Barry’s Blog # 169: Cultural Appropriation? Part Two of Seven

The alternative to cultural appropriation is cultural appreciation: learning about another culture with respect and courtesy. Some prefer the term “cultural exchange.” It is appreciating a certain culture enough to take time to learn about it, interact (or study with) with members of its community, and receive a certain blessing to carry its wisdom forward. The operative word here is permission.

Universalist-Unitarians, who proudly but sensitively use many cultural forms, offer us a poem (appropriated from an unknown author) on their website:

Our first task in approaching
Another people, another culture, another religion
Is to take off our shoes
For the place we are approaching is holy.
Else we find ourselves treading on another’s dream.
More serious still, we may forget…that God
Was there before our arrival.

The site suggests questions that “borrowers” need to ask themselves:

1 – How much do I know about this particular tradition; how do I respect it and not misrepresent it?

2 – What do I know of the history and experience of the people from whom I am borrowing?

3 – Is this borrowing distorting, watering down, or misinterpreting the tradition?

4 – Is the meaning changed?

5 – Is this overgeneralizing this culture?

6 – What is the motivation for cultural borrowing? What is being sought and why?

7 – How do the “owners” of the tradition feel about pieces of the tradition being borrowed?

8 – If artifacts and/or rituals are being sold, who profits?

9 – Is this really spiritually healthy for Unitarian Universalists?

10 – How can we acknowledge rather than exploit the contributions of all people?


Chrystal Blanton writes:

As the frameworks of culture continue to evolve and change, so does the black and white definition of what constitutes appropriation. The context of how something is regarded, shared, explored or used may vary within different cultures and different time frames. This means there is not a clear definition of what is and is not an acceptable with regards to the use of elements from another culture. Context is everything.

She quotes three persons who’ve struggled deeply with these questions. The first is anthropologist Sabina Magliocco:

… while on paper one can try to distinguish appropriation from exchange, in practice, it’s much more complicated…Think of cultural exchange as a crossroads. In folklore, the crossroads is a liminal place of magic, but it’s also a dangerous place, a place where death and destruction can happen. Crossroads deities are tricky (Eshu, Loki, Odin) and fierce (Hekate). Yet from that destruction and trickery, new life arises. It’s kind of the same with cultural contact and exchange.

Usually, when defining cultural exchange, the premise is that the two cultures entering into the exchange are on equal terms: neither is more powerful than the other. Cultural material — narratives, verbal lore, music, material culture, foodways, magical techniques — are shared as part of the process of intercultural contact.

Appropriation happens when one culture conquers another, destroys or damages their culture and substitutes its own as the dominant culture, then borrows elements of the subjugated culture, re-contextualizing them for their symbolic value…avoiding blatant cultural appropriation is about respecting the feelings and rights of other cultures with which you co-exist. It’s about recognizing when there’s a history of power-over, exploitation, and cultural destruction, and being mindful of that…

Lupa Greenwolf, author and artist, speaks of her shamanic path:

…in the U.S. at least, there is no established shamanic path in the dominant culture, and so people who come from that culture (like me) have to choose either to try to shoehorn ourselves into an indigenous culture that we may not be welcome in let alone be trained in, or research cultures of our genetic ancestors and find that we are no more “culturally” German, or Slavic, or Russian than we are Cherokee or Dine’. Or we take a third road, which is to try to piece together from scratch some tradition that carries the same basic function as a shamanic practice in another culture, but which is informed by our own experiences growing up in the culture we happened to be born into.

I think the biggest problem is when non-indigenous people wholesale take indigenous practices, and then claim to be indigenous themselves. That’s part of what makes it tougher for people who are genuinely trying to create a practice for themselves while remaining as culturally sensitive as possible, because we get lumped in with those who outright lie about who they are. So you need to be honest and clear about where your practices come from and what inspired them…

I’ve had people tell me everything from “You shouldn’t use the word ‘shaman’” to “You shouldn’t use a drum with a real hide head” to “You shouldn’t work with hides and bones at all”, all because I’m a European mutt. For a while I kept backing up and backing up and acquiescing to whoever criticized me –and then I realized that if I gave in to every criticism, I’d have no practice left at all. So I very carefully reviewed what my practice entailed, did my best to claim that which I created myself while also being honest about how other cultures’ practices inspired me, and that’s where I drew my line, where I would back up no farther.

Kenn Day, author of several books on post-tribal shamanism, adds another factor: American individualism:

… the term “post-tribal shamanism”…differentiate(s) between the teachings I received and those of tribal cultures. However, many people make the assumption that, if you are practicing ceremony with ancestor spirits, then you have taken your practice from a native tradition…The call to practice shamanism is found in every culture. Just like everything else, it appears differently in each culture, yet it is still recognizable. The most important difference I see between the shamanism practiced in tribal cultures and what I teach and practice is that the tribal practices are focused on supporting, healing and maintaining the most import unit of that culture: the tribe itself. Our situation is dramatically different, in that the most important unit of our culture is the individual. This is where our practices need to be directed. Too many traditional practices are simply not appropriate for use with individuals, just as what I do would not be appropriate for tribal people.

It’s useful to think of Americans as the tribe of those who have no tribe. What does it mean to have no tribe, to not have ancestors of countless generations whose bones enrich the actual soil that we stand upon? Is there any relation between our lack of rootedness, our desperate need to keep moving around, our habits of overrunning other nations and our addiction to genocidal violence?

Part Three of this essay is here.

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1 Response to Barry’s Blog # 169: Cultural Appropriation? Part Two of Seven

  1. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 168: Cultural Appropriation? Part One of Seven | madnessatthegates

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