Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Reflection on Cultural Appropriation

The planned Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering (herein Rainbow) in He Sapa, the Black Hills, has caused serious tensions within the Oceti Sakowin. Many of us see the Rainbow gathering as engaging in cultural exploitation, and some of their activities as desecrating our holiest site by appropriating and practicing faux Native ceremonies and beliefs. These actions, although Rainbows may not realize, dehumanize us as an indigenous Nation because they imply our culture and humanity, like our land, is anyone’s for the taking.

Nick Estes and others, writing in Indian Country Today. Read more at

Some decades ago, I was driving at night through the Black Hills. As a U.S. government official, I was on my way to testify in court in support of an occupation encampment set up by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) on land controlled by the U.S. government.

As I drove, wisps of snow blew across the beams of my headlights. In their delicate waverings they seemed to assume ethereal forms that my tired brain linked to the spirit-beings that surely inhabit the Hills. I felt a powerful sense of connection with the people whose interests I was scheduled to address in court, and with their ancestors.

So, was I engaging in cultural appropriation?

Or what about, a few nights later, when I doffed my clothes and entered a sweatlodge with some Lakota and Cheyenne friends and colleagues, to sweat and sing and pray?

Hypothetically, what if there hadn’t been any Lakota or Cheyenne people present? What if it had been only a bunch of white-eyes, but we really needed a sweat?

On my office wall I have an abalone necklace, give me by an elder in a tribe for which I worked once on California’s northwest coast. By keeping it, am I appropriating the tribe’s culture? What if I were to wear it?

Or what about the pile of indigenous art and artifacts that we took out of my late wife’s office at the National Park Service after her death? By keeping them, displaying them, was she engaging in cultural appropriation?

I daresay she thought she was showing respect for the tribes and communities and individuals who produced the things. Plus she thought they were pretty, intellectually engaging, and reminiscent of people and places that were important to her, and that inspired her work. Was she wrong?

I can sympathize with indigenous people – with people of any society or community – who get indignant when “mainstream” society starts glomming onto their cultural symbols and practices, in effect taking possession of them, distorting them, cheapening them. But I wonder how far we can go in expressing and accommodating such indignation without splintering into a formless hodge-podge of subcultures, each viciously guarding its prerogatives.

I habitually wear trousers, which at some point in the past my western European ancestors appropriated from the horsemen of the steppes. My shrink recommends Buddhist meditation. I’m typing these thoughts using Arabic script. I’ll be dining next week at an Indonesian restaurant. Members of different cultures routinely mix and match practices, cuisines, artifacts, bits of language. Our cultures change as a result – always have, presumably always will, sometimes doubtless for worse, but often, arguably, for better. Or at least for neutral.

I’m glad to have tortilla and sashimi and borsht to eat, and I don’t think I’m appropriating Spanish, Japanese, or Russian culture by including them in my diet. I don’t think I’m appropriating Chuukese culture when I tell someone raan annimw for “hello.” Or maybe I AM appropriating when I nibble another culture’s food, or butcher a word or phrase  – I’m using a bit of it, after all – but I don’t think I’m doing that culture injury, or disrespecting it.

But it seems that a lot of people would say I’m wrong. Or maybe I’m just missing something. What do you think?