Transplanting from one culture to another – appropriation or exchange?

Many people do not understand what is and is not cultural appropriation because they assume that practices and techniques can be easily transplanted from one context to another, but this does not take into account the issues around the particularity of traditions to their culture, place, and history, and it does not recognise the impact of colonialism and the commodification and commercialisation of indigenous traditions.

Dandelion seeds in the morning sunlight blowing away in the wind across a clear blue sky

Cross-fertilisation: dandelion seeds blowing away in the wind. Photo by Brian A Jackson, courtesy of Shutterstock

Take for example the practice of calling the quarters. This is based on several assumptions: that circular space is the most sacred; that there are four cardinal directions, and four elements with a meaning that is embedded in a particular cultural context (the Western Mystery Tradition, or of several Native American traditions), and that making a connection with the four elements and the four sacred directions helps you to become more connected to Nature, or the universe, because we are the microcosm of the universe (an idea found in Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, and Swedenborgianism). If the practice of calling the quarters is transplanted to another tradition which does not have these assumptions, myths, and symbols, it will only be a shallow version of the practice, and will probably not even make sense in the context to which it has been transplanted.

People who charge money for the practices of others, without respect for their situatedness in a particular culture, history, tradition, and totally failing to notice the power relations involved in the colonialism of the very recent past, and the continued assertion by the West of the superiority of capitalism, consumerism, and the rationalist enlightenment is a big ethical issue. Spiritual traditions are not and cannot be divorced from context, and they are not automatically the property of all humanity. We need to approach other traditions with mindfulness and respect, and not assuming that everything is ours for the taking.

Spiritual traditions are rich with meaning, both mythological and historical, and taking a practice or a ritual out of the context within which it was created strips it of the rich associations that it had in its original context. If you take practices out of context, you are very likely to end up doing them superficially.  Respectful engagement with other traditions requires a reasonably in-depth engagement with them, and a certain amount of immersion, not just a brief encounter. I guess ‘respectful’ is the key word in all of that.

As a minor example, even copy-cat behaviour towards an individual can be problematic. A few years back, I had very specific labels in the religion and politics boxes on my Facebook profile, which I had arrived at through considerable soul-searching, angst, and upheaval, both social and personal. I was also recognised by other members of the groups I belonged to as a member of those groups. Imagine my horror when some eejit who did not even know what they meant (and I know he didn’t because I asked him) decided he was going to copy them for his profile. He was not even a member of either of the religious traditions concerned. I was furious. (And there was not even a history of colonial oppression in the history between him and me.) Now imagine how people from other cultures feel when that happens with their identities and culture.

However, say you have encountered a practice that really speaks to you, or that will significantly improve your health, and you want to borrow it respectfully. What should you do? Is it enough to ask someone who might be considered an authority in the tradition you want to borrow it from? The problem here is that there are many different people within a given tradition, and they do not all speak with one voice. So, what should be the criteria for whether or not a person can be considered the keeper of a tradition? Is it strength of belief? Is that they are a priest or recognised holy person? Many people would argue that the laity should have just as much say in the matter as the priesthood. Or should the criterion be the consensus view of many members of the tradition?

However, the construction of an argument around strength of belief as a possible criterion for being the keeper of a tradition, or the idea of a holy person as no more worthy than a secular person, is all grounded in a particularly Western and rationalist and Protestant view of how religion works. My argument has nothing to do with strength of belief, keepers of tradition, or any inherent ownership of ideas: it is about the historical and cultural context in which something arose, and (in the case of Native American spirituality in particular) the colonialist appropriation of ideas, artefacts, rituals, and the commodification of them. Cultures whose spiritual traditions have been appropriated are complaining about the commodification of their ideas, and the way they have been packaged and sold and marketed by fake gurus and shamans in the West.

A priest or shaman has been trained in the technique and the safeguards that go with it. Many popularisers of various meditation techniques forget to tell you the safeguards. The shaman or priest is steeped in the culture and the context and the meaning of the practice. A populariser (whether a lay person from the same culture, or someone from another culture) is not necessarily aware of the context, meaning, safeguards, etc. The people who don’t want their practices taken out of context are not doing it to protect the practice as a commodity which they could package and sell – as far as most of them are concerned, their practices are not for sale. They are very likely to be trying to protect us from bad / shallow / poorly understood versions of the practices. Because without the safeguards and correct techniques, and an understanding of the context, some practices are dangerous. The people doing the commodifying are the appropriaters, who often want to make a fast buck out of repackaging the practice for a Western audience, usually stripped of its sacred context and meaning.

All of this does not mean that you can never borrow a practice or a ritual from another culture – but it does mean that shallow engagement with it is not enough. You need to examine whether the practice fits within your own tradition, by looking at the religious, spiritual, and cultural assumptions which have gone into its construction.

There have been many fruitful and successful moments of syncretisation of different traditions, and some failed ones. The most successful ones seem to be when the two traditions met as equals, and engaged in genuine dialogue and exchange (as when Buddhism met Taoism and created Zen Buddhism, or when Buddhism met Shinto and created Ryobu Shinto). When an imperial and colonising tradition moved in, the indigenous religion was often either crushed (like when Christianity met ancient paganisms) or subsumed (like when Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity met indigenous religions).

Anyone studying the history of encounters between religions and cultures can easily see that cultures are not monolithic, intact, or impermeable. In fact, cultures are always exchanging ideas, inventions, material goods, books, food, recipes. There is clearly a lot of healthy and respectful cultural exchange. Hence the attempt to make a distinction between culturing borrowing and cultural appropriation, both in this article about decolonising your yoga practice, and in my previous attempt to write about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

Appropriation means claiming that you own something or have a right to it. Borrowing means acknowledging that the other party owns it. They are not synonymous.  Borrowing can be respectful. Appropriation is disrespectful. The trick is learning the difference.  However, if a person from another culture says, hands off, you cannot access this without going through the proper process – then proceeding to take it without their approval is theft.

If the culture which you had the misfortune to be born into goes around colonising other countries (both by conquest and via economic power) and you then come along and steal their spiritual traditions, despite them saying no: that makes you part of the colonisers.

If on the other hand you acknowledge them as the ones with expertise, and learn from them, and acknowledge their sovereignty, and they decide to give freely: that is respectful.

An obvious analogy is Wicca. There are practices in Wicca that I would not recommend to anyone uninitiated (because initiation prepares you for them) and that would not make sense outside of the symbolic framework of Wicca.  Although these practices are available from other spiritual traditions, invocation is also carefully situated within a symbolic framework and an initiatory process in those other traditions, too. It occurs in Buddhism, and they have a very elaborate system around it – with good reason. And the same with all the other practices.

I know there are things in Wicca that don’t quite fit in Druidry, and vice versa – and those two traditions are reasonably similar. Consider how difficult it is, then, to import a practice from a dissimilar tradition. I generally don’t do Buddhist practices because I disagree with the basic founding premise of Buddhism, that all is dukka (suffering) and that the only way to free yourself from suffering is to avoid attachment. If you don’t buy into this basic premise of Buddhism, then a lot of their meditation techniques don’t make sense.

In my previous post on this topic, I outlined some thoughts on what constitutes appropriation, and what constitutes respectful borrowing. When I wrote that post, I was largely unaware that sometimes people accuse non-Europeans of cultural appropriation when they try to join in with European forms of Paganism. I learnt this from reading the excellent book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend doing so.

Cultural appropriation cannot be properly understood unless you look at it in the context of colonialism, power, money, exploitation, and capitalism. Although Pagan religions are not part of the dominant paradigm of Western culture (which is predominantly Christian with an overlay of Enlightenment rationalism and a big dollop of capitalism), and are often relegated by the dominant discourse to the realms of the “primitive” – white practitioners of Pagan religions still benefit from being members of the dominant social group much of the time. Cultural appropriation is usually done from the dominant position in any encounter between two cultures. So if you are not in the dominant position in the encounter, it will be difficult to appropriate the culture of the other.

To sum up, then: ritual techniques and practices are not universal, and it is difficult to lift them from one context to another; doing so without consideration for their original meaning and context is disrespectful; and it is often a continuation of colonialism, capitalism, and commodification.


What is cultural appropriation?

Haka for Lord Ranfurly, 1904

Haka for Lord Ranfurly, 1904 (Wikipedia)

It’s about power, and context, and histories of persecution.

The Native Americans had their land and livelihoods taken away, their cultural identity erased and derided, and now people are taking their spiritual practices. Some Christians hold Passover Seder meals immediately before Easter communion; this completely changes the meaning of the Passover Seder; and also there is a long history of Christian persecution of Jews, so this feels inappropriate to me. (I am neither Jewish nor Native American, so it’s not my personal fight, but I do want to be a good ally here.) Some may argue differently.

Buddhists are not a persecuted minority in the UK or the USA, so if the rest of us borrow their spiritual practices, there’s no colonialist / power issue. The way Buddhism is disseminated involves a blending with local and pre-Buddhist traditions anyway, and some see Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion, so arguably Buddhists might be pleased. However, borrowers of Buddhist practices should acknowledge their debt to Buddhism, and make an effort to understand the Buddhist philosophy behind the practice, and learn the safeguards that come with the practice.

There is also an issue of context – many spiritual practices and especially specific rituals have a specific historical and mythological context. For example, Pagans calling the quarters relies on some sort of belief in the elemental spirits of the four quarters (or at least an understanding of the symbolism), so if you lift that and put it in, say, a Unitarian service, it might not work too well, unless you have figured out what this means to Unitarians. Conversely, the Unitarian Flower Communion has its roots in a specific historical moment and expression of Unitarian identity, so if Pagans were to borrow it, it would feel weird, because it is part of Unitarian identity, context and history.

One of the things that Native Americans object to is the way that people make up any old nonsense and claim that it is Native American, and also call themselves pseudo-Native-American names to make it sound more genuine and make a lot of money from selling books and workshops, not a penny of which actually goes to help genuine Native Americans. The peddling of inaccurate information about a tradition can also bring that tradition into disrepute, or misrepresent the practices being described as the norm for that tradition.

For instance, there are any number of books on the market purporting to be a definitive description of how Wicca is practised, and I disagree with large swathes of what is written in them – but other people assume that because I am a Wiccan, I must agree with what is written in those books; or even worse, that what is written in those books is the “proper” way to do Wicca, and I must therefore be doing it wrong. One example of this is the widespread misinterpretation of the “Law of Threefold Return”. I can’t tell you the real meaning, because to do so would be to break my oath, but suffice it to say that what is peddled on the internet is not the real meaning. Another example is the fact that genuine Wiccans train aspirants for free, but there are sadly people out there charging £300 for workshops on Wicca. This brings real Wiccans into disrepute.

Cultural appropriation often involves the erasure of the contemporary issues of the people whose culture is being appropriated. For example, in December 2012, when the “Mayan end of the world prophecy” was all over the internet (and many tour companies were making a lot of money out of New Agey Mayan-themed holidays), the real Mayans, who still exist, were justifiably angry because their culture was being misappropriated and misinterpreted (and people were making really crass jokes about them too) and people were assuming that the Mayans died out (and if they had actually died out, it would be because of colonialism). In fact, the supposedly Mayan calendar that was shared widely on social media was actually an Aztec artefact. Indeed, New Agers often commit cultural appropriation, as the New Age movement is blissfully unaware of historical context, colonialism, and other gritty realities. However, other liberal religious groups can occasionally do it as well.

A guy called Chris said that he once went to a society for shamanic practitioners conference where they held a ghost dance ritual. The ghost dance was something created by Native Americans in response to increasing oppression from the colonial powers, but there was no acknowledgement of this. When Chris mentioned it to someone, they clearly misunderstood his concerns and said “but you can do it for whatever you want”.

Teaching these practices as if they existed outside of the real history of oppression and colonialism does harm the people who invented the practice by ignoring their current existence and current problems. Making money out of someone else’s spiritual practice, without acknowledging your debt to them, or giving them any of the money to help their cause, seems unethical to me. A related issue is where pharmaceutical companies go to South America, obtain indigenous knowledge of healing plants, make millions from new drugs derived from those plants, copyright the drugs, and don’t give any money to the indigenous communities whose knowledge they have acquired.

Another example, pointed out by Lindsay Wolf, is the use of the haka (a Maori dance) by the New Zealand rugby team.

New Zealand white men in their rugby team perform a version of a Maori war haka before matches. NZ relations with Maori culture are complex, and while NZ white people usually express pride in Maori culture I think it is appropriation (even if there are Maori men in the team) because it gives the impression to other nations that all NZers, including the white majority ‘own’ the haka. It covers up the way Maori people have been dispossessed, the Treaty of Waitangi broken, all the many brutalities and infringements of human rights in NZ’s history. It also gives the impression that the haka is only a war dance, whereas there are many kinds of hakas for many occasions, some women dance etc.

The haka is not a single example, white New Zealanders in general tend to use Maori culture as a symbol of their own identity, particularly when out of NZ.  Cultural appropriation is most clear to see when peoples have been colonised and still live under the yoke of the coloniser (e.g. indigenous people of the USA, NZ, Australia).

Until the 1970s the All Blacks played rugby against the South Africans without their Maori players even though these may have been their strongest. That was because the South African Government requested an all-white NZ team. Can you imagine what it felt like to Maori watching the all-white All Blacks performing a haka on the television or newsreel? Obviously this is a special case but there are parallels where only white people undertake some other appropriated cultural expression.

[In the later 20th century] ‘Māori activists[‘]…primary focus was on stopping the abuse of Māori cultural forms. The best known example of this was the ‘haka party’ incident’ (where a group of students performed a parody haka in public and after repeated requests to desist were assaulted by Maori activists who were supported in court by Maori elders).

‘Most recent Māori protest in this sphere has been directed against non-New Zealand groups and businesses who use the Māori language and cultural forms – sometimes copyrighting them – without permission or understanding. Since it is internationally known, the haka of the All Blacks is particularly vulnerable to this treatment. (Wikipedia)

Appropriation and/or misreading can also happen in other cultural contexts. Joseph de Lappe commented:

As an Irish secondary school teacher in England – every school that I have worked in teaches Dracula as a GCSE text. It’s always invariably taught as a Victorian melodrama – with the focus on repressed sexuality. Which would be fine (the text certainly reflects those themes) except that Dracula was written as a famine text – it’s principally concerned with colonial guilt as to race and religion. By appropriating it to one cultural reading – modern interpretations deny responsibility for the replication of colonial responsibility for racial and religious prejudice.

He therefore suggested distinguishing between cultural bricolage and cultural appropriation.

I have attempted to come up with a list of what defines cultural appropriation, with additional suggestions arising from discussion:

  • taking someone else’s practice without permission or proper handing-on of the tradition and making money out of it (especially if the originators of the practice have a tradition of teaching it to people for free)
  • taking someone else’s practice and doing it in a completely different context where it does not fit
  • taking someone else’s rituals, practices, or stories and pretending they are your own
  • taking someone else’s ritual and then excluding them from it (e.g. Haka example)
  • doing someone else’s practice and pretending that you are authorised by the people whose practice it is
  • claiming a fake identity as an indigenous practitioner
  • doing others’ spiritual practices and changing the meaning, and/or failing to build in the appropriate safeguards, and/or failing to acknowledge that you’ve changed the meaning in the new context
  • failing to acknowledge the history of oppression suffered by the people whose practice is being copied
  • doing something which has nothing to do with a culture and dressing it up and claiming it as part of that culture, when you aren’t a member of that culture.
  • all this adds to a culture that misrepresents (‘noble savage’ discourse for example) and mythologises indigenous peoples and makes their real struggles invisible
  • wearing an item of clothing that expresses someone else’s identity and sacred traditions as a fashion statement or a joke

There is of course, a problem with seeking permission – one person from a community might give permission for a borrowing, but others in that community might disagree. For example, Western occultists have borrowed Kabbalah for centuries, and the borrowed version often feels very different to the original Jewish version – but that particular cat is well and truly out of the bag, it would seem.

Here is a suggested definition of cultural bricolage:

  • sensitive borrowing of stories and techniques (but not historically-situated rituals), fully acknowledging their source and original context, and that you might have changed the meaning in the new context (e.g. I do lectio divina workshops, which is a Christian technique, but I always acknowledge that that is what it is, explain the context in which it arose, and acknowledge that doing it with non-Biblical texts changes the meaning of the practice)
  • thoroughly investigating the context, history and safeguards for the technique you propose to borrow; acknowledging your source and directing people to resources that explain these (e.g. if teaching Metta Bhavana, teach the safeguards that go with it)
  • reading from the sacred texts of other traditions, where these are publicly available
  • telling a story from another tradition, fully acknowledging that it came from that tradition, and explaining its context if necessary

This article arose from a discussion on my friend Noam’s Facebook wall. Thanks to him for starting the discussion.

Further reading