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.
A 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.
Another 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.