Differentiating Between Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation

The last couple of years have seen a rise in the popularity of Native American ‘inspired/themed’ clothing, events and keepsakes. I never understood why, but I always felt a pang of annoyance whenever someone would post a photo of his or her new dream catcher tattoo, or their arrow tattoo or really anything that popularized these symbols for their aesthetics. I’m not saying that I don’t think these items are pretty – they are beautiful – but I always felt that these people who were tattooing these sacred images on their bodies or buying them from non-Native market sellers were not appreciative (or even aware of) the sacred meaning these items behold.

I am not of Native American heritage; however growing up I did spend some time at the Hopi Reservation (where my name originates from) in North-Eastern Arizona, where I learnt a lot about the Native American history, their beliefs and sacred practices. As a little girl I would make dream catchers and hang them in my room in an area where the sun could reach the circle in the centre so that my bad dreams would disappear and only good thoughts could enter my mind. Whilst the dream catcher has been used cross-culturally, it originally comes from the Ojibwe tribe, where it is still considered sacred.

This is where my frustration with the dream catcher tattoos and general popularization of the figure stemmed from. I had grown up knowing and respecting the traditions surrounding the dream catcher, and I couldn’t (and still can’t) help but shake the feeling that a lot of people decorating their bodies and personal spaces with this sacred item had/have no clue of its meaning, and instead enjoy the item for its pretty appearance.

Learning about cultural appropriation helped me make sense of the dream catcher’s popularity in the Western world and explained my annoyance with people exploiting it. So what is cultural appropriation? Scafidi, the author of ‘Who owns culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law’, describes it as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission … This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

In a Jezebel article by Katie Baker, the journalist asks Scafidi if non-Natives should refrain from buying Native American made or inspired goods out of respect. Scafidi denied this notion, but advises considering what she calls the 3 S’s; Source (has the source community invited you to share this particular part of its culture?), Significance/Sacredness (what is the cultural significance of the item – is it an everyday item or a religious artefact that requires greater respect?) and Similarity (How similar is it to the original?).
Or if you are still troubled, Taté Walker outlines 4 ways in which one can honour Native Americans without Appropriating, including supporting Native Artists, Considering Native-led movements, by calling out appropriation and supporting non-Native companies or organisations that actively honour Native Culture.

Because dream catchers have been adapted cross-culturally, a Non-Native adorning their space with dream catchers is less problematic than, for example, wearing a war bonnet, however when considering purchasing Native American inspired goods, I think it’s very important that one researches the item before buying it.

Further References:

Johnson M, 2015, What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm, Everyday Feminism, weblog, 14 June, viewed 31 August, <http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/?utm_source=SocialWarfare&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare&gt;

Native Appropriations, 2010, Native Appropriations, Weblog, viewed 31 August 2015 <http://nativeappropriations.com&gt;

Walsh K, 2015, IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Have a Culturally Insensitive Tattoo, xojane, weblog, 9 June, viewed 31 August, <http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/cultural-appropriation-tattoo&gt;