Whats in a word...

This week I want to talk about words again. In a community, words and phrases are often used because they convey a particular feeling or experience due to their collective use over time. They are quick and easy short pieces of communication to help us express.

Beautiful eh!

However, because of this we sometimes don't check in with why we are using that word, what the history of the word is, any cultural attachments that might be there or how we personally feel about it.

In my own work, this came up a lot while writing the Seekers Wheel Annual Planner and beforehand when building communities. The use of words can be a contentious issue because on one side many can and do say 'words are just words, nobody owns them' and on the other side many can and do say 'words have deep connection and meanings hence why we use just one to describe an entire experience, their use and history is important'.

What I've found in my own exploration of the words I've used around my work, is that when I've felt resistance about not using a word it's often been because of defensiveness and feelings of shame for not knowing more than I did. But we don't know, what we don't know right?! Hmmm, more defensiveness...As a white cis woman who is in the spiritual arena, I really do believe it's my job to get under those layers of defensiveness to what is really sitting below.

I'm going to explore a common phrase related to indigenous peoples that I no longer use- Tribe.

But what's wrong with the word tribe? It describes a group of people with similar experiences or likes or passions right? In the past, I've used terms like-

  • Find your tribe

  • Soul tribe

  • Your vibe attracts your tribe

At the time, I was using those words because it's what I heard everywhere else to describe the kind of communities I was building or was a part of. In hindsight, those groups of people were typically white European or white American people. The majority were cishet women, with the occasional cishet or cis-gay man and a large proportion was financially stable. If you haven't noticed yet, I'm basically describing myself. But why does any of that matter? After all the root of the word tribe tracks back to the Romans?!

The reason it matters is that word use matters and if you notice someone is not okay with the use of a word, it's your job to understand why.

Although the word tribe does indeed trackback to dividing voters in Roman times, its common use has actually been in relation to othering Indigenous peoples around the world. Throughout history, it was used by European colonists to describe the people who inhabited the lands they then colonised. The word tribal was used to describe those Indigenous peoples as savage, primitive, animalistic, other than human and the people who used the word tribe in that way were the very people I described above- White European colonisers.

Gives the word tribe a bit of a different taste in the mouth, doesn't it?

But that was all in the past right? Let's fast forward.

As often happens with words used for oppression and violence, the most commonly known being the N-word in relation to enslaved peoples- the Indigenous peoples claimed the word tribe for themselves and used it to protect their people and lands.

Tribes became significant cultural and political groups for Indigenous People. Every tribe had and has unique history and traditions and as per the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), “A federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native Tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation. Federally-recognized Tribes are recognized as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., Tribal sovereignty) and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States."

Why is that relevant to an English working-class white woman in the spiritual arena? It's relevant because those European colonisers I spoke of earlier are a large proportion of what makes up the history of the United States today. We are the descendants of those people and knowing and understanding our historical impact is important. (Even though we haven't been taught it is)

Okay but it's just a word really isn't it?

No, for me it's not. Each time we use the word tribe to describe a spiritual community we are essentially taking the good bits of what we think it means and ignoring the yuck, otherwise known as cultural appropriation and we often aren't even aware we are doing it because we have a long-ass history of being front and centre over who can say what, do what and be where. We feel defensive and affronted when we are told we've been offensive and instead of looking inwards as to why- we project that shittiness back onto the other person or persons.

The other take on this is that when we use the word tribe to describe our spiritual groups of shared interest, we belittle the significant importance of tribal identity for indigenous peoples and we erase the significance of tribal sovereignty, identity and the people themselves.

To be clear, I'm not talking about you or me specifically, although I have certainly done all of those things! I'm talking about the systems in place for hundreds of years, that we were born into. Those systems continue to hold whiteness above all others, which means we often have to actively choose to seek out information instead. We have to choose to notice that others' experiences are not our own and we have to choose to believe people when they tell us something we are doing or saying is a problem.

And no it's not political correctness gone mad, which is often a term used when we feel threatened by change. It's simply about decentring ourselves in the conversation and recognising there are many many hardships and connections and strengths and cultural obligations we haven't experienced. It's about stepping back and recognising maybe we don't actually know as much as we think we do and maybe the systems we are a part of, blind us to truths that are a little too easy to hide from.

But basically, what it really comes down to is that indigenous people don't want non-native people to use the word tribe in relation to spiritual groups and shared interests and they've been kind enough to tell us why. No, they don't own the word. But the use of that word is important. It matters.

And when another culture asks you to stop using a word in a way that is offensive to their lives, guess what? You listen.

So what did I use instead?

A sidebar of what's been really beautiful about my exploration around this word is that it brought me back to my own roots. It certainly wasn't needed for me to do the right thing but life has a funny way of showing stuff to you when you get deeply aware of yourself.

In 2019 I closed down my Soul Nook Tribe community recognising it just didn't feel right in lots of ways and in 2020 I closed down my business completely, enabling me to do some personal work that was needed and find my foundations again. It was a big old journey of unlearning a tonne of stuff I had been taught in the spiritual commu