Report on Standing Rock

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by Andras Corban-Arthen

This is a report on the trip which my son Donovan and I recently took to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to visit the camps of the people who, as Water Protectors, are trying to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was a very intense and full experience, and I cannot possibly do it justice within the limits of a blog post. The photos which accompany this article were taken by one of the camp’s official photographers, and are published here with permission.

 

In October, we received a copy of a call by Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota nation, asking religious leaders of all traditions to join the people who had gathered at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. He wrote:

“We are asking the religious leaders to come and support them, to stand side-by-side with them, because they are standing in prayer…If you can find it in your heart, to pray with them, and stand beside them…because the Police Department and the National Guard, they would listen to each and every one of you.”

I have a great deal of respect for Chief Looking Horse. I’ve met him several times over the years, and participated with him in a couple of panels and other events at interfaith gatherings. He was one of the main speakers at the Indigenous Plenary of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City last October. Though I don’t know him well, I have always been impressed by his wisdom, his commitment, and his willingness to reach out to all peoples on behalf of the Earth. I had already been thinking for several weeks about going to Standing Rock, and his message fueled that urge even more.

mary-lyons

Grandmother Mary Lyons

Then I received a more personal message from Grandmother Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe elder from Minnesota who was also one of the speakers at last year’s Indigenous Plenary, asking if anyone from the Parliament was planning to go to Standing Rock in response to Chief Looking Horse’s call. She thought it was important for the Parliament to make an official statement regarding the situation. I took that as a very definite sign, and asked the EarthSpirit board of directors if it would be possible to send me there. They agreed that I should go but, out of concern for my health, suggested that someone else should accompany me. I asked my son Donovan, and he immediately changed his schedule so he could come along.

My next step was to approach the Parliament’s Board to tell them of my plans to go to Standing Rock. The Indigenous Task Force, of which I am a member, set out to write a statement, along with our Executive Director and staff, that I could take to North Dakota. Lewis Cardinal, the chair of the task force, also began contacting people at the camps to let them know we were sending a statement.

Grandmother Lyons invited us to stay at her campsite, and also to take part in a water ceremony she was going to lead. Some of my other Indigenous friends helped me to find local contacts, to get a better idea of what to expect. A Sioux man from Standing Rock was particularly helpful, even as he painted a fairly grim scenario. The police, he said, had blocked off the main highway to prevent access to the camps, so the only way to get there from the Bismarck airport was to make a long detour that added about 45 minutes to the trip. He also said that we should be prepared to be stopped randomly and harassed by the authorities, and stressed that we shouldn’t lose our cool no matter how much they might try to provoke us. He asked me if I had any connection to the United Nations. I told him that I was one of the Parliament’s U.N. delegates, and that I had an access photo badge. He suggested that I take it with me and wear it at all times, because the police tended to respect the U.N. Needless to say, this was not particularly encouraging.

After flying to Bismarck, North Dakota, and renting a car, Donovan and I had an early introduction to the level of police presence at Standing Rock. We had stopped at a traffic light in the town of Mandan, where we were supposed to turn onto a road that would take us down to the camps, when we noticed several police vehicles approaching the intersection, coming from the direction toward which we were supposed to go. It quickly became evident that those vehicles were merely the head of a long caravan: cruisers, armored cars, police vans, ambulances, sheriffs’ trucks, and one empty school bus – over forty vehicles went by while we waited.

A bit later, we found out that there had been a nonviolent protest action near the pipeline, and that about two dozen water protectors had been arrested. The vehicles we had witnessed had been taking them to police headquarters, where they would be booked and placed inside large chain-link dog kennels which had been set up as temporary containment cells. Once the protesters had been bailed out, they would return to the camps in the school bus. Apparently, this scenario is enacted on a fairly regular basis.

Because the main road to the camp was blocked, we had to go down using the backroads, a route which required us to make two major turns. At each of those turns, there was an unmarked car parked just off the intersection. But for a couple of instances over the weekend when the cars were empty, each time we made those turns the person inside the car raised a camera to take a photo of our vehicle; the authorities, I was told later, were recording every license plate going to and from the camps. As we got closer to our destination we saw lots of law enforcement personnel, many wearing tactical gear, and more cruisers, police wagons and armored vehicles. The place felt very much like a militarized zone, grim and forbidding.

oceti-sakowin

Oceti Sakowin Camp

In sharp contrast, our arrival at Camp Oceti Sakowin felt like we had come upon an oasis full of life in the midst of a barren desert: dozens of colorful banners on tall poles, voices singing, drums pounding, the smell of wood fires and of food cooking, young men riding bareback on gorgeous Appaloosas, and tents and tipis, cars and RVs as far as the eye could see. It looked like there had to be at least a couple of thousand people at the camp.

After finding Grandmother Mary Lyons and her family, and our friends Robin and Nsasi from Minnesota, we went around and explored a bit, then settled down for some good conversations with Mary and her folks. One of the people who came by to talk was Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Tom and I

with-lyons-camp

Mary Lyons’ camp (Tom Goldtooth & Mary Lyons in center)

remembered each other from the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, and we chatted a little bit about his experiences there. Tom’s son is one of the camp’s organizers, though he was away that weekend, so Mary gave Tom a portable carport she had brought as a donation to the camp, to pass on to his son.

 

I wanted to find one of the people that the Parliament had arranged for me to meet, so I could hand him the statement that the Indigenous Task Force had drafted. Mary suggested that we go to the central fire, where a lot of different activities were held, and see if he was there. Though we had no luck finding him, Mary talked to some people and came back to say that they would like me to read the statement at the fire, if I didn’t mind sitting there for a little bit and wait for my turn to come.

As I was waiting, the two-dozen or so people who had been arrested earlier that morning returned to the camp after having posted bail. They were brought to stand in a line by the fire, and then seemingly everyone in the camp came by to shake their hands or hug them, one by one, and thank them for their willingness to stand up for their convictions. The whole thing took maybe half an hour, but in that brief and deeply moving time, the purpose of the camps became very apparent to me: they are there to provide spiritual, emotional and physical support to the people who put themselves at grave risk every few days, engaging in acts of peaceful civil disobedience by standing in the way of the pipeline and getting arrested in the process. The camps provide the environment in which the actions are carefully planned; they provide encouragement and moral support to the protectors; they offer them backup during the actions, to insure their safety as much as possible; they follow the protectors to the police headquarters once they’ve been arrested, and arrange for them to make bail, and bring them back; and then the camps receive them upon their return with love, with gratitude, with food, with healing. It’s a perfect example of what real community is about.

Of those who’d been arrested that day, roughly half looked to be Indigenous. Most of the rest were white, including a couple of elderly people. Then there were four young African-Americans, all wearing hooded sweatshirts with BLACK LIVES MATTER boldly written in the front. Given the political and social climate in the U.S. today; given the widespread racism that has been crawling out of the ruins of our national denial, triggered by the election of the first black President in history; given the senseless acts of violence perpetrated against unarmed black people by civilians and by police officers unworthy of the title; given all that, the thought of those four young people taking the kind of risk they took, deliberately and openly approaching law enforcement personnel to commit acts of civil disobedience which they knew would land them in jail, took incredible courage. In so doing, they modeled for everyone what solidarity really means, the importance of all of us standing together for each other.

declaration

Reading the Parliament’s statement at central fire

A few minutes after the ceremony ended, someone came over and asked me to go up to the microphone to read the Parliament’s statement in support of Standing Rock, which I gladly did. I had also brought similar declarations from EarthSpirit and from the European Congress of Ethnic Religions, so after reading the one from the Parliament, someone else came and collected all three, saying that he would pass them on to the camp coordinators. Several people came over in the next little while to tell me they were grateful for the statements of support, and to ask that I pass their thanks to the respective organizations.

While I was sitting by the fire, I had a very interesting conversation with an Indigenous woman who was seated next to me. She was curious to know more about the Parliament, because she remembered hearing something about it a while ago. I gave her a brief description of it, and talked in particular about the Indigenous Assembly we had organized in Melbourne in 2009, and the large and very prominent Indigenous program we had at Salt Lake City last year. She asked me if there had been any friction between Indians and non-Indians at Salt Lake City, and explained that she has usually felt friction between both camps, even when they are together to work for a common purpose, so she wondered if there were any events, such as the Parliament, where that friction wasn’t present. I told her I was very familiar with what she was describing, and that there have occasionally been varying levels of friction and tension between Indians and non-Indians at the Parliament, though I had felt it much less at Salt Lake City, and hoped that meant that we were making progress in reaching greater understanding and respect. I said to her, in turn, that in the short time I had been at Camp Oceti Sakowin, it appeared to me that it was pretty free of that kind of tension, and asked her if that was her experience as well, and – if it was – why she thought that might be the case.

She replied that, for the most part, people were getting along together really well, which she ascribed to the fact that, when the camps started, the great majority of participants were Indigenous, so that even if they came from different areas and nations, they shared a very similar culture. By the time that a number of white people started arriving, the “Indian way” had been solidly established, and the newcomers had to adapt to it. She said that, while Indians are very used to functioning within white culture, the opposite is not at all true, so the newcomers were told, “you’re welcome here, we can use your help, but if you’re going to be here, you need to do things our way.”

In her opinion, that worked out fairly well for most of the summer, but she said there had been some friction lately, as more non-Indians arrived. “Some of them come because they think it’s a cool place to be, because they want to play at being Indians. But that’s all wrong, it’s not about making them feel special, it’s about working hard for the reason that we’re here, to stop the pipeline.” Other white people come “to save us,” she added: they bring an attitude that they know better, that they have fancy college degrees, all kinds of advanced skills, and that they’re going to step in and fix everything. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m gonna make it all better for the poor savages, if they only get out of the way.’ Well, that’s just colonialist bullshit, we don’t need that. We have cultures that are as old as the Europeans, we know what we’re doing. People with that kind of attitude don’t last very long here.” According to her, several people have been asked to leave recently because of that.

Most white people, she said, tend to see what’s happening at Standing Rock just in terms of the pipeline, as an isolated incident. Indians, on the other hand, see it as the latest battle in a struggle they’ve been waging for hundreds of years, a struggle to preserve their lands, their cultures, their lives. She thought this was one of the most important things non-Indians needed to understand.

blockade

The blockade

The next day, Donovan and I joined Mary Lyons and a group of her family and friends to walk down to the blockaded road to participate in the water ceremony. The police had placed two large, rusted trucks across Rte. 1806 to prevent access to the camp, and there were several cruisers and security vehicles parked just on the other side of the blockade. We had been asked to only go so far down the road; getting any closer to the trucks would trigger the police into action, and the camp organizers didn’t want anyone provoking them outside of the planned protests.

Grandmother Mary had asked us to bring water from places that were important or sacred to us. We brought water from the Munlochy Clootie Well – an ancient healing spring in Scotland – and from Glenwood, from a point where the waters of four streams converge. The ceremony itself was very simple: Mary spoke for a bit about why we were there and

pouring-waters

Water ceremony

about how Water is Life, then asked those of us who brought water to say something about where it came from, and then to pour it onto the ground to bring blessings and healing to the land.

Before heading back to Bismarck and the airport, Donovan and I stopped by to see Devorah Rosenberg, an old friend from Western Mass. who was working in the main kitchen. It was heartwarming to see someone else from home at the camp. Soon after we returned, my niece Ember Arthen-Cheyne, who is a former Army medic, drove out to Standing Rock to offer her services at the medic tent, and was planning to remain there until the end of December.

I am very grateful for the support of our community in enabling us to make the trip out to North Dakota, and I encourage everyone to lend any help you can to the people who remain in the camps and are now preparing for the harsh winter months ahead.

 Addendum: Just today, it was announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had turned down the permit for the pipeline company to continue excavations on what are legally held to be federally-owned lands (the Sioux claim otherwise). Though this is being widely trumpeted throughout social media as a decisive victory for the Water Protectors, it is likely too early to tell what it actually means. There’s no question that this decision is a very important development, and that there is much cause for celebration in the moment. How long the moment will last, however, nobody really knows. It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that, in barely a month-and-a-half, there will likely be a dramatic change in Washington, and today’s decision could be reversed. Friends at Standing Rock inform me that the camps are continuing to prepare for the winter, and that they could still use our support.

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A Surprising Encounter

by Andras Corban Arthen
This week, the European Congress of Ethnic Religions organized a ceremony for all participants around an old Celtic tripod of stones on the grounds of Vyšehrad, the original settlement that eventually became Prague. There were more than two-hundred of us there, the largest gathering of pagans in this city in modern times, according to a couple of the locals.
As the ceremony began, I looked around and noticed a thin young woman standing a couple of people away, who seemed to be staring at me very intently, an odd expression on her face. I refocused my attention on the ritual, but a little while later I noticed the same young woman, still staring at me. This happened several more times over the course of the ceremony.
After standing in place for a couple of hours, my back began to give out and go into spasm. The pain spread down my legs and started becoming unbearable. There was no place to sit other than the ground, and I learned long ago that, under those circumstances, the ground is not my friend. I began to think about leaving the ritual to look for a bench or a large rock – just someplace, anyplace, to sit. I started feeling sorry for myself.
Mercifully, one of the ceremonial leaders announced that the ritual was coming to a close, and that we should take the hands of those standing next to us. Knowing that I only needed to hold on for a few more minutes, I reached out for the hands that reached back on either side.
Suddenly, the young woman I had noticed earlier squeezed between me and the person to my left, grabbed my hand, and held it tightly; we remained that way for the duration of the ceremony. Only when it was over, and people started to move away, did she let go of my hand. She turned to face me, then, with downcast eyes, and apologized if she had made me feel uncomfortable. I assured her that she hadn’t, but told her that I had wondered why she’d been looking at me so oddly.
Andras at ECER

Photo by Irena Jankute

She told me that I very strongly reminded her – both physically as well as in the way I had spoken at the ceremony – of her teacher, someone she loved very deeply and to whom she was profoundly grateful because of all he’d given to her. He was a prominent and respected biologist, she said, and had been her mentor and best friend for many years. Just last week, however, he had died in his sleep and she was heartbroken. She started to shake a little.
I took her hands in mine, and told her how sorry I was to learn that she had just experienced such a great loss. I told her that her teacher must have been a remarkable person, to have earned such love and devotion from her. I suggested to her that her feelings and her memories were very real, and that, in them, her teacher continued to live and there she could find him.
She asked me if I would give her a blessing, which of course I did. Then she asked if she could hug me. I held her close, and felt how fragile she was, as if she would shatter into pieces at any moment. I felt her pain: so sad, so deep. Tears ran down my face. We stayed like that for a while, breathing together, being still in the moment. And then something shifted, and she let go; the being pressing against me no longer felt brittle – not strong, to be sure, but stronger, firmer.
We separated, and I saw her face fully for the first time. Her eyes were clear in the dimming light, her sadness replaced by a slightly quizzical expression. On impulse, I gave her one of my cards, told her I’d be happy to hear from her, and invited her to visit me if she ever came to the States. She thanked me, told me she’d write, then turned around and walked away. I took several steps in the opposite direction, and realized that my pain was completely gone.

Report on Religions for the Earth and the People’s Climate March, Part II

Moira Ashleigh and other EarthSpirit members in the crowd before the Climate March

Moira Ashleigh and other EarthSpirit members in the crowd before the Climate March

by Andras Corban-Arthen

This is an end-of-the-year report (in two parts) on my participation in some interfaith activities this past fall. Brief commentaries about these events were previously published on EarthSpirit’s Facebook page, and a version of this report appears in the latest issue (#119) of Circle Magazine. I’d like to thank all the members and friends of EarthSpirit, whose generous donations to our community support our participation in events such as the ones I describe here.

The Climate March on Sunday was doubtlessly the best-organized demonstration I have ever been a part of. The organizers had anticipated at least 100,000 people, so they had staggered the marchers by dividing us into several different contingents, “penning” each one in a different city block adjacent to the March route. The contingents were defined by “themes” which identified different ways in which people related to climate change: science, for instance, or politics, or religion/spirituality, etc. That way, you could identify whichever theme you were most drawn to, go to that particular city block, and wait with like-minded people until it was your contingent’s turn to start marching.

EarthSpirit members during the March

EarthSpirit members during the March

The Pagan Environmental Coalition of NY led by Courtney Weber, which took on the job of organizing the pagan marchers, wisely had us join the interfaith contingent, and we shared the street with Buddhists, Muslims, Quakers, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Unitarians, Bahá’ís, Sikhs – it was like a mini Parliament of the World’s Religions in the guise of a block party. A Muslim group brought along an inflatable mosque. A Christian group built a Noah’s Ark float to focus attention on how animals are imperiled by global warming. About twenty EarthSpirit members showed up – not only from New York, but from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey as well – bringing drums and rattles, and getting all kinds of people to join in singing many of our community’s chants.

The PECNY also helped to put together an interreligious service to kick off the March, and they were very kind to invite me to offer the pagan blessing in the ceremony. These are the words I spoke:

Andras speaking at the Climate March

Andras speaking at the Climate March

“In the Spirit of the Earth, we are coming together;
in the Spirit of the Earth, we are one…” *

We come from the north, and we come from the south;
we come from the west, and we come from the east.
We gather from all directions
to march for this living planet
who is our home, who is what we are.
But we do not march only for ourselves,
we march for all beings of the Earth.
And so we call to sun, to wind and rain;
we call to mountains and glaciers;
we call to all who walk and crawl, who fly and swim;
we call to our ancestors, both seen and unseen;
we call to oceans and streams,
to trees, and grasses and stones
to guide and bless every step we take,
that we may once again live in harmony
with our Mother the Earth.
As it was, as it is, as it ever shall be;
with the flow and the ebb, as it ever shall be.

(© 2014, Andras Corban-Arthen; *© 2000, Deirdre Pulgram-Arthen)

By the time my turn came, the crowd had grown to approximately 10,000 people packed like sardines in our block; there was barely enough room to move but a few inches. From my vantage point up on the stage, I was suddenly able to see what those below me couldn’t: just one street away, an unending river of people was flowing along the March route – a surprising and breathtaking sight. I certainly hadn’t expected anything quite that massive; it was quite obvious that there were substantially more than 100,000 people marching.

Just before we finally started to move, I got into a conversation with one of the police officers patrolling our street. He told me that, in his thirty years on the force, this was the first time that the event organizers had more than delivered on what they’d promised. According to him, demonstration organizers tend to grossly exaggerate beforehand the number of people they expect at their events, in the hope of generating enough excitement to actually draw something close to that number. This time, when the organizers had first predicted around 100,000 marchers, there had been a great deal of skepticism among the authorities and the media; except that he had just heard over the police scanner that the line of marchers was over four miles long, and that the current estimate was around 400,000 people. But what really impressed him the most, he told me, was that there had not been a single arrest or similar incident of any kind reported, and that, amazingly, the marchers were not leaving any trash at all in their wake. “Tell you what,” he said, “if what I’m seeing here is what this movement is really about, then I gotta think that maybe there’s still hope for the world.”

ESC Climate March

Report on Religions for the Earth and the People’s Climate March, Part I

Participants at the Multifaith Service, Cathedral of St. John the Divine

Participants at the Multifaith Service, Cathedral of St. John the Divine

by Andras Corban-Arthen

This is an end-of-the-year report (in two parts) on my participation in some interfaith activities this past fall. Brief commentaries about these events were previously published on EarthSpirit’s Facebook page, and a version of this report appears in the latest issue (#119) of Circle Magazine. I’d like to thank all the members and friends of EarthSpirit, whose generous donations to our community support our participation in events such as the ones I describe here.

Two important and related events were held in New York City over the weekend of the autumnal equinox, 19-21 September: the People’s Climate March, a 3-mile long demonstration through the streets of Manhattan as a call for awareness and action regarding environmental deterioration; and the Religions for the Earth Conference, held at Union Theological Seminary to bring together some 200 leaders from diverse spiritual traditions, to discuss how teachings of the various religions can address the climate change crisis. I attended both events, which were timed to coincide with the Climate Summit scheduled to take place a few days later at the United Nations, at the behest of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Religions for the Earth Conference was organized by the Union Forum, a platform within Union Theological Seminary which promotes dialogue about religion and social ethics in order to bring about positive civic engagement. In her message of welcome to the conference participants, Karenna Gore, director of the Union Forum, had this to say about the purpose of the event:

“Spiritual and religious leaders have a place in this conversation precisely because it is their vocation to call for sacrifice and reverence to something larger than oneself. Religious leadership is at its best when challenging the status quo, including the powerful, wealthy institutions and individuals who will resist being moved. Our religions are organized differently, but each has the potential for exponential effect throughout our interconnected world. Those of you gathering at Union this weekend hold extraordinary strength within you and also the kindness and love to bring out the best in each other.”

I attended Religions for the Earth representing the three main organizations with which I am affiliated: my community, EarthSpirit; the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was one of the co-sponsors of the conference; and the European Congress of Ethnic Religions, of which I am president. The Parliament’s delegation also included our Chair, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, our Executive Director, Dr. Mary Nelson, and several other trustees, among them Phyllis Curott, the other pagan who serves with me on the Parliament’s Board.

Most of the presentations at the conference took the form of panel discussions, in which participants from several different religious traditions addressed topics such as “Climate Change, Gender & Human Rights”; “Integrating the Earth into Worship, Liturgy and Devotion”; “Environmental Racism and Climate Justice Initiatives”; “Engaging Ecological Despair and Grief”; and “Race, Class & Hemisphere: Regional Identity and Climate”, among others.

Panel on Indigenous Traditions, (l-r): François Paulette, Mindahi Bastida-Muñoz, Tonya Frichner, Andras Corban-Arthen, Chief Arvol Looking Horse.

Panel on Indigenous Traditions, (l-r): François Paulette, Mindahi Bastida-Muñoz, Tonya Frichner, Andras Corban-Arthen, Chief Arvol Looking Horse.

I was asked to be one of the members of a panel entitled “What Moves Us: Values, Narratives & the Climate Crisis – the Indigenous Traditions”, moderated by Tonya Gonnella Frichner of the Onondaga Nation, and founder of the American Indian

Law Alliance. The other panelists were François Paulette of the Dene people from northwest Canada, Mindahi Bastida-Muñoz of the pueblo Otomí from México, and Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota Nation. My role on the panel was to represent the indigenous European traditions. I had met most of the other panelists at previous interreligious events, so I was very glad to be in their company once again.

One of the most important points made by everyone in our panel was that the environmental crisis has grown out of a prevailing sense in Western culture that we are separate from the Earth, which fosters in people the entitled delusion that we can treat the natural world any way we want to. In my own remarks, I pointed out that, in Western culture, this sense of separation has specifically been fostered and transmitted by the dominant religion. The notion that Nature is fundamentally base, and eventually destined to be replaced by an otherworldly paradise (or its opposite) has been a deeply-ingrained Christian paradigm for many centuries. The same is true for the notion of a divinely-appointed human

Mesoamerican indigenous ceremony at Union Theological Seminary

Mesoamerican indigenous ceremony at Union Theological Seminary

supremacy over all other beings of the Earth: the human arrogance and greed, and the objectification and devaluing of Nature that are such predictable corollaries of that notion, lie at the very core of the environmental disasters we are now facing.

Our discussion also underscored the fact that, for many decades, indigenous peoples have been issuing warnings about growing changes which are affecting climate and, therefore, everything that exists upon the Earth; but Westerners have not listened, because they are in the habit of dismissing anything which indigenous people might say.

This point was likewise made, in eloquent fashion, by the Onondaga faithkeeper Oren Lyons during one of the plenary sessions. Chief Lyons told about a meeting he once had with an Inuit elder from Greenland, who informed him that “the ice is melting in the North” – trickles of water had begun to appear on the surface of the glaciers some years before, and those trickles had now grown into permanent rivers. Throughout the rest of his speech, Chief Lyons ended every new paragraph by repeating the warning that “the ice is melting in the North”; the more he said those words, the more that he powerfully drove home the sense of urgency, and even of inevitability, surrounding climate change. Some people in the audience were visibly flinching. As he was about to finish, Chief Lyons revealed an alarming detail he had been saving for the very end. That speech we had just heard, he told us, was not new; it was, in fact, the exact same speech he had delivered at the United Nations fourteen years before. But no one had listened then, he admonished us, and it had taken the U.N. almost a decade and a half to finally organize a Climate Summit.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse at the Multifaith Service

Chief Arvol Looking Horse at the Multifaith Service

Former Vice-President Al Gore speaking at the Multifaith Service

Former Vice-President Al Gore speaking at the Multifaith Service

Because participation in the conference was by invitation only, and limited to just a couple of hundred attendees, it fostered a sense of intimacy which I have rarely found at other interfaith events, and provided the opportunity for rich, in-depth dialogue. I think that many of the conversations and initiatives that emerged from Religions for the Earth will prove to be very fruitful over the next several years. The conference ended with a deeply meaningful multifaith service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with former Vice-President Al Gore as one of the main speakers.

(l-r): Phyllis Curott, Andras & Deirdre Arthen at Multifaith Service

(l-r): Phyllis Curott, Andras & Deirdre Arthen at Multifaith Service

Performers from the Metawee Theatre Company

Performers from the Metawee Theatre Company

Indigenous spirituality, EarthSpirit Community – An Interview with Andras Corban-Arthen

By Christopher BlackwellAndras PWR 2004-72dpi

When we think of the Pagan religions of Europe, most of us consider the original religions long dead with only the reconstructions that exist today. But is that actually true? Did the old religions die out completely or did they hang on as folk lore, or did any of them manage to survive into the modern age? Here is one area that we might ask of Andras Corban-Arthen, who is the founder of EarthSpirit Community, one of the oldest Pagan groups still operating in our country.

Christopher: Could you give us a bit of background on yourself as a person?

Andras: My family of origin is Hispanic. On my father’s side they were mostly from Galiza, in northwestern Spain, which was the last outpost of Celtic civilization in that land. Though they have lost the original language, most Galegos to this day still consider themselves to be Celts, and that was an important part of the cultural context in which I grew up. My mother and her father were Cuban; her mother was Basque.

I grew up in Spain, in Cuba, in Florida and in Puerto Rico. We were living in Havana at the time of the Revolution, but left soon after; we were planning to go back to Spain, but things didn’t work out and we came to the U.S. instead. I was raised Roman Catholic, and spent a few years in a special school for boys whose families had destined them for the priesthood (I can still recite a lot of the old Tridentine Mass in Latin by memory), but I parted ways with Christianity when I was sixteen.

I’ve traveled a good bit, mostly throughout Europe and the Americas. I came to Massachusetts in the late sixties to go to college, and have lived here ever since – first in the Boston area, then for the past fifteen years in the countryside of the Berkshire hills, toward the western part of the state. My wife Deirdre and I have been together since 1980, and have a son and a daughter, ages 24 and 20. We are part of an intentional pagan family, about a dozen of us who’ve been together for close to three decades now.

We live in Glenwood, a 135-acre working farm surrounded by thousands of acres of forest, which also serves as a pagan sanctuary and small conference center. Over the years, as a way to honor our relationship with this land, we’ve built a stone circle, a 60-foot-wide labyrinth, an Ancestor Shrine and a Peace Cairn. There are a lot of maples on the land, so we make our own maple syrup, and we have an organic garden that yields most of our produce for the year. We have lots of domestic and farm animals (dogs, cats, goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits and a llama) and the land abounds with all sorts of wildlife. And we have a wealth of spiders.

As for what I do, I serve as spiritual director of the EarthSpirit Community, through which I’ve been full-time pagan ‘clergy’ since about 1980. My main work involves teaching, public speaking, community development, spiritual counseling, organizing events, officiating at ceremonies such as weddings and other rites of passage, and interacting with the media.

A good deal of my work has also been focused on interfaith dialogue and networking, particularly through the Parliament of the World’s Religions – I am a member of its board of trustees, and am currently coordinating its Ambassadors program, as well as serving as liaison to its partner organization in Guadalajara, México. I am also on the board of directors of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions, an organization headquartered in Vilnius, Lithuania, which promotes the revitalization of indigenous European paganism, and in which I serve as international interreligious liaison. And I am part of the advisory council of the Ecospirituality Foundation, an NGO based in Torino, Italy, which works with the United Nations on indigenous issues throughout the world.

Christopher: How long have you been Pagan? What path do you follow?

Andras: Officially, since the beginning of 1969, which is when I met my teachers. They were a married couple, about twice my age, who were part of what originally had been a Gaelic-speaking family from the Scottish Highlands (the man in the couple still spoke Gaelic fluently). The family had been forced to leave their homeland during the Clearances, and some of them eventually settled near Edinburgh. At the time I met the two of them, they had been in the Boston area for some time, pursuing graduate studies, though they eventually moved on.

I was told about them by a mutual friend, who, before agreeing to introduce us, pointedly warned me that they were ‘witches.’ That really piqued my curiosity, because the thought that there might actually be people in the late 20th century who considered themselves to be witches seemed so outrageously absurd to me that I had to check them out.

But they turned out to be quite different from what I’d expected – they were very intelligent and well-educated, but also very accessible and unassuming, and we hit it off right away. Our first couple of encounters included several remarkable ‘coincidences’ on both of our parts that left us with the sense that our meeting was somehow fated.

For me, it was definitely one of those things where you meet someone and you immediately feel like you’ve known them all your life, like they’re family. In particular, the things they told me about their spiritual practices somehow made far more sense and were more immediately appealing to me than anything else I had found. After a few weeks, as we started developing a friendship, I asked them if they would teach me, and they agreed to do so. I’ve been engaged in those practices ever since.

Christopher: Is this neopaganism or is there a tie to the ancient religions?

Andras: Their teachings were not neopagan, although, at the time, I had no way of knowing that, since I had no other frame of reference except what I was being taught. But several years later, after my teachers left the area and I was on my own, as I started to meet more and more neopagans it became disconcertingly obvious that what I had been taught was very different from what my new friends practiced.

One major difference is that neopaganism typically borrows isolated elements from many diverse cultures and creates a very eclectic synthesis of them.

Conversely, what I was taught came from one particular culture which was indigenous to a very specific part of the world; and the fact that I was not a member of that culture by birth or rearing, and that I was not being taught those practices in the land where they had originated, were both obstacles to my assimilation of the teachings, and there were certain compensations that I had to make to overcome those obstacles.

For my teachers, the idea that you could just take random bits out of a culture into which you hadn’t been assimilated didn’t make any sense – they thought it was like eating the skin of a fruit while leaving the pulp to rot.

There were many other important differences: for instance, my teachers’ practices were essentially animistic – they involved no belief in or worship of deities. At the core of their teachings was the experience of Mystery, of engaging the unknown directly, without attempting to explain it or shape it. Rituals (if they could really be called that) were very simple and mostly wordless affairs, which relied more on the execution of practices than on anything else – the kinds of ‘dramatic’ ceremonies that are so common in neopaganism, including the enactment of various mythological tableaux and such, played no part at all in what they did. We didn’t work in a circle, or invoke elements, or use specifically ‘magical tools.’

Most of their practices were meant to be engaged in a state of trance, which they had several different ways of attaining. The Gaelic term they used for ‘trance’ essentially means ‘mist’: you became ‘enmisted’ – in other words, you engaged a process that took you outside the ordinary world and, in so doing, gave you access to spiritual currents that enhanced you, and changed you, and shaped you. One of the ways they used for inducing the trance was communion with a particular mushroom – this is yet another difference, since many neopagans see such practices as dangerous or inappropriate.

All of their teachings were rooted in a sense that the natural world was the matrix, the source of life and spiritual wisdom and soul-strength, but to them, nature meant wilderness – environments that were not manipulated and controlled by humans. So we spent a lot of time in the woods, mostly outside the city, though there was a particular park near us that was pretty much abandoned and reverting to its natural state, where we could go in a pinch.

This is another way their teachings differed from neopaganism, in that they were adamant that I strive to experience the natural world as it really was, not as a symbol. In neopaganism, there’s a very common pattern of representing nature symbolically, as various aspects of the human condition (air is intellect, fire is passion, water is emotion, etc.) My teachers stressed the very opposite: in their approach, for instance, not only was fire never passion or any other human trait – it wasn’t even fire. To them, the very concept of ‘fire’ was itself a symbol that kept us from truly experiencing the essence of the force we call by that name. Some of their practices were meant to induce a state in which language became meaningless, and where the natural world could be perceived much more directly.

Because of my youth and lack of experience, while I was with my teachers it never really occurred to me to probe too deeply into the background of what they taught me; I pretty much accepted it at face value and focused on the practices themselves. My encounters with neopagan groups, which had such a different approach, made me want to get a more objective sense of what I had been taught. A couple of years after my teachers had left, an American Indian friend suggested that the teachings I had received from them might be the remnants of an indigenous (or, as he put it, ‘native’) tradition from the Highlands, and that some of the practices sounded very similar to shamanism.

So I started to read up on shamanism (this was many years before it became a New Age fad, so the information was not easy to come by), and that led me to a wider study of indigenous cultures. After a while, it became very clear to me that there were certain key elements which were consistently found among indigenous peoples throughout the world, and that those very elements were strikingly similar to a lot of what I had been taught. And then I realized that the old pagan cultures of Europe took on a whole new perspective – a richer, fuller meaning – if they were looked at in the context of indigenous traditions.

I also began to wonder that, if indeed, what I had been taught represented a survival of an indigenous pagan tradition – could there be others? Where could they be found? How might they be similar or different? So, I set myself the task of attempting to find out the answers to these questions.

Christopher: When we think of the old religions, most of us consider that they disappeared after the coming of Christianity. How could any of them survive, and in what form, into the modern age?

Andras: It’s hard to answer this briefly, because it’s a very complicated subject and not well-served by brevity or generalizations, but I’ll give it a try. Yes, conventional wisdom certainly holds that the old pagan traditions disappeared as a result of the Christianization of Europe, but one of the main problems with conventional wisdom is that it tends to get passed along unchallenged and untested. There’s a subtle but important distinction, for instance, between something ‘disappearing’ and something ‘ceasing to exist.’ It’s very clear that most of the pre-Christian European spiritual traditions have disappeared, because they’re not obviously present, not easily found. And, of course, it’s a good bet that most of them have also ceased to exist altogether. But was that actually true for all of them? How can we know that for sure?

It is quite well documented, for instance, that the Mari people in Eastern Europe have maintained their unbroken animistic pagan religion to the present, even after the Christianization of their country several hundred years ago. Could there be any other similar survivals elsewhere in Europe? Is it possible that some of those old traditions may actually have survived by ‘disappearing,’ by going underground?

I have now spent over thirty-five years trying to find such survivals, and it’s been a very difficult, painstaking process involving lots of correspondence, lots of phone calls, lots of travel. In that time I’ve met many people, both in Europe and in the Americas, who had practices that were obvious syncretisms of Christianity with traditional pagan elements, to varying degrees. Those are not that hard to find – you scratch the surface a bit, and there they are, far more common than perhaps many imagine.

I’ve tried to focus my search, however, on finding people who were preserving what I would consider unbroken, substantial survivals of traditional paganism – such as the Mari – that were as untainted as possible by Christianity (to the degree that anything in Western culture, including neopaganism or even atheism, could be ‘untainted’ by Christianity at this point). This has been a much more difficult process, because it has involved not only finding such people and making contact, but more importantly, gradually cultivating enough trust to get to the point where they were willing to meet with me and to answer some of my questions.

To date, I have found close to a dozen, in both Eastern and Western Europe. That’s not a lot, but if I’ve been able to find those with my relatively meager resources, I imagine there must be quite a few more out there.

I should make clear that these survivals are not widespread or out in the open. They mostly involve very small, isolated communities or even just a few families, whose practices and beliefs are either not known to most of their neighbors, or are tolerated by them. And they are not people living in little thatched huts, wearing medieval peasant garb, though their way of life tends to be substantially different from modern American urban culture.

The survivals I have found have certain key elements in common that I think have helped them to endure: They exist in fairly remote or ‘undesirable’ rural locations, in places where the original, ancestral languages are still spoken; this has provided them with a certain degree of insulation. They are in regions where there have been major sociopolitical upheavals which have destabilized the existing power structure and have taken the focus away from religious persecution or suppression.

They involve extended families or small communities that hold on to a very strong cultural identity and nationalistic sentiments, and particularly deeply-ingrained feelings of connection for the physical environment in which they live, and their ‘religions’ are very much an integral, vital part of their culture; in other words, they are not just trying to preserve their religion, but their entire way of life. And they involve people who bear a strong animosity – in some cases, hatred – toward Christianity, for reasons which range from the cultural and historical to the purely personal.

The people who preserve these traditions claim – as my own teachers did – that they are unbroken, that they have existed as far back as anyone can remember (in the sense of cultural, not individual memory, naturally). It is, of course, almost impossible to conclusively prove any of this because, first, any attempt to offer irrefutable proof would require them to expose themselves to public scrutiny, which they’re not at all likely to do, as it would mean giving up perhaps the most important thing that has allowed them to survive in the first place; and, second, most of them quite probably lack the kind of detailed documentation that would be needed for such proof to be truly conclusive.

Obviously, there’s a lot more that could be said about all this. For the past several years, I have offered a presentation entitled “The ‘Indians’ of Old Europe” (a title which was given to me by a Hopi elder), describing in greater detail some of my experiences, limited though they be, exploring the perspective of the old pagan cultures as indigenous traditions, as well as my efforts to find current survivals of them. I’m hoping to be able to offer it in book form by next year.

Christopher: When and why was EarthSpirit Community formed?

Andras: I founded EarthSpirit in 1977, originally as a bartering co-operative, in an attempt to start developing community by finding people who shared some of my own interests in nature spirituality, social activism and radical politics. When my wife Deirdre came along in 1980, we decided to turn EarthSpirit into a much more comprehensive and specifically pagan type of organization.

When I began meeting my first neopagans, one of the things that I found particularly confusing was that they were presenting paganism exclusively as a religion. My sense, based on the teachings I’d received as well as my own research, was that the old paganisms had not been stand-alone religions but, rather, cultural traditions that had spiritual practices and beliefs deeply integrated within them. To me, it seemed that in the interrelationship between culture and religion, the culture served as the vehicle through which the spiritual principles and values were incorporated into the everyday lives of the people.

But, if paganism was going to exist as a religion without a culture, how was it going to achieve that integration? The answer, it seemed clear, was that the automatic default would be mainstream American culture, which is inherently Christian (even in ways that are not so obvious) and seemed to embody the very opposite of the ideas and values that most neopagans I knew were professing to uphold. (Personally, I think that this particular conflict, and the resulting lack of integration, have only gotten worse over the years, and that they’re the source for a lot of the problems which so many modern pagans frequently complain about.)

So, as we envisioned EarthSpirit, we felt very strongly that its chief aim should be to help develop modern pagan culture and community – even if it had to be of a generic nature in order to include all of the people we were trying to reach – that could gradually help to identify traditional pagan values and eventually incorporate them in people’s lives.

In 1979, the year before Deirdre came, I had organized the first Rites of Spring gathering under the sponsorship of the Mass. Pagan Federation, a networking organization of which I had been one of the founding members. Unfortunately, as has happened with so many other pagan confederations over the years, the MPF disbanded right after the gathering, so Deirdre and I decided to continue organizing the event (which is now approaching its 34th year) [ed. note: ROS 36 will take place next month] under the aegis of EarthSpirit.

From then on, things began to develop very quickly. Our initial focus was to provide services for pagans in the Greater Boston area, so we began to offer public classes in various locations, as well as open seasonal rituals, various kinds of special-interest groups, a newsletter, a monthly coffeehouse, an ongoing study group, retreats, speakers, a film series, salon-style discussion groups, etc.

As the organization grew in numbers, we also began to acquire members from all over the Northeast, and eventually from various parts of the country. In response to our growing membership we added three more gatherings, began to publish a professionally-produced magazine, and developed our ritual performance ensemble, MotherTongue, which has performed nationally and internationally, and has produced several recordings. I also began to travel around the country a good bit, speaking at various conferences and offering presentations which were sponsored by some of our national members.

With the coming of the Internet, our numbers grew even more and we started getting members from other countries as well. This was around the same time that some of us moved to Glenwood, so our work evolved to yet another stage as we developed a website and an Internet presence, and began to offer programs and ceremonies at our new home. We developed Anamanta, which is a pagan spiritual practice adapted from the teachings I received, in an attempt to make them more accessible.

We also established several programs for young people, including EarthWise, a pagan summer camp, and EarthSpirit PeaceJam, a service-learning group for adolescents in collaboration with the PeaceJam Foundation, a wonderful organization that brings teen-agers together with Nobel Peace Prize laureates to develop projects around themes of social justice, peace, the environment, etc.

Obviously, work of this kind and scope is not something that one or two people can do by themselves. There’s a whole core group – well over a hundred of us – who work together to run the organization and manage the events. But it’s not just a question of how many, but also of how long – a lot of our core group has been involved in this work for ten to twenty years or more. I also think that we have been able to last as long as we have because for so many of us, what we do for EarthSpirit is part of our spiritual practice – whether we’re cooking a meal, teaching class, or putting stamps on fliers. And we are blessed to be part of a community that includes a lot of very creative and talented people – and generous, to boot: there’s no way we could do most of what we do (particularly our interfaith outreach) without their ongoing support.

One of the most rewarding things about the work we do is when that work gets shared and spreads throughout the community at large. For instance, I was just reading a new book, “Universal Heartbeat: Drumming, Spirit and Community,” by my friend Morwen Two Feathers, who is a long-time member of EarthSpirit, and I couldn’t help but reminisce on how things were in the old days. Back in the mid-seventies, when I was first exploring shamanism, I started to use a drum in my practices as a way to induce trance, and found it extremely effective. But when I took it to a couple of rituals organized by Wiccan friends, I got all kinds of flack about it because, after all, the drum was not a tool listed in the Book of Shadows.

At the first Rites of Spring, I was the only one there with a drum, and I built a small fire and invited people to take part in a fire circle, but most everybody just sort of moved away, as if they were afraid of catching something. I remember somebody joking that if I wanted to play Indian, I should find a loincloth and take my tom-tom to the reservation, because “we’re pagans here.”

Eventually a couple of belly dancers joined, and a tambourine player, and someone playing a recorder, and that was the first fire circle at Rites of Spring – pretty pathetic, though ultimately meaningful. But every year after that, we kept having a fire circle, and it grew, and more pagans brought drums. And then people like Morwen and her partner Jimi, and many others made huge contributions to the evolution of the fire circle, until it became not only a centerpiece of the culture at Rites of Spring, but also was spread around the country by some of our community members, and now there are several Fire Circle gatherings in various parts of the country that are directly descended from the one at Rites of Spring.

Because of our interest in indigenous European paganism, EarthSpirit has sought, since the beginning, to build bridges with indigenous communities from around the world, particularly with American Indians. We want to be able to understand firsthand the various issues faced by those communities, and to lend a hand if and when we can.

One particular area of concern is the wanton appropriation of indigenous spirituality by non-Indian people, including some pagans. And we also want to make them aware of the indigenous dimension of European paganism, since it is not something most people are familiar with. In 1986, we established the EarthWays Initiative as a vehicle to engage in dialogues with indigenous leaders. To date, there have been more than two-dozen such conversations with people from nine different countries.

EarthSpirit has also been involved in interfaith dialogue for a very long time. We realized early on that the interreligious community was a forum where pagans could potentially be seen and heard and accepted for who we really are.

The interreligious movement is particularly focused on eradicating prejudice and on promoting social justice, as well as understanding and respect among the world’s faiths. There are many influential religious and academic leaders who are part of that movement. We felt that, given the opportunity, if we could change a lot of perceptions regarding paganism in that setting, those changes could, in turn, wind up benefiting pagans everywhere. Deirdre and I were members of the Greater Boston Interfaith Council for most of the eighties and early nineties, and then starting in 1993, we began a long association with the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

The Parliament is the world’s oldest and largest interreligious event, originating in Chicago in 1893. It is convened approximately every five years in a different city, and draws close to 10,000 participants from just about every corner and religion of the world to spend a week attending workshops, panel discussions, ceremonies, artistic events, etc. EarthSpirit has sent a delegation to each of the modern Parliaments – in Chicago (1993), Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004) and Melbourne (2009), and MotherTongue has performed at three of them (the next Parliament is scheduled for Brussels, Belgium in 2014). In 2006, I was elected to the board of trustees of the Council that organizes and runs the Parliament.

An important focus of my work in the Parliaments, and in the interreligious movement in general, has been to present the European pagan traditions in the context of the indigenous cultures of the world, a case which I have tried to make in various forums since the late 1970s. Within the interfaith community, the different religions tend to be grouped under several distinct categories: Abrahamic, Asian, Indigenous, etc. Pagans are generally placed in the category of New Religious Movements, which, as the title implies, includes religions of fairly recent origin (generally those which were established after 1850).

This certainly seems to be the most appropriate designation for neopaganism, and, in principle, there is no stigma attached to such a categorization, which also includes many well-respected religions. It also, however, includes several religions which are considered to be ‘cults’ by a great many people and, given the negative baggage that pagans have had to endure, our inclusion in that category exclusively makes it easy for our detractors to engage in a little ‘guilt by association.’

In suggesting that some pagan traditions should be more properly included in the Indigenous category, I have tried not only to underscore the indigenous character of those traditions, but also to bring some balance to the way pagans are perceived in the interfaith movement, since in that movement the indigenous traditions are accorded a great deal of well-deserved respect, not only for the length of their existence, but also for the many evils they’ve had to suffer.

As you might imagine, there’s been a great deal of resistance to this idea, a lot of it coming from Christian conservatives who realize (and have told me as much) that the inclusion of paganism in the Indigenous category could give it the credibility to raise serious accusations against Christianity (and particularly the Roman Catholic Church) for its wanton slaughter and extermination of the European pagan peoples.

But not only the Christians have been resistant – many pagans have objected as well because – given how incredibly touchy the question of ‘legitimacy’ has been in the pagan movement – they fear that this would create a pagan hierarchy within the interfaith community. That has certainly never been my intention, I see it essentially as a question of two substantially different approaches to paganism, belonging in two different categories.

When the Parliament was convened in Melbourne a couple of years ago, the Indigenous traditions were a major focus of the event. I was part of the Task Force that organized the Indigenous programming, and was delighted when the other members of the Task Force decided to include the European traditions in the program. In so doing, for the first time ever a major interreligious organization finally recognized traditional European paganism as indigenous.

I was invited to be one of two representatives of the European traditions and, in turn, I invited krivis Jonas Trinkunas, the head priest of Romuva – the pagan religion of Lithuania – to be the other. I think it was a real eye-opener for many pagans at the Parliament to see how differently we were treated by many members of the interfaith community, once they began to wrap their heads around the concept of indigenous pagan spirituality. But the best thing of all, to me, was the very warm welcome and acceptance we received from the various indigenous delegates at the Parliament.

Christopher: Where can people learn more?

Andras: The EarthSpirit website can be found at http://www.earthspirit.com, and the e-mail address is earthspirit@earthspirit.com; there’s also a Facebook page. The postal address is P. O. Box 723,Williamsburg, MA 01096. I can be reached at aarthen9@gmail.com, and I’m also on Facebook.

[This interview is re-printed in full, with permission, from ACTION, the newsletter of the Alternate Religions Educational Network, Yule 2011].

Jonas Trinkūnas, founder of Romuva, receives award from Lithuanian President

by Andras Corban-Arthen

jonas award 01-72(l. to r.) Inija Trinkūnienė, President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Jonas Trinkūnas

EarthSpirit recently sponsored a series of performances in Massachusetts and Vermont by Kulgrinda – the ritual performance group of Romuva, which is the name given in modern times to the revived ethnic pagan religion of Lithuania. Jonas Trinkūnas, the krivis (supreme priest) and founder of Romuva – who took part in those performances – is an old friend, someone I’ve known and respected very highly for some twenty years.

Kulgrinda concert, Concord MA

Kulgrinda concert, Concord MA

Jonas attended Rites of Spring back in the nineties, and I have visited him, his family, and his community in Lithuania. In 2008, when the Parliament of the World’s Religions put me in charge of finding representatives of the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe to attend the upcoming Parliament in Melbourne, Jonas’ name was the first on my list.

 

A few days ago, on 6 July, Jonas had the distinction of receiving the prestigious Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas, one of Lithuania’s top civilian honors. The award was personally bestowed by Dalia Grybauskaitė, the president of Lithuania, who praised Jonas for his involvement with the underground resistance against the Soviet regime which ruled Lithuania for over forty years, as well as for his work in preserving traditional Lithuanian religion and literature.

Lithuania was the last country in Europe to officially become Christian – a change which took place mainly for political reasons, and which was not completed until the beginning of the 15th century. The pagan religion co-existed with Christianity for a very long time beyond that, and continued to survive even after Catholicism became dominant and gradually attempted to assimilate and eradicate the remaining pagan practices. But paganism still lived on in the countryside: a large sector of the peasantry, though nominally Catholic, kept alive their traditional pagan spiritually which was deeply ingrained in their everyday lives. A very strong folkloric movement which began in the 18th century helped to keep alive, in the urban centers, an awareness of Lithuania’s pagan roots.

Jonas Trinkūnas & Andras Corban-Arthen at 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions, Melbourne, AU

Jonas Trinkūnas & Andras Corban-Arthen at 2009
Parliament of the World’s Religions, Melbourne, AU

Jonas Trinkūnas immersed himself from an early age in the myths and folklore of his native land, and by the time he’d finished his university studies in the early 1960s, he had published a number of articles as well as a dissertation on pre-Christian Lithuanian religion. He became a researcher and professor of literature and ancient cultures at the University of Vilnius, and during that time he founded a very popular folkloric organization which presented a variety of traditional folk music and dance events; he also began making extended visits to the countryside, to learn directly from rural villagers what still survived of the original pagan traditions.

Jonas’ activities brought him afoul of the Soviet authorities, who feared that his religious and folkloric pursuits were fomenting nationalistic sentiments which could lead to acts of sedition. He was interrogated by the KGB, and subsequently dismissed from his teaching position at the university, and forbidden from holding any kind of teaching job; for many years, he was forced to do various kinds of menial work in order to support his growing family. His folkloric organization was officially suppressed, and he could only engage in his religious practices clandestinely.

Finally, with the loosening of Soviet government controls brought about by glasnost and perestroika in the late eighties, Jonas was able to resume his public activities and to bring Romuva out in the open. Since 1990, when Lithuania achieved its independence from the Soviet Union (the first of the former Soviet republics to do so), Romuva has grown steadily and has achieved a strong presence in Lithuanian culture, though it has not yet managed to gain official government status as a traditional religion.

It may have been an unprecedented event for a pagan leader to be awarded a high honor by the president of his country – it’s certainly something that should make all pagans around the world very proud. Let us hope that the bestowal of the Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas upon Jonas Trinkūnas signals a growing willingness by the Lithuanian government to grant Romuva the official status it has long deserved.

jonas award 02-72dpiJonas Trinkūnas and Inija Trinkūnienė with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė
and members of the Romuva community at the award ceremony in Vilnius.

My First Handfasting

by Andras Corban-Arthen

Exactly 40 years ago, in 1973, I performed my very first handfasting. I had originally learned about this traditional European marriage ceremony from my teachers, who had told me about handfastings (or “left-handed marriages,” as they were sometimes called) in Scotland, how they differed from Christian nuptials in both concept and form, and how they were still clandestinely practiced by some in Gaelic-speaking communities in the Highlands. And I had recently attended two such ceremonies, the religious weddings of pagan friends who subsequently legalized their marriages before a justice of the peace. The possibility that I might be called upon to officiate a handfasting any time soon, however, had not even crossed my mind.

Ginny was a friend from work. She had been assigned to show me around the library on my first day there, and we had taken an immediate liking to each other. We were about the same age, had a very similar sense of humor, and quickly discovered that we shared the same political views about some of the important causes of the day – the Civil Rights movement, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, and, of course, the Vietnam War. And, certainly not least, we were both diehard Red Sox fans.

Ginny was very blunt-spoken, and readily used four-letter words, a habit for which she had been reprimanded by her boss a few times. There was something very “tomboyish” about her, and I remember her telling me that one of the reasons she had applied for her job was that she wouldn’t have to wear a dress to work every day.

We started having lunch together frequently, and once in a while would go for a couple of beers after work. As we became closer, I eventually felt enough trust to confide in her about my being pagan; she thought it was odd, but interesting, and the subject would occasionally come up in our conversations.

One day, as we got together for drinks after work, we were joined by Betsy, Ginny’s roommate of several years. Ginny and Betsy had become friends in high school and attended the same college, where they originally began living together, and had continued doing so after graduation. It turned out that Ginny had told her roommate about my paganism, and Betsy had become very interested and wanted to meet me to talk about it.

Betsy and I hit it off as quickly as Ginny and I had, and we enjoyed a very pleasant but brief conversation because of time constraints. Ginny suggested that I have dinner with them at their place the following week, so we could talk some more; she mentioned that I’d be in for a treat, since Betsy was a wonderful cook.

That certainly proved to be the case, and as we talked about paganism after dinner in their tidy, plant-filled North Cambridge apartment, the two of them sat on the sofa opposite me. At some point, Ginny matter-of-factly reached over and pulled Betsy close to her, and we continued talking as the two of them snuggled on the couch. A little later, during a lull in the conversation, they casually kissed.

While that might not raise too many eyebrows nowadays, back then it was a very different story – people of the same sex simply didn’t engage in open displays of romantic affection toward each other. At that point in my life, the only times I had ever seen two women kiss on the lips were in a couple of European art films, but never in the flesh. I imagine, in retrospect, that if I had watched two women I didn’t know kissing like that in public, I might have felt somewhat uncomfortable; ­­­for all my avowed support of Gay Liberation in principle, I really didn’t have much actual experience with gay people.

But I knew Betsy and Ginny, and it was very obvious that they shared a very deep bond of love, friendship and affection, so their intimacies didn’t faze me at all – they felt natural, normal, right. If anything, I was glad that they were comfortable enough to be themselves around me.

They came out to me then, and we spent the rest of the evening talking about their lives, their love for and bond with each other, the struggles they’d had to face dealing with family and friends, and those they kept encountering with neighbors and at work.

And we talked about the pain – the pain of rejection and marginalization, of not being accepted for who they were; the pain caused by prejudice, by discrimination, by not being able to marry and live normal lives like most people; the pain of having to deny and hide their beautiful love every day of their lives. Tears flowed, we held each other, and from that moment became a lot closer; over time, I came to experience even more the depth of their love for one another, the strength of their commitment.

Months later, Ginny and Betsy told me that they had decided to get married. They knew there was no way they could legally do so, but they wanted, at the very least, to have some sort of unofficial ceremony, some spiritual affirmation and blessing of their relationship. They approached the minister of one of their family’s churches, but he turned them down. Over the next few months they tried churches of other denominations, only to meet with similar results.

They eventually pinned their hopes on the minister of a local Unitarian-Universalist congregation, someone they’d met at a friend’s wedding; they suspected he was gay, and felt that he, of all people, might be willing to marry them. He turned out, in fact, to be very sympathetic, but also apologetic – he wished he could perform the ceremony, he’d told them, but he was too afraid of losing his job if word ever got out. They were heartbroken.

Then, one day, Betsy showed up at my library at the time I usually went on coffee break, and asked if she could talk to me. She had just remembered my telling her about the pagan handfastings I’d attended, and a light bulb had gone off in her head. Could I – would I – perform a handfasting for them? She took me completely by surprise: the thought had not even occurred to me, as it obviously hadn’t to them until that moment.

After regaining my composure, I had to think a bit – I was just in my early twenties, and had only been on my path for four years, so what she was asking was a bit daunting. I finally told her that I could not remember anything in all my training that raised objections to the marriage of two people who clearly were in love and wanted to ceremonialize their commitment to each other.

And so it was that on a gloriously sunny but chilly spring morning, a small group of us gathered in a secluded part of a large public park in Brookline, surrounded by pines, to celebrate the handfasting of my two friends. It was a bittersweet event: Ginny’s mother was there, as were two of Betsy’s sisters; the rest of their families had adamantly refused to attend. Just a few close friends completed the party, twelve to fifteen people altogether, but what we lacked in size, we more than made up for in spirit.

We blessed them with mead. We blessed them with rose petals. I took the multi-colored cord they had brought and wrapped it around their joined hands. They each tied a knot while saying their vows to one another, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, the smiles on their faces more radiant than the sun. I tied the third knot on behalf of their family and friends, and pronounced them handfasted in marriage.

As the rest of us offered them our good wishes for their life ahead, I remember hoping that, one day, they would be able to renew those vows in a ceremony that would finally legitimize the marriage which took place that day; not because some legal piece of paper would make their relationship any more meaningful or real, but simply because the love which they had for each other deserved to be untainted – in any way at all – from ever being considered second-class.

I lost track of my two friends over the years, but they have been very present in my mind lately, as the U.S. Supreme Court begins to hear arguments regarding two cases that could decide the future of same-sex marriage in this country. Let us hope that the justices will put aside political and religious ideology, and rule in favor of freedom and equality under the law.

The measure of freedom lies in the ability to make choices; and whom we decide to love and share the rest of our lives with, is one of the most important choices we can ever make. In a truly free society, everyone should be able to make that choice equally, with equal rights and responsibilities – whether we choose someone of a different race or religion, or of the same sex; or whether we choose to share our lives with one other person, or with several.

I am proud to live in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages have been legal for almost a decade, the first state in the Union to take such a step. As I think of Ginny and Betsy, I can’t help but wonder if they stayed together living here throughout all these years.

I’d like to imagine that they did, and that they stood in line at the courthouse in 2004 to be among the first to take advantage of the changed law, to finally legalize their marriage. And I’d like to imagine them now, two older women sitting close to each other on the couch at their home, tightly clasping their ring-bedecked hands while gazing fondly at the thin, multicolored cord hanging over their front door, the cord that we bound together forty years ago.