Cultural appropriation is a term you've likely heard many times and, if you're drawn to the thorny and complicated conversations surrounding whiteness, decolonization and more, it's one you're likely to hear many more times. There are some people who argue that we should never borrow the styles and fashions of another culture and there are some who argue we should do it more.
But living, as we do, in a culture that is big on easy solutions to complex problems any piece written on this issue, it seems to me, can only be about enthroning and admiring the complexities that occur in the often troubled interactions between cultures.
If you're looking for clear cut answers, or consensus on this amongst activists or people of colour or indigenous people you're going to keep looking for a very long time. It doesn't seem to be there. There don't seem to be any rules you can follow to be 'good' and a set of absolutes to avoid so you won't be 'bad'.
There are no solutions put forward here. No straightforward path just some wonderings aloud that I hope might not so much help us to see the solution but just to see 'more'.
Perhaps the impulse to fix things we don't fully understand is at the root of cultural appropriation anyway.
Earlier that day, I had seen that a female friend of mine had changed her Facebook profile picture to be her in a Native American head dress and so I'd sent her links to a couple of pieces about this issue with the words, "Some thoughts."
She wanted to wear that head dress. It looked good on her. So why not?
And it's a fair question. After all, indigenous people don't 'own' nature. They don't 'own' the use of feathers and so, if I want to wear a feather head dress, why shouldn't I? It's a worthy question and it deserves a worthy response.
Jarune Uwujaren lifts up similar wondering in his excellent piece The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation, "Is the Asian fusion takeout I order every week culturally appropriative? Even though I’m Black, is wearing dreadlocks appropriating forms of religious expression that really don’t belong to me? Is meditating cultural appropriation? Is Western yoga appropriation? Is eating a burrito, cosplaying, being truly fascinated by another culture, decorating with Shoji screens, or wearing a headscarf cultural appropriation?"
Back to my friend with her head dress.
It seems I wasn't the first of her friends to comment on it.
The profile picture she chose to put in its place was a grainy, black and white image of her sulking.
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I'm sitting in a new age circle and, after someone finishes speaking, everyone in the group says the word, "Aho!" in affirmation. It's a word that I actually taught people to say at summer camps I used to lead. You'd say it when someone had shared something and you wanted them to know they'd been heard. I was taught the word by three, Northern California white people. I have no idea where they heard it. The word comes from Native American tradition. But which tribe? I doubt anyone there could tell me. I don't know myself and it seems it's not totally clear to others.
16 year old Amandla Stenburg puts it, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves." Her video below nails it.
Like I said, complicated.
Other Articles on What Cultural Appropriation is and the Problems With It.
What is cultural appropriation?
What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm
Art Exhibit Explores The Hazards of Cultural Appropriation
What, Exactly, Is Cultural Appropriation (And How Is It Harmful)?
The Nightmare Before Christmas Is Actually About Why Cultural Appropriation Is Terrible
How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy
White Woman at Her ‘Most Authentic’ When Appropriating Other Cultures
White People Are Rebranding Cornrows as 'Boxer Braids'
I'm in Vancouver in a car with my brother and my 18 month old niece on our way to the aquarium. My brother lifts up this conversation about cultural appropriation and asks my opinion.
I think of the painfully awkward moment in an interview about Rachel Dolezal (speaking of cultural appropriation) where a black woman doesn't realize that the man she's being interviewed with is also black.
I think of Martin Prechtel. When I first wrote this piece, I referred to him as 'a man of European descent' which I had thought he was given how white he looks. But, my friends pointed out that his mother was actually a native Canadian. It goes to show what I know and the danger of making assumptions. Martin who grew up in New Mexico on a reservation and who, upon visiting Guatemala was approached by the local shaman who, having had dreams about Martin, took him under his wing and made him his apprentice. Eventually Martin Prechtel became the shaman and the chief of this village.
I think of the story friend Tashka Yawanawa, Chief of the Yawanawa people, told me about visiting New Mexico and finding a poster for a workshop on 'authentic Yawanawan spirituality and shamanism' led by a fellow who had left his tribe who Tashka had very little respect for and who, in no way, shape or form was qualified to lead such a workshop.
Imagine you were walking through a field and you came to a fence or a wall or some other thing letting you know that you were crossing into someone else's land. You cross over it and continue to walk for a while until you come across a tree with an amazing and exotic fruit you had never tasted. You take a bite out of it and you can't believe how good it tastes. It's unlike anything you've ever eaten before. You make a mental note of where this tree is so you can find it again, stuff a few of them in your bag for later and keep walking. Soon, you come across a whole grove of these and, in this grove, you find some people making pies and various dishes with this fruit. They generously offer you some and tell you a little bit about how it's made. You can't believe your luck.
Months later, you hear word that that first orchard you found, full of the kind hearted and generous people is under threat. You would do something, but you're too busy building up your business and making money.
And, imagine that, over time the community that tended to those trees, and the trees themselves went extinct. No more of that fruit. And so no more chance to make money on it. Well... you can always come up with a chemical, synthetic replacement which tastes close enough to the real thing to fool an undiscerning tongue. Plus, it's so much cheaper.
The taste of this fruit, the taste that evolved and grew over millions of years, carrying with it a taste that whisper to your tongue the truth that it carried nutrition, that it was good for you could be replaced with an infinitely less expensive mimic of this that whispers the same story but without any nutrition at all.
Juliana Willars puts it well when she says,
"You know, one of the biggest issues with cultural appropriation is that it's not remotely an "exchange". It's theft. White people want to help themselves to elements of black or brown culture, but have nothing to do with black or brown people. Who knows of a single white person who appropriates Dia De Los Muertos *and* who advocates for the rights of migrant people from Mexico and Central America? What about white people who wear dreads? How many of them support BLM?" The number of black people who have been told wearing their hair in traditional or natural hairstyles is "unprofessional" are essentially being told if they do not conform their appearance to values of whiteness, they will be deprived of the ability to earn a paycheck. But a white person adopts dreads and they are edgy. To conflate cultural appropriation with assimilation for survival is to deliberately ignore unequal power structures that exist under white supremacy. White people have cultures, but 98% of them are too damn lazy to make the effort to reconnect with them. It's important to make the distinction between food (e.g. white people eating tacos) and indigenous spiritual belief systems, which is what Dio De Los Muertos is. We were literally killed for practicing our religions. It's not the job of black or brown people to give meaning to the lives of white people thru our cultures, while y'all are still oppressing us. Do not hand us the burden of your salvation, or brightening boring lives."
My dear friend colleague Vicki Robin wrote a book called Your Money or Your Life. It was a huge hit. But, over the years, she discovered that people were plagiarizing her work. Her friends told her she should feel honoured, that this was a sign she'd made it. It was a flattering gesture. She didn't buy it.
Or what about the shops on these Alaska cruise ships that were selling whale and walrus bone carvings for $1000 each, claiming they were made by Indigenous artists when they weren't? It's all theft.
A friend of mine asked me one day what was wrong with it.
Of course, part of the problem is that the names being used aren't the names those tribes would have called themselves (e.g. Inuit don't call themselves Eskimo) but the name given to them by Settlers.
Part of the problem is that the team names often just refer to 'indigenous people' as one monolithic group - the Red Skins, the Braves, the Chiefs, the Indians, the Redmen, the Red Raiders, the Scouts, the Savages etc. This paints all native americans with the same brush and contributes to this idea that they were all the same rather than having cultures as different as countries in Europe.
Another part of the problem is that these teams, even when named correctly after certain tribes, are almost never owned by those tribes and the tribes do not benefit financially from the arrangement at all.
And, of course, the depictions of the natives in question are almost always offensively cartoonish.
What if instead of using offensive images and caricatures of native people's in sports (e.g. Washington Redskins, they partnered with those tribes and sought to found if there was a respectful way to go about it?
A white man and an elderly Native man became pretty good friends, so the white guy decided to ask him: “What do you think about Indian mascots?” The Native elder responded, “Here’s what you’ve got to understand. When you look at black people, you see ghosts of all the slavery and the rapes and the hangings and the chains. When you look at Jews, you see ghosts of all those bodies piled up in death camps. And those ghosts keep you trying to do the right thing. “But when you look at us you don’t see the ghosts of the little babies with their heads smashed in by rifle butts at the Big Hole, or the old folks dying by the side of the trail on the way to Oklahoma while their families cried and tried to make them comfortable, or the dead mothers at Wounded Knee or the little kids at Sand Creek who were shot for target practice. You don’t see any ghosts at all. “Instead you see casinos and drunks and junk cars and shacks. “Well, we see those ghosts. And they make our hearts sad and they hurt our little children. And when we try to say something, you tell us, ‘Get over it. This is America. Look at the American dream.’ But as long as you’re calling us Redskins and doing tomahawk chops, we can’t look at the American dream, because those things remind us that we are not real human beings to you. And when people aren’t humans, you can turn them into slaves or kill six million of them or shoot them down with Hotchkiss guns and throw them into mass graves at Wounded Knee. “No, we’re not looking at the American dream. And why should we? We still haven’t woken up from the American nightmare."
I don't know how you stop urban sprawl.
The land that's being developed is farm land. The children of the aging farmers have no interest in taking over the farm and so the retirement place for the farmers is to sell their land. Who can pay top dollar? The developers.
And so are we going to tell the farmer who has struggled to get by their whole life that they can't sell that land? Are we going to, on top of not supporting them enough as they farmed, now screw them as they stop?
Consider the plight of the modern medicine person in a tribe. In the old days, their tribe would have provided for them so they could do their important work. But, in many of those tribes, their people couldn't give two shits about what they're up to anymore. So, they want to keep the traditions alive and they need to sustain themselves. Do they charge money for something they were told to never charge money for? Do they accept money in lieu of perhaps blankets and elk meat? And do they accept it from people outside of their tribe? What if there is a big enough demand for what they are teaching that they could do it full time - and what if they're too old too do the career they had before? And, do we have any business telling them that they can't do that? Do we have any business telling them who they can sell it to? Do I, as a white person, have the right to tell a native american elder that they can't earn an income from sharing their traditional knowledge with people they choose? Do I have the right to comment even if they choose not to charge money for it? Do I have the right to tell a yogi from India that they can't teach white people from the United States or Canada? Do I have the right to deny them the ability to give permission for that white person to teach others and continue the lineage?
These are incredibly complicated questions.
I've seen many critiques of cultural appropriation end up being expressions of racism themselves.
Of course, to say, 'natives' is, in and of itself, a curious thing to me. I found myself wondering about it and wanting to ask him, "Oh. So... natives. Because they're all a part of some monocultures across Turtle Island and they all get together and vote on these things?" Because, of course, there are hundreds of different tribes with cultures as diverse as the countries of Europe to each other. And, within each tribe, you will find more corporately bent natives and more traditional ones.
When people say that white people shouldn't be doing yoga or being medicine people of certain traditions, I am struck by the ways that this is an expression of the false racial ideology (the notion that race even exists) which has no basis in anything except the desire of the elite to justify their privilege with a quack, pseudo science that puts white people, a modern creation, on top.
A fellow named Kris replied to an earlier version of this blog, saying, "One thing you didn't cover is the question of marketing aspects of a culture by its members. I'm thinking here about tourism, and how "natives" are often either forced into, or resist, playing the colourful peasant/noble savage/spiritual teacher, performing the indigenous dance, selling cheap and disappointing versions of local crafts, etc. And how this, in turn, breeds cynicism and embarrassment concerning one's culture, and alters the local economy irrevocably. I'm thinking of the "stage Irishman" of music hall days, and the "Celtic folk" band, endlessly touring the US, Germany, and everywhere else, tired, but glad to make a living playing their music."
"Are your children interested in these stories?" I ask.
"Not really." he replies.
He shakes his head.
"What about people in the local community?" I ask, already knowing the answer.
A Facebook friend of mine Skye Faye complicated this all further in a good way when she wrote,
"An important aspect of cultural appropriation, especially in regards to indigenous culture, is extraction. The colonial mindset interacts with indigenous culture in a pretty unique way. Colonialism is very specifically the end of indigeneity after all. And indigenous worldview is radically different from colonial. This is a major distinction. Nothing can be taken in and of itself without sickening the whole, that is how extraction works.
It's also a little bit disingenuous to mention communities who are having trouble passing on their own traditions without very clearly discussing the impact of genocide in all it's forms. Children were beaten bloody for speaking their language. To then say a white person is "standing in" because few indigenous people are going to their elders and learning is just a horrid way to look at it. A white person should support the community so they themselves can heal from the trauma and move themselves forward. The community as *whole* needs saving, not just the one thing, the language. It's worthless on it's own. It dies. Thinking otherwise else is a self serving false altruism. A white person might learn the language, or a ceremony, but that brings *nothing* of the culture as a whole forward. Only the people themselves can do that because anything else is extraction. If no one from the community wants to learn aspects of what makes that community itself... then it is dead. We cannot revive only aspects. A person from the outside cannot come and write things down or learn parts and be saving anything. Preservation in books or reflected ideology is not *alive*. It's not even that helpful considering the context of our world.
This is not to say that others cannot learn. Of course they can. Seeds grow in appropriate places. A colonial mindset cannot fertilize the seeds of indigeneity. Only extract them. Anyone can decolonize their mind and cultivate indigeneity, but it never comes in pieces (though it is a progression after lifetimes of colonization and colonialism). It doesn't come from ceremonies or foods or clothes. Those things can be taken and used separately, and we've seen it happen. True indigeneity and decolonization happens when worldview shifts and we stop using colonial ideology to perpetuate our idea of what we think we need. Colonial ideology will never have the answers. We need to let it go. Then we can remember what it is we truly need. Leanne Simpson spoke to this even better here."*
My friend Ruben Anderson writes, "I recently posted an article on how Mugwort was used in Europe as a smudge. Europe, big place, I know. I don't know much more about it. But that is part of the point.
Anyhow. This article on Mugwort was shared on FB by an Indian woman in Texas.
And I had never realized the depth of white people's—of my—self-loathing.
I had never considered I might have an ancestral smudging ritual. But when you think about it, it is obvious. I bet almost every culture on the planet, at any time in history, has had a smoke purification ritual.
This really hit home for me how I feel my people cannot have anything valuable. I feel I don't even have a people, and any scraps of people I may have surely could have nothing cool, or meaningful, or historical, or wise. We need to steal our wisdom from the Orient, and our exercise from India, and our connection to the land from the First Nations.
Every culture has all of those things. You do not become a culture without all of those things. Every human has in their roots all of those things, ancestral to themselves.
So, what I thought, about borrowing from dead communities who cannot be offended, is, why would we bother? Everything you need is there in your bones, and in your roots, as fine and hairlike as those roots may be.
Now, that is a big blanket statement that I don't actually wholly believe in. But, what if that was the place that we start from?
I come from someone and somewhere. Those people were rich and complicated and special. They were intelligent and creative and created beautiful ways to hold and share knowledge. They had the full gamut of cultural tools and rituals, and if I begin with that rediscovery, it will land with the ease of family in my bones. There is no need to borrow, or steal, from anyone else's people."
Let's say you wanted to learn Scottish Highland Folk Dance. You know. The real thing. You didn't want to twerk and you wanted to revive your own culture's traditions.
So far so good.
But what you learned in those classes is, almost certainly, not what it would have been a hundred years ago. What you are learning is the Victorianized version, stripped of the more suggestive, wild or outlandish moves - changes made by one woman who was in charge of the college teaching it.
The same goes for piping. The Scotland the Brave piping you've heard is a militarized version of piping from the Victoria era. It's not the traditional folk piping that would have been modelled after traditional Gaidhlig folk singing.
What if you wanted to learn Druidry and so you go to find... what exactly? A Druid? A Druidic college? Most of what you would find would be some version of New Age bullshit that would have little or no connection to the lived communities from which those traditions might, or might not, have come. And most of those communities today are Christian and would look with some suspicion on those older, pagan traditions. Although, as Michael Newton puts it, "There has to be a community to start with. You can't really commit CA against druids because they no longer exist as a community (and haven't for a long time). etc."
Pegi Eyers, a white woman and author of Ancient Spirit Rising speaks to the importance of power dynamics in this all,
"... cultural exchange can only happen between cultures that are on equal footing, not one dominating the other, and with the sharing offered willingly. Here on Turtle Island this is not the case, as the oppressor (us) and oppressed (indigenous people/people of colour) relationship is unequal, and with those of us in the dominant culture having centuries of cultural & spiritual theft, racist white supremacy and Empire-building on the backs of POC as our legacy. From the early love/hate romanticization of First Nations while at the same time carrying out ethnic cleansing, to using stereotypical First Nation's imagery to sell products, to the theft of First Nation's spiritual property by white pseudo-shamans, there is a long and disgusting history of whites having the entitlement to datamine, fabricate and interpret the cultural and spiritual property of people of colour for anything they want. In every sphere of cultural life - sports, music, fine art, fashion, New Age Capitalism - you name it, plus stupid mascots to sell products - whites continue to take-take-take. Every act of cultural appropriation erases genuine First Nation cultural knowledge and impacts the ability of First Nations to recover their own life ways and sovereignty. A good way to clarify the phenomenon in your own mind is to know that cultural appropriation happens on a continuum. White purchases of first nations-made art, sculpture, apparel and decor is encouraged and a way to respect and honor the makers of those products (without assuming any deep ownership over these tribal expressions). We are encouraged to support First Nations artisans, and it is great that we do. My Mississauga Ojibway friend Rose Ann clarified it for me when she told me a couple of years ago that having First Nations art, a drum and even smudging is ok for white people, it is identity theft that is reprehensible. So back to the continuum analogy, at one end, supporting First Nations and learning about First Nations indigenous knowledge is encouraged, while at the farthest end, the assumption of a fake First Nations identity by a white person making money on that theft is the absolute worst. Try lining up the people and things you see in society along these lines and it should come clear. The other aspect is that with the quest to reverse racism and heal the fractured First Nations/Settler relationship, we want to "Follow the Turtle," move First Nations forward by placing ourselves in a subordinate position, and centre indigenous values. Here is the rule: “Recognizing native spirituality is honoring, adopting it is stealing."
Punching up is the thing.
Punching up means your comedy is satirical and attacking the hypocrisies and excesses of the elite. You're taking the side of David and not Goliath. You're making fun of the man. Think of Jon Stewart, Louis CK, or George Carlin.
Punching down means that your comedy is belittling those struggling. It means you're siding with Goliath. Think Dennis Miller and notice how he isn't (and other right wing comedians aren't) funny.
I think there's something of that in cultural appropriation. If you're from a marginalized group and you're borrowing from a culture which has more power than you then it's different that if you're from a group in a position of power borrowing from an oppressed culture. If you're a burmese young person borrowing the fashion and musical styles of the 1970's UK punk scene as you fight your oppressive government it's different than a white person wearing a native headdress at a musical festival because, "I look so hot in this." If you're a black American wearing traditional African clothing it's just a different beast than a white person in a Mumu.
This is at the heart of what makes cultural exchange different from cultural appropriation.
Punch up. Don't punch down.
But then... will it always been clear about who is more up and who is more down?
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Yoga is from India. Most of the teachers are white and have never been to India and don't know much about its culture or spirituality. If they do know something about that, they don't know much about its politics or history of the past or the present.
So, what, if anything, do we do about that?
Well, for starters, if you haven't seen this video about Gandhi doing yoga, it's well worth your time.
So, on one level this might seem like a clear case of cultural appropriation. Some at Ottawa University seemed to think so when they cancelled a free yoga class being hosted there due to it being cultural appropriation. Others disagree that yoga is cultural appropriation at all.
But perhaps, whatever other things the furor over that class might be, it could also be seen as a pressure release valve for white people, a sort of low hanging fruit about which we can finally do something. We can't end racism. We can't solve the Syrian crisis. We can't change what our ancestors did. We can't change all of the ways that we, as white people, benefit from racism. And so this creates an incredible amount of powerless feelings. And those feelings create anger. And what do we do with this anger when we can't seem to do much? We attack those closest to us. We engage in what's known as horizontal or lateral violence. If I can't do much about institutionalized racism then maybe I will crucify you for that ignorant comment you made because then I feel like I've done something. Then I feel like I can make a difference in the world. Then I get to release the pressure. This happens in the world of activism all the time. We make mountains out of mole hills because then we get the satisfaction of having climbed Everest without having actually done it. We make make major wars of minor causes. We burn straw men because, god dammit, someone needs to burn. Instead of turning to each other, we turn on each other. We take down people who could have been allies in the cause because they weren't perfect enough and because we fear being taken down ourselves and so we protect ourselves by jockeying for 'who's most radical' in our communities. What doesn't seem to be welcome at the table is our heartbreak at how little we are actually able to do.
This yoga class might have been many things, but one of them must have been 'an easy target'.
And what it might be calling us to do is to raise our sights a bit, to refocus our eyes on the real prize of ending institutionalized racism. It might call on us to be much more strategic and long term thinking in our work and to build the broad coalitions that we need.
But, you might be surprised to know that what most of us in the West have come to know as yoga (the asanas) has much of its roots not in ancient India but in the last few hundred years of Western Europe. The asanas are less a branch on the original tree of yoga but more something grafted on in the last century. It's not European. But it's also not what Patanjali was on about either. It's some hybrid.
If that's true, then what does that mean for people of European descent practicing it?
It means, like most things, that it's complicated.
I've done shrooms (once after two beers I ate a whole handful and that was terrifying) and then there was that salvia tincture at my friends place in Berkeley which I thought was going to last five minutes but ended up lasting two hours and will never do again.
And then what about the use of sacred medicines and ceremonies that come from places you don't belong to? What does it mean to engage in an isolated part of a culture without knowing the full context?
It could mean that people die as was evidenced in the hot house run by James Ray despite the pleas of local indigenous leaders for him not to run what he was calling a 'sweatlodge ceremony'.
It could mean that these medicines become a crutch for you.
It could mean a lot of things. Things that we never tend to think about like an incredible blessing to people living with addiction and unresolved trauma.
But, of course, it's a complicated thing. A friend of mine, after seeing this post, sent me these words
"Interesting post about Aya. I went to an indigenous 'traditional' healer in Peru who flirted with the young women and with whom I did not feel entirely safe and who did not follow some of what I understand to be the traditional protocol including the diet, and recently I did a ceremony with a white woman, likely in her late 60's, and felt very supported and safe. I get the piece about the excess marketing and the Aya tourism but all is not black and white here. (In all fairness, I connected with the indigenous man through an American author, who organizes a plant spirit medicine conference in Iquitos, Peru, yet is, in my experience, not a man of his word."A complicated thing.
An elder I have studied with shared this wondering as well, "Do you have any idea what you've done to this medicine man's standing in his community by you seducing him to teach you or share his tradition with you? We're accountable in huge ways for how our desirousness is having on other cultures around the world."
To further complicate it, some would say that these plants don't belong to indigenous people. But this notion of belonging might just be a symptom of our own impoverished understanding of belonging. If you see belonging as being about western property laws, then, no, clearly they do not. But if we are speaking of belonging as an achievement of relationship, mutual obligation and responsibility to each other, then it's another thing all together. Most indigenous people would be more likely to say that they belong to the land, the land doesn't belong to them. Or if they speak of belonging to the land another thing besides ownership is often meant by it - something more akin to 'the bones of my ancestors are here'. It means a long term getting to know of each other. It means they are taking responsibility for the well being of the land. And, in terms of these medicines, what does it mean if you use them and yet do nothing to protect the land that grows them or the people who live there and the cultures that grew in a relationship to them?
And, even if you work to help these people protect their sacred sites, it doesn't mean you're entitled to visit them.
Articles to read more about this:
Amazon leaders and academics denounce ayahuasca rituals led by outsiders
I’m Grateful To The Healing Power of Psychedelics: I Would Not Be Alive Today Without Them
The Trip Treatment
The Dark Side of Ayuhuasca
A Feminist On a Mission to Introduce Women to Ayahuasca, the 'Cosmic Spirit'
Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
He is drunk.
He often does this when he's drunk.
He is decked out in all manner of spiritual attire. On his head is a coyote pelt. In his hand is a walking staff. Around his neck are... so many necklaces with every sort of crystal and spiritual symbol you could think of. So many necklaces.
His name is not Kokopelli. He likely doesn't have much of an indepth knowledge of who Kokopelli is. And I deeply question the veracity of his claim to be a member of the warrior dog clan. I don't doubt he met them. But I don't think it was more than once or twice. He is of Indian descent. He's a beautiful man but not always stable.
It makes me think about costumes.
"Ale House bardic coteries were open to the public from 1789, and eisteddfoddau began as a display of cultural particularism which marked Wales out as a place of unthreatening antiquity." (Newton 41) (emphasis mine) These tourist commodities became more popular -- they provided a way for people to experience, explore and, most importantly, ‘buy’ a Celtic experience. And it's no big surprise that the end product of all of this Celtic tourism was the production of various knick knacks, curiosities and "kitsch". Kitsch was a safe, nonthreatening way that the Celtic culture could be experienced. But there's also an unintended side effects for cultures who engage in this kind of practice -- kitsch takes a vibrant, complex culture and simplifies and distorts it into a single product. What's the end result? Millions of people around the world who think that Celtic culture is all about -- shamrocks, Leprauchans, bag pipes, kilts and St. Patrick's Day.
In case you think this is gone, you didn't catch the latest American Music Awards where Jennifer Lopez had her dancers dress up in Dean and Dan Caten's Dsquaw line of clothing. Dan and Dean appear to be white. They appear to be straight up stealing the fashions of indigenous people, changing them how they see fit and making money off them. But, is any of this money going back to the communities from when it came? Do they have any direct relationship with or accountability to the people from whom these designs came? These are questions worth wondering about.
Avril Lavigne isn't punk. She doesn't share the punk ethos and politics. But she sure dresses punk. Actual punks are not fans of her.
Iggy Azalia is white but her style and vocal intonations sound black. This is not a new issue in hip hop, white people's career's exploding and benefiting from the cultural expressions of the black community. Elvis did it. Eminem did it. But it's something worth considering.
Social Media and the Fight Over Urban Outfitters Appropriation of Native American Cultures
Warrior Up: More Appropriation of Indigenous Cultures in Advertising
Nunavut family outraged after fashion label copies sacred Inuit design
Urban Outfitters squaring off against Navajo Nation in court
Black and Red and White Like Me: Natives Know Too Many Rachel Dolezals
Stephen Jenkinson often speaks about how much of cultural appropriation has its roots in self hatred.
This notion that nothing beautiful or original has come from where I come from or could come from where I am now in the crater of where my own indigenous culture used to be. There is no beauty in my past or present and I have no capacity to make it so I will steal it. It's a sort of invisible self loathing by which much of white culture can be known.
In Ireland, during the potato famine, many people died with a full stomach.
Their stomach was full of what was known as 'the yellow meal' or cornmeal. How this came to happen is instructive about the consequences of taking a piece of someone's culture without understanding the larger story.
Corn, as most of us know well enough, is not easily digested by the body. To make it digestible it must be prepared properly in a process known as nixtamalization in which the grain is soaked or cooked in an alkaline solution - often lime water. In the absence of this, it is very difficult for the body to get much nutrition from it. So you can eat and eat and eat and then die of malnutrition on a full stomach.
Translate that to what might happen when you try to feed yourself when you take pieces and parts of other cultures and you're beginning to finger the tattered fringes of something important.
But why are we hungry? Is it because we haven't eaten in so long?
Yes and no.
We've eaten but it's not nourished us and so, even though our stomachs might have been full we have not gotten what we need to thrive from it. There's that.
But also, if you have ever engaged in a long fast you will find that at first you are incredibly hungry but, after a few days, the hunger diminishes and eventually goes away.
So what makes you hungry again?
The presence of food. Food makes hunger.
Pegi Eyers offers this, "It is not self-hatred that leads to cultural appropriation. It is a void or longing for Earth and community that many people don't even know they have. All human beings do better in tribal societies, and the white yearning to return to source has actually exploded in contemporary times in the positive aspect as many alternative life ways to Empire that are growing daily and the negative aspect as without the cultural markers in our immediate environment to guide us to an authentic tribalism, cultural appropriation has occurred. Remember that at the heart of it (and until someone understands the intricacies of white privilege and entitlement), cultural appropriation is just a veiled desire to be bonded to people, land, the other-than-human-world and the cosmos once again.
And so, it could be cultural appropriation is a symptom of an untended to cultural poverty.
And it's a symptom of which I predict we have yet to see the full bloom because food makes hunger.
And so it is as more and more authentic and beautiful cultures are lifted up for more people to see, the effect is identical taking someone who is fasting and walking them into a room awash in the aromas of a well cooked meal. Their body will respond before they even have a chance to think about it. They will, unless they have some discipline and a clear reason to be fasting, grab for food and stuff themselves with it without permission. They will eat too much too fast.
Vince Lombardi once said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." and so something similar could be said about starvation and the way it has us look at things that are not food and turn them into food. As the quote goes, "How starving you must have been to turn my heart into a meal for your ego."
If fatigue turns us into cowards, then what does starvation turn us into?
What if the same hunger for meaning, a bigger story, a cosmology that makes sense and some sense of order to this Universe driving us to steal culture from others (because we are convinced we have none of our own) is what drive young men into the army and Daesh?
Of course, what's being asked of us here is not for the theft of someone else's culture and traditions but, properly, the grief at the lack of our own. What's being asked of us it to trace our fingers along the edges of the crater where the culture destroying bombs went off so long and and to know that place for what it is and to make something beautiful there. What's being asked of us is to learn where we are and our self hatred stops us from learning that.
What's being asked of us isn't to come up with a quick fix to these issues with simple answers and rules.
White people aren't used to having their entitlements challenged.
An exploration around cultural appropriation in this day and age, and particularly for how it relates to white people is impossible without at least a meager grasp of history.
Consider, again, the head dress. As I understand it, the head dresses were not worn by everyone but reserved as an honour for those who had done something for the community.
If you, as a European settler, had put one on without asking there likely would have been some extremely tense exchanges. But, perhaps it might have been forgiven if you were the first white person they'd seen and they came to know you just didn't understand how sacred it was to them.
But that's not where we are now. We are five hundred years in their future. And, since then, we have stolen their land, their children, their capacity to teach their language and pass on their culture and, in the wake of that, you want to also steal their fashion.
Consider how that might feel if you were them.
Imagine a best friend of yours screwing you out of your family home, and then stealing your boyfriend and moving in with him and then deciding to dress in your styles of clothing for fun. And then know that's a pale shadow of what we're talking about here.
I think what the conversation around cultural appropriation asks of us all is to proceed as if the past actually happened instead of trying to opt out of history and declaring like so many teenagers have done about rules they don't like, that, 'this doesn't apply to me.'
The past is like the shorelines that the river of our lives move through or like the crater that holds the lake. It provides a sense of definition to how we make our way through this lifetime. It defines us but this culture, not big on the notion of limits as being anything other than something to transcend, only sees how the past confines us. 'I should be able to wear that head dress!' The past and the boundaries of what other cultures see as appropriate is seen as a limit to the most sacred religion of all - our self expression - where we worship at the altar of the Self and individual style trumps all.
I think part of what oils the gears of the engine of cultural appropriation is that white people do not have much of a collective sense of themselves or of whiteness as a culture and so it's hard to understand how different styles and fashions might come from another group of people or how people who looked white like they do have already taken so much from people who look like they do. There's little understanding of how the white group has interacted with the groups of colour because there's so little understanding of groups at all.
But we stand in a time where white people have long been taking from people of colour, the elite have been taking from the poor, men from women, straight from gay... that's the moment we are in that we wish we weren't in.
But this what does this line of reasoning mean when the object ('object' being the key word) of your affection does not feel respected, appreciated or admired?
Surely, if you admired someone there would be evidence is the way you lived and treated them that your admiration was alive and well.
I imagine that what these native americans might have been looking for was perhaps some political support around protecting their land, or maybe someone who would stand up to racism against them and donate to legal defense funds, someone who might write letters to the editor in their defense.
Imagine your family had a recipe for apple pie that had been passed down from generation to generation in your family and now you have it. You invite a friend over and he tells you he can't remember a better apple pie in his life. You're flattered of course. He asks you for the recipe and you give him the broad strokes leaving out a few secret ingredients.
The next week, you're going to your favourite bakery and your friend is there.
"Oh hey! Your pie was so good that I decided to start selling it to bakeries! They love it! Thanks so much!"
You're stunned. He is making money off your family recipe and he didn't even ask you. You stand there trying to make sense of it all.
"Well, see you later! I've got some more deliveries to make." and he walks out. It will occur to you later that night that you won't be seeing any money from any of this.
You walk over to the stack of boxed pies and your shock is driven deeper by what you see on the box. It's a photo of you and your mother who taught you the recipe. And your names. He is using it to sell the pies.
Perhaps one of the most important threads yet to weave into this discussion about cultural appropriation is one of accountability. If I live in a community, I am, whether I like it or not, accountable to those people because my actions, or lack of actions, will have a direct impact on them. If I conduct myself poorly it will come to reflect on the community. If I speak for the community and I don't speak well or misrepresent that community, you can bet I would have some grandmothers banging on my door that evening asking me what the hell I was thinking. If I went off and wore a headdress when I hadn't earned it, there'd be hell to pay.
But what does this mean if you're white and you aren't a part of any community you can see to which you are accountable?
When you find something from another culture that draws you, let's say yoga, to which people are you accountable? To the person who taught you? To the place or peoples from which originated? A community? A country? And which era and therefore which country? Do those people even exist anymore? Have they migrated or fled elsewhere? And what if what you learned is only one branch of a larger tree?
These are the questions we have come here to grapple with.
Of course, it's impossible to have a conversation about cultural appropriation without talking about money because, all too often, white people will take something from a culture that their ancestors marginalized and then sell if for profit to other white people as something kitschy and cool.
If you attended a few sweat lodges and then, without permission decided to lead one and charge for it and keep all of the money for yourself... that would certainly be cultural appropriation.
If you decided to start making feather head dresses for hipsters and selling them... that would certainly be cultural appropriation.
But, what if that head dress is being sold to you by a native man and it's his income? So money is going to native people but it's still not culturally appropriate for just anyone to wear it.
If you pay a Jamaican man to give you dreadlocks and maintain your hair, if you pay a Mexican person for a taco, if you pay a Japanese tailor for a kimono, if you pay a native artist for some art... the question of what's okay and what isn't okay keeps coming up.
It can be a complicated business but a good consideration is always to ask yourself if there is money involved and who is getting it. If someone is getting rich from it, then who?
I think what's being asked of us, long before we 'do' anything about it is to slow down long enough to learn something about it.
We're being asked to acknowledge how deeply complex this issue is and to stop proceeding as if it weren't. We're being asked to stop asking for simple rules and to start fostering meaningful relationships with care, awareness and slowness where we err on the side of graciousness, village mindedness and courtesy and not on the side of greed and acquisition.
As Cindy Baskin's puts it in, Strong Helpers Teachings, "I was always taught that indigenous ways of knowing being and doing are based on relationships and respecting those relationships. Honouring our teachers is part of that and I feel that so much appropriation happens without a relationship based on respect and reciprocity."
We are being asked to engage in cultural exchange not cultural appropriation.
"At times, well-meaning people who struggle with their own appropriative behavior turn to textbooks, online comment boards, Google, and Tumblr ask boxes in search of a clear cut answer to the question, “Is this [insert pop culture thing, hairstyle, tattoo, or personal behavior here] cultural appropriation?” That’s a question we have to educate ourselves enough to, if not answer, think critically about. We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures. This isn’t a matter of telling people what to wear. It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes."
We're being invited to come to know and grieve the poverty of our own culture while we also come to terms with its privileges.
We're being asked to be from where we're from, not where we wish we were from.
We're being invited to consider that our own ancestry might have its our remnants of indigeneity and worth and that, as spare as they may be, we have been left some threads to follow that have, somehow, against all odds, survived the flight from Europe and the bleaching process of whiteness to be with us still - echoes of a long gone time - a thread on which we can tug to see if there might be someone still holding onto the other side who might just pull back in the direction of something that might become home.
We are being asked, in every situation to wonder if we (and those who look like us and come from where we came from) are David in this story... or Goliath.
We being asked to learn the complicated stories of where things come from because cultural appropriation takes the thing and discards the story. But the story is the thing, not the thing. The story is the fruit tree not just the pie made from the fruit.
What's being asked of us is to know that sometimes things are not for us. And to be heartbroken by what we don't get to have and yet practice our gratitude for the fact that it's in the world at all.
What is being asked of us is, instead of trying to steal or buy a sense of home from other cultures, the capacity to foster home now even though we might not live to enjoy it while we live.
We are being asked to stop telling the people from whose cultures we are borrowing things without permission how to feel about it and what tone of voice to use in sharing their feelings with us.
Consider this young man who wanted to dress up as Malcolm X for Halloween and actually did it right.
We are being asked to consider what native fashions might look like without appropriation.
We are being asked to not be dicks about it.
If we are leading a yoga class we might see that there is actually an opportunity to talk about these issues within it and to let the complications become visible.
If we are hosting a conference, we might start with acknowledging whose land we are on.
If we sing a traditional song, we might say some words about who were learned it from, which people it came from and the moment in time from which it emerged.
Always to tell the stories. Things come from somewhere. Particular places and times.
If you see someone appropriating another culture you might tell them they are wrong and call them out. But, these days, as a white person, I don't think I would. Nor would I tell those who reacted with anger they were wrong. But I might send the one who seems to be doing it a note, or pull them aside to ask them, 'is this impact you're having the one you want to have?'
There's the old African proverb that says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." And so, these times are asking us, "Which do you want?" Since these dynamics of culture are such a mess right now, and because our actions have such real impacts on others, to go fast might be the reckless choice.
We are being asked to ask ourselves, "Why do I need to go so fast? What is the urgency driving my need to grasp things so quickly without considering the consequences it might have for others? What is it that makes my needs and feelings matter more than others?"
What's being asked of us is, perhaps more than anything, to foster the capacity to admire things without grabbing them, to appreciate without taking, to behold something that strikes us deeply with memory and longing without leering at it. We are being asked to be good guests in the homes of other cultures on the occasions we are invited in and not to overstay our welcomes while we work to rebuild the soil of our own culture.
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We Can’t Trust White People: On Blood Quantum and Identity Appropriation
Can White People Appropriate European Culture