What is Cultural Appropriation?

As a werewolf who writes about culture, sometimes I run into heated discussions about cultural appropriation.

Often, when I see these discussions, the argument is less about whether it’s a societal ill and more about what the actual definition of the term is and what acts constitute it. It’s very difficult to have a meaningful conversation about a subject when terms can’t be agreed upon, so let’s discuss what cultural appropriation is.

As a preface, I would like to thank Tonya Song, a Native American friend of mine, for explaining some of the following to me. I would highly recommend you follow her if you use Twitter, as she provides a perspective on Native issues and culture that I feel westerners are rarely exposed to.

Let’s use the example of the war bonnet.

Gilcrease_-_Federkopfschmuck
Photograph by Wolfgang Sauber, 2008

Most people will probably know this as a “headdress,” and while its appearance has become almost synonymous with “Native American” in the western cultural lexicon, it’s actually specific to Plains Indian tribes. They are traditionally made from eagle feathers, and to this day, enrolled members of federally recognised Native tribes are the only people in the United States legally allowed to collect and own eagle feathers. Furthermore, it is not something that every member of a tribe wears; historically, it was usually awarded only to male members of a tribe, although in recent years some tribeswomen have been gifted them as well. They were given in recognition of exceptional martial or diplomatic service, and are in some ways comparable to a distinguished service medal.

In the United States, falsely claiming to have received a valour award is considered immensely disrespectful, and doing so for personal gain is considered a crime. In much the same way, it’s deeply disrespectful to the Plains tribes for a person to whom they did not award it to wear it. But ultimately it goes much deeper than that – it’s people taking a piece of extremely specific cultural paraphernalia that has deep and important meaning to Natives and using it as trivial costume without understanding or even attempting to understand what it represents.

Cultural exchange is the intentional and willing trade of cultural ideas and concepts. Cultural appropriation is the theft of cultural ideas and concepts from an unwilling culture. Appropriation tends to be shallow and exploitative, missing or ignoring the meaning and significance of concepts it takes, largely selecting them on the basis of what seems cool or exotic – such as with the war bonnet. In the context of appropriators, these concepts are taken to improve their own image, rather than giving attention and paying respect to the people the concept originated from.

Appropriation can also be defined as telling the stories of a culture for your own profit, rather than both allowing them to tell their own stories and to profit from them themselves. I would give recent Disney film Moana as an example of this, as it’s a pastiche of various Polynesian myths (and I should note that Polynesian cultures are not homogenous – there are many different ethnic groups that have many diverse and differing mythologies) written by a European American, directed by European Americans, for a corporation founded by a European American and currently run by European Americans. Despite the fact that the story takes place entirely in Polynesia, some of the voice acting crew are also European Americans. This is all in service to the purpose of making a profit, very little of which – if any – the Polynesians whose myths these stories were built from will ever see.

Obviously, Polynesian myths are technically in the public domain, but public domain is a western concept which has been imposed upon indigenous cultures whether or not they had any say in the matter.

Appropriation could thus be considered a form of cultural colonialism. European people turned up in the Americas, for instance, and built cities and farms on land belonging to the Natives that most assuredly weren’t for the benefit of the Natives. European settlers did not share their cities or the bounty of their farms and mines with the Natives, even though those cities, those farms and those mines were built on land that rightfully belonged to the Natives. Meanwhile, appropriation is the colonialism of culture. It takes aspects from someone else’s culture for benefit that that culture does not see.

If Disney were to come to the Navajo people and say “hey, we want to make a movie based off of Navajo mythology. We’ll let you do most of the writing, and we’ll provide help where neccessary to make it a saleable product. We’ll pay all of the up-front costs. Then you get to keep 50% of the profits.” That would still have many issues, but it’d be lightyears closer to a fair cultural exchange than almost any contemporary use of Navajo culture by western society. Even better would be for the Navajo people to be able to write and produce their own films and tell their own stories, but because of the lasting effects of colonialism, a lot of them struggle just to get by day to day, let alone embark on extremely abstract ventures like setting up film studios.

Ultimately, I respect that cultural appropriation can be hard to understand from the perspective of a person whose culture is not regularly appropriated. The thing is, there’s a power dynamic involved. Being British, trivial aspects of my culture are caricatured quite often, but this isn’t appropriation. These do not detract from my culture’s own visibility or power on the world stage. When a culture has enough power to tell its own stories, any representations in foreign culture – no matter how shallow a caricature – are easy to shrug off if we don’t like them. When a culture has less power to speak for itself, the representations it gets from other cultures matter far more, since that is often the only exposure most people will get to it. Those cultures that are most hurt by cultural appropriation are those cultures that have very little left to them but their culture.

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