Letter to The Editor – Outside Magazine
This letter to the editor was written in response to an article printed in the September 2018 edition of Outside Magazine, related to rites of passage. It doesn’t appear as if the magazine will be publishing it, but we wanted to share it with the Youth Passageways community!
Dear Editor of Outside magazine,
Thank you for making “Rewilding the American Child” the cover story of your September issue, and for including rites of passage as part of this important discussion. The loss of rites of passage has implications not just for the lives of individual young people, but for public health more broadly. Renewing rites of passage in meaningful ways is a powerful strategy to address issues as seemingly unrelated as the rise of violent extremists and school shootings, unprecedented pharmaceutical dependency, and the increasing polarization in society. Because this is such a pressing yet often-neglected topic, I was disappointed to see gaps in your reporting of this subject, and what felt like an outdated perspective.
What especially concerned me was the absence of the cultural context of rites of passage within the piece. An essential part of rites of passage is the community and cultural context in which they occur—which in today’s world is deeply effected by race, ethnicity, gender, geographical location, and a host of other factors. These factors were noticeably absent from this article’s descriptions.
In a nation with a founding story that involves enslavement of Africans and genocide of indigenous peoples, it is critical that rite of passage ceremonies help folks develop a healthy sense of cultural rootedness and identity (which is possible for all people regardless of racial/ethnic background), in ways that do not reinforce structural inequity and white supremacy. Many indigenous peoples have pointed out that the use of certain ceremonial practices by non-indigenous peoples is cultural appropriation, and they have asked for (and at times demanded) this to stop. Yet the lead-in story to this article references sweatlodge without giving any context for the practice. While some form of sweat-house for purification and prayer can be found the world over, generally the practice that “sweatlodge” refers to is based on the Lakota inipiceremony, one of the sacred ceremonies passed down to the Lakota people by their ancestors.
In this article, there is not enough context to know if this is an act of cultural appropriation—but this is context that is important in publishing a piece like this. Cultural appropriation is part of the legacy of rites of passage in many settler communities, and many are working to address this issue. In the continued struggles for indigenous sovereignty—where lands and waters are still taken despite treaty rights, where rates of poverty and violence disproportionately affect indigenous peoples, many of us are exploring deeply the context of rites of passage in our communities today. This context includes how many of these ceremonies were lost or driven underground through violence, fear of persecution, forced assimilation, removal of children from their families into boarding schools, and more; how many of these cultural forms have continued to be preserved despite these threats, because their continued practice is so important to the survival of a culture; and how now they are being borrowed, stolen, and commodified by others outside of the culture, in ways that harm everyone involved.
As your article so aptly points out, rites of passage are an important part of the raising of healthy young people, and of community vitality, and by encouraging a broader perspective I don’t want to discourage readers for learning more or experimenting in their families or communities! I do want to challenge folks to understand the complexity of the terrain, and to seek out diverse resources from which to learn.
I hope you will consider a follow-up piece with a broader, more inclusive view of the topic, as I expect it would be of great interest to your readers. I also hope you will refer your readers to Youth Passageways, a diverse coalition of rite of passage providers (some of the organizations you mentioned are partners of the Youth Passageways network). Youth Passageways does not advocate any particular form of rites of passage, but rather provides education for providers, and a broad picture for the general public to see what rite of passage experiences exist, and find the right fit for them, their students, and their children.
Darcy Ottey, Board Chair, Youth Passageways