An American Heathen’s Guide to Being a Good Guest at Home

Here I start again.

I feel very strongly – as a pagan, who is looking to traditional ways of life as well as traditional religion for inspiration – about supporting Native cultural rennaisance. This is not a view I see trumpeted in a lot of places, so to focus on specific practices, issues, and even my specific region might be less helpful than focusing on my feelings of “rights and responsibilities” on the matter.

Offerings of alcohol are the Heathen staple offering. But I have always felt awkward pouring out libations “for” the spirits of place, here in the US. Those spirits are older than people. The mounds in my area are thousands of years old, and the spirits of place are even older than those people. They certainly prexisted colonists. The spirits of those places bore silent witness of the removal of Natives from their lands and the often violent, always traumatic way in which Native culture – of interdependence with those spirits – is suppressed and attacked.

One of the tactics in that attack is alcohol. It was introduced destructively: Natives had little experience with alcohol’s effects, or ways (culturally, socially) to handle the fallout from overconsumption or addiction, and drunk Natives were egged on, fooled, whipped up into violence, and mocked. Though the cultures adapted, then and now alcohol and substance addiction are huge problems in Native communities plagued by poverty and hopelessness.
To offer alcohol as a gift, the same way it was offered to Native people, to the spirits of the land is something I just can’t do. If you see the spirits as objectively real it is crappy and thoughtless, and if you see ritual as simply a way to reinforce behavior like thankfulness and attentiveness it is crappy and thoughtless.

In my tradition, Jorð, or Erce is the goddess of all the Earth. The dirt, the ground, the planet. Mother Earth. But in my understanding of animism, I am concerned on a much more local level than that. I live in my house – and that reality shapes the details of my life. I also live in a certain state, a certain nation, a certain planet – but those realities are more distant and academic to me. When you ask me where I live I will give you my home address.

In a similar vein, when I think about the earth under my feet: who I depend on, who carries me, where my food grows and lives, where my beloved dead are all buried; I think of Wisconsin, and of Turtle.

In a story that has variations all over this region, all the land was once covered in water, and all the animals and spirits had to float, fly or swim. Muskrat was the only one who could dive deep enough to get soil from under the water, and died doing so. Turtle was the only one whose body could carry the land, so she volunteered. All the other spirits danced on top of that small pile of soil, and it grew into a land large and plentiful enough for human beings – the Woodland, the Anishinaabe, the Ho-Chunk and others, beloved younger kin to those spirits – to live on. The Northeastern United States and Canada is that land, founded on those two sacrifices. Turtle Island.

I live on Turtle Island before I live on the body of Jorð/Erce, just like I live in my house before I live in the Solar System. With hospitality as a central virtue to pretty much all Heathens – with certain roles for hosts to play and certain roles for guests to play and that relationship underlying civil society as a whole, I can’t ignore the hospitality of Turtle, or take it for granted. Just as a deep friendship creates social bonds that come with obligations, I feel obligated to stand behind Turtle’s kin with real material help when I can give it, to respect and support them as members in a common community.

(You can support the anti-mining activism by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, in the Bad River watershed, right here.)

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