I have long felt conflicted about calling myself a “Pagan”. I have a focus on ancestral and animistic nature veneration, while the term “Pagan” in the Western sense seems to be conflated with casting spells to alter the natural flow of things and resurrecting worshipping of pantheons of deities from ancient civilizations.
My father is Cherokee and grew up in the Muskogee-Tahlequah area, which serves as a primary area of the Cherokee Nation – Western Band. When my father moved out to California, he lived with his maternal aunt and uncle who were also Cherokee, so there was a continuity of custom and culture. While he was not raised with all of the tribal customs, he was raised up in a household which had an ancestral offering table on which they would leave a small plate of food and drink, as well as offerings of food and water left for the spirits of nature and critters outside after every Sunday supper. These basic core practices of ancestral veneration and animism were also transmitted to my sisters and me as we had Sunday supper with my maternal great aunt well into the 1980’s. I never had a strong belief in the supernatural, and I view the scientific method and critical philosophical inquiry as the best tools to acquire knowledge about the world.
When I started looking for a “spiritual path”, I was looking for a way which could honor and incorporate the values of my heritage. Physically, I took after my mother’s side. Unlike my sister, I have blonde hair, green eyes, and lighter skin, and so I was often not initially accepted by those who had the dark hair, eyes, and skin associated with being Cherokee. Having to prove oneself by flashing one’s tribal enrollment and blood degree cards gets old after a while, so I started looking at paths like Wicca that often advertised themselves as being Earth-centered. My interest in Wicca was more about eco-spirituality, seasonal celebrations, etc., rather than “magick” and occultism. However, except for a few exceptions like the Church of All Worlds and the Reclaiming tradition of Witchcraft, I found most “Pagan” traditions at that time in California tended to be more “magick” centered than nature- or eco-centered.
I was able to get some of my needs met through the Church of All Worlds, but I never really connected with the idea of honoring ancient deities, even metaphorically. I explored Heathenry (Asatru) and Druidry, before I found groups like Toteg Tribe and similar Japanese “neo-Shinto” groups, which brought me closer to animistic and pantheistic lines. As I am half Cherokee (and registered), I was more comfortable with this approach anyways. Over time, this exposure to more animistic and pantheistic types of expressions really simplified how I view my path, in correlation with the reduction of formal ritual residue left over from working within a Western Neo-Pagan context.
Ironically, I was welcomed more among the Japanese neo-Shinto practitioners of Konkokyo in Little Tokyo than I had ever been among the Western Neo-Pagans. Of course their cultural traditions are not specifically mine, so I attend some of their seasonal celebrations but practice differently at home. Over time I have moved away from the term “Pagan” and more towards terms like “animist”, “Gaian”, or simply practicing Ahimsa. I developed my own path which my children were raised up in as an expression of how I choose to live. Because I have such a strong focus on mindfulness of the interdependence of all life, ahimsa (nonviolence towards all living beings) increasingly became a focus for my children and me.
Here is how I currently describe my path: I follow the Ahimsa lifestyle to support and protect the interdependent web of life by incrementally increasing nonviolence in my thoughts, words, and deeds towards all living beings. The Earth (Gaia) is ultimately our Mother and the Sky (or the Sun aka Sol) is ultimately our Father. Therefore, all other living beings, humans and non-humans, are, in a sense, our brothers and sisters. Life exists within an interrelated and interdependent context, going back in time to our ancestors, continuing into the future with our descendants, and extending outwards to others in the wider community of life. We need to take responsibility for the consequences of our decisions by evaluating the impact of our decisions upon others in our interdependent natural environment. In addition, our choices should uphold the honor and dignity of our ancestors in the past and strengthen that same legacy for our descendants in the future. We should look to minimize unnecessary harm and maximize compassion towards others.
The Ahimsa lifestyle encourages us to incorporate the following spiritual ideals into our lives: nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity (commitment to relationships), and non-attachment to money, power, possessions, things, beliefs, ideas, negative attitudes and mental habits like anger and impatience, etc. The last four ideals expand and clarify the concept of harm beyond just a literal definition of physical harm. I promote the adoption of realistic small steps in nonviolence over time to work towards the eventual goal of total Ahimsa in our lives. The Ahimsa lifestyle is strongly influenced by the ancient teachings of Eastern dharmic paths such as Jainism and Buddhism, but is geared for modern life here in the West.
About the Author
Dave Salyers has been involved with the Neo-Pagan and various related spiritual paths for the past 30 years. He is a registered Cherokee tribal member and has a Master’s in Cultural Anthropology as well as a Master’s in Social Work. He works professionally in those fields. Dave is married and has two teenage children, two cats, and a variety of critters.