Cultural Appropriation

Going back to the flute conversation, (do we need a new topic?), I just stumbled across the European answer to the didgeridoo: it’s the overtone flute, and it is so incredibly simple that it is probably the ancestor of all wind instruments. In Slovakia it is called the Koncovka, and in Russia it is the Kalyuka. I also saw it called a Shepard’s Flute.

Here it is at . Larger versions sound more like a didgeridoo. And it can also be made as a vertical flute instead of transverse/horizontal.

And a musician in the German neo-folk band Faun plays one here at 1:36 minutes: .

By the way, I just found some beautiful pieces of elder branch I’ll be letting dry out. I’m excited.

Dude. Monica. You are amazing at finding this stuff. Thank you so much. This is great.

Man, this stuff just finds itself for me! It’s like following a trail of really big glow-in-the-dark breadcrumbs.

A friend sent me this article on appropriation the other day. I wasn’t expecting much since it was on Reality Sandwich, one of the worst sites of appropriation out there (in my experience).

The article is actually pretty decent. A few things they say are annoying, and they don’t get to the “research your own heritage” idea, but its a great start I guess.


So glad this thread is already here. Just got back from Saskatoon Circle and had a pretty frustrating discussion around CA there. One thing that I hadn’t been hip to, is that a lot of the stuff around buckskins, is specifically looking at the patterns/beadwork included on buckskins, where some white person found a book of buckskins, and copied a SACRED pattern onto their own buckskin. This feels similar to folks wearing war bonnets without having earned them.

Some other things that I heard people say could be summed up as:

“Yeah, but like some folks in Africa appropriated Christianity, so what’s the difference?” The difference is that colonized peoples using the culture of their colonizers, especially that of an inherently colonizing belief system, are doing something completely different than colonizers taking cultural aspects of colonized cultures.

“I just wish people would acknowledge my good intent.” That’s nice, but I will never place more importance on your good intentions than on the ill effects of your actions, and to expect colonized peoples to do this is nauseating.

I also kept hearing people using friction fire as an example that they were defending as being rooted in all human cultures, though it felt like a distraction to me as I’ve never heard anyone claim that White people using friction fire is CA.

All that said, I think there is a lot of complexity in this issue that I never see discussed. Questions I have:

What aspects of a culture are “ownable”?
What is the actual effect of any given act of appropriation?
Is subcultural appropriation as detrimental as a broader cultural appropriation?

In the end, I think it’s always going to be more interesting, and more helpful to have a broader discussion about the effects of any given act, than to just label something CA and end the discussion, though I don’t think that colonized peoples owe this to colonizing peoples at all.

People have been copying each other for thousands of years. There are respectful ways of doing that, and there are disrespectful ways.

I think that cultural appropriation is a weird issue. It’s a very recent concept and people love to blanket it onto all kinds of things. I think the concept is still defining itself, and its being defined by people using it, testing the limits of its reach and meaning. I think it really amounts to growing pains. It’s also a product of “mass culture” or even “globalization” where people think we are all one, and that everything is all good, so its totally fine to copy someone else. Of course, this isn’t the case, but most “white” people (a few rewilders even) think they are entitled to take whatever they want, without realizing their entitlement is an issue at all.

I personally don’t think that any aspects of culture are “ownable,” but that real, authentic culture comes from the relationship between people and the land base itself. The environment dictates how people should behave, and people come up with ways of teaching this to one another. Anything else is a product of globalization and excess wealth. Because our culture is so removed from the land, we have “art” for “art’s” sake. So we steal beautiful landbased art that is has meaning inter-woven with land-based living, like headdresses, and wear them as meaningless articles of beauty.

That all said, because I respect Native people, have learned most of what I know about this landbase from them or their elders, and have many Native friends that I care about and therefore do not want to hurt, I’m pretty good at avoiding what I think they would call cultural appropriation these days.

What is really damaging is “mis-appropriation” (which is what most people mean these days when they say CA). This is when the cultural element is transformed into a different meaning than the culture where it came from, thus, creating a false impression of the original culture or creating stereotypes that are incorrect. An example, is of course, the Native Headdress. Or Native Mascots. Or simply, continuing stereotypes like all Native Americans are wise and spiritual.

I enjoyed reading through this thread tonight. Sleepy as I am I couldn’t stop until the end.

I feel like ultimately so much depends on the land itself, the plants and animals—forming a relationship with a place, finding the roots there, following those roots.

A couple of weeks ago I told my daughters a story about Finn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge. The salmon in the story, and the hazelnuts, made me think of the PNW where I grew up, and it felt good to think of there being salmon and hazelnuts in Ireland too, where some of my ancestors (including my father’s father) lived and died. It was funny how happy I felt thinking of the salmon and hazelnuts in faraway Ireland.

I spent a year in Northern Ireland (Coleraine, north of Belfast, near Giant’s Causeway) at age 19. The climate reminded me in some ways of the PNW. I didn’t feel entirely foreign in that climate, close to the sea.

I still dream from time to time of that place. Those dreams are filled with feelings of longing, bittersweet and melancholy, and usually involve searching for old friends but not being able to locate anyone and feeling like a stranger everywhere.

What a description for some of us: feeling like a stranger everywhere. It can be really confusing being human! I do want to have compassion for even the most idiotic-seeming cultural appropriators. It’s hard having the history and nature hammered out of you.

I remember some American exchange students being mocked mercilessly by the Irish students for saying something along the lines of, “I’m Irish too.” I remember avoiding after that point even mentioning that my grandfather and uncles had been born and raised in Co. Kerry.

I took a film class that year focused on the Irish identity. It boiled down to contrast between old American films about the Irish, which idealized the Irish and made Ireland fuzzy and quaint, and old British films about the Irish, which portrayed the Irish as violent, half-human imbeciles. Not unlike portrayals of Native Americans, or I’m sure any number of people…

It’s funny but sometimes I just sit and feel so grateful for the goddamn trees. I’ve tried to think who my people might’ve been, in terms of cultural mentors. Honest to goodness, though, I think the earth itself helped me along the most. I come from that place, and share that place with many dead people of varying origins and ancestries, including of course many, many generations of indigenous people. I have deep affection for plants and animals—and smells, colors, textures, etc.—of the Puget Sound area, because I was a child there.

Thanks for this and your other posts, Mindy - very nicely written.

‘Feeling like a stranger everywhere’ indeed. I’ve heard African-Americans and -Europeans speak in a similar way about trips to their ancestral land. On the one hand it feels like coming home, but at the same time it’s a strange place and they feel a greater (or different, but stronger) sense of belonging to the places they were born and raised up. What does it mean to ‘get in touch with your roots’ when your family line was transplanted generations ago to a totally new continent thousands of miles away? Plants don’t really have a choice about where their roots go: it’s straight down into the soil they’re standing on. Transplanting is a hugely traumatic process, but the fundamentals of getting adequate water and mineral nutrients for survival don’t change.

I do want to have compassion for even the most idiotic-seeming cultural appropriators. It's hard having the history and nature hammered out of you.

Yes, I agree. Watching the documentary Peter linked to above (Becoming a Native American in the Czech Republic on Vimeo) about the Czech ‘Indians’, I had a similar reaction: while sympathetic to the appropriation argument and understanding that there’s really no excuse for pirating another culture’s traditions, I was left with a curiosity about just how weird it was, and how it came about that these young people felt they had to live in that way. (One thing I learned from anthropology was that it’s pointless to judge another culture from your own culture’s standpoint - you don’t learn anything by doing that.) I have Czech ancestry myself and have seen quite a few examples of the fetishisation of ‘wild west’ ‘cowboys & injuns’ culture, as they perceive it. A close family member is a fan of Ernest Thompson Seton (who got namechecked in the film) and has a summer house in the mountains where he has built teepees and totem poles, and hosts a ‘potlach’ every four years or so where all his old Czech buddies come to get wasted, have ceremonies and music round a big fire, and play boy-scout type games the morning after. It’s a lot of fun! But yes, this topic has made me question many aspects about that culture. I’m thinking of sending along some of the above material to see what my relative has to say…

It was interesting that the Native Americans who did the documentary and visited the Czechs, while having their initial reservations, eventually went away thinking of it as a positive phenomenon over all (discussion from 1:03). Although there was an account of others who denounced what they were doing in very strong terms as well, which was hard to argue with. The excuse the leader came up with - that he had suffered oppression and destruction of culture at the hands of the communists in a similar way to the Indians - didn’t wash for me.

Anyway, that leads to the question of where to locate my own identity, born into a strange land with two foreign parents unsure from the first how to make their way, and an ancestry scattered across Eastern and Western Europe. It’s a difficult one, to which I haven’t come up with many answers (other than the one about embedding your roots into the ground where you stand).


I agree about having sympathy for folks who culturally appropriate who are looking for some glimmer of their own ancestral past. I’m not sure if I can extend my sympathy to pop stars who wear headresses because it’s cool though. hahaha :wink:

[font=georgia]I think that the key to this conversation lies well in the quote that was already posted:

“They were in a way trying to imitate us but in another way they were trying to remember who they were. Every human being is a descendant of a tribe. So these white people, they’re the descendants of tribes. There was a time in their ancestry when they wore feathers, and they wore beads, and shells. There was a time in their ancestry, before this colonizing mentality came and did to them – to turn them into the white people they are – and then it came and did it to us; the very same thing that happened to us happened to them.”
John Trudell, Reel Injun (2009)
Lakota Activist / Poet

Having long respected the thoughts and works of John, I was glad to see this quote here. I think the biggest problem that develops confusion, resentment and labels of cultural appropriation, racism, etc is the lack of knowledge available across the boards. We are products of our upbringing, that cannot be denied. Those who seek to ‘remember who we were’ often times have trouble finding those answers. This has been brought up by many other responses and it is a great point. Our ancestors [most folks] are not from America [in origin], yet we are told we are Americans. We are taught in public schools ‘our’ histories - of colonization, native tribes, buckskin clad pioneers, etc. So of course the first place folks would look is misguided. Most folks when asked if there were ever ‘tribes’ in Europe probably wouldn’t answer correctly - but they could tell you about ‘tribes’ in America. In my opinion though, instead of taking that deeper step to find truth, they cling to the first thing they find which happens to be Native Americans. By no means am I making this a viable excuse - the sad part is most are happy to stop there. They do not fully comprehend the mistakes and insults they are making and will never know if they do not take the next step to delve deeper into what they seek.

Feathers, beads, and shells were worn by all peoples at one time. I am willing to bet there were some similarities to the types of feathers, beads, and shells worn by Native Americans and say Celtic Tribes. In the long run though, as we are all aware, there are specific species of birds, sea life, and bead making techniques specific to the bioregions from which the various tribes lived. It is a lot easier to find seed beads then Norse beads, so instead of taking the extra step they go to the local department store and gather up some beads and off they go. Or at the local festival they pick up some turkey feathers painted like eagle feathers and stick one in their hat. And so again, they do not fully comprehend the mistakes and insults they are making and will never know if they do not take the next step to delve deeper into what they seek.

Then there is also the idea being bred into our thoughts, that we should not take pride in our heritage - especially those of White European descent[which is a completely new can of worms]. I know this first hand, being a member of a Heathen folkish tribe. Even amongst other Heathens the word ‘folkish’ brings up intense feelings and instant stereotypes. So while trying to find the truth about my ancestors, I must wade through the ‘extra’ bullshit on top of the already difficult process of finding out about my ancestors and their tribes. Fortunately, I do not mind the extra effort - unfortunately most folks are content to do a lot less work to find truth in a world that finds ‘truth’ unpalatable. [/font]

I love that John Trudell quote! Was one of my favorite parts about the Reel Injun doc.

What he says is totally true, and right on.

But also, there are people, as ignorant as they may be, who are very insulting in their mimicry of Native people. Yes, it may stem from a deeper yearning to connect with that part of their ancestral lifeway, but some people do it in a very ignorant and offensive way. When confronted, these people do not empathize with Native cultures, but defend their actions, not able to understand how they have offended anyone, or how they have copied a culture in search of their own. This is the crux of the cultural appropriation issue. White people not acknowledging committing cultural theft (ala Germans obsession with Native American stereotypes, Pop stars wearing headdresses, non-native people running Native ceremonies) and Native people seeing non-native people as cultural appropriators, even when they are authentically researching their own histories and not copying Native Americans.

I feel like this is a new growing pain caused in part by: People assuming Native American culture has now entered the “melting pot” of Americana and is therefore, not owned by anyone and can be appropriated, and second, by the feelings explained in John Trudells quote above.

The main questions is and will be… How do you navigate this terrain as a Rewilder so that you create more allies than enemies?

[font=georgia]I agree 100%. There are no doubts in my mind and I have seen such and it made me feel shame in seeing their actions. I believe part of this problem is deeply rooted in this feeling of ‘entitlement’ that has grown roots in society today. They feel they have the right to dress/act/appropriate whatever the hell they please and anyone who opposes them be damned. [devil’s advocate: Do they have that right to do as they please? Apparently - though that definitely does not make it right][/font]

[font=georgia]I think that the color of the skin shouldn’t mark the ‘appropriation’. I have been a member of the SCA[Society for Creative Anachronism] for many years. Perhaps I have gotten used to seeing various appropriation by numerous people of different cultures and so I have become a bit more unsurprised by it. I have always sought a persona that reflected my ancestry, but I know many who are not even close. There are a lot of folk who appropriate Asian cultures, Norse cultures, Celtic Cultures…the more I think about it pretty much every single one. The one thing I can say is that the serious members of the SCA who have appropriated cultures are very sincere in their appreciation, research, and knowledge. Do I still twinge when I see folks do this? Yes. [/font]

[font=georgia]Perhaps I have seen less of the severity of this problem living in PA because there are not as many Natives that live here as in the West? I have never seen/heard any comments by those Natives that have been at various events but that may also be because I have not seen many folks guilty of the appropriations. I will be more astute about it though. I cannot say that I have any close Native friends either, so I have not had the opportunity to speak more in depth about it with them. Perhaps I will investigate it more at the next event I attend. Is the offense more pronounced due to the massive injustices done to the Natives when the Europeans came to America? For instance do Asians feel less offended by European samurais? Or Scandinavians less offended by African Vikings?

My initial hope would be that one might create more allies than enemies by being open and honest with those who might question them in regards to what they have an issue with. I would also hope that those who are outspoken on the subject have taken the opportunity to educate themselves on the ancient cultures of said offender. Then their discussions may show them a common ground and clarify some of the misunderstanding. As folk have shown, learned, and come to realize there are many ties that bind us as humans, so other than specifics many of our actions, rituals, beliefs, clothing, diets, etc have similarities and connections. Who has the right to claim which items?[/font]

Here is a cool blog of someone with European decent looking for old traditions. It’s really great. A bit flowery in language, but great.

Going over some old threads today.
That John Trudell quote reminded me of the following:

One evening at a campfire, a young man in his early twenties expressed his desire to learn more about plants and trees. He could hardly hold back his tears as he despairingly recalled: “If only I had paid more attention when my grandmother pulled plants in her vegetable garden - she had two baskets, but what she put in which and why, I have no idea!”.

Many people eventually discover this innate yearning for learning about plants/animals/fire/etc. The young man’s impression that he should have paid more attention can be viewed as a symptom of a culture not aware of this innate need.
He didn’t have to blame himself - if only his grandmother and others had known about this need, they would have made sure that he and all youngsters would get grounded in nature.

I suppose that if people will become aware of both this innate need as well as this cultural blind spot, they will become more inclined to learn more about native species and resources, rather than copy from other cultures.

The tragedy SerpentSun is that at worst for a white person being sick of hearing about racism and cultural appropriation will result for them in no more than some social awkwardness and a flame war or two online.

Whereas at worst for those suffering from cultural theft and racism it’s violence, fear and depression.

I’ve worked in the trenches doing endangered language revitalization with native communities. When you meet an elderly residential school survivor beaten for speaking their language, and terrified when you encourage them to speak it with their grandchildren it’s hard to pretend it doesn’t exist.

I don’t have much sympathy for those who find empathy and grieving for each other an inconvenience. It takes courage no doubt about it. But it’s what is required for healing. I’m disappointed in your perspective.