The Problem of Cultural Appropriation
Cultural Appropriation is a serious issue. Since this only presents a brief introduction to the topic, readers who are unfamiliar with the concept are encouraged to do their own investigations about it for a more extensive understanding of the issue. This post is meant to address the topic in the context of The Tribe of Gaea, and how we approach the matter.
First, a succinct (as possible) definition of cultural appropriation, as we understand it:
“The use of a culture’s symbols, practices, teachings, beliefs, values, etc… by individuals and groups who are not of that cultural background in such a way as to bring confusion, misinformation, misconceptions, or disrespect upon that culture. This may be intentional, but is in most cases unintentional. It may be for profit or personal gain, “trading on” these symbols in a way that is morally, if not legally, akin to copyright or trademark infringement. However, it may also be done in ways that are not for profit. It may even be well-intentioned, and done with the utmost respect for the culture, but by removing it out of the control of that culture’s conservators, damage is done due to the introduction of inaccuracies.”
Often the damage that is done is blatant and obvious: in the 70s and 80s, the phenomenon of “plastic shamans” was raised as individuals and groups started to hold their own “Native” events, doing sweat-lodges, sun-dances, powwows, and other “Native-esque” rituals, portraying them as authentic Native rituals. They charged money for these experiences, making careers out of bringing “Native Religion” to the spiritually hungry masses of European descent in the USA, Canada, Australia, Britain and elsewhere. Done without authorization, or with questionable authorization, these events painted an inaccurate picture of Native American (or indigenous Australian or Pacific Island) culture, deprived authentic Native teachers of their own trade (and livelihoods), and created a phenomenon of “cultural imperialism”, as authentic Native culture had Western Cultural ideals projected upon it.
Sometimes, the damage that is done is subtle. One example that is given is the use of the plains Indian concept of the “vision quest”. Done around puberty, mostly by boys, it is a quest to find ones animal spirit guide. In Western Culture, it has come be used by “plastic shamans” as a means of helping individuals “find themselves”. However, in the Native traditions, it is less about the individual discovering their uniqueness, and more about them learning about the gifts that they bring to their Tribe. It is a reflection of one’s cultural place in communal society, and not about the aggrandization or comforting of the individual ego. Thus, the “vision quest” has been appropriated into a “self help” context, and not into a “strengthen the community” context.
Cultural appropriation, however, is an issue that spans a spectrum of severity. At the worst end of the spectrum are Westerners holding imitation sweat-lodges, charging hundreds or even thousands of dollars for “weekend intensive” experiences, where people’s lives and health are seriously endangered. Not long ago, several people died in one such “sweat-lodge” in Arizona. Also severe is the commercialization of a culture’s sacred symbols for sheer financial gain. Clothing designers, for example, using medicine-wheel or totem-pole imagery to sell clothing. Finally, the use of self-proclaimed authority has been used to create sexually-abusive environments where people have been manipulated and/or coerced into undesired sexual activity.
These issues above reflect what Gaeans call “The Three Major Pitfalls” of social ethics:
- Issues pertaining to the ethical pursuit of meeting needs for independence and self-determination.
- Issues pertaining to the ethical pursuit of meeting financial/material needs.
- Issues pertaining to the ethical pursuit of meeting sexual needs.
Most conflicts in society occur over one of these three issues.
With the first, we meet up with the right to be in control of one’s own destiny, to tell one’s own story, and to accurately express one’s self into the world. Cultural appropriation denies this opportunity to Native Peoples as others assume the privilege of doing it for them. It says, “Let me tell you about the Native Americans” rather than “Go listen to their stories from their own mouths.” Often, this effort is done with a condescending, paternal quality, especially from academia, which claims to only be trying to protect and preserve their culture. (And that may indeed be their intent, but when it is done without a respectful invitation to participate in, or even oversee, the development of curricula, for example, it is exploitative).
With the second, we have people making money on the cultural symbols of another culture. Some argue that “art” is often inspired in a cross-cultural manner, and this is true. But when scantily-clad supermodels are decked out in the feathered head-dress “war-bonnet” of an Indian chief for a photo-shoot, is that truly art? This is a debate that often gets heated, but the fact is that Madison Avenue and their clients make a great deal of money on Native imagery, and they often get away with it, because no legal entity owns the copyright to these images. Along with everything else stolen from them in the 16th to 20th Centuries, their cultural symbols continue to be stolen, depriving them of the right to trade on their own symbols, as they will, and retaining that which is most sacred out of the commercial space.
With the third, we see the sexual exploitation of individuals by those who claim to be spiritual teachers, but who are sexual predators.
Less severe, perhaps, is the teaching and sharing of values, ideals, practices and techniques by earnest and sincere teachers of spirituality, with earnest and sincere students. When a particular practice or teaching is portrayed as being of a particular “Native” culture, or set of native cultures, we risk creating a false-impression of that culture. Even an accurate portrayal of one specific tribal custom, without acknowledging that other tribes do things differently, can create an impression that all tribes do things in one particular way. There is no single, monolithic “Native American Culture”. There are, in some ways, vast differences between the cultures of the Plains Tribes versus the Pueblo Tribes of the Southwest, versus the Pacific Northwest Tribes versus the New England Tribes, etc… these differences arise out of lifestyles: what they ate, how they wintered, the effects of climate and weather and the specific biome they live in, and sometimes just simply vary because one tribe doesn’t necessarily do things the same way as their neighboring tribe. Even within a specific biome and geographical area, there are vast differences between tribes. For example, the Lakota and other Sioux tribes were traditionally nomadic bison-hunters, but the Pawnee, Ponca, Omaha and other Tribes settled along the various rivers and lived a more settled existence with subsistence agriculture forming the foundation of their diets. Omaha customs are markedly different than Lakota customs.
However, as any college-student knows, research and study often involves the exercises of “contrast and compare”. “Contrast” emphasizes differences, while “compare” emphasizes similarities. When we compare without contrasting, we risk over-generalization and stereotyping. When we contrast without comparing, we often miss important underlying themes that connect various peoples and cultures. Both processes must be done with sensitivity and care to come to anything closely resembling an accurate picture.
Even then, it’s only a picture, and fails to capture the actual experience of being. It is like being presented with an accurate map of a territory, without actually exploring it. An understanding of what it means to “be Lakota” is only ever really achieved by growing up Lakota, and living in community with Lakota. The New Age movement has unfortunately often operated on the assumption that white, upper-middle class suburbanites can come to an understanding of “being an Indian” by sitting in their air-conditioned living-rooms, pounding on drums; or dancing around a bonfire; or sitting in a backyard sweat-lodge with other White, upper-middle class suburbanites. This is “spiritual tourism”, and it makes one no more an Indian than does spending a week exploring Paris make one French.
Does this invalidate the usefulness of experiencing some of these activities? No. But it is limited in its implications. Can I gain some insight into French culture by visiting Paris? Yes, with the caveat that that understanding is colored by one’s own cultural paradigm. Can I really understand what it is to be French? No, not from a visit. Does speaking French help? Yes. Does eating French cuisine help? A little. How about living in a French village, with a French family? Yes, that helps much more. Arcas lived in Germany, learned the German language, and for several months, lived with a German couple. He gained quite a bit of insight about German life through that experience, but would never have thought of himself as “German” as a result of that experience, even though he also shares 3/4 of his genetic ancestry from that region. Similarly, spending time with Native Peoples, living with them, among them, as them, speaking their language, joining in their activities, can bring far greater insight into who they are than any reading of a textbook, or performance of a ritual outside of their cultural context; and this experience still does not make one a Native.
There are some folks who go to this extent, and some of those have gained enough understanding an insight to be recognized by the Tribe, have been taught by their elders, and have enjoyed a certain degree of approval to share with others. Famously, Lakota medicine-man Black Elk shared his wonderful vision with American poet/author John G. Neihardt and gave him permission to publish it. Neihardt had earned Black Elk’s trust through his extensive work in respectfully recording and publishing the stories of the Omaha Indians and others. “Black Elk Speaks” has served to aid in a cultural understanding that has inspired millions.
However, it is also, unfortunately, partially to blame for the rise of the “plastic shaman” phenomenon. Europeans who have felt spiritually malnourished by the dominant religion of Europe, Christianity, turned in droves to “Black Elk Speaks” and other books in an earnest desire to find a more fulfilling spiritual practice and paradigm. Plastic shamans flooded the market with books, tapes/CDs, workshops, apprenticeships, and other products and services to meet the demand, exploiting that hunger and profiting off feeding those masses a steady diet of pseudo-Indian fare.
But the hunger is genuine, arising out of an authentic need to find something real and true, and in harmony with their post-Christian values. Our next installment of this series will tackle the subject of “Feeding the Spiritual Seeker”.