Rites of Passage, Cultural Appropriation, and Initiation in the Western Tradition
In 2013, when Men’s Eagle Council.com, the online resource for teenage boys I manage, was still just an idea, I found my way to the Youth Rites of Passage Summit in Ojai, California, where some of the final ingredients for Youth Passageways were mixed. I was on the video team, and so had the strange privilege of observing the conversations without being able to participate much. And while I was largely in the position of an observer, that position by no means makes my observations objective. In this essay, I’ll offer my own perspective on a few of the events at that gathering, and the personal thought process that they engendered.
At the summit I saw a group of passionate changemakers from many different places and backgrounds, with a powerfully felt but elusive common purpose rooted in widely divergent perspectives. What was most unique about this group was the way that everyone seemed to value the relationships being forged just as much as the work being done. The people who came together and the community they were forming were treated with the same reverence as the purpose that had brought them together.
As should not have been surprising in a gathering of rites of passage practitioners, our community was quickly tested. A sweat lodge had been planned for the last day. It became known that the person who was to run the sweat lodge ceremony was a man of European descent. Furthermore, it wasn’t clear whether the people indigenous to that land had blessed the lodge and given permission for its use. A vigorous and heartful discussion ensued. None of the indigenous people in attendance came out to say that they opposed the sweat lodge being held, but some said they would not themselves participate, and that they knew people who would be offended. Finally, one attendee said that, as descendents of people from other continents, the Native American sweat lodge is not our tradition, and that taking pieces of Native American traditions has a moral import. It’s not a neutral act. The discussion reached no consensus, but the leadership team conferred, and the sweat lodge was cancelled.
What is Cultural Appropriation Anyway?
It can be hard to understand what cultural appropriation is, and why it’s important, especially for people who haven’t been subject to it. I myself am a bit bewildered by the idea—where it begins and ends, how to identify and weigh the harms and benefits. I’m a European-American man, which means I’ll never experience cultural appropriation the way an indigenous person might.
Nevertheless, I’ll make a stab at explaining cultural appropriation, to the best of my understanding. Before I begin, I should note that I am a white man, primarily addressing other people of European descent, and primarily considering cultural appropriation of Native American traditions by Euro-Americans. The topic of cultural appropriation is much larger than what I can say here, but this slice of it is closest to me, my relationship with rites of passage, and my role in this community.
Europeans have robbed the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas of the lands in which they lived, and often tried to forcibly remove their cultural heritage and replace it with European traditions. This was done partly through institutions like boarding schools that forbade the use of indigenous languages and explicitly tried to assimilate indigenous children into Euro-American culture.
Increasingly, European Americans have realized that we can benefit from Native American cultural traditions, so we seek to participate in them, to use elements from them for our own benefit, but often do so in a way that gives nothing back to the people who have carried these traditions under so much adversity to the present day. Once again, people of European descent benefit from something that once belonged to indigenous people, but the conditions of those indigenous people’s lives don’t improve.
Furthermore, when European Americans make use of Native American cultural traditions, the impact on how those traditions are perceived and understood is much greater than when cultural diffusion goes the other way. As a European American, the cultures of my ancestral traditions are well-represented in the general culture in which I live by other people who share my ancestry. The subtleties and variations in those traditions are easy to find and understand with widely available artistic and cultural products. For example, British legends like that of King Arthur can be easily found in many different versions. Countless interpretations of the King Arthur legend, by native English speakers with British ancestry, are easily accessible. The language and culture of the British Isles is broadly available, even compulsory, so there’s little danger of taking the King Arthur legend damagingly out of context. Even if that were to happen, the mistake could be easily corrected.
On the other hand, when a Euro-American person adopts a Native American practice, like the sweat lodge, it’s very unlikely that he or she will learn the language in which that practice was originally conducted, learn all the stories that might be referenced in it, and fully understand all the cultural categories it makes use of. If that European American then conducts sweat lodges for other Euro-Americans, it’s even less likely that those participants will have access to more than a tiny fraction of the culture from which that style of sweat lodge came. There are too few Native Americans with enough cultural influence in contemporary US culture to be able to correct all of these distortions of Native American cultures, especially since there are myriad Native American languages, cultures, religions, and worldviews, and knowledge of one doesn’t give someone knowledge of another.
Cultural Appropriation and Rites of Passage
The issue of cultural appropriation is not new to the modern Rites of Passage community. One might even say that it is inextricable from the very core of our movement. Many of the specific rituals used in modern rites of passage come directly from indigenous cultures. But aside from these specific borrowings, the idea of a “rite of passage” as such comes from the tradition of anthropology, with its checkered colonial past. Arnold Van Gennep’s book Les Rites de Passage, which introduced the term, was part of a larger project in anthropology of studying cultures around the world to identify universal themes. This project was intimately tied with colonialism. Whether an individual European or American anthropologist believed colonialism good or bad, his or her access to the ideas and practices of such a huge variety of world cultures was only possible because European militaries and settlers had colonized vast swaths of the planet. This process of colonization disrupted and sometimes destroyed the very cultures the anthropologist studied.
Furthermore, the idea that the European intellectual was capable of a bird’s-eye view of world culture carries the subtle implication of an exceptional rationality on the part of the European. It implies that the European mind is free enough from the fetters of a parochial worldview to survey the landscape of world cultures and notice the trends that organically reside there. The more such a detached rationality is assumed, the more likely the surveyor is to merely see his or her own concerns reflected in other cultures, and miss entirely those things for which he or she has no native vocabulary and thus no conceptual boxes in which they fit.
The very idea of a “rite of passage” is just such a European anthropological generalization, derived from many different cultural forms from around the world (including Europe), each uprooted from the fullness of the context in which it lived or lives. This generalization process makes each particular cultural form subservient to the generalization, and inevitably obscures some particularities in the name of upholding that generalization.
This is not to say that we must stop using the term “rite of passage.” It is also not to say that we should stop trying to create new rites of passage, or continue holding the ones we’ve already created. It is merely to say that the modern rites of passage movement is interwoven with the ongoing history of colonization and decolonization, and any way we choose to respond will pull somehow on the threads of this tapestry, and in turn affect the other people bound up in it with us.
Western Initiatory Traditions
An idea that I’ve heard repeated in the rites of passage field is that modern Western society has no tradition of rites of passage to draw upon. Sure, we have graduation ceremonies, we get our driver’s licenses and become eligible to vote. People in particular religious traditions have religious coming of age ceremonies, such as bar and bat mitzvahs for Jews and confirmation for Catholics, but by and large there is no broadly applicable tradition of initiation into adulthood and community life in the West, and we must look elsewhere in order to bring this to our children.
I agree that what we currently have in mainstream American culture is inadequate for helping our young people make a conscious transition into a thriving, responsible adulthood. But we don’t have to look outside of Western culture to find effective initiatory ceremonies from which we can draw. European and Euro-American cultures have their own initiatory traditions, which are ripe to be adapted to the needs of the modern rites of passage community.
This European tradition of initiation reaches back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were quite popular in the Athens of Plato and Aristophanes, and which began to be practiced as early as 1300-1600 BCE. Up to 3,000 people were initiated at each annual celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were open to men and women, slave and free, as long as they spoke Greek and hadn’t murdered anyone. Prospective initiates first bathed in the ocean, then made the 15-mile trek from the Agora in Athens to Eleusis. Then, at night, they entered the temple there and witnessed a ritual performance of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, as related in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. A description of the ritual, as best it can be pieced together today from fairly limited sources, can be found in Initiation Into the Mysteries of the Ancient World by Jan N. Bremmer (free download available at the link), which provides descriptions of the contents of various ancient Mystery initiations according to the most up-to-date scholarship available. All of my descriptions of the Eleusinian rites in this essay are drawn from this book.
While much of the ritual at Eleusis is lost in the twilight of history, it is striking that the myth of Persephone remains very much a part of modern American culture. It wouldn’t be difficult to base new rites of passage on these ancient myths and rituals, in a way that would be relevant to modern teenagers.
The myth of Persephone’s descent to the underworld resonates profoundly with many of the challenges teens face today. Persephone, as the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, can be seen as the creative force as it functions in making things grow. Teenagers are experiencing the upwelling of their own vital forces toward the activities that make little people begin to grow. Persephone, from her idyllic innocence picking flowers in a meadow, is pulled into the fathomless darkness by Hades. I still vividly remember the internal darkness that enveloped me as a teenager. I remember half embracing it, and half grasping desperately for a way out. A rite of passage using this myth as inspiration could have given me validation that the darkness was real and important, as well as a promise of light to come.
Of course, the Eleusinian Mysteries were just one of many Mysteries in ancient Greece and Rome. If you don’t resonate with this particular myth or ritual, there are many others to draw from.
If you’d rather make use of a living initiatory tradition than resurrect pieces of a more or less dead one, we need not go all the way back to ancient Athens. There is one that has been an integral part of Euro-American culture (and later also a part of African-American culture) since before the founding of the Republic of the United States: the tradition of Freemasonry. During the course of its history, Freemasonry has spawned countless spin-off fraternal and sororal orders, which were once so popular that roughly a third of all Americans were members of one . And while it is less popular than it once was, Masonry continues to be practiced today. The largest Masonic orders still only admit men and only recognize other orders that are exclusively male, but there have been Masonic orders that admit both men and women since at least 1893 . I am a member of one of these.
Masonry is one of the few initiatory traditions embedded within Anglo-American culture. It arose in Britain and took root in the U.S., where it once provided a widely shared initiation for men into moral responsibility and good citizenship. Its rituals have many layers of meaning, and can give rise to profound spiritual experiences when approached with the right frame of mind. It is possible to find descriptions of the Masonic rituals, including the “secret” parts, but there is an inner depth to the ceremonies that can only be plumbed by participating in them, repeatedly and for a long time.
W. L. Wilmshurst is one of many authors who have expounded the spiritual significances of Masonry. In his book The Masonic Initiation, Wilmshurst identifies three basic aims of initiation: to move from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real, and from death to immortality, and he associates these with the three degrees of Masonry.
For teenagers, the movement from darkness to light seems most appropriate to the transition they are undergoing. The light of abstract, critical thought begins to shine within their minds at some point during adolescence. In the initiation into the first degree of Masonry, the candidate enters the Lodge blindfolded, after being deprived of all his (or her) worldly adornments, and is subject to a series of symbolic trials before the blindfold is removed to reveal the Lodge and its symbols. Those symbols represent the inner faculties that we can use to attain knowledge and virtue, to advance the Masonic purposes of Brotherly Love, relief of suffering, and the cultivation of Truth.
One of the basic purposes of a rite of passage is to symbolically acknowledge the awakening of these mental faculties in a young person, and point him or her in the direction of the virtues with which to manage the responsibility of using these faculties to benefit the world.
One of the many interpretations of the Masonic square and compasses is the faculties of analysis and synthesis. We use these tools to subject tradition to critical evaluation, but also to seek the true principles that have inspired it.
In fact, the previous sentence describes precisely what many of us in the modern rites of passage movement are doing. We are drawing upon the traditions available to us, breaking them into pieces, noticing how the pieces fit together, measuring the proportional relationships
The Universal and the Particular in Initiation
Wilmshurst also writes that “all . . . religions are but so many radii of one circle, designed to lead [people] from the circumference and surface of life to the one Light at its centre.“
I can’t escape the conviction that there is something universal toward which so many different initiations from around the world reach. That there is a principle of initiation that transcends time, place, and culture. That there are greater vistas of understanding to which anyone, anywhere, at any time can open, and that the experience of first finding the closed door, then having it opened, is always at some deep level the same.
It’s difficult to articulate why I believe there is a universality to initiation. Perhaps it is partly because the patterns found by scholars like Van Gennep and Joseph Campbell are somewhat compelling to me, even if they also overstep their bounds. But I think it’s mostly because of my own initiatory experiences. Stripped down to their essence, they have all shared a sense of poking through some previously unseen barrier in my consciousness to new vistas of understanding. It’s hard to imagine this experience being exclusive to my culture, and it seems plausible that there are certain general types of communal ceremony that would facilitate it. The experience itself carries with it a powerful sense of being a birthright of humanity (beginning with the initiation of literal birth which we all undergo).
And yet, that universal principle of initiation must always be understood and articulated within a culture, according to its language, myths and symbols, and the needs of particular times and situations. This articulation is not merely a distortion of some pure supernal principle. It is also a unique window on something so vast that no amount of description can exhaust it. Each expression of the eternal is an infinitesimal piece of it that can only be expressed by the culture in which it arises. The particularities of each symbol or ceremony are scintillating facets of the one vast Truth just as much as the commonalities among them are. Each is a differently shaped puzzle piece that fits differently into a different picture of the universe. But I am convinced that those pictures are all of the same universe. Generalizing from various cultural forms may not get us any closer to the universal, to the center of Wilmshurst’s circle. It may only shunt us along the circumference by adding another articulation to the many we’ve already collected—one suited to our own time, place, and culture.
And now, the culture through which we are attempting to express the Mystery is an increasingly global one, almost regardless of where on the globe we reside, or in what cultural tradition we find ourselves.
The name Demeter has been derived (not without controversy) from the roots Ge or “Earth” and Mater or “Mother.” If we accept this, the myth of Persephone is partly a story about the cyclic relationship between our Earth Mother and the energy of the Sun. The myth refers, in its own Greek symbolic vocabulary, to something that is common to all of us who live on (and live off of) this great and tiny planet.
Global Initiation in a Colonized World
I’ll now return to considering colonialism and cultural appropriation, in the context of this global culture and our planetary future. The challenges we face right now are global ones, ones that will affect (and are affecting) all living creatures on the Earth: challenges like global warming, ocean acidification, overfishing, deforestation, pollution, overpopulation, sustainable agriculture, water use, and mass extinction.
We could look at the situation humanity faces right now as an opportunity for a global initiation. In this light, what can the initiatory myth of Persephone tell us? One thing it tells us is to get comfortable in the dark. One commonality among the Eleusinian Mysteries, Masonry, and the sweat lodge is that in each we must enter the darkness and stay awhile before we can re-emerge to new light and new awakenings.
The myth behind the Eleusinian mysteries also teaches us about grief. Demeter’s grief at the descent of Persephone can be seen as the basic pattern of all grief. And the result of Demeter’s grief is that Zeus commands Hades to let Persephone return to Earth and Heaven for two thirds of the year. Grief is the process of reclaiming energy from an old form, so that it can animate a new one. Without grief, the myth tells us, there is no growth.
Some might say that we need to look forward rather than back. That we need to band together as a united humanity, and leave the wounds of the past behind us to face the formidable challenges that lie ahead.
But I think this attitude gets it exactly the wrong way around. I think that because our greatest challenges are global, and because we must face them together, as a united humanity, we must also face the still-bleeding wounds of the past and present, and make an effort to heal them to whatever extent possible. If you’ll indulge me in a huge generalization, Euro-American culture has invested tremendous energy in its dreams of the future, from the New Jerusalem of the Pilgrims, to Manifest Destiny, to “Space, the Final Frontier.” Too often, these dreams of the future have come with tremendous costs to people who seemed to be in the way of their realization.
Let’s take a historical moment to pause, to breathe, and to feel the pain still very much present in our society right now. Let’s take a look around and see whether the costs of our current dreams are worth paying, because some of the biggest dreams of our society right now—dreams of unlimited technological and economic “progress”—are poised to cost us a sixth mass extinction, and the continued extinction of human languages and cultures. And then, if we need to, let’s give ourselves a chance to grieve for those dreams, to reclaim their energy, and use it for creating a flourishing future for all living things on the planet, and their descendents for many generations. The pain of colonialism is easier to face (at least for those of us with the privilege of not having to face it every day of our lives) if we look forward to a world which recognizes the basic equality and interdependence of all earthlings.
We all must share the same planet, for a very long time. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that telling someone who’s hurting to “get over it” is unlikely to lead to joyful, collaborative coexistence. We must be comfortable sitting in the darkness of our colonial past, so that the grief of centuries can truly run its course. We can’t just tell colonized peoples to get over it, not least because the global problems I’ve mentioned are largely a result of the way of life that Europe and the U.S. have exported around the globe, often by force. Some things about that way of life are nice, like the internet and not dying from most bacterial infections. But other things about it need serious modification. This is part of what European Americans are seeking as they appropriate the cultures of Native Americans and other people around the earth.
And that brings me to another quandary regarding cultural appropriation. The global community needs the wisdom of indigenous peoples. Many of the failures we’re experiencing can be attributed to the attitude that European culture is all the world needs. Sure, Euro-American science and philosophy are finally coming around to some ideas that were axiomatic in many indigenous cultures, but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn.
After all, a sweat lodge is not the same as a Masonic Lodge. I have been in sweat lodges, and I’ve been initiated into Masonry. When the blindfold was removed in the latter, I saw nothing but rectilinear, man-made structures. In fact, right angles and the building of the Temple are two of the most fundamental symbols of Masonry. The right angle can represent moral rectitude or the proper relationship between soul and body. The Temple has many levels of meaning, from the perfection of one’s personal character to the slow and laborious process of perfecting human society on a global scale. Even the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the oldest European initiation rites of which we have documentary evidence, took place inside a square temple room with twenty-five evenly spaced pillars. A sweat lodge, in contrast, is small and round, warm, wet, and womblike, and my body is in contact with the cool earth throughout the ceremony. Even without the cultural background to fully appreciate its significance, I can clearly see that a different face of Truth shines through the sweat lodge than can be found in any Western Mystery I’m aware of.
I’m not suggesting that the sweat lodge is representative of all indigenous cultures, or that there is some single, uniform wisdom that all such cultures share. Rather, because of the very diversity of indigenous cultures, there are many different wisdoms that they might bring to global culture.
So, how can indigenous wisdoms be an integral part of the global understanding without being appropriated in harmful ways?
If European-Americans who want to create rites of passage draw exclusively on European sources, how will that affect youth of African, Asian, or Native American descent who come through our programs?
Should white people stop getting in sweat lodges? Should white people stop pouring them? Should white people stop including them in rites of passage?
The question of cultural appropriation, and the broader question of colonialism in which it is embedded, are a question that has been asked through millions of deaths and enslavements, through 523 years of uprooting peoples from the land to which they belonged, through sustained efforts at forcibly excising their many cultures and replacing them with European ones. It is a question composed of five centuries of screams, tears, cries of war, silent rage, and many forms of resistance. It would be pure arrogance for me to attempt to answer this question in a single essay (or maybe at all, since as a man of primarily European descent, there is a huge part of the experience of colonization that I can never understand, a huge part of the story that isn’t mine to tell). It is enough that the maw of this question gape inside each of us, that the fire of this question consume our insides the way the effects of colonialism may have consumed the 1,000 Lakota teens who committed suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation between 2004 and 2013.
The last thing we need is an answer that will let us forget the question.
There is no simple “thou shalt not x” that will heal the many wounds of colonialism if diligently followed.
I don’t think our colonial legacy can be properly faced only by looking for something we European Americans can learn from indigenous cultures, or for something we can do for indigenous peoples, but mostly by finding ways to be with indigenous people. I don’t believe that we can ever atone for the sins of our ancestors, or that we even necessarily need to. But what we must do is respond to the effects of the past on people in the present. (And by people, I don’t just mean members of the human family. I mean all living organisms on the Earth, but that’s a different essay). The conditions on Indian reservations exist right now, as a result not only of the past, but of present economic and political structures that we could help change. Youth Passageways is in a good position to support Native American efforts to maintain and foster their own traditional rites of passage, and may already be doing so to some degree. How can we become even better at this?
The first step in being with others in a heartful way is listening. So one thing we can do is seek out indigenous voices that are already speaking, and listen to them with our hearts, listen long and hard before we react. This could mean looking around the internet and finding a variety of indigenous voices from many different nations, saying many different things. A couple of places to start might be nativeappropriations.com and nativevoices.tumblr.com. It’s important to remember that if our goal is transformation, we can’t just listen to the voices we agree with. We must also listen to the ones that make us uncomfortable.
The internet is one of the best ways I know to expose ourselves to a wide variety of new perspectives, but I’ve seen the biggest changes when things get intimate—when people sit in a circle, look each other in the face, and listen as long as the other needs to talk. This began to happen at the Youth Rites of Passage Summit. I’ve seen it happen online too, when people let the humanity of the other usernames become primary.
This is one of the reasons why Youth Passageways has created a Cross-Cultural Protocols Forum. This forum gives us the opportunity to extend and expand that community that was forged at the Summit, and continue the conversations that began (or re-ingited) there. I hope that we can continue to foster the ethos that so enchanted me in Ojai in 2013. I hope that the people involved in the conversation and the community we are forming can be just as important as the ideas and actions we’re contemplating. Please, use this article as a jumping-off point for that conversation. I’ve asked many questions, and given a few of my own tentative answers. Please respond to those questions, and say where you think my answers are incomplete or just plain wrong. And especially, say the things I couldn’t think of because I’m not you.
Something all of us in the Youth Passageways network have in common is that we care deeply about young people. We want them to be well-prepared to both adapt to and transform the world into which they are entering. For their sake, let’s have this conversation, with all of the furious compassion and insight we can muster.
 Parfrey, Adam and Heimbichner, Craig. Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and their Influence on American Society. Feral House: Printed in China, 2012, back cover.
 Morris, S. Brent, Ph.D, 33º. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry. p.89