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 In Pursuit and Appreciation of Whole Hearted Action (re: Issues of Cultural Appropriation)

<Back to the Issue

(As part of a response to a petition from native people asking a white-led group to cancel their work with a mixed blood native woman, and for Youth Passageways Network not to feature them.)

As one who has been a rites-of-passage guide and trainer since the mid ‘80s…

As one who has co-created five networks, four NGO’s, three still alive and serving many today…

As one who is a participant in many others, and a communitarian/community activist…

As one who sees the world through the lens of injustice & inter-dependence…

As one who supports the empowerment and manifestation of the individual, the person, while seeing and working for needed system change…

As one who has stood against injustice at the risk of my own life, as well as one who has stayed silent and walked away…  

As one who is willing to show up and shut up when others need and deserve to be heard at long last…  

As one who feels that–in order for needed change to unfold–alliances, partnerships, at key times around key issues, are essential…

As one who knows I am on a spectrum and neither permanently guilty or free from having been or being: a sexist, a racist, a classist, an ageist, a perpetrator and a victim in a moment, in my lifetime, through my action, my inaction and my lineage…

As one who supports the respect and preservation of culture while simultaneously working to end some patterns that became culture, some narrow unjust views that became laws, some wounded perspectives that became custom across the globe and throughout time…

As one who celebrates and struggles through the pain and bumps along with the joys and gifts of differences in most every relationship…

I write and offer the following for those who may be interested, inspired by the Youth Passageways/Cross-Cultural Protocol work, that has had many different issues of cultural appropriation to address. I hope some of these words and experiences might serve as part of any conversation and any decisions we are each making, every day, in pursuit of love, justice and truth.

Context as I understand it…

Today, as well over many eons, cultural appropriation is being brought to attention…it is part of living in a land where genocide, slavery and immigration systems have been accompanied by ongoing discrimination, racism and disrespect. It is part of living in a world where people continue to be killed for their skin color, gender, sexual expression, class, spiritual beliefs or religion. In the USA there are extreme injustices in situations such as life on many reservations and there is a strong sovereignty movement that brings hope to not only First Nations peoples but to our country as a whole in the struggle for change.

People have been working for change for eons in these arenas and today there are many more it seems showing up with a passion and a commitment to justice that is so needed in these times. There are systematic levels to work on, as well as community and personal levels to work on. Whether it be about the change needed in our legal system or the rewriting of the constitution itself. I see it as a ‘yes, and’…a need for individual change and healing as well as a corporate, governmental, global issue. Changes needed and coming include the rights to ceremony with plant medicines and changing the name of the Washington Redskins, while waking up to how we simply speak to each other between races.  Re-education if not revolution.

Our work is to ensure it unfolds in a good way

What we share, what we protect, what we embrace from songs to rite of passage ceremonies is a key area that groups such as Youth Passageways and many others are in deep inquiry around. Who are our people? What is our lineage? What is our respectful way of being with rituals that, in many cases, have grown across time and culture and land since the first fire? What is our responsibility to those who have gone before us? How do we honor the sanctity of ceremony while also living in a capitalist society? Would anyone charge for entering a church or temple? Throughout history Buddhas have been dynamited from cliff faces, churches have been burned to the ground and sacred sites have been defamed. What is our part in ending the war?

Who belongs?

ROP ultimately is about belonging whether to a tribe, community/group, land, culture, race, or this earth. And yet in the founding of networks, we often discuss the role of “vetting,” and how one does that within a network, on a website, in a community – not to mention within a country, e.g., in immigration practices. Who belongs and whether or not I belong is one of the continuing questions and wounds for many in our world today. Even though as an extended community, we may share common values and mission, I also imagine and have often experienced that what “you” would find o.k. I would question, and what another would find unacceptable, I would engage with. On a practical level this brings any network to ask who is a partner, a member, a participant? My response was then, as I feel now, that in each organization or network, we state and work our call, our mission, our vision, our mandate, our ethics, our task strongly, and then we reach out into every community and especially those less likely to have the privilege of what is being offered. We attend and be with whoever and whatever shows up–be that support, alliance, critique, or resistance. We create a forum where issues, if and as they arise, can be revealed, can be aired if not healed. In addition, and as essential, is looking to any staff, member, partner or the circle of participants to find their way, to witness, to be ambassadors, to discern, rather than looking to the network conveners to be police. If our guidelines are clear and current, and if we do our due diligence to be responsible and accountable to our own lineage and the land, place or country and its lineage, we then will discover what is ours to do and who will do it.

Who are we and how do we respond, regarding issues of cultural appropriation? Specifically, relations with First Nations?

I would hope we as youth guides start by modeling a guideline that has only served some in this land, and needs to serve many more than it does …“innocent ‘til proven guilty.” I would hope when a seeming injustice or offense occurs we look at the individual person and/or organization and also look beyond –  at the time, at the system, at the whole context that co-created it.

More than a watch dog, I hope any of us might be a witness, a student, a tracker and a safe haven to face situations of offense, injustice, cultural appropriation that will, I suspect, continue to arise as part of our work. Bottom line is that whether we initiate or respond, I hope we take care of each other while we falter and learn; may we help each other strengthen our own authentic voices, know our lineage and support people to listen to each other, to learn through the issues, to be part of the healing. And may we all remain humble in this pursuit.

I have not been an active member of the CCP (Cross-Cultural Protocols–Youth Passageways) for a variety of reasons. From a distance, from what I know, I appreciate the work being carried. So, I speak up now as a Youth Passageways ‘guardian’ because I need to write this for myself, and also to bear witness to others I see and hear who often express concern on all sides of the cultural sensitivity issue. I feel to say some things from my experience over the years, to do my part by sharing some of my experience below, to have a voice at the table or better yet to simply be part of our collective awareness. We are all here in these seats now for a time not to dominate with a perspective, knowing, or decision but to offer a piece of the story. It feels a moment to share a bit more of where I am “coming from,” living through a time and life experience of, Title 9, “MeToo”, Civil Rights, Wounded Knee and more – a time in some ways very different than the one many of you were born into.

I will make general references below and not use many names here for obvious reasons.

I am hopefully offering a personal perspective as part of the whole that will serve in the ROP network’s vision/mission, that every youth alive can have an initiation opportunity. I say all of this below to bear witness to the complexities. And I hope to be a nudge to others to write and speak from their experience, so we can continue to find truth and love and action in the circle. I would love to see an issue of Confluence focused on this.

A network is a living council, a world of many separate and also mixed cultures

As I have worked in different countries and cultures over the years, I have witnessed extremes on many sides and found that each time accusations arose it was rarely simple…there was something to be learned, healed or changed. As more now recognize the power and import of tradition and culture, that which was stolen and continues in some or many ways to be, I need to also speak for those who gave away, those who gifted, those who shared, as well as those who received, those who walked with as much integrity into their time and situation as seems possible. I cannot fall too quickly into the world of right and wrong, except when it comes to structural injustice such as with racism and sexism as examples. As we take our positions and stands, I want to speak for both individuals and groups. I feel we are here to find our way with each and discern relations rather than judge appropriation too quickly.

There are for example those white and Metis who went and apprenticed for years, a lifetime in South American villages, those who followed Buddhist monks, yogis and guru’s requests to bring the teachings to any and all in America…I have witnessed healing, in the essential return to our own “song-lines,” and healing as well amongst many who have crossed borders. In many places, I have been privy to partnerships, ones deeply informed by racial differences, historical trauma, systematic oppression as well as ones guided by the human heart, shared values and common ground. I, and many cohorts, work for such through continued awareness of what privilege and injustice we are consciously and unconsciously a part of, inside and out. I look to be with others in pursuit of creating alliances needed in our world, hopefully evolving in a healthier more whole-hearted direction to protect all life and to be part of the learning and healing of ourselves along with others.  

Some specifics … to help highlight why each situation demands attention

I have been with AIM reps carrying guns and anger that have silenced me, brought me to a deeper place of compassion, understanding, and fear for the world we have created. I have also seen them change from coming to break up a ceremony to, after much listening and sharing, three days later stay to offer a ceremony. It was my direct experience of AIM that became what I could trust.

I have been with traditional people who hold their ways very close. I have been with less traditional peoples, who moved with dignity as bridge people, who not only offered their ceremonies to other non-natives but gifted the responsibility to select non-natives. Some took on apprentices that were non-native because those were the ones who expressed interest or were, yes, in many cases, privileged enough to have the time. Even though we can identify many injustices that created such situations and hopefully continue to attend to those, it nonetheless is part of what happened quite a bit, what at least I witnessed, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And it continues today in similar and different ways.

We have witnessed first-hand the disagreement of what and how ceremonies, songs, practices and perspectives should be offered, shared and passed on in many places, as well as within one tribe. I have seen people questioned about their heritage in a way that brought connection and understanding and other times brought added trauma into a life already tragically shattered. I have known well, white people as “want-to-be’s,” idolizing and romanticizing the “Natives,” walking the Red Road, some without knowing who they themselves are or where they came from. And I have been with sincere individuals led to and called to learn through relationships with indigenous people, guided simultaneously, yes, by knowledge of and connection to their own ancestors. I have been with takers and money makers and not wanted to be connected to their careers and I have been with many who learned in such exchanges, deepened and healed and focused primarily on what they could give back – not only to a teacher but to whole nations. I have seen white, black, brown, yellow and red people be true bridge people, finding their healing by daring or being forced to venture beyond their homeland, the Res, the favela or the monastery, as well as listening and choosing at times to return. And I have been deeply moved, educated and in service to peoples who have deepened into the preservation and continuation of their traditional culture.  

I and many cohorts, have sat with charlatans and impersonators, liars and fabricators, and witnessed the darkness of power use and abuse, and the gift of people having to wake up and find their relationship to such. I have sat outside of lodges where the people who were leading did not even know or have a connection with the land they were on, much less the depth of the ceremony, much less the offense they were making to some. I have been friends, mentor and student of many Metis, mixed-blood people, and learned of their struggles, and related to their journey when tradition offered them as little as did the dominant white culture. I have worked with whites that grew up on the Res, lived or spent time or worked as I have been blessed to do in other cultures and woke to their whiteness and the knowledge of what they were doing, imposing, missing, longing for through such. I have seen many stand strong in ancient truths and ways, as well as modern wisdom, as well as many walk between the worlds and find their unique place despite criticism from people on all sides. I have been blessed to sit with peoples of different races and classes that refused to take sides, refused to be enemies, and some who were killed for such…and seen their relatives carry on and know the essential contribution of this path.

Too often I, we, judge too quickly. And why? Among many other reasons I imagine, a desire to be right, a desire to be good, a desire to protect, a desire to be part of the healing?

I stand for the latter and walk with people who care about the pain of the present with a look to the future, as well as to the past, who seek understanding and action…for what will serve all of life. Ones who will sit with the heart knowing, the “not-knowing,” and don’t so quickly have the answers. The knowing I hang with for now at least, is that we are learning and healing every day if we so choose and ask and pray…and that what was o.k. in the past may not be now, or in some cases never has been.


I ask us all to be careful we do not pass on the condemnation of others from hearsay, from accusations alone, through policing, through watch-dogging those we have not met, been with, asked who they are…even for the sake of protecting others we know or don’t know either.

Ignorance is not a path, nor is denial, and righteousness is a tricky slope; restoring relations takes care and time. What is ours to do, what is the time we have to do it well…what comes our way and what do we seek out? How do we continue to create community, solidarity and relationship in the face of sometimes painful learnings? Can we, will we stay in the circle?

May we walk slowly and make every action a part of the healing

I know at one time in my life if I had not heard a particular legend or the Hopi Prophecy I would have most likely left this planet. Maybe that would have been o.k….and still…I know the persons who shared it were honored, loved and respected by many….and, at best by others considered inappropriate, controversial, breaking protocol. As my mentor then said, “if you’re doing anything meaningful, it will be controversial.”

I am ever grateful for having met, experienced guides offering a container, a ceremony for initiation at a time I was in search for such …I had self- initiated too often and hurt myself repeatedly. I knew I wanted to, that I had to, offer that gift once experienced to others. Thirty years later, many of us now have offered ROP to anyone and everyone called, encouraging all participants to find their own way with their ancestors, within the ceremony, with the earth, with nature as teacher, with the community present as well as the one they return to. Such journeys for the first 10 years included my family, my community, my ancestral lines of white North Americans and Europeans, predominantly. And since then, over the past 20 years, journeys have also included POC, African, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific peoples, and South Americans…indigenous and colonizers. I have seen Jews and Christians unexpectedly rediscover the roots of their traditions when being alone for many days in nature. Others seem to find a spiritual home in nature and the community that never was there within their religions. I have seen ancestors show up in ceremony, convincing me of truths so many have known for eons.  I have seen boundaries crossed and alliances formed that do not ignore race or history or identity yet establish common ground that is a belonging to this earth.


As a native elder spoke to me just this week, we need each other

I have been with native people who thanked some of us white ones for the connection, the seeing, the respect, sometimes for just showing up and shutting up – for learning, for listening, and even inspiring them at times! This was humbling. I walked with, worked with and loved a white Australian man who was initiated into and lived with the oldest aboriginal tribe and turned out to be a key link to paints and painting again, the movement to reawaken dreamtime through art. And I have sat and worked with western white brothers and sisters who did such and then found it was time to stop such a focus, who listened more deeply around “helping,” around the effects of even philanthropy, who listened again for when and how to show up and to walk together and when to turn to themselves and work more deeply with themselves and their own people, race, religion or class. I was once deeply thanked by Pacific elders for working “with my own.” And just this week thanked by Paiute elders for reaching out and walking with them.

I think you get it, “yes, and…it depends”

And, I feel there is not one way here for any of us, one response to all situations that I have ever found at least, that lasts forever. Many of the white folk woke in the ‘60s along the Red Road are the more woke people today I find around cultural appropriation…who would have thunk? Having offered solo ceremonial time in nature to people from different classes, cultures and backgrounds, I can say this: all, truly all, seemed to walk away with a blessing not because of me but because of the journey. The white privileged ones, I would dare to guess over 75% of them, are more tuned in and inspired to share resources not only with a Youth Passageways, an Ojai or School of Lost Borders but with movements of social justice and traditional cultural rites.

Having said this, I say again there are significant times of cultural appropriation, lack of awareness and respect, blindness to the offense and systematic oppression we are a part of. I feel I as a white person with a white lens and white privilege I must wake up to such and show up for such. As but one of numerous examples that is complex …I have been a part of different organizations over the years and continually spoken for not charging for ceremonies something traditional indigenous people raise time and time again. Sometimes it has been heard and shared and sometimes not. Sometimes it’s said that I don’t have to make a living and as a privileged person with additional means and ways of “making a living,” therefore I don’t understand, or get it, or need the money. And yet I remain on this track, also having been with and without $ in my life, realizing along with and regardless of my “privilege,” I still say and feel the healing and change around money is needed here, on both a personal and systemic level. There are always gifts exchanged and what form that takes can vary. Do we charge to be in church, or pass a basket? Can we act from a place of generosity ?

I will continue to do my part in addressing this where and when it seems like people are “making money” off of sacred journeys and there is not a field of reciprocity to the lineage holders, the land the as well as to the guides. Again, there is much to consider and each situation can be different. In today’s world, real distinctions need to be made between trainings, programs and ceremonies. There is always an opportunity to share resources in other ways, to live and support gifting economies rather than charging for ceremony.  

….. To sum it up on a personal note ……

As said, I have been and likely will be in the future…racist, sexist and ignorant of history, of wounds, of systems, of how my actions and or inactions hurt others. I will always have a white woman lens and I live for a world and people who have access to many lens. And I continue to walk on from my graduate work focused on race and feminism in 1971 knowing I have not graduated. I carry a simple yet infinite intention – to keep learning and be part of the healing. I have seen and deeply pursued restoring and learning through my ancestral relations since I was a child and encouraged others to do so. Not because someone told me but rather because that is what came to me when I deeply asked for help.  I have found the gift in that connection as well as the medicine in severing some of those ties and ending a lineage of abuse. I get the need for continual change in our language around sex, race, wilderness and more, feeling that no formula is going to work, and practices can help. I can’t show up at times for what seems a fundamentalism of right and wrong, another chapter in hate, closed heart and mind, a good and evil lens, in victim and perpetrator views that simplify the human condition, situation, and spirit beyond recognition.

All of this to say, I find, thankfully, along with many others, a way to be hopefully who I am, with an authentic voice, and to own and share the gifts I have discovered and been given to the best of my ability, to risk offending and show up to when or where that arises. To stand my ground and be ever willing to change. To use my positionality and privilege in any given room, for justice and healing– always in All Ways. And to continue to listen for how those ways might change as the circle changes.

…Regarding our action as networks ….

It is a time of triage and in many situations, we must act to simply stop the injustice. And if we do not simultaneously support a change of ways at the root, or what some might name the level of consciousness, behaviors will reemerge. I recently read “radical” defined as “changing at the root”…if the roots aren’t tended, the grass and weeds in any garden only come back stronger. Having been a so-called radical protesting the Vietnam war, I saw us, our government, eventually “get out,“ yet not necessarily through a change of heart. It seemed, as is so often the case, that it was primarily economics and politics that moved us along. I can say “yes, thank god for that,” and yet on many levels we simply moved the war somewhere else.

As a representative at a First International Women’s conference and a leader at the First National Women’s Conference in the ‘70s, I am grateful for how we gathered, stood, and walked. Yet I witnessed the same behaviors amongst many of us there as within the patriarchy we were attempting to dismantle …some of the same racism and oppressive patterns many only now will own. I asked then, as I do now, “How will we be different when we “WIN,” when we are on top/in charge?” I myself was far from sure and have spent a lifetime in that exploration and research mostly finding myself in circle with at best hierarchies of service, diversity and responsibility. In the environmental movement where we fight for new laws and protection the same scenarios emerge. I don’t name The Enemy as capitalism but rather the mind/heartset that creates it…as I see the same oppressive patterns in countries that are communist and socialist as well. Fear, greed, alienation, generations of wounds and trauma being passed on within the dominant group as well as the minoritized groups. Without the change of heart, without healing, without coming to love ourselves, this earth, i.e., feeling intimately part of it, ultimately laws may be changed and rape will continue.

So, my ask or offering towards guidelines

This is not a new or unique perspective. For now, we need cross-cultural protocols, we need books and trainings around social justice.  We need #MeToo , It’s Time, Inclusion and Intersectionality awareness and movements – and much more. We need people everywhere who will stand up, bear witness and call out what has to change. My prayer is that we can simultaneously embody what the new story is going to look like. I would hope we ROP and council guides, if and as we are connected to an action, if and as we see cultural appropriation in its different expressions–a program that seems “off,” in whatever ways to what we value and stand for–that YES for sure we speak up. And, that we take the time, as I hear people doing now, that we find the time, ideally before any action is taken, to hear all, and encourage the learning and healing first and foremost.

I also hear again the question of what is ours to do? And that we maybe “should” even be more proactive around cultural appropriation. My simple suggestion/wish is that we take on what comes to us for sure, we do what we can do well, and then we do more as we have the time, skill, heart and resources.  Making references, connecting partners, to be helpful to each other is an essential task of networks.

With all the needed, growing awareness of systematic oppression….

I ask that we too may stay aware of the individuals, those who hadn’t a place within their tribe, their homeland or reservation to be; those of different lineage and skin color who chose to stumble or be guided into other worlds to find their voices, their wisdom, their gifts, their healing. There must have been way over 50 indigenous and Metis people who came to The Ojai Foundation in the first 10 years, and we were there, yes, to sit in ceremony sometimes with them. Yet many times it was about simply listening to them, to their pain, their story, their dreams, and their worldview. This was a privilege and a gift. And, they came or stayed to listen and offered help with our pain, our lost sense of place, home, ancestors, whatever, to offer themselves and their prayers together to be part of the healing.

Who and How do we decide?

Do we think like a circle? Do we have faith in reaching out to others to find our best prayer and action…are we modeling working in partnership and looking to and nudging our partners to show up in our networks?

So, this is my confession ☺, reflection, my story for now, that I offer on these topics

I continue to learn from different indigenous people, those who have lived and deeply carried their cultures, those who have been forcefully separated from it and returned with dignity, and those who have walked between many worlds, and been part of creating new culture. I continue to learn from my own family who are in the white picket fences where they grew up, some who are as conservative as they come, as well as those white western people whose lens is radically different after leaving “home and comfort,” turning to work and/or live in different cities, different cultures. I am a 69 year-old white woman “becoming,” an offspring and product of my ancestors, my time, my environment, my culture, my class, my privilege, my race…as I experience others so to be, whether Trump or Nelson Mandela. As well, I am ever-changing woman with the choices I have made, the situations and people I have known, my blood family, and my emerging global community. I offer what I feel may serve to the places, people and organizations whose visions I share.

And I am here to receive your responses, reactions, feedback, dialogue and perspective.

We thankfully will continue, I hope, to hear from a diverse group within the leadership of more such networks and organizations committed to healthy communities for all. I seek to find and tend to trust the actions and prayers, healing and learning in circles, communities, organizations and networks such as these.

Looking forward…with gratitude, Gigi

About the Author: Gigi Coyle

Gigi‘s life and work are focused on integral healing through right livelihood, social action, rites of passage, council and the arts. She is a catalyst and consultant, a facilitator and guide: a person who assists in building bridges, understanding, and awareness with individuals and groups.

In the late 70’s after a decade of work in social justice and international relations, Gigi turned her attention to a deeper look into the healing and system changes she and others longed for – thru the study of different spiritual traditions, modern and ancient healing methods, direct personal experiences of ceremony and Nature. This led to her arrival in 1981 at The School of Lost Borders and The Ojai Foundation – the beginning of a long-term relationship with fellow educator Jack Zimmerman, with whom she developed the Council Practice as a means of heightening one’s capabilities for deep listening and truthful communication. She is co-author of The Way of Council, co-founder of the Center for Council Training and continues to work as a community facilitator and trainer of trainers. She has served as Co–Director and Co Chair of the Board of Ojai Foundation and as an Associate Director, guide and trainer for the School of Lost Borders during the past 30 years. Currently, she serves on elders council for both organizations and gives much of her time and attention to an inter-generational pilgrimage of service – Beyond Boundaries and Walking-Water.

Gigi was also a principal in the development of the Terma Company, an alternative publishing venture and corporate training program, responsible for co-creating The Box; Remembering The Gift. She continues her efforts today assisting similar artistic activist projects that guide and inspire regenerative life, work, and community.

Gigi has been instrumental in the founding of Youth Passageways, providing vision and guidance throughout the process. She was part of the core organizing team for the 2012 Summit at Ojai as well as Youth Passageways’ founding Stewardship Council gathering, and has continued to provide leadership and support ever since.

She resides in Big Pine, California, at 3 Creeks, a small oasis, where she works with her husband Win, members of the Biosphere Foundation and others to create a sanctuary of care.


  1. Have you ever thought that perhaps the ceremony passed on by Steven and Meredith is outdated? I’m honestly asking this, not trying to be a jerk. I have been wondering this for a while and wondering if it’s just not appropriate to continue on with the ROP ceremony as I know it. Should I continue trying to justify my place in this?

    And if so, how has the ceremony been updated within the last 5 years? Is it appropriate to sing the “Infinite Sun” song while putting fasters out? It feels wrong to me, personally. Should it be a requirement to include a piece on cultural appropriation and our responsibility in giving back to Indigenous communities? With participants, on the land? Can that be a part of the ceremony? Also, has anyone written or researched about the legitimacy of Hyemeyohsts Storm who seems to have been a pretty controversial person as well?

    Just sort of wondering *aloud* I suppose. Trying to work out my place….as always.

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