I “totem” so! – Respecting “Living Cultures”


Cultural appropriation has been a phrase that has been showing up in many areas of social media,‭ ‬especially within the Pagan and indigenous communities.‭ ‬Just recently I was witness to an interesting conversation in a Facebook group that sparked the idea of this blog entry and thought I would write about it.‭ ‬I want to express that this post is based on my opinions on the information I have found viable on the topic and by no means constitutes,‭ ‬as factual study or anthropological theory.‭

With not mentioning names or personal situations,‭ ‬the above conversation focused on someone asking for help with interrupting a vision they had involving a‭ “‬totem‭”‬.‭ ‬Whereas another member of the group,‭ ‬respectfully but sternly pointed out the use of the word‭ “‬totem‭” ‬is disrespectful to the Native American tribes of the northwest as well as pointing out it’s over use in the Pagan and New-age communities.‭ ‬I had to somewhat agree with this.‭ ‬Although,‭ ‬it is not so much in the actual word being used,‭ ‬but in its improper use and meaning.‭ ‬What made the conversation even more interesting to me was when an admin for the page joined in,‭ ‬assuming it was to keep the peace before it escalated into an unfruitful debate.‭ ‬The admin’s interjection of a reminder to respect one’s personal beliefs is what really raised an eyebrow for me.‭ ‬Whereas,‭ ‬what constitutes respect for one’s beliefs and how far does that carry over when it is appropriating a‭ “‬living culture‭” ? ‬To answer this I think it is best to first look at what cultural appropriation is,‭ ‬and what the general thoughts are at this time.‭

According to Wikipedia,‭ ‬which strangely enough had the best general definition I could find,‭ ‬which‭ ‬states,‭ “‬Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.‭”‬ It continues on,‭ ‬but let’s stop here for a moment.‭ ‬If we were to use this definition and apply it to our modern culture,‭ ‬we would all be guilty of‭ “‬cultural appropriation‭”‬.‭ ‬As a modern society we have adopted many cultural ideals and facets from almost every part of the world.‭ ‬This is what is known as globalization or in this case cultural globalization.‭ ‬The fact is,‭ ‬that almost everything we do and say is a result of a mixing of cultures.‭ ‬From what we choose to wear in the morning to being polite when someone sneezes.‭ ‬They all have their cultural origins from somewhere in the world,‭ ‬yet we do these everyday things without a second thought of where they came from.‭ ‬In fact,‭ ‬much of our modern global culture can be attributed to the rise of intercontinental travel,‭ ‬whereas the world got smaller and we began to‭ “‬borrow‭” ‬from different cultures.‭ ‬This can be seen even more so since the creation of the‭ ‬Internet.‭

On a smaller scale,‭ ‬a good example of cultural‭ “‬borrowing‭” ‬can be seen within the United States,‭ ‬where almost everything has been the result the world’s cultures living side by side.‭ ‬We can even go smaller on our scale and find these same patterns within America’s communities.‭ ‬This is just what happens when people come together‭; ‬over time they share and adopt the surrounding traditions,‭ ‬dialects,‭ ‬and even religious beliefs.‭

So,‭ ‬if it is something that has gone on for decades,‭ ‬why is it now a problem‭? ‬Well,‭ ‬that brings us back to Wikipedia’s explanation of cultural appropriation.‭ ‬It continues on,‭ ‬stating that‭ “‬Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial,‭ ‬notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority‭; ‬this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights.‭” ‬Here is where I think it gets fuzzy for many people,‭ ‬and rightfully so.‭ ‬How does one know where cultural integration‭ (‬borrowing‭) ends and cultural appropriation‭ (‬stealing‭) begins,‭ ‬truth is I don’t think anyone knows for sure.‭ ‬Which is why this topic has become so controversial in recent years.‭

elvis_presley_first_national_television_appearance_1956A perfect example of the fine lines between the‭ “‬borrowing‭” ‬from or the‭ “‬stealing‭” ‬from a minority culture can be found right on our radios.‭ ‬Today,‭ ‬we can turn on the radio and hear thousands of different genres of music,‭ ‬all of which has progressed from the rock-n-roll and rhythm and blues of the‭ ‬1940‭‘‬s and‭ ‬50‭‘‬s.‭ ‬During this time,‭ ‬African American musicians weren’t widely accepted in American society despite the interest in their musical styling.‭ ‬So to make the music more marketable to white audiences,‭ ‬the record companies would use white musicians to replicate the music and style of the African American culture with no mention of its origins.‭ ‬Sadly,‭ ‬many of the African American musicians who paved the way for rock-n-roll never saw any compensation for their contribution to the music.‭ ‬Even to this day there is still a debate between music historians as to where it all originated from and if it was integrated‭ (‬borrowed‭) ‬or appropriated‭ (‬stolen‭).‭

Okay,‭ ‬so you are probably saying to‭ ‬yourself that was then,‭ ‬we have come so far as a society that things like that don’t happen in that way anymore.‭ ‬Thankfully,‭ ‬now we have laws protecting intellectual rights for all,‭ ‬at least in cases of musical creations.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬it still can be found in other places,‭ ‬especially in our present day pop culture.‭ ‬Again,‭ ‬we can turn to our musical influences to find the topic of cultural appropriation still being an issue,‭ ‬where over the last few years,‭ ‬music artists and musicians such as‭ ‬Madonna,‭ ‬Gwen Stefani,‭ ‬and Katy Perry have all been accused of cultural appropriation in their stage shows.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬these controversies and concerns are not just found in the music industry,‭ ‬but in the fashion,‭ ‬art,‭ ‬and neo-religious circles of our culture as well.‭ ‬At most,‭ ‬many see it as a form of racism,‭ ‬rather than a matter of respect for a living culture.‭ ‬Depending on the circumstances,‭ ‬it can be a matter of both or just one,‭ ‬which is why there are so many different perspectives on the topic.‭

Now that we have looked into what cultural appropriation is or might be,‭ ‬at least generally speaking.‭ ‬Is it possible that we can answer our preceding question of‭ “‬what constitutes respect for one’s beliefs and how far does that carry over when it is appropriating a living culture‭”? Especially,‭ ‬as in the context of our Facebook conversation.‭

Nope,‭ ‬not yet,‭ ‬there is still one more important part of the conversation that‭ ‬I feel should be addressed.‭ ‬The concept of‭ ‬Pagan and New-age ideals of respecting one’s spiritual beliefs and choices.‭ ‬I fully agree with this model of having respect for one’s personal beliefs and path.‭ ‬One should be able to do as they please,‭ ‬worship whom they please,‭ ‬in any way they please.‭ ‬That is what separates us from the dogma of conventional religions.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬it is the‭ “‬stealing‭” ‬from a living culture and stating that it is one’s own practice,‭ ‬that is when it is disrespectful and crosses the lines into cultural appropriation.‭ ‬I find it rather interesting that one of the biggest things Pagans complain about‭; ‬is how Christianity stole from the Pagans,‭ ‬yet,‭ ‬we are guilty of the same exact thing.‭ ‬Many of us‭ “‬Steal‭” ‬from the indigenous and esoteric cultures of the world and make them our own.‭ ‬This is not to say that it is done with a purposeful intent,‭ ‬most often I believe it is done out of ignorance and improper education.‭ ‬You might have noticed that throughout this entry I used the term‭ “‬living culture‭” ‬in regards to appropriating cultural aspects.‭ ‬There is a reason for this,‭ ‬one cannot‭ “‬steal‭” ‬from what is not truly known.‭ ‬In other words,‭ ‬or rather a better explanation of this is that many of today’s Pagan religions and practices are based on what we know or think we know about ancient cultures.‭ ‬They are a mismatched,‭ ‬botched up,‭ ‬combination of cultural traditions that are in general not practiced anymore.‭ ‬Even the Re-constructionist religions are only based on theory and limited historical texts.‭ ‬So there can be no cultural appropriation,‭ ‬when that original culture no longer exists as it was.‭ ‬It is when we start to incorporate specific teachings and practices of the‭ “‬living cultures‭” ‬that we begin to cross the lines of cultural appropriation.‭ ‬We can see this in the use of the many indigenous practices within the New-age communities and even in many of the Pagan communities.‭ ‬Where you may find pseudo sweat lodges and ayahuasca ceremonies being offered by non-tribal peoples.‭ ‬This is cultural appropriation‭! ‬These are sacred ceremonies of specific tribal traditions that are often misused,‭ ‬misrepresented,‭ ‬and‭ “‬stolen‭” ‬from their respected‭ “‬living cultures‭”‬.‭ ‬That is not to say that one cannot have a meaningful spiritual experience in taking part in such activities,‭ ‬it is just that you are supporting the theft of a sacred ceremony in the process.‭ ‬Many people also view such things as drumming,‭ ‬smudging,‭ ‬and the practice of using sacred fires as cultural appropriation.‭ ‬Although,‭ ‬some of these practices can incorporate the‭ “‬stealing‭” ‬of a particular ceremony the actual practice is more of‭ “‬borrowing‭”‬.‭ ‬Reason being is that they can be found in almost every culture,‭ ‬both‭ “‬living‭” ‬and ancient.‭ ‬In the case of our Facebook conversation,‭ ‬we see the use of the word‭ “‬totem‭”‬,‭ ‬as the member stated this word and many others often gets used inappropriately from it’s original intent.‭

The word‭ “‬totem‭” ‬was and is still used by the Pacific Northwest first nations tribes of America.‭

The word itself derives from Ojibwe‭ (‬Chippewa‭) ‬word odoodem,‭ ‬which roughly translates to‭ “‬his kinship group‭”‬.‭ ‬Totems are representations of spirit beings or a symbol of a particular group of people,‭ ‬such as a family,‭ ‬clan,‭ ‬lineage,‭ ‬or tribe.‭ ‬They are sacred objects.‭

The term‭ “‬totem‭” ‬has been‭ “‬stolen‭” ‬by many of the New-age and Pagan communities who have either no involved in it’s tribal practices or uses it’s meaning improperly as a term for their personal spirit or guide.‭ ‬Partly this is due to it being often used in scholarly circles as an umbrella term.‭ ‬Which is used to describe the belief in guardian spirits and deities of the indigenous peoples of America,‭ ‬Africa,‭ ‬Asia,‭ ‬Australia,‭ ‬and Europe.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬these cultures have their own words for guardian spirits in their own languages,‭ ‬and do not call these spirits,‭ “‬totems‭”‬.‭

I feel that because the word is both misused and continues to be a part of a‭ “‬living culture‭” ‬it can be considered cultural appropriation.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬the associated practice of using guardian spirits or certain tribal meanings is not.‭

alexispowwowAnother tribal phrase that gets under my skin that is often used in the New-age and Pagan communities is Aho‭! ‬Again,‭ ‬here we see another tribal word misused from a‭ “‬living culture‭”‬.‭ ‬I am unsure whether or not it has been‭ “‬borrowed‭” ‬or‭ “‬stolen‭” ‬due to the open use within the powwow circuits and the open teachings of many Lokata members.‭ ‬The word itself originates from the language of the Lakota people where it means‭ “‬hello‭”‬.‭ ‬It can also be found in the Kiowa and Cherokee tribes,‭ ‬but‭ ‬its use is entirely different.‭ ‬The use of this term has been adopted and wrongly used by many within the New-age and Pagan communities,‭ ‬where it is often used to indicate agreement.‭ ‬I see it as a complete disrespect to the‭ “‬living culture‭” ‬of the Lakota people.

So how far does respecting one’s spiritual beliefs go when there is an apparent appropriation of a living culture.‭ ‬Honestly,‭ ‬because of our underlining creed that we should respect everyone’s spiritual beliefs,‭ ‬those who use the term improperly can be shown respect by educating them on its cultural meaning.‭ ‬Even if they disagree,‭ ‬you have done your part in respecting the‭ “‬living culture‭”‬.‭

This model of respect can be utilized for any element that is misused or appropriated from a‭ “‬living culture‭”‬.‭ ‬Making sure you have the knowledge yourself,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬and remember that extending this knowledge to others should be done in a respectful manner.


2 thoughts on “I “totem” so! – Respecting “Living Cultures”

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