Feature: “White Magic” by Elissa Washuta

Release Date: April 27, 2021
Publisher: Tin House Books
Genre: Non-fiction, Essays


Throughout her life, Elissa Washuta has been surrounded by cheap facsimiles of Native spiritual tools and occult trends, “starter witch kits” of sage, rose quartz, and tarot cards packaged together in paper and plastic. Following a decade of abuse, addiction, PTSD, and heavy-duty drug treatment for a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, she felt drawn to the real spirits and powers her dispossessed and discarded ancestors knew, while she undertook necessary work to find love and meaning.

In this collection of intertwined essays, she writes about land, heartbreak, and colonization, about life without the escape hatch of intoxication, and about how she became a powerful witch. She interlaces stories from her forebears with cultural artifacts from her own life—Twin Peaks, the Oregon Trail II video game, a Claymation Satan, a YouTube video of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham—to explore questions of cultural inheritance and the particular danger, as a Native woman, of relaxing into romantic love under colonial rule.

Bracingly honest and powerfully affecting, White Magic establishes Elissa Washuta as one of our best living essayists.


“Elissa Washuta’s newest collection of essays is coming out in 2021—and they may be exactly what you need right now.”—O, The Oprah Magazine

“In this potent, illuminating memoir in essays, Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, digs into her relationship with magic and the occult. . . . Touching on love, heritage, identity, and faith, White Magic is resonant and weighty.”—BuzzFeed

“A fascinating magic trick of a memoir that illuminates a woman’s search for meaning.”—Kirkus, Starred Review


Nearly four years ago, in early 2015, chronically drunk and desperate for relief in the Seattle suburbs, I decided the white Wiccans of the web were wrong: I could go it alone and access the power. I needed to believe things happened for a reason. I had witch friends. Even my therapist seemed witch-adjacent. Witchcraft is sold as self-help, and occultist aesthetics inspire Starbucks drinks; hardly anyone talks about covens or “rules.” A witch needs only the right look, the right stuff, the right feelings. I look the part: like a Hollywood witch, dark-haired and pale-skinned (because of my European ancestry). And I’m into the Instagram-witch lifestyle: black dresses, lavender baths, affirmations about being worthy of things. But I don’t like calling myself a witch. I don’t want to be seen as following a fad, and I don’t want the white witches I resemble to take my presence in their spaces as permission for theft. Really, I just want a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder, but I suspect that if we could excise the stolen pieces, there would be nothing left.

I’ve executed successful bindings against men I feared. I’ve cast spells I probably shouldn’t have with hair and spit. I play fast and loose, sifting through websites for formulas but rarely willing to follow the steps. Even when the spells work, I feel like an amateur and an interloper. But the white women who dominate the online esoteric marketplace cannot hoard this power. When I was thirteen and first desperate for magic, I hadn’t yet read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller: “The world was already complete / even without white people. / There was everything / including witchery.”

I am Cowlitz. My people are indigenous to what is currently southwestern Washington. I was born in New Jersey, lived in Washington (in Coast Salish territory, to the north of my ancestral homeland) from 2007 to 2017, and now live in Ohio. In Washington, I was introduced to Native spiritual practices I will not describe here. Know only that my physical husk was wilting around my incapacitated spirit. I had been reading tarot and trying out spells for a few months, but the occult was not enough. Native friends taught me to maintain relationships with place spirits and ancestors. In April 2015, at age thirty, I stopped drinking the alcohol that made my insides bleed. Something was lodged in there, clawing. Today, I feel it holding my lungs in its fists, and I can’t sob hard enough to cry it out.

When I felt myself shredded, I used to wade into Lake Washington, stand on a ledge of land overlooking the bay, or walk through the strip of urban forest where cedars shaded salal. The land put me back together. In Ohio, the land and I talk like strangers. I’m running out of medicines, down to two dwindling bundles of sage, a couple of sweetgrass braids, and a charred bit of juniper that won’t light. I know who gathered these. Magic stores sell sage, but even when they make their sourcing clear, I don’t like the idea of paying non-Natives for these medicines.

Witches of the internet photograph sage against bright white backgrounds and market it as space-clearing incense. To me, the medicines have nothing to do with witchcraft, except that I use both to speak to spirits. I am not a medicine woman or a healer. I am a person with an internet connection and a credit card I can use to buy candles and charmed oils to cast the kind of spell that might rip a little hole in the world, the kind I might wish I could take back once it’s done, the only kind I believe in. If I don’t follow the spells as written, am I really a witch? The truth is I’m not a witch, exactly: I’m a person with prayers, a person who believes in spirits and plays with fire.

Buy this book from Powell’s, Hudson Booksellers, or Bookshop.org.

About the author

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University. Follow her @elissawashuta.

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