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Embracing indigenous culture vs cultural appropriation – Where does the line sit?

Embracing indigenous culture vs cultural appropriation –
Where does the line sit?

In just two minutes, this video gives us an idea about what we want to talk about today: The difficult question of where the line sits between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

Is there a way to celebrate foreign cultures without being appropriative?

Before we can make up our mind about these questions, we first have to understand what cultural appropriation actually is: According to the video, cultural appropriation means: “Stealing of foreign cultural elements without consensus or dialogue in order to profit from. This sort of act is usually carried out by a culture in a position of power over another one with less resources. It’s born out of an interest in the exotic and a desire to appropriate an esthetic without caring or knowing about what’s being imitated.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other definitions are quite similar, but are slightly different from each other

Rachel Eckhardt, an american political blogger, defines Cultural Appropriation it like that:

“Cultural appropriation is the practice of borrowing traditional artifacts, customs, rituals, or dress from another culture, often done without regard for the significance of such articles in their society of origin. It is often performed by members of first-world countries, who consider the icons of third-world nations to be exotic or edgy.”

She adds that “typically, those who appropriate other cultures do so out of a genuine (however misguided) interest in the borrowed custom, rather than ill-intentioned disdain, although this sadly is not always the case.” (Rachel Eckhardt, 2015)

Another definition comes from Rachel Kuo, scholar and educator based in New York:

“Cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant culture adopt parts of another culture from people that they’ve also systematically oppressed.” (Rachel Kuo, 2015)

Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defined cultural appropriation as follows:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts 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.” (Nadra Kareem Nittle, 2017)

Having been the buzzword of the last summers’ festivals and fashion shows, cultural appropriation is often associated with offensive costumes or theft of designs and patterns, but it’s much more than that, and occurs in various ways and situations

Also in Tourism, there are many issues regarding cultural appropriation. The reason: Tourism is another industry that borrows heavily from the cultural treasures of the destinations it operates in. Ever since, people have been fascinated by foreign cultures and had the wish to experience and even participate in those. In the times of globalization and multicultural societies, “authenticity” became THE magic word for both travelers and the tourism market. Travelers search for it, and the tourism industry is quick to promote “authentic experiences” in their products.

Cultural shows and performances are just one example of the mass tourism market’s many answers to this demand. Though very popular with tourists in many places, the quality and degree of authenticity ranges from really impressive to questionable at times.

Often, the local people benefit very little, or not at all, from their culture being “sold”. They might even experience harm through their culture being depicted in a stereotyped and clichéd way. And these are the big issues (Maria Theresa Amoamo, 2008).

Why cultural appropriation remains a problem is put into brilliant words by Nadra Kareem Nittle:

“Cultural appropriation remains a concern for a variety of reasons. For one, this sort of “borrowing (from a culture)” is exploitative because it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve. Art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity. In addition, when members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce stereotypes about minority groups” (Nadra Kareem Nittle, 2017).

But does this mean we can’t enjoy foreign cultures? No, of course not. But it does mean that as members of dominant cultures, we need to take a step back, reflect on our actions and take into consideration what effect our actions might have.

According to Rachel Kuo “it’s critical for us to reflect on how we perceive the cultures that we’re consuming and think about the relationships between food, people, and power” (Rachel Kuo, 2015). Waneek Horn-Miller, a Mohawk woman and brand ambassador for Manitobah Mukluks adds that “it’s a tricky topic, because ‘culture’ becomes somewhat fluid over time, when groups of people interconnect and borrow symbols from each other, the important questions to ask (…) are: when is a specific symbol considered sacred, and when does adoption of a symbol flippantly negate or revive a historical trauma?” (Waneek Horn-Miller, 2015).

To be able to do this, we need to educate ourselves about the cultures we’re borrowing from and treat them with respect in all aspects of life

In her article “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation”, Jarune Uwujaren shows us what cultural exchange can look like: “engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only.” According to her, there needs to be “an element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange”. 

Kovie Biakolo, a culture writer and editor based in NYC adds that “if it’s cultural exchange you want, it’s up to you to make every effort to learn as much as possible about a people’s history and its artifacts. If you participate fully and graciously in another culture, to call it cultural exchange means you are aware of your distance from and relationship to it” (Kovie Biakolo, 2016).


It is up to us to make up our mind about what this means for our own actions and the way we engage with foreign cultures. All of these brilliant writers have definitely given us great food for thought.

But before we conclude our article, here is one of the biggest questions in regards to New Zealand (besides asking what a Haka is) that many travelers certainly have asked themselves:

Is it cultural appropriation when Non-Maori New Zealanders (Pakeha) or tourists do a Haka?

It depends. After learning so much about the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciating foreign cultures, you can probably answer this question easily.

“Non-Māori can learn how to do the haka, like anyone, but they must learn what the words in the haka mean,” says Paraone Gloyne, a well-known haka dance performer, teacher and composer.

“Maori hold no objection to a haka being performed before a sporting event as long as it is done with mana, is covered by all protocols and is done with the seriousness it deserves. It should never be performed light heartedly or as entertainment” is the answer Quora-user Steve Grocott gave to the question of an anonymous user.

We hope you enjoyed reading this! Please feel free to check out the articles, blogs and websites we cited in this story and let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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