Cultural Appropriation: A Brief Discussion and Overview

Cultural appropriation can be a tough nut to crack. I think it is a nut that will never be cracked (at least, not all the way). It’s like a pistachio that is barely open: you can see the juicy stuff and know what’s in there, but no matter how hard you pry or how sore the tips of your thumbs get, you will never get that puppy open. The depths of cultural appropriation and the lengths of damages it has cause is probably far beyond comprehension. We will never fully know its full affects.

At first, cultural appropriation is easy to define. It is the inappropriate use of cultural items, symbols, art, etc. Most commonly, the term applies to the inappropriate use of said things for economic gain (and that is what I will focus on here.)

But once you delve deeper into cultural appropriation, you will see that it is not so simple.

Here in America, the example most commonly referred to (and arguably the most well-known,) is the cultural appropriation of Native Americans.

Selling an original Native American religious pipe is obviously a bad thing to do. It has a use and an intrinsic value that should only be practiced and appreciated by the appropriate people – people who truly know how and when to use it. Most Native American’s traditions hold that these pipes should not even be assembled except for use. Yet the stores which are inappropriately selling the pipes take their inappropriateness a step further and display them in their store-front windows, fully assembled. This is bad, too. Selling religious ceremonies to bring good fortune using said pipes or “cleanse” a space of bad vibes using sage bundles is also bad. If someone were selling a catholic blessing, the world would quickly see the absurdness of it and end the scam right away. But when someone sells a Native American religious blessing, it is somehow OK. You can quickly see that Native American cultures are appropriated.

But  not all examples of appropriation are cut-and-dry. What about that cool and stylish sweater for sale at the mall?

Doesn’t seem so bad, does it? And what about the local grocery store selling sage bundles for $5.00 a piece? What about when that store is in a location where sage does not grow and  the store claims to be selling it to benefit the local Native American community which needs the product?

The issue is becoming more foggy, isn’t it? You see, cultural appropriation seems like a simple, arguably bad thing which can easily be avoided when you first look at it. But not all cultural appropriation is so neatly defined. Don’t all people have the moral right to wear and enjoy the sweaters? Is selling sage bundles so different from selling catholic candles?

And who is to blame for the situation? The Euro-Americans peddling cultural images and items which are not theirs for profit? The Native American selling “authentic” blankets which are made in a factory for $300.00 a piece? What about the Native American selling medicine pouches – an item adorned with a great deal of strict religious and cultural protocol – to any collector with money? And how about the impoverished Native American selling their art from the side of the road for minimal profit, taking great care to not sell inappropriate items?

Or is the blame to be placed on the consumer? A multi-million dollar industry is founded in selling items with Native American designs, images, symbols, and names. Feathers to clip in a pretty girl’s hair. Sexy Pocahontas Halloween outfits or outfits for kids. “American Spirit” cigarettes which are organic and natural. Automobiles that are “rugged” and “eco-friendly.”  Hunting supplies. Actual artifacts. Home decor. The list is endless.

Roma Sexy Indian CostumeFor Kid / Children: Light Blue / Turquoise  Chief indian Feather Headdress with red yarn / native american Warbonnet for the little onesClick here to view larger image

The barrage of really neat Native things that are available to buy demonstrates how easily a business can legitimize the degradation of cultures for profit and how easily it is for the consumer to forget the harm they may be doing.

One might ask, “What harm? In what ways is cultural appropriation harmful to the cultures being appropriated? You keep saying it is “bad” but you don’t tell me why it is bad.”

A post by “Unsettling America” says this:

Cultural appropriation is harmful because it is an extension of centuries of racism, genocide, and oppression. Cultural appropriation treats all aspects of marginalized cultures (also known as targets of oppression) as free for the taking. This is the same rationale that has been (and still is) used to steal land and resources from People of Color, particularly Native people. Put together, the theft of the lands, resources, and culture of a marginalized group amount to genocide.

Cultural appropriation takes away from the actual cultures, making them less meaningful both to the outside world and to the culture’s participants. It can be hard for a Native American woman to be proud of herself when costumes mocking her culture are worn as sexy Halloween outfits and silly school mascots. It is hard for a child to take the lessons his grandfather is telling him about tobacco and drums and pipes seriously when any new-age religion can buy the same items and claim to do the same spiritual practices. It is hard for an Indian to see themselves as anything but outdated and primitive when their culture is used as a marketing tool to characterize products as “natural,” “old-fashioned,” and “earthy.”

The bottom line is, cultural appropriation is bad, but it can be hard to distinguish in our day-to-day lives. What does this mean for you as a consumer? Educate yourself more about cultural appropriation and train yourself to spot it. Then, when you go into the world to participate in activities and buy goods, recognize to the best of your abilities when something is a form of cultural appropriation and do not take part. Talk about it with your friends, your parents, your siblings, and your children. And just try your best to do things with good intentions.

If you don’t trust my words, I’ve provided links to other articles, blogs, and websites which may help you:

My Culture is Not a Trend Blog Post

10 Examples of Indian Mascots “Honoring” Native Peoples

A Blog Post Which Lists Other Blogs about Cultural Appropriation

A Much Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation Blog Post

Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation Blog Post

Native American Jewelry, “”  A Native American jewelry sale website which is run by Jim and Anita Earnest, the whitest people you may ever see.

Gone Native Foods A natural food producer which has nothing to do with actual Native people or culture. But the word “Native” sounds super natural, right?

Thanks for reading!


One comment

  1. Interesting article, with some interesting points. Being focused on Native Americans and the cultural appropriation, however, I think you have perhaps missed a few things.

    For example, the use of sage as a cleansing agent is a part of old European magic, not just Native American magic. The problem with declaring “cultural appropriation” is that the spiritual practices of pre-Christian and pre-Muslim peoples often share great similarities across the world. There are stories in the Pagan and Heathen communities where Native Americans though European Pagans were culturally appropriating, but when shown the research and traditions realized it wasn’t appropriation, but rather similar traditions and a common meeting ground for respecting Both cultures. Making the blanket statement that a “New Ager” is culturally appropriating simply because they are using items also used by Native Americans is a bad idea. Certainly, some who practice Pagan paths use items from Native American creators or traditions, but that is often as much because that is what is available in the store as it is tapping into NA spirituality. For instance, I brew potions in mason jars, does that mean that I am “Culturally Appropriating” from the traditions of Appalachian Moonshiners?

    As for how can a Native American girl have pride in her culture when the “traditional outfit’ is made up as a sexy Halloween costume? Well, partially by realizing that “sexy” doesn’t remove value. Certainly, girls of Norse heritage are not hindered in having pride in themselves and their culture for the existence of “Sexy Viking” costumes, nor are German girls at a loss for the “sexy Bavarian barmaid” costume, or Japanese girls for the “Sexy Geisha” costume.

    And appropriation brings to mind theft. But if someone is selling something from their culture for a profit, that’s not theft. If it was, we should strip society of all the things that share cultures between people. That would mean hardline segregation of all ethnic groups from all others and prevent cultural exchange. Because do not be mistaken, Native Americans while loosing much, also gained items and things from the different European cultures they came in contact with. So sure, prevent “Cultural appropriation” but realize that it is a two way street, and so you must insist that Native Americans give back the things they have culturally appropriated from other cultures. So either everyone stops stealing and gives back, or realize that it has been a trade, an exchange of cultures, even if it hasn’t always worked out well for everyone involved.


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