Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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A Night on Bear Butte, Or: Can a Pagan, in Good Conscience, Go to the Black Hills?

The Black Hills of what is now South Dakota are unquestionably one of the great holy places of North America. They are held sacred by all the local peoples: the Dakota, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, the Shoshone, the Blackfoot, the Crow. They may tell different stories about why the Hills are sacred, but everyone agrees that they are.

Oh, and did I mention the Witches?


My teacher Tony Kelly's critique of American paganism—being himself a Brit—was that it was rootless. Not having grown from the place that it's in, it's all about long ago and far away. Although less true now than it was in the 70s, this still seems to me a pretty accurate analysis of the situation.

But like all good critiques, Kelly's diagnosis contains an implied solution. If “immigrant” paganisms are rootless, the answer is clear: put down roots. Know your Land.


Vine Deloria Jr.'s classic God is Red is a profound analysis of Native American spiritualities, its central thesis being that they draw their strength from a radical rootedness in the Land.

In the last chapter, he poses the question: If rootedness in the Land is the answer to modernity's spiritual malaise, what of non-natives? Can they too follow the Red Road?

No, says Deloria, Non-natives can't walk the Red Road. They need to find their own way to the Land.


When peoples travel, they take their mythologies with them.

When they settle, those mythologies take root.


Of all the peoples who hold the Black Hills sacred, who can say who was there first?

The story of the New People in the Land who in time become yet another of the Old Peoples in the Land is one of humanity's oldest stories.

How long does it take to become native? A generation? Ten? A hundred?

In every Land, there are special places. These are the holy places of the Land; there, the Land speaks with special clarity to those who listen.

Pagans will never be the oldest people in this Land. But if we are to live in this Land, we must (as Tony Kelly said) learn to live in it, not on it. And to do this, we must have intimacy with the Land.

To do this, we must Listen.


So: can pagans, in good conscience, go to the Black Hills? Or to the other holy places of the Land?

To this, I would say: We can.

And it may even be that we must.


And have we not wheeled

with the constellations

around the Bison Man

in immemorial sabbat

on windy, high Bear Butte?


Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red (1972). Barnes and Noble.


For Bekah Elie Bel, Hearthwitch Down Under:

with thanks, for raising the question.






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Sunday, 21 August 2016

    I remember reading God is Red back in the 70's. I think I also read Custer Died for your Sins. I can't say that I remember much of either one and they are no longer in the library system so I can't go back and check on them.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 22 August 2016

    God is Red was reissued recently in a new 30th-anniversary edition, so maybe it will be turning up soon. I've had good luck with interlibrary loan.
    At the time, I can remember being impressed by his clarity of thought, and the relevance of his arguments to pagan experience as well. I'm planning to revisit myself. Hope you can turn up a copy.

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