or devil, I also instinctively burnt myself with this new plant in a state of trance-like tranquillity. These were experiences unlike those I had ever had before. During the next years, I set out on a path to understand what had happened. I had already meditated before, which very much helped make provisional sense of what had happened. But I was now more open to using natural allies to teach me as well. By taking mushroom truffles like psylocybe mexicana and LSD, in company or alone, I was able to peer into my connection with nature, Earth and my species. Eventually, an ayahuasca ritual under the guidance of Mark Mills, apprentice to maestro Moises Llerena Taricuarima, helped me connect more easily to the peace and purpose I felt that night in the forest and can still feel inside of me today.
In this way, plants, fungi and knowledge from the Americas were an integral part of my process in understanding who I am today. The same force that drives me to do love.bound was freed and unearthed partially through rituals and knowledge from the peoples and tribes whose language, concepts and sometimes even whose sacred plants I used. Moreover, the way I understand human-plant relations is greatly influenced by The Teachings of Don Juan, where anthropologist Carlos Castenada enters an apprenticeship with Don Juan, a 'man of knowledge' or shaman of the Yaqui tribe in current New Mexico. This book was extremely welcome to me, as it’s author perfectly described how overwhelming plant experiences could be to the unfamiliar mind. This book – and by proxy Don Juan himself, respectfully – helped me to persist on the path I had set out on that night in the forest cabin.
All in all, there is no denying what I owe to these cultures. Like a scientist that gains more understanding and inspiration with every piece of knowledge he gains that is accrued through the labor of others, my understanding of myself and nature is built from the work of others. First and foremost, this is something incredible and beautiful. I feel blessed to be exposed to their influences and to have been able to walk a path that has been cleared by courageous, brave people. This being said, it is painful to see how little respect I have paid through my words and actions - all the more painful considering the history of abuse our communities have. All too easy this history is reproduced in symbolic ways, such as when we purchased imported Californian white sage. As you can read in the last part of this story, we will take concrete steps to do this project in a more respectful way. It will feel all the better for us.
art by: Daren Thomas Magee
cult: creating our own human-plant bonds
However, this is only part of what we feel we need to change. Because to me, there is something else that deeply pains me in this process. And it has nothing to do with cultural appropriation or Native Americans. It has to do with the glaring inability of my own culture to provide me with meaningful knowledge of my relation to nature and my place in existence. As grateful as I feel towards the teachers that have guided me across cultural barriers, I am enraged and indignified with my own culture. Why on earth do I need to wait until my late twenties and stumble upon a white sage stick in order to have a meaningful experience with a plant? Why did I need knowledge from across an ocean in order to make sense of this experience? And why did I feel like this had been missing from my life for a long time as soon as I had the experience? I gravitated towards the Native American knowledge, for my own culture was entirely unable to provide me with the answers I sought.
As author Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, my people have forgotten what it means to be native. To connect with our soil, our plants and animals and our ancestors. If we're lucky, we are born in a rural village where the harvest is celebrated with a festival and spring is welcomed with fire. I, being raised in the city, never partook in either. I have never eaten a plant which I sowed myself. I have never taken care of a farm animal, yet I consumed meat countless times. I don't know the names of plants and I can hardly distinguish the different birds I see. The forest that I do know is surrounded by fences and whenever I see the moon, I see her shining over the city rooftops among a plethora of street lights.
I appreciate the inspiration Native Americans have granted me, but I no longer wish to be dependent on a foreign culture to understand myself and my world. I desire to experience and research these matters myself, to open myself up to the plants that surround me and listen to those who speak to me. I want to excavate the remains of my native culture: her ideas, her traditions, her soil and her unique natural phenomena. I wish to experience the places where my ancestors found magic, before science explained them rationally.
I find this desire truly daunting. I am afraid that others may think me distracted by pointless fantasy, or that they would feel I am searching for something that has been long extinct - like the magical creatures my ancestors saw. Most of all, I fear that this may be true. That our bond with nature has dried and withered completely, along with the need for or interest in it. That I myself am already too alienated from nature to ever understand its language.
Nevertheless, it is what I wish to do. And I will. I will find the birds and the plants, the silence and the patience. I hope to find songs and foods, along with others who wish to sing and taste them. I want to connect deeply and often with the plants of my soil, drawing from them my own lessons about their character and messages. In doing this, I still want to learn from the Native Americans. Not to emulate them, but as an admirer of a people that has held on to its bond with Earth. I one day hope to relate to them as equals, when I have found my own local traditions and rituals. I one day hope to be a Native European.
art by: Daren Thomas Magee
-shop: earning, sharing and respect
There is one last point we feel we need to address. Because all this would be a lot less sensitive if we were just appreciators of Native American lifestyle - but we are entrepreneurs selling products inspired by that culture. Very literally, we are making a profit from our Native American inspiration. We see the seriousness of this situation. In these circumstances we need to tread carefully, and we aren't yet sure how to go forward. Allow us to explain.
Although we are members of our culture as much as any of you, we feel very alienated from and uncomfortable with the way our community expects us to earn our living. Many roles or 'jobs' in our economy are downright despicable to us. Salesmen, big business accounting, insurance company and investment banking are some of the worst examples of this. But even in relatively meaningful positions such as nurses, cleaners and factory workers we cannot nearly express our human nature to its fullest potential. Me and Luka, we don't want jobs. We don't want retirement funds, we don't want a paycheck or a mortgage. Honestly, we feel trapped. Trapped in needing to pay rent, to look for income and most of all we feel trapped by the buildings and streets.
Especially for Luka, love.bound is the first project she feels like she can fully express herself in. And I think that is visible in the astounding quality of the bundles she creates and the warms and intimacy her messages on social media speak. I have seen her grow and blossom at an incredible pace since we started out on this enterprise. Meanwhile, we are very literally sharing plant experiences and aiding others in finding their place in nature through the plants we are grateful to send to them. For now, this is our way of giving something real and meaningful to our community whilst ensuring our survival in this concrete jungle.
However, this is no excuse to operate in ill faith towards other cultures, or to ignore the sensitive history of the practice we make our living with. Perhaps our product is currently too closely associated with Native American sacred practices. Really, we aren't the ones to judge this. So we will get in touch with native American representatives and ask for their opinion on this. Moreover, we will search for ways to make our bundles more local, more Native European. Some preliminary thoughts on this are using local flora, such as artemisia (very, very local!), European green sage and native roses as alternatives to the sacred ingredients of white sage, cedar, tobacco and sweetgrass.
We are so grateful for everyone's help and enthusiasm in this project, and we are grateful for the inspiration we have knowingly and unknowingly received from the Native Americans. Thank you. We understand we need to change, and we will. We will become Native Northern Europeans. And we will be free.
photo by: Anna Perger
/: provisional conclusions and our steps going forward
This being said, here is what we will do:
- We will keep bringing plants intended for smoke cleansing and rituals to our fellow European natives. This practice is certainly cultural, but also universal. The act of connecting with plants through their smoke is human, and we aim to pursue our mission to help you create this experience for yourself.
This being said, we feel a great need and responsibility to acknowledge our inspirations and our cultural history. Moreover, we may have to amend mistakes we have made in the past. This includes:
- Refraining from using the term 'smudging', using the four Native American holy plants of cedar, white sage, sweetgrass and tobacco.
- Also, we will not export to the Americas as to not infringe upon the livelihoods of Native Americans. If we would ever import from this continent, we would only do so in collaboration with Native Americans. However, this is not our intention. We are making every effort to create a local, Northern European assortment of herbs aligned with ties to our own cultural heritage.
- Due to the overwhelming influence of the Native American culture on our practice, we will seek advice from and dialogue with representatives of this culture to help us understand the impact of our actions. If they would be open to it, we would like to actively learn from them and their culture.
- In the past we have imported white sage. Our apologies, we will contact tribe representatives to ask for directions in this matter.
- Our current design of the love.bound bundle is very reminiscent of the Native American craft. We will research our own cultural heritage to see whether herbal smoking bundles were ever used, and seek to work with Native American representatives to ensure our products respect cultural heritage.
Lastly, we will take concrete action to develop our Northern European locality. As strange as it feels to make ourselves accountable for this, we think it is vital in pursuing our mission. We need to do this, and telling you about this intention will help us keep our word when we feel afraid to persist. For now we won't be too specific about the way to go about this, as we're still adjusting to this change of perspective. Most likely we will organise a spring celebration or something - really, we don't know yet. We'll keep you posted in How To Become Native European part II.
photo by: Anna Perger
I would like to thank Anne van Leeuwen of Bodemzicht Regenerative Farm for courageously holding me responsible for my views and forcing me to critically view my beliefs. With her help we found the courage to create our own path and shine all the brighter. Also, I would like to thank all my teachers: Mohamed Azmani, Eva Heijltjes, Pieter Hermans, Chris Daniels, Mohamed Adroun, Rients Ritskes, Moritz Boegel, Misha Belien, Frank Loeffen, Mark Mills, Luka Berends and Zef Schütt. I thank healing sage and wise tobacco, the blessed Mother Ayahuasca, the playful Mexican truffle and untamed LSD.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
✺ Blog cover art is by: Daren Thomas Magee