Monday, August 05, 2013

Ethics for Magical People: Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation (1 of 3)

One aspect of the Tarot that I enjoy is how elastic it is. Although the Tarot is a construct of the Western Mystery Tradition, many Tarotists can devise fanciful decks based on themes ranging from baseball to zombies. There are even decks that feature multiple themes such as stories of dragons from African, Chinese, European, and Meso-American cultures. This diversity of decks allows for the deeper exploration of divination by the Tarot.         
One of my favorite decks is Stella Bennett’s “The Star That Never Walks Around.” This dedicated Tarotist created a deck combining her Native American heritage and her vision of the Tarot as the “Guide to Wisdom.” (Her grandmother was of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Indians.) Her title for the deck, “The Star That Never Walks Around” reflects both. (It is the Native Americans’ name for the Polar Star (Polaris).)
Demonstrating her extensive knowledge of the Tarot, Bennett includes its astrological aspects in her cards. For the Court Cards, she pairs each with their Sign. The “Knight of Turtles (Pentacles)” is Capricorn, while the “Queen of Butterflies (Swords)” is Virgo. In the Minor Arcana, she matches the suits’ elements with their respective Zodiac Signs. Bennett writes for the “Three of Thunderbirds (Wands, element of fire):” “Our warrior offers assistance, help, and strength to the ram in distress. The ram represented by the Zodiac Sign Aries and can be headstrong.”
Bennett wrote that designing this deck was a spiritual experience for her. By drawing the cards herself, Bennett could explore the Native American cultures of the Plains, where she lived, more deeply. Each card depicted Native American ceremonies and beliefs. She included ordinary events, since they also carried a message from the Spirits. An example of this was the “Death Card (XIII)” of the Major Arcana. It showed the graves of the men from Custer’s Last Stand next to a platform Indian burial. Bennett wrote, “This card represents the death of the old human spirit and the rebirth of the new spirit of the Grandfathers.”
            Bennett’s infusion of the Tarot with Native American cultures was something that I enjoyed. Whenever I used the deck for readings, I would discover new meanings in her cards. She expanded my knowledge of the Tarot.

However, I felt uneasy in using this deck, since I read that Native Americans objected to their portrayal in various media. Also, they complained that their cultures were being mined for commercial, Neo-Pagan, or New Age uses. For me, the crux of the issue became where on the “continuum between celebrating culture diversity and cultural appropriation” laid Bennett’s deck? The answer would determine if I should continue to use this deck.

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