Ancestral Religions, Ancestral Adoptions

As the latest pissing con disagreement between the Asatru Folk Assembly and the Troth continues, Troth Elder Diana Paxson has weighed in with a Facebook post entitled “On Blood and Belonging.” In that post she discusses her work in the 1970s developing curriculum materials for use on Indian reservations.

When we started field testing the curriculum I noticed a difference in how our project was received on the reservation and in the urban Indian centers. In the city, they wanted to know how much Indian blood our team members had. On the reservation, they just wanted to know whether the materials would help their children.

On the reservation the first question to ask a newcomer was “Who are you related to?” and relationship could be claimed through marriage or adoption. This reflected a long-standing tradition among many tribes, who in the old days might adopt especially courageous enemies, or even raid other tribes for people to replace lost population. The focus on blood quantum looks to me like the result of the legal requirements for tribal membership (and rights to land, lawsuit settlements and the like) established by the BIA and other government agencies. I suspect that using DNA to define identity is a Euro-American idea. While I cannot speak for Native Americans, and certainly do not mean to say that all or even any would agree with me, from the outside, it looks as if tribal identity is much more a matter of personal and cultural connection.

Paxson raises an excellent point here, and one which has parallels in the Caribbean.  In the early 20th century population pressures drove many Haitians off their ancestral farms and into Port-au-Prince.  These new migrants lost access to their ancestral shrines and boneyards: family practices which had survived the Middle Passage and the Revolution were in danger of dying out.  Then a number of priests put together a reglamen under which the lwa of various nachons (nations) could be honored.  Their priye gineh (prayer to Africa) saluted Catholic saints and African kings: their rituals were inspired in equal parts by African secret societies and Franco-Masonry.  And the sign of this new tradition became a beaded rattle which was once used only to salute the lwa of royal Dahomey — the asson.   By entering the djevo (initiatory chamber) an initiate was adopted into that line and introduced to its lwa and its ancestors.

When non-Haitians use the word “Vodou” they are typically referring to this tradition, Sevis Gineh.  The ancestral family traditions which helped form it are still practiced in the Artibonne and rural Haiti, but they have received little study.  Academics studying Haiti typically prefer staying within urban areas for purposes of convenience and safety.  A graduate student wanting to study Sevis Gineh can find a teacher and be initiated in the tradition: that same student will always be an outsider in the Artibonne where the spirits are only served by those who have them “in their blood” — who have a direct ancestral connection to Africa and to those spirits’ hereditary priesthood.  In Port-au-Prince, Jacmel and urban Haiti the asson lineage is predominant. Outside the cities it is considered less prestigious  than the ancestral faiths and the secret societies.

For Americans the question is generally phrased “should White people be initiated in Vodou?” In Haiti the question is “should non-Haitians be initiated in Vodou?” Much as it served to preserve tradition in Port-au-Prince, today many Haitian-Americans are turning to Sevis Gineh as a way of honoring their Haitian cultural identity in an indifferent and frequently hostile diaspora.  I have heard of houses which will only initiate Haitians: I have never encountered a Sevis Gineh peristyle which would initiate Black Americans but not White Americans.

Applying contemporary concepts of race to historical cultures is even more misleading.  A pre-Christian Norse herdsman didn’t see himself as White: he saw himself as Sven Olafsson, a freeman who bent his knee before Kurt the Bald, who tilled the land between the crooked stream and the high hill’s westernmost alf-stone,  and whose great-grandfather returned from his service in the Roman army with a missing eye, a silk carpet and a Circassian wife.  The amber trade routes ensured a good deal of communication and commerce between Germanic, Baltic, Nordic and Celtic peoples: trade with Rome and the Levant ensured exchange between European, Semitic, Asian and African cultures. Friendships and romances formed across ethnicities then as now. So too did tensions, quarrels and occasional wars. Yet amidst all those cultural exchanges the basic identities remained intact.

Paxson notes that many Indian tribes had provisions by which outsiders could be adopted into the group. In a similar vein Sevis Gineh is a means by which an outsider can be adopted into the house’s spiritual lineage and gain access to the house’s lwa and ancestral spirits.  I would agree that it is possible to gain admittance into an alien culture (as a White American Houngan Si Pwen I would look pretty silly if I said otherwise).  But I would also point to what is implied by the words “adopted into.”

Adoption into a group is a privilege, not a right.  The group is allowed to set standards for admission. A nation might reserve adoption for non-Indians who had done some great service for their people — a physician who dedicated his life to a reservation’s medical needs, for example.  Even then they might place conditions on his adoption: the tribe might recognize him as a member yet bar him from certain ceremonies which are only open to ethnic members.  (Paxson’s speculation that recent Indian emphasis on DNA is a Euro-American import is certainly plausible, but ultimately tribal members are allowed to set their own rules whether or not we agree with their reasoning).

Adoption is also the exception rather than the rule. Haitian Vodou will always be inextricably linked to the island of Hispaniola and to the St.-Domingue slaves who drove out one of Europe’s mightiest colonial powers.  Its approach is tribal rather than universalist. Where Christianity seeks to bring the world into the Body of Christ, and Islam to spread the range of the Ummah, the société, like a country club, is exclusive.  (As Mama Lola described membership, “You in, you in. You out, you stay out.”)  And perhaps most importantly, “adoption into” implies there is a discrete and separate group into which one can be adopted.

Amidst all these arguments about whether or not Asatru is “the ethnic religion of the Northern European (meaning White) people,” little attention has been paid to one important point: even universalist Asatru groups like the Troth are overwhelmingly White. And while we’re on the subject, anybody who has done the Pagan convention circuit may have noticed a certain lack of melanin amongst attendees. In a decade of attending Pagan events on both coasts I could fit every Black person I met there in my living room — and have plenty of room to walk around with an hors d’oeuvre plate.  We can discuss the reasons why until the cows come home (and I plan to do so in a forthcoming post), but for now the uncomfortable fact remains that Europa’s Gods are overwhelmingly being honored by Europa’s children.

Until next time live in pietas and remember: the Gods are Real, the Gods are Many, the Gods are Here.


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