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?


IPA makes me Hoppy said...

Over the years I have been given stories to record, been told names and dates for events, been given any number of items that the giver hoped I would wear or use. The significant idea here is related to the "gift" part-- these were things that were given or shared on purpose, and not things taken from a people, culture, or otherwise usurped. Just because one wears rainbow clothing, smokes whatever it is they smoke, and draws circles on the ground does not given them the right to enter a sacred ground, alter that place, and upset a balance. To enter another's "church" and decide it is okay to write on the walls, tear down statues, yell in the nave, or whatever they might do is just not "right." It is wrong, disrespectful, selfish, and potentially damaging on many levels. This is what the Rainbow people have done on Mt. Shasta in California, and perhaps this is what they are doing in the Black Hills as well. I would be surprised if you are missing something, Tom, but taking what is not yours is certainly not the same as receiving a gift.

Thomas F King said...

A fair distinction, I guess, Hoppy, but it still strikes me as a tricky one, that gets us tangled in all kinds of tedious distinction-making. And the older I get, the less point I see in reacting to every practice we don't like by fulminating about it and insisting that those who perpetrate it are terrible people.

I really wonder what would happen if, instead of thundering about how awful this appropriation is, Lakota people were to tell the Rainbows "Thanks for your interest in our culture; now here are some things you can do to help us keep it alive." And then give them some opportunities like supporting language retention programs, helping buy back land to be taken into trust, supporting the protection of culturally important places, repatriation of ancestral remains, and so on. Maybe use the situation as an opportunity to build alliances rather than set antagonisms in concrete.

Anonymous said...

Years ago, I stopped to talk with a Native Hawaiian man who was making and selling traditional baskets at a scenic overlook on Maui. He spotted my silver Navajo bracelet, and told me: "you stole that from those Native people !" I responded that I didn't think I had stolen anything - I gave the maker $100 cash for it. "Yeah, but even so, you still stole from their culture", he said, in an oddly combative manner. I thought the man was ridiculous, and a bit unhinged, and I thought about offering to "steal" one of his baskets for the $25 he wanted for it. But I didn't "steal" it because it was ugly, unlike my bracelet, which I still wear every day. I guess I'm just a thief - oh well.

Anonymous said...

It is not easy to walk this fine line and find yourself on the offensive side of things. I agree with Hoppy above, but would like to add some more things to consider.

In my culture (North West Pacific) we have a concept called “haʔł həx̌”. This concept is basically doing the right thing using a right mind and right heart. Basically, if you think you may be doing something wrong, maybe you are. IF you are told by someone (Let’s assume someone from the particular culture) that you are doing something wrong, perhaps you are. This may be something that you can “fix” or “atone” for, or maybe it is not. The important thing here is that it is not up to you (or the appropriator) to decide, it is the culture being appropriated that has the intrinsic right to decide.

One of the big issues in my experience, is when a person from outside the culture who has been given access to information, traditions, etc., they do not use haʔł həx̌”. They assume that because they have been privy, or “gifted” they have can use the information/items as they see fit. This is not always the case, but only by making decision based on a right mind and right heart is this evident. Hence it is always a good idea to talk to a person of that particular culture to help you decide. This is something that I see happen to academics, anthropologist, archaeologist, ethnographers, etc. all the time. Education or even knowledge alone is not enough to know what is and is not proper; making good decisions about information/items is. And any halfway intelligent person knows that they don’t have all of the answers themselves.

John McCarthy said...

"American culture" is a dynamic system based in its entirety on appropriation, recombination, and syncretism. Sometimes this takes place in a respectful way, but more often not so much so, admittedly.

Intent is important. Some acts are deliberately disrespectful, some unintentionally so. Some memorialize or build on a tradition; some deny roots and connections while some celebrate them. Should I get upset when my Polish-American neighbor wears a shamrock and drinks Guinness on St. Patrick's day? Or he upset with me when I eat perogies?

Is there deliberate disrespect in what is happening at Mt. Shasta, or is there a convergence of concern or values? Is there a need for better explanation and education? Can that energy/effort be more productively channeled as Tom suggests?

Righteous indignation, regardless of how very righteous it may be, is not very useful in the overall scheme of cultural production.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom - apologies for the late comment. I thought you might be interested to read the discussion here about when and how slang becomes cultural appropriation -

The link is courtesy of Hank Green, the excellent YouTuber/Entrepreneur,VidCon creator, etc.

I also wonder how your suggestion about alliance building vs. setting antagonims would turn out - much potential there I suspect. Unfortunately, as you know, real discussion like this often difficult and folks tend to avoid feeling uncomfortable - like the example of how mainstream foodies what access to ethnic cuisine, but tend to avoid the actual neighborhoods where the food originates.

Anonymous said...

I often like the things you have to say on this blog, and I admire your willingness to speak frankly. But in this case, your argument seems more than a bit disingenuous--less for being somehow dishonest than because it seems as if you just don't want to be bothered with dealing with the complexity of the situation, or thinking through how radically different the examples that you're using actually are. Most of them are things that very few people, if anyone, would suggest are cultural appropriation.

For instance, I doubt that anyone would have been offended that you felt a connection to the spirits when you testified about the Black Hills. Some elders might have mocked you for being a typical 'white guy amongst the Indians'--i.e. seeing spirits when it was just snow, taking minor details of the natural world as major signs--but others might well have agreed that maybe the spirits were with you because you were attempting to help the people. Speculation, yes, but based on some experience in similar contexts.

But if you had decided that you saw those spirits, and were going to hold a New Age ceremony in the Black Hills to get people of 'all races' together to worship them, mostly improvising, making things up as you went along, and poaching from a superficial understanding of spiritual traditions the world over, people might have reacted much more strongly.

There's an enormous difference between "feeling a connection" or keeping an item that someone gave you, and thinking that you're entitled to hold a religious gathering deliberately placed on lands that are sacred to a specific group who has been fighting for years to maintain/defend/regain their rights and access to those lands.

I'd suggest that a much better question for you to ask would be under what conditions cultural groups need to set these firm boundaries against appropriation. Maybe marginalized communities have needs to defend their culture, traditions, and lands (recognized or not) in ways that dominant communities do not. And maybe context matters far more than what appears to be a blanket resolution against cultural boundaries of any kind. After all, why are you assuming that Lakota people need to welcome the Rainbows? Why shouldn't the reverse be true--that if the Rainbows are indeed so respectful and have such love of Lakota culture, that they should have put forward their request and gained the trust of Lakota people rather than insisting on everyone's universal right to anyone's traditions?

Dogscratcher said...

"Maybe use the situation as an opportunity to build alliances rather than set antagonisms in concrete."

That doesn't seem very curmudgeonly.