Cultural appropriation is an entirely common occurrence in our present day society. There are several examples where a dominant group exploits and takes aspects of a minority group’s culture and trivializes them for their own personal gain. These instances of cultural appropriation are not singular acts, they are ones that stem from a set structuration; in which social structure directly effects individual actions and the way in which certain people can, and certain others cannot, behave. “Twerking” has been claimed by the likes of the white population, namely Miley Cyrus, while simultaneously both dehumanizing and shaming the Black women who can rightfully claim its origin. It has been deemed trendy to sport bindis, a historically significant religious and cultural symbol of South Asian origin, at events such as music festivals, while adorning cheap manipulations of sacred Indigenous headdresses in the efforts to appear “edgy”. This blatant ignorance of the real significance behind these cultural symbols stems from a long history of colonialism, hegemony, opportunity structures, assimilation, and “othering”.
The written piece, “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses,” written by âpihtawikosisân, a Métis, Plains Cree speaking woman touches upon the issue of wearing Indigenous headdresses without the right to and the dangers associated with the appropriating of a culture that is not yours. She outlines the differences between appreciating and celebrating Indigenous cultures and appropriating them for your own gain and how to properly engage in the former without harming or trivializing the culture. She very clearly states the importance and general meaning behind headdresses in native cultures and how they need to be earned in order to be worn, the same way school degrees and licences to practice medicine or law must be legally obtained before being used and the imitation of such has harsh consequences.
This instance of the cultural appropriation of Indigenous headdresses is not to be regarded as a simple individual occurrence, or just that of an issue of bad fashion-based choices, this sort of cultural appropriation, like all other sorts, are the result of a system of oppressive forces that exist due to colonialist agendas and actions. Colonialism; “the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory resulting in a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between the colonists and the indigenous population,” is the basis of cultural appropriation and the misplacement and inauthentic representation of indigenous populations and their cultures. The settler colonialism (when one society conquers, overthrows and intends to rule over another) that took place when the Europeans first arrived in North America and stripped the Indigenous population of their power resulted in their forced assimilation (when one group’s culture comes to resemble another’s) into European culture, while being required to give up and refrain from practicing crucial parts of their native cultures. The hegemony that serviced the Europeans by placing them over the Native Americans still continues to exhibit relevance today when we see things such a cultural appropriation happening.
During colonization the white population was given authority in all things and in this unfair distribution of power the Indigenous population was left unable to live freely, or even through their own means. The Indian Act (first passed in 1876) forced Indigenous children into residential schools where they were made to abandon their cultures and languages in favour of English and white, European customs. Even further, the Indian Act served the purpose of establishing who a “real” Indigenous person was, depending upon factors such as their gender, and familial lineage. White people were in charge of coaching the Indigenous peoples in their own means of life and cultures. They still are. When we look at cultural appropriation and what it represents and how it is enabled we see the same system of power alive and thriving.
White people are able to pick and choose what aspects of Indigenous cultures they see as useful to them and, in turn, claim them as their own, as if they have the right and ability to do so. They hold onto stereotypical concepts that they associate with Indigenous cultures and advertise them as if they have the authority over this minority group to do so. Through this, they craft the “Imaginary Indian”; the heavily biased, historically inaccurate and dated view of what Indigenous peoples are like, bunching them all together and ignoring the fact that there are many different groups within the Indigenous populace. More often than not, they adopt the idea that they are “saving” this culture by celebrating it and establishing, with no basis of background knowledge, what aspects of it are deeply important and necessary; The Salvage Paradigm, contributing to the heavily prevalent “white saviour/hero complex” that is shoved down the throats of people of colour everywhere. This is dangerous not only because it is completely politically, morally and ethically incorrect, but also because it is stripping the Indigenous population of their agency; the way that social groups intend to change their societal circumstances, the way they are perceived and their general position in the world, as they are constantly being thrust back into the past with the way they are being portrayed in society (as the “other” who has interesting, trendy cultural items of worth, but are still not up to par with “regular society” otherwise) and the aspects of their cultures that are being deemed important and worth sharing while disregarding many other, entirely important, parts.
This article, and cultural appropriation in general where concerning the various Indigenous groups it affects, reminded me of an article I had once had the pleasure of reading that talked about dressing up as Pocahontas or an Indigenous person for Halloween. There was one part in general that really struck a chord with me and that was about how when one wears the sacred, traditional garb of an Indigenous group they are in no way able to embrace the other harsh aspects of the lives that these minority groups face (such as the criticism they face for supposedly “living on the government’s dollar”, the high rates of suicide, joblessness, homelessness and alcoholism within the population) and they are free from any association with the culture once they take off the costume, so why should they be able to reap the benefits of bastardizing a culture to look cool, or edgy, when completely disregarding the collective struggle the Native Americans go through when wearing those articles of clothing?
It is clear to see that this instance of cultural appropriation where concerning this Native headdress of the Plains nation is not an isolated one. Cultural appropriation is an exhibition of an ancient, long existing unequal distribution of power which systemically places white people at the top and give them the ability to draw what they see as worthwhile aspects from minority cultures – they more often than not have historically colonized and forcibly assimilated – and claim them as their own at the expense of these minority groups. They use their white privilege to assign importance to what they see as such and adopt them without permission, disregarding the meaning behind what they actually appropriating and, in doing so, eradicating these cultures.
Apihtawikosisan.com,. “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses’’. N.p 2015. Web. 9.Mar. 2015.
Aulette, Judy R., and Judith Wittner. “Glossary.” Gendered Worlds. Third ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.
Bollinger, Lauren. “Cultural Appropriation, the Scariest Costume of All.”Cultural Appropriation, the Scariest Costume of All. N.p., 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
Kumar, Vikam. “Colonialism Is the Establishment.” Colonialism Is the Establishment. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
If you’d like to know more about the cultural appropriation behind bindis and “twerking” I’ve got a couple articles I read a while ago that have just been sitting in my bookmarked pages. I found myself at a bit of a crossroads when reading the piece about bindis because the author makes quite a few accusations that I’m not sure I totally agree with, but I enjoyed reading them and understanding a bit more about the issue of cultural appropriation nonetheless, so yeah, here ya go!!