Cultural appropriation has been a phrase that has been showing up in many areas of social media, especially within the Pagan and now even in the indigenous communities. Just recently there was an interesting conversation in a Facebook group that sparked the idea of this blog entry and we thought we would write about it. We want to express that this post is based on opinions of the information that was found viable on the topic and through the experience of one of our owners own connection to a “Living Culture” and by no means constitutes, as a 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. Agreed! Although, it is not so much in the actual word being used, as it has become part of our social language, but more so in its improper use and meaning. What made the conversation even more interesting 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. Whereas, what constitutes respect for one’s beliefs and how far does that carry over when it is appropriating a “living culture” ? and who has the right to correct it? To answer these questions, it is best to first look at what “cultural appropriation” really is, and what the general thoughts are at this time.
According to the Oxford Reference site, which states that cultural appropriation is “A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.” 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 cultural globalization or in this case cultural adoption. 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 and incorporate them into our culture. This can be seen even more so since the creation of the Internet. We could take this further and get into colonization but that could lead us down a rabbit hole that we choose not to go down.
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 Oxford’s explanation of cultural appropriation. It continues on, stating that “It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.” Here is where it gets fuzzy for many people, and rightfully so. Mainly because how does one know where cultural integration (borrowing) ends and cultural exploitation (stealing) begins, truth is no one 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 community 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) and in some cases with good reason, some of the white artists grew up within the African American culture via their neighborhoods.
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 celebrities such as Madonna, Justin Beiber, and even Gorden Ramsey have all been accused of cultural appropriation. Which begs the question where does the line get drawn in artistic expression? Sadly, These controversies and concerns are not just found in the music industry and pop culture, but in 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 questions of “what constitutes respect for one’s beliefs and how far does that carry over when it is appropriating a living culture” and to whom has the right to correct it? Especially, as in the context of the Facebook conversation.
Nope, not yet, there is still one more important part of the conversation that should be addressed. The concept of Pagan and the New-age ideals of respecting one’s spiritual beliefs and choices. This is an agreeable model of having respect for one’s personal beliefs and path. One should be able to have the right to have their own personal experiences, to do as they please, worship whom they please, in any way they please in their own PERSONAL spiritual beliefs. In a way that is what separates us from the dogma of many of conventional religions. However! you have to ask yourself a few questions, is it “stealing” from a living culture? Are you stating that it is your own practice and do you have the rights to certain practices? This is where it can become disrespectful and may even cross the lines into cultural appropriation. It is rather interesting that one of the biggest things Pagans (a word that comes out of Christian culture) complain about; is how Christianity stole from the Pagans, yet, they are guilty of the same exact thing. Whereas, many of the modern pagan practices used today actually have more of a Christian foundation then what is assumed as “the old way”. 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 it is done out of ignorance and improper education. You might have noticed that throughout this entry the term “living culture” has been used 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 or are based on a modern interpretation of them through the founders of modern Witchcraft, such as Gerald Gardner. 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 what we call today as cultural appropriation. We can see this especially 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 can be considered cultural appropriation, however even here there are fine lines. To some these are sacred ceremonies of specific tribal traditions that are often misused, misrepresented, and “stolen” from their respected “living cultures”, while others see them for all to use to spiritually better humanity. However, it all depends on its origins and the teachings. That is not to say that one cannot have a meaningful spiritual experience in taking part in such activities, it is just that you may be 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” as they can also be found in non-living cultures as well. In the case of our Facebook conversation, we see the use of the word “totem”, The word “totem” was and is still used by the Pacific Northwest first nations tribes of America (a living culture). This word along with many others (nameste, shaman etc) are often used inappropriately from it’s original intent or cultural meaning.
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 also considered sacred objects.
The term “totem” has been “stolen” by many of the New-age and Pagan communities who have either no involvement 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 just as the word shaman is used for anything related to an indigenous practice. The word totem has been commonly used inappropriately to describe the belief in guardian spirits and deities of the indigenous peoples of America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and even Europe. However, these cultures have their own words for guardian spirits in their own languages, and do not call these spirits, “totems”.
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 is often used in the New-age and Pagan communities (although, its become less favorable over the years) is Aho! Again, here we see another tribal word misused from a “living culture”. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether or not it has been “borrowed” or “stolen” mainly due to the open use of it within the powwow circuits and the open teachings of many Lokata members or if it is a throwback of the 70’s new age movement. 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.
So how far does respecting one’s spiritual beliefs go when there is an apparent appropriation of a living culture and who has the right to challenge that. Honestly, the only people who have a right to challenge that is someone who is of currently or from that living culture itself. Even there it can become tricky because there is disagreement within those cultures as well, especially between the elders and younger generations. Which is why it is best to leave the issue to only those are currently involved in the said culture that may be being appropriated within their own community or better yet, follow the “two wrongs don’t make a right”, and just let it be. If your voice is louder than the voices of a living culture you are just as much as the problem as the appropriator and sometimes just being an ally just means you are a supporter and not a warrior.