Asheville resident Kristina Crabtree, who goes by the name Binah Love, is a self-described multidimensional healer, yoga teacher, beauty specialist — and cacao priestess.
That’s right — Love leads a ritual based on consuming the bean used to make chocolate. A 2019 USA Today article points out that cacao has been used in ceremonies and medicinal treatments in Central and South America for thousands of years. Raw cacao is a stimulant that some of its fans say produces heightened senses, though it is not psychoactive.
Today, cacao ceremonies such as those offered by Love are part of a growing industry at the intersection of health, wellness and spirituality. But as the practice gains popularity around Asheville, Love has run into pushback about whether it’s appropriate for her to use indigenous, non-Western practices for commercial purposes.
Many New Age healing and alternative medicine techniques incorporate ancient rituals and diverse cultural practices, says Asheville resident Tanya Rodriguez.
And though Rodriguez says she doesn’t have a problem with people appreciating the customs of other places and cultures, she speaks out against what she sees as inappropriate uses. She created and moderates the Global Decolonization Initiative, a nearly 500-member Facebook group that aims to promote awareness and sensitivity for various cultural practices and identities.
While Rodriguez was aware of the practice of cacao ceremonies, she first stumbled upon the local offerings in late 2018 on social media, which is where she also made her concerns known to some area practitioners, including Love.
“We started to notice that people were having ceremonies of certain lineages that they had no connection to — and charging for them,” Rodriguez explains. “And so I asked them a question like, ‘What gives you the right to hold this ceremony if you don’t hold lineage from this culture?’”
Love says the question — and the heated discussions that followed it — puzzled her. “I think that’s a surprising thing to say as an American, because most of us are about five different nationalities mixed together,” she explains. “So what belongs to who?”
Sharing is caring
Cissy Majebe, the founder and president of Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts in Asheville, also questions whether wellness and healing practices should be confined to one culture.
Considering the advances that have resulted from sharing health and wellness knowledge across continents throughout history, Majebe says, “It’s a benefit to the world and it kind of supersedes the cultural appropriation.”
John Wood, professor of anthropology at UNC Asheville, makes a similar point. “All of our knowledge, in some ways, is appropriated from other people. Our anti-malaria medicine, quinine, originated from indigenous knowledge in South America,” Wood explains. “For as long as there have been people, we have been appropriating other people’s knowledge.”
While borrowing from other cultures isn’t inherently problematic, he continues, in certain cases it can be. “I think it’s useful to think about when it becomes a problem and when is it not a problem and what are the reasons,” he says.
A major sticking point can be the use of another culture’s knowledge for profit, Wood says, especially when the borrower exploits “inequalities to the advantage of the privileged at the expense of the marginalized.
“The people who originated these things may not be in position to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we need to get a share of this if you’re making money on our knowledge,’” Wood points out.
Love says charging for her cacao ceremonies was definitely among the concerns that were raised by Rodriguez’s group on social media. Prices for the service are based on a sliding scale and range from free or donation-based up to $55, Love says.
She expresses gratitude for teachers and practitioners who made learning opportunities affordable for her early in her career and says she wants to do the same for others. At the same time, the realities of living and working in a capitalist society require charging a fee to offset the costs of offering the service, she says.
“When you’re working with a studio that has to pay rent, everything’s got to be supported in a certain way, and people want to know what is the cost,” she explains.
Love also makes a point of buying cacao from a source that she says supports communities in South America.
Because the history of the cacao ceremony is “not totally clear,” Love adds, there isn’t a defined tradition or lineage devoted to passing on its teaching, meaning she’s not diverting proceeds from indigenous practitioners. “We just know that these South American and Central American cultures revered this plant and used it in ceremony, but there’s not any specific lineage teachers who are passing on the teaching of cacao ceremony,” she says.
Sharing the medicine
Bruce Akitchitay Carlino, whose background includes the Taíno people of the Caribbean and Cherokee, doesn’t charge for the sweat lodge ceremonies he’s been hosting for the last 15 years. Employed as a locksmith and musician, he doesn’t see himself as a spiritual healer, but rather as someone who provides a platform so that others can “achieve their own healing.”
People of all races, ethnicities and belief systems are welcome at Carlino’s ceremonies; he says he feels that all people have the need to move past trauma and facilitate inner growth.
“Sometimes people come in really dire straits. People can be suicidal. Some people are [emergency medical technicians]; sometimes we get police officers that roll through,” Carlino explains. “We can’t be turning people away. When I’m turning someone away, and then maybe they might do something really terrible to themselves or somebody else. In a way, that’s not really good for me.”
First introduced to purification ceremonies using sweat lodges by family members at the age of nine, Carlino says carrying forward such practices shouldn’t be taken lightly. “When you follow these traditions, there’s steps and things that you go through. If you’re patient enough to go through maybe eight to 10 years of learning and participating and being involved, then you’re pretty much prepared to go on your own under the supervision of elders,” he says.
Context is key
Rodriguez, who has taught yoga since 2004, has changed how she describes her practice. As mainstream yoga has increasingly focused more on exercise and physical fitness than spirituality, she has redefined her offering as “an asana-based practice — asana meaning posture-based — instead of calling it yoga,” Rodriguez explains. Continuing to call her practice yoga without providing in-depth spiritual guidance and historical context, Rodriguez says, is like “handing someone a branch and saying, ‘Here’s a tree.’ It’s missing the whole tree and it has no roots.”
The word shaman provides another example of how Rodriguez believes language can obfuscate the origins and meanings of spiritual practices. Now used as a catchall phrase for Native American spirituality, the word originally referred to indigenous holy men in Siberia.
“That was the beginning of spiritual colonialism, because they erased the terminology of the indigenous people so that they no longer have the traditional name. Instead, they’re called shaman,” Rodriguez says.
Careful use of language, she posits, can help practitioners avoid the pitfalls of misappropriation. “You don’t have to call it ceremony. You can change the name. You don’t have to call yourself a shaman. You can change the name,” Rodriguez maintains. “It comes back to the language. It comes back to honoring that history.”
A lack of diversity
“With the cacao ceremony here, one of the things that happened that sparked my attention was when I looked at the invite list and there were no brown people,” says Rodriguez, who’s descended from the Taíno people of Borinquen (the native name for Puerto Rico). “If you’re not from a lineage and you’re going to have a ‘pay to pray’ ceremony and not have anybody representative of the lineage that you’re bringing, that’s not right.”
Love maintains that her classes are open to all people and her participants have generally reflected a diversity of gender, age, race and ethnicity. Still, she doesn’t disagree that more diversity would provide a richer experience. “Overall, my experience is that Asheville just doesn’t have a lot of diversity,” she says. “There’s a shortage of actual representatives for these indigenous traditions. If there were more real medicine men coming from wherever that had the capacity to hold space for everyone that’s needing support, I think the need is endless, and there’s actually a shortage of real quality teachers, real quality lineage holders.”
Carlino offers a different perspective. He says that while being from a lineage is important, he too has experienced people questioning his authenticity and family history.
“I get beat up more by my own people than anybody else. Indigenous cultures come from everywhere in the world. In England, they were the witches, and those people were desecrated as they were because they were the medicine people. All of us come from some indigenous culture at some point back in time,” Carlino points out. “I know people that have no Native American [ancestry], and it doesn’t matter to me. I would sit with some people that have no native blood in ceremony because of how they’re honorable and their loyalty to the path more than I would sit with some native people that don’t have that loyalty to that path.”
While Love says she welcomes deeper understanding and conversation regarding what is and isn’t appropriation, a lot can be misinterpreted through the glow of a computer screen. When she was called out by Rodriguez’s group, “It was Facebook, so everything you’re saying is just based on an image that you’re seeing,” Love recalls.
Majebe reflects that social platforms like Facebook, YouTube and others have created unprecedented connectivity among cultures and people.
“We’re in a world where I can know right now what’s happening in some jungle in the Amazon because someone is live-streaming it,” Majebe says. “Cultural appropriation is kind of hard now, because we’re no longer as separate as we used to be.”
Rodriguez, on the other hand, argues that the broader availability of cultural information brings with it an increased responsibility to seek out answers and deepen our understanding regarding cultural practices before participating. She also advises seekers to be prepared to listen if they unintentionally offend or hurt minority populations.
“If we’re not holding each other accountable, we’re enabling behavior that may not be healthy to ourselves and the people who come in as students or the people who come in as teachers,” Rodriguez says.