On Honoring Our Dead, Community, Belonging and Not Belonging, Culture and Appropriation


My offering of fresh soul cakes, cream, spiked magickal cider, and assorted treats for the Pictsies, our ancestors, and the hungry ghosts.

I had a pretty amazing few days of fêting the beloved dead October 30, Nov. 1, and Nov 2. Starting with a sweet, intimate Halloween party and Samhain celebration that culminated in a simple Witches’ New Year circle around the fire, and treats left out for the Pictsies. (Like we do, in our family.) Fresh soul cakes baked with magickal herbs – rosemary, saffron, rose petals, and more. Apple cider with seasonings the warm and bring abundance during the cold months. Friends, and a lovely fire on a cool, damp, northern California night.

Then down to SF. My daughter, who will be 18 in February, had asked me to take her to Dia de los Muertos in the Mission. It had been a couple of decades since I had been there, but I wanted to go with her. Partially because we have always honored our dead at this turning of the wheel (and in more innocent times, before the deepening of my thoughts on white appropriation of marginalized cultures and continued colonization) offrendas, calaveras, and papel picado had a place on our Witchy altars, along with the treats for our ancestors and the other items dedicated to the supernatural beings that walk amongst us at this time of year.

And partially because I want to spend as many moments in ritual space, having peak experiences with her as possible before she moves out on her own in the coming year cycle. She had never been to the Spiral Dance, and I wanted to share this with her.

In my heart this is the beginning of a new year; with new hopes and dreams and fears and joys. New paths to walk and oaths to keep.

I know in my heart that these rituals will help us both transition our relationship. And I trust they will make her stronger as she heads into a larger, less certain world.


Me and Aurora, post altar build, pre ritual garb.

As happens, the space opened for us to also enter into celebrating the Reclaiming Spiral Dance – again, for the first time in 20-some years for me. But it was another experience of ritual to share with my daughter, and another layering in of the recognition of life cycles, so important now. And always.

And, I had experienced an intimate death in the past year. A member of my extended family, my Goddess-Auntie Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, who also happened to be a teacher and leader in the Pagan movement. In another of a long list of requests She has made to me through and beyond her dying time, I was called upon to create an altar in her memory for the ritual.

I invited my mom, Motherbear to come and be part of the altar building. It made sense. Now three generations of Witches recognizing the passing of time together. And in recognition of our family, extended familial, and land-family connections, Kirsten Johnsen too; a land-sister (Greenfield family), and another of MG’s death doulas, or whatever we were as we were there in Morning Glory’s dying process.


Mighty Dead Memorial Altar, Spiral Dance.

As it turned out, there were many Mighty Dead – the elders and teachers from our Witchy and Pagan lineages and traditions – who had passed on in the year cycle from last Samhain to this. And an altar needed to be built for them all. I was glad to volunteer my crew to create this more expanded altar too. So many of these Mighty Ones are dear to our hearts, our teachers and compatriots. Donald Michael Kraig, Antonia Lamb, Lady Loreon Vigne, Margot Adler, and SO MANY others . This year so many passed into the next place.

So as things tend to happen, the experiences show up in ways that offer us opportunities we are blessed to walk into. My favorite way to attend just about any event is from inside the beast; from the ground and grounding up, part of the workings of the collective, the setting of space. Because Magick is real, I – once again, like so many other times – got to share this experience of diving deep into the fabric weaving with Aurora. And with my mom. Again like so many other times.

Yet rare, too. There have not been so many where the three generations of us all get to plug into that current together, crafting the weft and weave as three generations of Witches working on a shared project.

Traveling through time and space together in a weekend long liminal space as a multigenerational familial unit was an opportunity to practice what I preach; to spend dedicated time in worship, community, communion, family. To learn how to take better care of my elders – and my personal elder; my mom. To take into account the procession of age marching on. To make sure my mom didn’t have to carry too much, walk too far, stand too long.


Three generations of Witches. Me, Aurora, my mom Marylyn Motherbear.

And to make sure my kiddo ate often enough, slept enough hours, got to do at least many of the things that were important to her while we were in The City. (Yes, we’re Country Pagans.) And to share important moments while trying not to make it all too precious.

Time marches on, and we march with it. Moments happen as they will.

(I also recognize how well my kiddo knows me, how much she takes care of me too – knowing my triggers, anticipating my transitional difficulties, smoothing the way in her graceful manner, holding the space for me in the edge-places where I tend to feel less safe. She’s also learning how to take care of her elders. I recognize this.)

On Sunday I got to see MG’s daughter and an old friend of mine, and land-sister, which also felt like an important part of the weekend, though it was a busy visit (she styled my hair – which she is AMAZING at), and we didn’t have a lot of time to get to the heart of the matter. Yet, the heart of it is right there, in death. As it is.

Then Mom, Ror and I got ready to head over to Dia de los Muertos.

Ror and I are in ongoing, months-long conversation about cultural appropriation, and this time was no different. It was amplified. Our weekend was woven through with conversations about heritage and appropriation and colonialism and privilege and feminism and eurocentrism and displacement and Inidgeneity and community and allyship and respect and process. The conversation is had in bits and pieces, with ever-changing context and content and participation.


Aurora and me.

Ror chose to paint her face in death paint, but in honor of her (our) heritage she decorated her skull mask with Celtic knot work, and painted a pentagam over her heart.

In the procession I had mixed feelings – the gentrification of the Mission brings a pervasive sad and bitter taste. It was riding in the night breeze. I felt unsure of the vibe or intention of the revelers in some cases, but also felt the dead walking with us, and communed with the spirits of those lost to violence, lack of care, gender- and race-based harm. I prayed to and for my personal dead, and the collective dead.

Sunday morning I had heard that our own little northern community had been stricken with loss; the brutal rape and murder of a vibrant young woman – a dance teacher – at the hands of a man on Halloween night. There were no details published anywhere; just word of mouth, and raw, fear tinged anger and shock. This also offered another shade of awareness in my walking on Sunday night.

The social justice threads of the Mission Dia de los Muertos observation felt clear to me, in the roots of the movement. And in the energy of the voices of the dead. And in the altars when we arrived at them.

The losses. So many. Young men, boys, black and brown, mowed down by police brutality. Trans people torn away by hate-crime violence. Women lost to sexual violence; indigenous women, Women of Color. Prostitutes, mothers, daughters, wives. Dance instructors. None of us immune to the fear held in the risk of being born in a female body; yet knowing too that women with darker skin are brutalized more often than those of us with lighter skin.

And the loss of cultures. Homes.

Environmental degradation.


My child and Death share a loving embrace.

I could feel the dead calling out to be heard. Calling out for justice.

And, at the same time, I celebrated life and living with my daughter. And my mother. And our friends. We met up with many of them. Ate together and sat together and walked together and prayed together and talked together.

We honored life and death, living and dying. Dancing, walking, eating. All as mindfully as possible, remembering the dead and offering them the joy of the acts, and the honor-gift of rememberance.

Throughout the ensuing week I have been reading about Dia de los Muertos. About appropriation and the forces of commercialism and exploitation.

There is a fine line between honoring a tradition and appropriating it. And many voices came forth to join the discussion.

Rosa de Anda, a founder of what is now known as the Mission Dia de los Muertos obervance, had this to say:

But this is not about what we had; it is about what we have. It is about the NOW. We have an amazing mix of people in our San Francisco, Bay Area community. Our recently arrived neighbors are not going back to where they came from, anymore than you, or I, are going back to where we came from. We all came from somewhere? How far back do you want to go? This land was Mexico’s until 1857. That is not that long ago, and perhaps that is why we are no longer a minority in places like southern California, where Latinos, by their shear numbers are reclaiming the land.

As Brujas, Witches, healers, and all forms working with spirit, that is our most powerful tool. I have faith that spiritual power is closely related to ancestral work. Spending time with our ancestors informs us how incredibly short our lives are on this planet and how challenging it is to transform what we have inherited. We can heal our past and our future by celebrating Dia de Los Muertos now, and introducing our ancestors to each other.

The hipsters may not know they are in ritual, but they are being affected by their participation. We know that when we are in ritual it is a point of great magical power. I accept this to be the truth, what happens in between the worlds, changes and heals all the worlds.

It is not just the Mission that is dying, blood is spilling everywhere, including in the civil drug wars in Mexico. Get ready to embrace “right action.” We will be forced to take it.

Each one of us participating in this thread is powerful and we have influence to effect how our Day of the Dead is celebrated in our communities. It is easy to pass judgment and criticize the skeletons dancing inebriated on the streets, it is more difficult to think about why these privileged white people find it so necessary to be so drugged. It is more responsible to work towards building homes for the displaced, feeding the hungry, healing the sick and working to mend our broken hearts. That is the reason to celebrate El Día de Los Muertos, because we are alive.

…We have every right to define ourselves as an elevated community practicing and gathering tools from all corners of the world respectfully sharing what our ancestors left for us. We have every right to reinvent, co-create, and succeed in peaceful co-existence. Long live El Dia de Los Muertos!”

— Rosa de Anda
Read more here.

Its is nuanced for sure. And there are many points of view that need to be taken into account. Rosa’s is one of them. So is Aya DeLeon’s.

Like the Pilgrims, you have begun to take over, to gentrify and colonize this holiday for yourselves. I was shocked this year to find Day of the Dead events in my native Oakland Bay Area not only that were not organized by Chican@s or Mexican@s or Latin@s, but events with zero Latin@ artists participating, involved, consulted, paid, recognized, acknowledged, prayed with.

Certain announcements of some of this year’s celebrations conjured visions of hipsters drinking special holiday microbrews and listening to live music by white bands and eating white food in calavera facepaint and broken trails of marigolds. Don’t bother to build an altar because your celebration is an altar of death, a ceremony of killing culture by appropriation. Do you really not know how to sit at the table? To say thank you? To be a gracious guest?


Interactive Memorial Altar

This year, as midterm elections near and “immigration reform” gets bandied about on the lips of politicians, urban young white voters will wear skull faces and watch puppets with dancing skeleton bones, and party and drink and celebrate. But those same revelers will not think for a single second of deaths of Latin@s trying to cross a militarized border to escape from the deaths caused by NAFTA and CAFTA and US foreign policy and drug policies and dirty wars in Mexico and Central America. Amidst the celebration, there will be no thought for femicide in Juarez, for murdered and missing Indigenous women in North America. As they drink and dance in white-organized and dominated Dia De Los Muertos celebrations without a thought for us, except perhaps the cleaning or custodial staff that will clean up after them, we Latin@s learn what we learned in 1492 about the invaders: you want the golden treasures of our culture, but you don’t want us. Since then, white people have shown that they don’t value indigenous life, but are fascinated by indigenous spirituality.

Not all white people feel this way. Thank you to those of you who speak up against this. Thank you to all who boycott these events, support Latin@/Chican@/Mexican@-led events, hire our community’s artists, and hold the tradition with reverence. For those of you who haven’t been doing so, it’s not too late to start. Challenge white people who attempt to appropriate. Boycott their events and be noisy about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to participate in this deeply human holiday, there’s something wrong with wanting to colonize.
— Aya DdeLeon
Read more here.


Artist unknown. If YOU know, please leave name in the comment section?

It’s important to remember that Rosa De Anda’s eloquent and beautifully passionate (and compassionate) opinion is one of
*many*.  Aya de Leon’s as well. And it is important to continue seeking out other points of view too, even if they are not as easy to hear, or see, or don’t feel as good.

Obviously just because a point of view aligns with ours doesn’t mean it’s the *only* valid point of view. It doesn’t remove our responsibility to continue looking for and listening to subaltern voices.

Things have changed since the ’70s. Some lines are being drawn in a starker way. There is more fragmentation. And, as cultures and voices that are marginal/marginalized struggle to be seen and heard for what they are, it is important to give those cultures and voices the space to self-identify.

For those of us who are would-be allies, allyship may mean just listening a lot, holding the space for multiple – possibly conflicting – voices from within those cultures to be heard, being the megaphone for the range of points of view. Seeking out the voices that make us pause. The opinions that are like a knife; painful and perhaps divisive.

We all want to believe in The Oneness where we are beyond the struggles of Self and Other.

We are divided for love’s sake, for the chance of union.

Sometimes standing in the division is the thing that makes the eventual wholeness possible.

The last thing any of us want to do – or at least I can speak for myself; the last thing want to do is to continue the process of colonization. Unconsciously is as harmful as consciously. Assimilation is a tactic of the colonizer. There is perhaps a fine line between natural transformation of a thing, and forced assimilation.

Many people try to sidestep responsibility by saying that cultures have always done this; that he dominant culture just does this, has done, will do.

I say, just because a thing has always been the way it is doesn’t mean it should continue that way. Just because the dominant culture (any and all dominant cultures) have had their way in the past (sometimes exterminating spiritual and cultural systems entirely, sometimes forcing adaptation, sometimes “transforming” a culture or religion without the consent of the original peoples of that culture or religion) – do we want to continue that trend?

I do not. I do want to help continue the conversation. I want to do what I can to support marginalized cultures in continued self-determination. And over time, ideally learn how to collaborate and cocreate – with full consent – in a shifting, changing world.

There are easy first steps to take; as people with the privilege of a larger platform, a more easily heard voice, we look for and listen to the voices of people who come from marginalized populations. We help to amplify those voices. We listen, and learn. Dance-Black-Death-allegory

We donate to organizations that keep traditions alive. More importantly perhaps, we build community. We ask how we can best help.

And we learn how to feel our way through our own shame and fear, to process our resistance to the things that are hard to sit with – without making the conversation about us.

In all of it, if we are respectful and attentive and intentional, we all find moments of shared experience, shared prayer, shared celebration.

If all goes well, we will find a path that allows us to pray in our different ways, to our different gods, at the same time and in the same space. And somehow, if we hold the prayer for long enough and hard enough, and then back it up with action, we may arrive at moments of accord.

I think that perhaps it is by recognizing difference that we honor one another and approach some sense of shared liberation.

Blessed are the fighters, and the peace makers, and the leaders, and the activists, and the listeners, and the changemakers.

Keep loving. Keep fighting.

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  1. […] and psychological autonomy (though not as measured by a xenophobic, ethnocentric measuring stick) we will have overcome racism, and the patriarchy will no longer hold […]

  2. […] of days, I’ve been kinda quiet for a little bit. I was busy with the living of life and honoring of death. And now I’m […]

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