Auntie embarrassed at hideous colonialism alive and well in the Highlands

I walked the West Highland Way last August with my sister and brother-in-law, who came all the way from Aotearoa (New Zealand). It was an experience that was both profound and delightful.

I fell in love with Scotland all over again, and was proud as punch of this country, which is both an adopted and ancestral homeland for me. My connection to this patch of earth and its people runs deep in my blood and bones, and it teaches me about how to approach other places and peoples with appropriate respect and openness.

So, yeah. Proud as punch. Except for one moment of embarrassment. Deep embarrassment.

Bridge of Orchy, August 2011

My sister Elaine and I at the Bridge of Orchy.

We encountered a spot on the third day of the 95 mile walk, in Strath Fillan, between Crianlarich and Tyndrum, which is rich in Scotland’s indigenous spiritual history. There is the ruin of a monastery originally built by St. Fillan, patron of the mentally ill, that was rebuilt by Robert the Bruce in the 1300s, and, nearby, an ancient holy well used in St. Fillan’s name for healing, that no doubt goes back to pre-Christian times.

St. Fillan's Priory, Strathfillan

St. Fillan's Priory, Strathfillan. © AlMu2. Follow link on photo to see original on Flickr and view Creative Commons licence. Uploaded via RCAHMS website. Click to see more or seek permission to use: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/23842/contribution/

A bit of information is provided to passers-by, but otherwise these two sites are mercifully free of touristy baggage or intervention. You are free to meditate on our past and present utilising whatever spiritual or intellectual tradition you prefer. The only information I could find online was on Wikipedia (skip this bit if you’re not into ancient history, abbots, holy relics and the like; go straight to the ARGHHHH section):

“Life

“St. Fillan of Munster, the son of Feriach, grandson of Cellach Cualann, King of Leinster, received the monastic habit in the Abbey of Saint Fintan Munnu and came to Scotland from Ireland in 717AD as a hermit along with his Irish princess-mother St. Kentigerna, his Irish prince-uncle St. Comgan, and his siblings. They settled at Loch Duich. Fillan later moved south and is said to have been a monk at Taghmon in Wexford before eventually settling in Pittenweem (‘the Place of the Cave’), Fife, in the east of Scotland later in the 8th century.

“St. Fillan was the abbot of a monastery in Fife before retiring to Glen Dochart and Strathfillan near Tyndrum in Perthshire. At an Augustinian priory at Kirkton Farm along to the West Highland Way, the priory’s lay abbot, who was its superior in the reign of William the Lion, held high rank in the Scottish kingdom. This monastery was restored in the reign of Robert I of Scotland (Robert the Bruce), and became a cell of the abbey of canons regular at Inchaffray Abbey. The new foundation received a grant from King Robert, in gratitude for the aid which he was supposed to have obtained from a relic of the saint (an arm-bone) on the eve of the great victory over King Edward II’s English soldiers at the Battle of Bannockburn. The saint’s original chapel was up river, slightly northwest of the abbey and adjacent to a deep body of water which became known as St. Fillan’s Pool.

“Folklore

“St. Fillan was credited with powers such as the healing of the sick and also possessed a luminous glow from his left arm which he used to study and write Sacred Scriptures in the dark.

“St. Fillan is the patron saint of the mentally ill. As late as the 19th century, such people were dunked in St. Fillan’s Pool, bound and left overnight tied to the font, or possibly to a pew, in the ruined chapel. If the bonds were loosed by morning it was taken as a sign that a cure had taken place.

“A story is told that while St. Fillan was ploughing the fields near Killin, a wolf took the life of the ox and thus Fillan could not continue. A geis was put on the ox, which meant the wolf had to take the place of the ox and do the its work.[2] The story may be considered more of a parable than historical truth, but the connection with the origins of Fillan’s name remains obvious.

“Relics

“The Mayne was an arm bone, now lost, enclosed in a silver reliquary or casket. Legend has it that King Robert the Bruce requested the bone be brought to the Bannockburn battle site. The deoir, or hereditary keeper of the relic, and the Abbot of Inchaffray Abbey left the bone behind and brought only the reliquary because they didn’t want the relic to fall into English possession. Deoir became Anglecized to the name Dewar, the phonetic pronunciation of the Gaidhlig. On the eve of the Bannockburn battle, as the deoir, the abbot and Robert knelt in prayer, a noise came from the reliquary. They looked at the reliquary as the door opened and the bone fell to the floor. The Bruce won the battle the next day and he established a monastery to thank St. Fillan for the victory.” — Wikipedia.

ARGHHHH….

In this place of beauty and contemplation, there is also this. And, finding that link is the first time I’ve seen their website: OH MY EYES! It’s even worse than I thought. Previous to Googling for that link, I thought it was just the hideous, tacky, appropriative “Native American” tat in the shop, and the fact that they’ve called their cooking and ablutions block the “Apache Cookhouse”.

But no, they have to compound the offence with, with… oh just go look and ask yourself if you would feel happy sending this link to an actual Native American friend planning to visit Scotland. Or anyone with a semblance of understanding of the historical plight and current status of indigenous peoples around the world.

OK, I need to take a breath.

Where I’m coming from on this

I’ve been involved for my whole adult life in earth-based shamanic traditions. And I have been damn political about that from day one; hell, I got my first anarchist tattoo at the age of 18, and I’m 46 now. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past arguing with White “shamans” who claim to hold the Peace Pipe, or whatever other excuse they have for appropriating traditions not their own. Dig deep into your own ancestry and history first, I say. That’s what the Maori of Aotearoa taught us when I was young.

People avoid doing that because it HURTS. It hurts not only to sift through the agonies of what happened to your own ancestors and how that affects your family and society today; but also it hurts to find out about all the perpetration of abuse your ancestors did. If you’re the descendant of rape victims you’re the descendant of rapists. It’s possible that you are related to slavers and colonisers and people who ambushed whole tribes and slaughtered them. This is true whatever the colour of your skin.

But digging deeply into your own ancestral traditions is also educational, and intellectually, emotionally, spiritually nourishing. Confronting these legacies is the least White people can do. And I do mean THE LEAST: it’s only a starting point, and it should inform our actions in the world.

Yo, is Wigwam Holidays Racist?

Anyway, back to that website, with its racist cartoon of a Native American in a feather headdress. Yeah, I said it. I’ve been enjoying and taking inspiration lately from the brilliant Tumblr blog Yo Is This Racist? If something is racist, just say it. Believe me, I’m going to send the Wigwam Holidays website to be blogged on another excellent Tumblr: Native American Tag Hall of Shame.

And it’s not just the website: the shop there sells, as noted above, tacky “dreamcatchers” and other “Native American” tat. All of it racist. Using the name Apache in naming their facilities ain’t cool either.

I grew up in a former colony of Great Britain where folk of my age group had many opportunities to learn about Maori culture and about the colonisation of Aotearoa and the subsequent oppression of the Maori. And as previously mentioned, I’ve also spent a fair amount of my adult life in and around spiritual groups, some of whom take cultural appopriation to embarrassing, dangerous and offensive extremes. So I had to do a lot of research to be able to argue with them, natch.

From Wanting to be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft, a wonderful paper written by Myke Johnson, a feminist, raised White in Canada, with some Innu ancestry:

“We live in a colonialist society. It was built upon the European theft of land. It was built by conquering and destroying the nations of people already here, and it continues its assault on Native lands and culture. This isn’t something we chose, but something we inherited, and thus have to reckon with.

“It is in this context that Native Americans identify the use of Native symbols and ceremonies as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a form of racism. Cultural appropriation is a weapon in the process of colonization. Cultural appropriation is when a dominating or colonizing people take over the cultural and religious ceremonies and articles of a people experiencing domination or colonization. When Euro-Americans take Native American symbols and ceremonies and use them for our own purposes, we are participating in the process of colonization and the destruction of Native culture.”

Then there’s this (ibid.):

“When we put Indians into the stereotype of spiritual gurus, or “utopic other”, we use them like spiritual surrogates. When we use someone as a surrogate, we occupy them in a way which prevents them from bearing their own children. Native spiritualities have a purpose in the communities in which they originate. They are fundamental for the Native cultural struggle against genocide. They are not empty symbols into which we can put our struggles, use them, for example, for the empowerment of women, or an affirmation of male bonding.”

Angles on my anger

Firstly, I don’t even think they are trying to use any kind of indigenous spirituality for anything other than making money from the tourist trade. So there’s no point lecturing them with such beautifully written and erudite prose.

Secondly, the irony of how closely they are located to two sites of genuine historical and spiritual (if that’s your bag) significance to the indigenous peoples of Scotland (see above). They’d dumped their surrogacy right on top of our baby.

And, I have a mixed bag of emotion, mostly anger, due to with Scotland’s very mixed relationship with colonialsim and racism. We should know better but we very often don’t. Scots have travelled the world for centuries as part of the British Emprie, doing much of the dirty work of colonialism. Within that shameful history there are also examples of Scots identifying with, becoming allies to, marrying, and assisting the colonised.

Within Scotland, we were participants and beneficiaries of the Atlantic slave trade, and we sparked some of the first Western philosophical resistance to slavery.

We are the recipients of long standing colonisation ourselves with all its attendant ills: loss of language and indigenous culture; loss of traditional homelands; self-loathing, drug and alcohol abuse, loss of confidence; mental ill health, violence, and premature death from numurous causes. Yet still we colonise within our own borders (ask the people of the Gàidhealtachd), and we take part in illegal foreign wars at the behest of Westminster governments we didn’t vote for.

I’m not sure which strand this Wigwam Holidays is an example of. Because I don’t know if someone from outwith Scotland came in and plonked this on top of one of our own sacred sites with nary a thought, or whether it’s a purely Scottish initiative borne out of our own racism, or a combination. There do appear to be outlets all over the UK.

Doesn’t matter. It needs to go. By all means keep the cute pointy-shaped holiday huts and the rest, I’m sure it’s a nice place to take a break, and they do make something of how environmentally friendly they are (although I always take that with a grain of salt until someone more knowledgeable than I breaks it down for me: anyone?). But lose the racist, colonialist, embarrassing as shit, faux native American overlay. Please. I beg of you.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Hamstair Toilichte
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 11:19:59

    I think you might be making a wigwam out of a molehill, a Mhorag. I’ve stayed at the Strathfillan wigwams a few times, mainly because they’re cheap and comfy and beat camping, and yes, it’s tacky and cheesy and cringeworthy and is based on Native American stereotypes, but calling it racist is a bit OTT and based on a deep historical analysis which is only accessible to radical intellectuals. The common meaning of ‘racist’ is to actively discriminate against an out group on the basis of colour/ethnicity, to regard them as less than human. That ‘traditions’ in this imperialist country are based on racist stereotypes and myths, and indeed are linked to genocide as was the case with Native Americans, doesn’t make folk who these days follow these ‘traditions’ deliberate racists.

    Radical activists in the 80s went down that road and it eventually leads to the view that all are guilty of racism. Which is a dangerous road to travel as it lets the real racists off the hook. As Hannah Arendt wrote: “Where all are guilty, none are”. It also leads to an ‘original sin’ attitude. If all are guilty of racism, including those who are ‘anti-racist’, then the only difference is that anti-racists are acknowledging their sin and seeking to atone for it. Which is precisely the Catholic attitude I encountered when growing up in Ireland.

    Everything in British society is influenced by, or derives from, evils of racism and sexism. Racism permeates our culture and language. Arguably, we benefit from the imperialist and racist plunder of colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries, as the wealth that was stolen from those countries fuelled UK capitalism. (It’s not an argument I accept, but one that used to be made frequently by right-on liberals.) That doesn’t mean that we are racist even if living in, and ‘benefitting’ from, racist and imperialist society. The important aspect of racism, and which makes it quite literally deadly, is intent.

    I’m sorry you felt that your WHW trip was spoilt by Strathfillan Wigwams, as the folk who run it are pretty nice and it’s a popular spot for working-class families as it’s cheap and fun. Plus the rabbits and guinea pigs are waaay cute :)

    Have you run your analysis past the Strathfillan Wigwams folk? I’d be interested to know how they reacted, and if they’ve received such criticisms before.

    Reply

    • Morag Eyrie
      Apr 05, 2012 @ 15:02:35

      Obviously I totally disagree with all of your points Hamstair, although I’m guessing you are saying what a lot of people will be thinking.

      Racism is wrong, and the faux Native American imagery Wigwam Holidays use is racist and therefore wrong. Would you seriously be happy to go there with a Native American visitor? Or even send them to the website? Ask yourself if you would respond this way if they used Golliwogs and other anti-Black racist caricatures to promote their service. “Come to the Black and White Minstrels Camp!”

      “Intent” has no bearing on it: if someone is behaving in a racist or sexist manner, they are still perpetrating an act that harms the person or people on the other end of it, and they need to sit up and take notice if they are called on it, not say “but I didn’t mean it”. I would hope that if a person of another race told you that you had inadvertently behaved in a racist way, you would take it on the chin and examine your own behaviour: they live with racism every day, you don’t, they are the experts, not you. I am responding to this with everything I’ve learned from what indigenous people say about how colonialism and racism affects them. Do you not care about their experience?

      I found the whole experience disturbing in the extreme, given what the indigenous people of the Americas have suffered. I’m really shocked that you would defend it.

      As far as being a nice holiday experience goes, if you read my final paragraph you’ll see that I don’t have a problem with the business keeping on offering what it offers; the huts do look cozy and cute, and it’s in a beautiful place. But I would really like it to remove all of the racist language and imagery. Obviously lots of children are taken there and are learning nothing about the people portrayed as cartoons. I would feel ashamed to go back there with overseas visitors: it shows Scotland in a very ignorant light.

      I have not been in touch with the people involved because I can see that it is a large and successful company; what I am saying is nothing new and I cannot believe that they are not aware of the arguments. They just choose to ignore them, they don’t give a shit who they hurt, as long as they make money out of people’s ignorance. The sad thing is there’s no need for it, they could still be popular and well-used without it.

      Reply

  2. Hamstair Toilichte
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 00:12:35

    A Mhorag, you’re on a dangerous slope if you take the view that if something has a racist derivation, it’s inherently racist and anyone involved with it is racist. The UK, Scotland included, has an imperlalist, at times genocidal, and racist history, and every aspect of dominant culture is infected by it somehow. Every aspect of culture is also infected by patriarchy and militarism, and those of us brought up in such cultures will be similarly infected. Which is why any politically-conscious person struggles against the evils we’re conditioned with, a self-reflective struggle that never ends. Such struggle, though, can end up in self-paralysing guilt, akin to Catholic guilt over Original Sin, and that guilt can be used to control people. I saw it in Ireland growing up, and I experienced it when active in radical movements in the 80s when the very same arguments raged.

    I don’t know how a Native American would react to Strathfillan wigwams because I’m not a Native American. Neither are you. Perhaps you should ask a Native American you know to offer her opinions on the camp, rather than being outraged on her behalf. I do think that you could also question the managers of the camp, who are an old couple who live on site who can be emailed. I know – I’ve spoken to and emailed them myself when I’ve stayed on the site. If you found the place “disturbing in the extreme” then you should tell them. They’re not going to realise that folk feel that way if they’re not told, and they’re not going to see the ‘wigwam experience’ as racist unless you pipe up.

    Intent is everything when it comes to a moral judgement of someone or something as racist. If you’re analysing someone or something, such as Strathfillan wigwams, then you can say that such-and-such is racist without accusing those involved with it of being racists. To take an everyday example, the chintzy ‘ambience’ in many Indian restaurants harks back explicitly to the British Raj, using imagery from that period, and thus, analytically, it’s of racist derivation, and quite likely insulting to those who fought to free India from British colonialism. It doesn’t mean that those who work or eat in Indian restaurants are racist. This is an important distinction to make, because otherwise you will see everybody and everything as racist, and on that road lies madness and isolation.

    If you really wanted to be outraged by racism, ethnic cleansing, and cultural genocide on the West Highland Way, then you only needed to ponder the very landscape you were walking on, and how it had been forcibly and violently depopulated during the Clearances. There is a real crime in front of your eyes, a crime which has resonance to this day for the whole of Scotland, Highland and Lowland, and which is of a kind, though not an extent, with the expropriation and genocide suffered by Native Americans and other aboriginal peoples. I’d strongly recommend reading James Hunter’s “The Making of the Crofting Community” to understand the extent of that crime, who perpetrated it, what resulted from it, and how its victims fought back.

    Anyway, that’s me on the Aunties naughty step, right enough. Sorry to have wound you up. As I plan to stay at Strathfillan wigwams in the future, I’d best be for the off, I think.

    Reply

  3. Morag Eyrie
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 20:21:22

    Did you even read my post Hamstair? Did you follow any of the links? I backed up all of my statements with links to appropriate sources: real First Nations people who have put a lot of effort and energy into fighting racism against themselves, and into writing about it so even you can understand. It is imperative that we don’t leave it to those on the receiving end of racism to be the ones to speak out. White people need to speak out on racism, men need to speak out on sexism, etc. I am completely comfortable calling naming the imagery involved in this business racist.

    You are the one on a slippery slope, refusing to educate yourself or take on board what constitutes racist imagery and racist appropriation of cultural symbols. The guy who writes Yo Is This Racist? would have one word for you because of this. I don’t even need to write and ask him what he thinks.

    That reminds me to send the wigwam website to the Native American Tag Hall of Shame.

    Reply

  4. Hamstair mi-thoilichte
    May 15, 2012 @ 11:29:54

    Yes, and yes. We’re talking past each other’s shoulders, each addressing different but related issues. However, it’s plain that you consider Strathfillan Wigwams racist, in a judgemental as well as analytical sense, and that therefore all involved with it, and all who stay there, are at best tainted with racism, at worst outright racist. Which must include this writer who has fought, sometimes literally, racism throughout adulthood.

    Real, brutal, vicious racism is a daily reality, and there’s plenty of it around for anti-racists to fight. You just have to look on web fora to see the extent of racism, reaction and plain fascism that abounds even North of the Border, particularly in relation to refugees (as you’ve already noted in your post on the racist taxi driver). You just have to look at newspaper reports of racist attacks, or hear the racist abuse on the streets. That’s racism, that’s the real deal which affects people in the here and now, which is carried out by real racists. Slag off campers as racist and you let the real racists off the hook.

    The sense of déja vu is overwhelming for this old git. I’ve been there, seen it, and bought the right-on T-shirt in the 80s peace movement. Exactly the same arguments raged then, and eventually the movement became increasingly restricted to ideologically-pure cores divorced from the working class, and thus became irrelevant to social change. If something as kitsch as Strathfillan wigwams is tainted with genocidal racism then pretty much everything is, in which case you either accept the moral taint, or you write off everyone as racist and hie yersel’ off to a morally-pure community.

    Reply

    • Morag Eyrie
      May 15, 2012 @ 12:39:35

      Hi Hamstair. I’m not sure we are talking past each others’ shoulders, I think we disagree at where the line should be drawn on calling something racist, and we are both standing our ground. You seem to think racist imagery about people far away is a lesser evil and shouldn’t be bothered with, but I disagree with that on so many levels. I am comfortable with where I am standing because it is supported by everything I know about how Native Americans and other indigenous peoples feel about and are affected by the sort of misappropiation we are talking about here. Do you understand that so many Native Americans *today* are struggling and hurting? That imagery like this is salt in their wounds and shows a profound lack of respect and lack of give-a-shit on our part? I feel it is my duty to call it out when I see it. Particularly as another generation of British children are being exposed to this, unchallenged. This sort of thing sends out messages to everyone on some level about respect for our fellow humans.

      For some reason British people seem to be happy to call out racism that is relevant closer to home (e.g. the use of blackface on TV or racist cartoons in our newspapers about people who live here), but seem to be completely oblivious to racist imagery against peoples that their own ancestors took part in destroying, decimating, exploiting etc. I may be tilting at windmills here, but it’s easy enough for me to point it out and defend the argument so I’m going to continue to do so.

      I don’t agree there is a difference between calling something racist in an “analytical” versus “judgmental” way. It’s either racist or it isn’t. And it’s perfectly valid to say “racism is wrong, it makes me angry, I’m going to challenge it”.

      You are continuing to defend the indefensible. I don’t know why you are doing that. If there is some valid reason why you don’t care about how Native Americans feel about misappropriation of their history, traditions, words, imagery, and the application of demeaning imagery to their reality, I would like to hear it.

      If it’s because it hurts the fee-fees of people who have been previously oblivious to have this pointed out them, then frankly, I think you and they need to get over it and accept what is blatantly obvious in front of your face. It is a constant drain to keep having to dance around stuff to protect the feelings of the privileged.

      Your only argument seems to be (a) this isn’t important and (b) “don’t call me racist I’m not racist!” For something that is not important you are putting an awful lot of energy into arguing about it. And I never said folk who used the Wigwam services were racist, or that you were racist, in the first place! For someone who claims decades of experience in being anti-racist or whatever, you are falling into some pretty obvious holes here.

      Why are you so invested in convincing me that this blog post was wrong or a waste of time?

      Reply

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