Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Call to Boycott.

Boycott Next Millennium--a local Omaha store.
I'm not happy about this.

Let me hand out some bingo cards. While reading this and/or commenting, try to avoid getting bingo.

This blog entry is longer than my first; it is probably more controversial than my first. It also took longer to write, read, and rewrite. That is why this is a week and a half later than my first entry. But hopefully it wasn't in vain.

Recently, I wrote to the local metaphysical store Next Millennium about is cultural appropriation merchandise. There have been other small instances of ignorance while visiting that store, but I wrote the email centered around cultural appropriation because that is by far the most harmful, most inconsiderate, and most problematic when dealing with spiritual practices and teachings.

Here is the first email I wrote to the store:

Dear Charlie,

I have been putting off writing this email for months due to how much I love the people who work at Next Millennium. I have been inside the store numerous times, and no matter who was working, I was always treated kindly and as a friend. But I cannot blindly turn away when I know that people are being hurt. I hope I don’t come off as arrogant or presumptuous in trying to relate my concerns about your store’s products and services, as that is not my intention. Also, I am working off my memory of when I was in your store a while ago so if what I am talking about has now changed, I apologize in advance.

I am mostly concerned because how your store is a primary tool to educate the pagan community. In your About Section on your website, you state that you and your staff are knowledgeable. Thus, I hope that you would want to end the spread of wrong and/or hurtful information in the pagan community.

A key phrase that research and reading has brought to my attention is “cultural appropriation,” which is when someone takes an aspect from another culture without respect to the people of the culture. I would also call it a form of indirect racism--in that, people who partake in cultural appropriation do not mean to hurt another culture, but the result is the same as someone who does.

The clearest example is when someone wears a Native American warbonnet. This blogger called Adrienne K.--a Native American though I regret I forget which tribe--writes here about why doing so is racist and cultural appropriation. In a bulleted list, she addresses how wearing a Native American warbonnet perpetuates a cartoonish stereotype of Native Americans and disrespects their spiritual practice. She goes on to then explain how this hurts the very real Native American people in present day.

While your store does not sell warbonnets, you do sell dream catchers. While owning a dream catcher is not inherently cultural appropriation, the image of the dream catcher has become exoticized. Adrienne wrote an entry about a celebrity’s inappropriate use of dream catchers in this article. In case you can’t open the link, here is a key summary of what she has to voice about the issue:

“[Dream] catchers are one of the most appropriated and commercialized Native images. They’re originally Ojibwe, but have been adopted by tribes across the US and Canada, mostly as items created for sale to tourists and non-Natives. The problem is, in many Ojibwe communities, dream catchers are still a sacred, and their creation involves specific ceremonies and prayers. The plastic commercial keychains sold in rest stops are making a mockery of a sacred object. When people buy the dream catchers because they’re “pretty” or to ward off bad dreams, and aren’t aware of the power and history behind the objects, it dilutes them to a commercial object disconnected from their origins and community.”

The first time I browsed your store, I remember picking up a leather bag that had a dream catchers sewn onto it. I then looked for a marketing or tag to authenticate it as Native American craftsmanship, but instead found a sticker that said the product was made in an Asian country. This is a type of cultural appropriation and one which harms the Native American spirituality, especially that of the Ojibwe communities mentioned.

Let me stress that selling/owning dream catchers is not a problem, or anything that regards Native American spirituality, as long as the items are made by the people of that culture. There are other ways to sell Native American merchandise that helps (not harms) Native Americans and that is by only selling goods made by the people of the culture. For instance, here is a link to a Native American boutique that makes products that you could then resell. There are also individual artists you can find on places such as Etsy, like this Native American artisan. There are also Native American tribes in Nebraska you could try to contact.

This email has already droned on too long, but I do hope you will read it all and consider discontinuing any items that do racist harm towards others--In this case, items marketed as Native American but are not made by Native Americans. 

Thank you for your time. 
I look forward to hearing your response.

It took less than 23 hours to get this reply:
Hi Marcella,

We have both Native American made, as well as non-Native American made items for sale. We have never represented our non-Native made items as Native made. We believe there is definitely a place for both. Some people will buy and revere the Native-made item, and treat it with respect. Other people want an inexpensive dream catcher for their rearview mirror, which is definitely NOT the proper use of a true Native American made item, but is OK for a mass-produced one from China without any Native energy. Often, the Native made items are more costly, and thus people cannot afford them. We try to offer something to fit everyone's budget. I believe it is important to make people aware of these items, and by introducing them to inexpensive, mass produced items, they often will, in time, step up to something better as their appreciation for the item and the culture increases. We have many Native Americans who frequent our store. I have become friends with many of them, including the late Judy Boss, and would never do anything to disrespect or diminish their culture. Further, my wife Cindy would definitely not allow me to do so as she is 1/8 Native America.

I do appreciate you mentioning this to me. 

 I responded the same day a few hours later:
Dear Charlie,

Thank you for your quick response!

With all due respect though, you may have missed what I was trying to express in the original email. I never thought you were misrepresenting what was and wasn't made by Native Americans, but rather that selling items that are clearly part of Native American tribes' spirituality in a commercialism manner doesn't seem suitable for a spirituality store such as yours. If someone wants to purchase a dream catcher because of the spiritual significance it holds, they should do so with respect to the culture. If they cannot afford that item, then that is unfortunate, but that is part of capitalism. I would like to also point out that LozensArt that I linked to has very affordable dream catchers that are under twenty dollars before shipping--which seems reasonable to me. Yet while this still may be pricey for some patrons, surely the cost is worth it if they respect the cultures' wishes? 

It comes down to this: if someone wants to buy something from a Native American spirituality, they should do so respectfully or shouldn't at all. Any reason to disregard the origins of the culture because it is inconvenient or undesirable is disrespectful and fosters a privileged mindset. 

If you still disagree, I encourage you to specifically ask your Native American patrons in person how they feel about the commercialized and misused items from their culture in your store. And please note that I do mean people who are active members of a tribe--not people with ancestors who were. 

Thank you for your considerations.

This was all between May 5th-6th. He has not responded since.

I am not satisfied with his response to the issue.

Let me first mark Charlie's bingo card:
Not bad for that small paragraph reply. 
I have since talked to several other people who are part of Native tribes and they agree: the treatment of dream catchers as though they are some decoration people can put on their car is disrespectful. Imagine if you created a sacred image. Then people pushed you and your religion out of the way, stole your sacred image without your consent, and used it as a piece of exotic decoration.

Chelsea Vowel writes in her article, "Hey You in the Headdress, Know What it Means?", "Even if you have "native friends' or are part native yourself, individual choices to 'not be offended' do not trump our collective rights as a people to define our symbols." Furthermore, she states that the difference between admiration and offensive is knowledge. If someone is genuinely intrigued by dream catchers as designed by certain Native American traditions, learn about it. If anyone reading this, for example, wants to know the history behind dream catchers, look how easy it can be.

But this type of failure to research actually falls right in line with other experiences I've had at the store. I attended its Wicca 101 class taught by a priestess of the local coven that is an extension of Silver Ravenwolf's coven. I was not going to get the education about Wicca from this teacher. Silver Ravenwolf is my major red flag when dealing with anyone in paganism and/or witchcraft. Here's one source, and here's another, and here's a third as to why Ravenwolf is a terrible, terrible source of information. Yet here was a Ravenwolf follower who was going to reteach misinformation and continue the ignorant plague.

It is reasons like this that I am boycotting Next Millennium. The store wants to be a source of knowledge, yet it turns a blind eye to misinformation. I have informed the owner the best way I could that selling an item from a Native tribe made by outsiders is not right by the wishes of people inside that cultural. But the owner showed no sign in alternating his selling practice (he almost got bingo, instead.) Pagans new, old, and of various practices go to this store as a resource, yet what are they taking away? What are they learning? That it's okay to take from another culture if it suits your needs? That ignoring the feelings of the people of that oppressed culture is acceptable?

This type of attitude sickens me when it happens with a metaphysical store, more so than when Urban Outfitters committing similar offenses (not as though that excuses Urban Outfitters, but addressing that store is another post.) I'm particularly upset with Next Millennium because when I first looked into learning about paganism, one of the pieces of advice given to me was to find local metaphysical shops and talk to the shopkeeper. Yet I cannot recommend Next Millennium as a source of information, because it does not suit the role as a teacher. Any teacher that refuses to continue learning obviously has little to offer in comparison to a teacher who continues to be better. (Of course, the individual people working there may vary from that description, but the store as its own entity is untrustworthy.)

This is why I am boycotting the entire store, its classes, and anything else it offers at its location until at least the items mentioned in my first email are removed from inventory. I hope others in the area will also boycott. If perhaps my individual boycott is not enough, perhaps a larger boycott will move Next Millennium to reconsider its practices. 

Of course, not everyone is able to boycott Next Millennium to the full extent that I am. I understand that some people depend on the store for whatever reason that will prevent them from boycotting even if they agree with my arguments. If you can't boycott but have the time, I encourage you to write an email regarding this issue to the store directly as I did.

At the very least, I encourage everyone who reads this to be critical of their purchases made at the store and critical of the teachings given from their staff. And to definitely not buy anything marketed as Native American that is not made by people of that culture. Check tags to make sure (Native artisans label their merchandise as Native-Made.)

The store is not a terrible place outside this misinformation and inappropriate merchandise. The staff working there have always been very nice and typically have their hearts in the right place. That is why it pains me that the Native American communities' objections are being ignored. The charitable work done by the store's employees does not excuse the harm also done along side. As perhaps the closest building a pagan community can have to a church, I expect--nay, demand--better from Next Millennium. Until then, I will have no part in supporting it.

For resources as to how to be critical of one's motives towards a culture and avoiding cultural appropriation, here is a guide to approaching a culture outside your own and there is also this guide. (I like the latter's emphasis on research.)  Most importantly: be critical, be open to criticism, and especially listen to criticism if it comes from the native culture that first held the beliefs being used.

So reader, what are your thoughts? If you're not from the area, how would you handle this situation? And if you are from Omaha, what are you taking away from this?


  1. This is ridiculous. Next Millennium is my second home. Charlie and his wife are great people and truly follow tolerance. in the name of world acceptance why is it so wrong to introduce people to the different cultural and spiritual practices? This blog is appalling.

    1. It is not wrong to introduce people to different cultures. I don't think I said it wasn't. It is, however, wrong to circulate misinformed information about those cultures.

      Charlie and his wife are very nice people. But nice people can make mistakes, be misinformed, etc. They are in a position to make a change that will help out NA communities. Why wouldn't they want to do that?

      Also, this idea that I should "tolerate" what I feel is wrong and unethical is baffling.

      Please do me a favor and actually consider the actions of Next Mill, and not its personality or your emotional ties.