I confess that I’m a sucker for feisty, against-the-grain assessments of thoughtless pieties of this nature, largely because recognition of the real injustices of certain kinds of inter-cultural theft are undermined by indiscriminate accusations that one group is stealing cultural elements from another..
Living in the Southwest and regularly engaging with Native American nations has sensitized me to the harmful effects of thoughtless imitation, even when well intentioned—a prominent case in point being the history of the Smoki People, a group that imitated Hopi rituals and dress for decades. In short, cultural appropriation is a real problem worthy of informed criticism. But critical distinctions need to be made lest it be reduced to an empty slogan, which I take to be the point of deBoer’s post.
Today we hear less about biopiracy than we did a few years ago. As I’ve argued elsewhere, some cases of alleged biopiracy are more ambiguous than critics of cultural appropriation typically admit. But one case of flagrant biopiracy, that of sweeteners drived from the South American species Stevia rebaudiana, is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.
S. rebaudiana is an herbaceous plant native to eastern Paraguay that was long used by indigenous Guaraní peoples as a sweetener for teas and medicinal preparations. The sweetness of Stevia comes from several glycosides, including stevioside and rebaudioside, that produce a sensation of intense sweetness without increasing the blood glucose of those who consume it.
Use of Stevia as a sweetener was documented by Western science in the late nineteenth century, although its chemical constituents were not identified for another sixty years. As developed nations began to search for calorie-free sweeteners, the properties of Stevia became of considerable interest. Stevia seems to have been embraced as an alternative to sugar first by Japanese and Chinese corporations. In the U.S., use of Stevia initially stalled because of preliminary evidence that its chemical constituents might be carcinogenic, although effective lobbying by manufacturers of competing artificial sweeteners was also a factor. The carcinogenicity claim was eventually refuted, however, and Stevia‘s commercial value has grown substantially since the 1980s.
The Guaraní, one of South America’s poorest and most endangered indigenous populations, have received negligible benefits from the global market for this potentially billion-dollar product. Ironically, marketing campaigns for Stevia-based sweeteners often identify it as “traditional” or “indigenous.”
Smallholder farmers in Paraguay derive some income from cultivation of the plant for the market. But even this modest compensation is being undermined by commercial biosynthesis of Stevia‘s key compounds in the developed world. In other words, industrial producers no longer need the Stevia plant to manufacture the sweetener that has become a hot product in the competition for zero-calorie alternatives to cane sugar in parts of the world where obesity and diabetes are major public health problems. The scale of this obvious injustice is staggering.
For more information on this situation and efforts to address it, a good starting point is the publication The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia, a report published by a consortium of European and Paraguayan NGOs. A protest petition directed to Coca-Cola can be found here.
Laws, policies, and attitudes about cultural heritage–especially the heritage of indigenous peoples–continue to evolve, largely in the direction of acknowledging past injuries and formulating protection strategies for the present and future.
It’s fair to say that relevant policies are somewhat easier to develop when dealing with material goods such as human remains and objects of religious significance. These can only exist in one place at a time (unless they’ve been replicated digitally), which means that in principle they can be returned to the control of the communities that created them. This process is made more complicated by global trade, a problem that has come to public attention as a result of recent attempts to auction Native American religious items in Paris. These auctions sparked a public outcry in the United States, but thus far efforts to stop such sales have had only partial success. This unfortunate situation has prompted US lawmakers, with the full support of Native American leaders, to draft S. 3127: Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act of 2016, currently under review by the relevant congressional committees. If passed, this law would would increase penalties for the exportation of items of Native American cultural patrimony obtained illegally. Whether this bill will gain traction in a deadlocked Congress remains to be seen.
A couple of recent publications that frame the broader problem of cultural theft and appropriation are worthy of mention. One is the Texas Law Review essay, “Owning Red: A Theory of Indian (Cultural) Appropriation” (2016) by prominent Native American legal scholars Angela R. Riley and Kristen A. Carpenter, which is downloadable here. Riley and Carpenter attempt to formulate a unitary approach to understanding and dealing with cultural appropriation. They recognize that this isn’t easy because claims to intangible property are, in their words “particularly fraught.” Native Americans, they observe, tend to see intangible heritage as indistinguishable from material heritage even though Anglo-American law treats intellectual property differently from real and personal property.
Riley and Carpenter frame their analysis within the long history of appropriation of Indian resources by the United States. They explore a number of familiar cases, including the ongoing legal tussle over the name of the Washington, DC, football team. (Although they see the latter as part of a long history of appropriation, it seems to me more persuasively treated as a case of defamation.) In the end–and perhaps surprisingly for legal scholars–they don’t see law as the solution to some forms of appropriation. Native people, they insist, are mostly calling “not for laws, but for understanding and education,” including respect from the dominant society.
A shorter op-ed piece, “The Problem with Heritage,” has just been published in the anthropology website Sapiens by Joe Watkins. Watkins is a Native American anthropologist with vast experience in the legal and cultural complexities of repatriation, but his approach in this essay is more global, touching upon cases such as the intentional destruction of historic sites in Mali by Islamic extremists. “So when does heritage become a matter of grave concern? When one group uses it as a weapon against another, or possesses it when it’s important to another, or destroys it for political purposes.” (In March 2016 Joe Watkins participated in a panel discussion about repatriation sponsored by SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center.)
Watkins bluntly states, “Heritage is a property—something that is passed down from previous generations.” This is a defensible claim in the context of his essay. But exactly what kind of property is it? Most property is reasonably stable, with well defined limits. Some elements of heritage may enjoy such stability; others may not. And what are its boundaries? Apparently they are whatever the community of origin says they are at any given moment. To what extent, if any, is heritage “non-rivalrous” in the sense that one group’s identification of an element of heritage doesn’t preclude other groups from embracing it as well? Which members of a given community are qualified to anoint elements of heritage as cultural patrimony?
Another perennial problem in heritage debates is presentism, the judgment of past actions by the moral standards of a later time. Looking forward, it’s not unlikely that an object or cultural production considered an item of commerce today will, at some later point in a group’s history, be redefined as “cultural patrimony.” This is evident in the way that some European nations pass laws to prevent the export of great works of art that despite their commercial origin are now closely identified with British or French or Italian heritage. Closer to home, developers in New Mexico sometimes find themselves pitted against local preservationists committed to protecting the remnants of Route 66, which to them represents a form of shared American heritage.
I’ve heard art dealers complain that the proposed STOP legislation doesn’t protect them from the possibility that objects legally purchased or sold today will at some point in the future be redefined as the cultural patrimony of the Indian nation that produced them, thus compromising the objects’ market value. In my view this isn’t a powerful enough argument to warrant opposing the legislation. That said, it’s not an entirely meritless concern.
The fast-growing field of Heritage Studies needs deep thinking about the essential qualities and limits of cultural patrimony. The unanswered questions about patrimony shouldn’t stand in the way of progressive policies and legislation designed to prevent further injustice. Nevertheless, until the field produces a comprehensive theory of cultural patrimony, cultural protection laws will be built on an inherently unstable foundation.
Time for contributing to his blog has been scarce in recent weeks. This post simply catches up on some developments related to the growing use of ayahuasca and related entheogens for religious and therapeutic purposes in different parts of the world.
UDV in Santa Fe. The União do Vegetal (UDV) Temple in Santa Fe, New Mexico, officially opened a few weeks ago after years of legal wrangling. Its inauguration is documented by the Brazilian anthropologist Bia Labate in an article in the Huffington Post in late April. In classic participant-observer fashion, Labate describes herself as “enjoying, alongside the members of the UDV, the pleasant taste of justice, freedom, and victory.” A story not to be missed.
When ayahuasca lands on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, you know that something is going on. The article, by Ryan Dube, includes obligatory references to ayahuasca sessions that have resulted in violence or psychological injury, but it generally avoids sensationalism. As Dube notes, the explosive growth of centers oriented to international ayahuasca tourism in Peru’s jungle cities––Iquitos and Tarapoto most prominently––is both good for the local economy and a happy hunting ground for opportunistic shysters. Even as I write, doctoral dissertations are being written about ayahuasca tourism and its effects.
Apropos of which, I recently corresponded with Miroslav Horák of Brno University, who has authored a report on a Tarapoto-based drug-treatment facility that uses ayahuasca as part of its treatment regimen. The report, entitled The House of Song: Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts by the Traditional Indigenous Medicine of the Peruvian Amazon, is available for full-text download (4.7 MB) from Horák’s Academia.edu page.
On a completely different note, don’t miss Indian Country Today‘s extensive coverage of a recent series of SAR public talks on the future of repatriation 25 years after the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE. I was contacted by Ricardo D’Aguiar, a freelance videographer and producer, about his documentary about ayahuasca therapy in Tarapoto. Most definitely worth a look!
Here’s Ricardo’s description of the video and relevant links to view the trailer and the complete documentary:
The film presents the work of the research & treatment center Takiwasi based in the High Amazon region of Peru. Founded in 1986 by French, Japanese and Peruvian doctors, Takiwasi uses Traditional Amazonian Medicine combined with Western psychology to achieve a high success rate in the treatment of severe drug addiction, depression and other psychological ailments. Patients from around the globe as well as from the local community seek Takiwasi which also offers seminars for self-exploration and spiritual research. Takiwasi relies on a interdisciplinary, multinational staff of both western-trained professionals and traditional healers from around the region which is notorious for producing some of the greatest curanderos of the Amazon. The center has developed aunique approach of integration and articulation between Western science and traditional methods to produce a therapeutic protocol focused on long term, sustainable results for its patients.”
Just when I’d begun to hope that egregious appropriation of indigenous cultural productions was beginning to decline, new cases are making headlines. Nearly as troubling as the persistence of such acts of injustice is the viral spread of the “cultural appropriation” meme and its invocation in situations that flirt with triviality, a trend that risks undermining the term’s moral force.
In late November 2015, a UK fashion house was called out for selling very expensive sweaters that featured a design copied from a the parka of a long-dead Inuit shaman from Nunavut. The shaman’s descendants complained, the story hit the media in the US, Canada, and elsewhere, and the company withdrew the product from sale after issuing a rather tepid apology. Why a publicity-attuned corporation would think that their design theft would go unnoticed in a digitally interconnected world is anyone’s guess.
A more complicated case involves a group of Boy Scouts from southern Colorado who since 1950 have been performing Native dances that they identify as originating in the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, arguably one of the Indian nations that has most energetically defended its traditional religious knowledge and practices. There is little question that the “Koshare Indian Dancers,” as the dance troupe is called, began as a romantic act of homage to Native Americans. Over the years, the group has performed across the United States in highly publicized and celebrated events. The director of the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, has recently protested the performances, which Hopis regard as culturally insensitive because, among other things, the performers have no true understanding of the social and religious meaning of the dances. Hopis are presumably offended because the dances—however unintentionally—threaten and implicitly show disrespect for Hopi religion by distorting traditional rituals and invoking spiritual powers about which the dancers are themselves completely ignorant. Denunciations from other Pueblo communities are likely to follow. (A recent article on the controversy, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, includes a short video of the dances.)
Is the case of the Koshare Indian Dancers more or less troubling than the theft of an Inuit design by a commercial fashion house? The latter was done solely for commercial gain, which doesn’t seem to be a factor for performers in the Boy Scout dance troupe. In that sense, the Inuit case is a cruder form of theft. The Boy Scouts apparently mean well, and they insist that their dance expresses appreciation for Native American culture. But their dancing is perceived by Hopi people as hurtful and misguided rather than as admiring. A case can be made that ongoing public performance of the dances constitutes a greater harm to the Hopi, who number around 20,000, than the sale of a handful of overpriced sweaters is to the more numerous Inuit people, although I don’t feel that I’m in a position to say whose hurt might be greater.
Then there’s the recent claim that teaching and practicing yoga by Americans, Canadians, and other people not native to South Asia is a form of cultural appropriation. This made international headlines when a group at the University of Ottawa canceled a yoga course after concluding that teaching yoga in Canada was ethically fraught because the South Asian societies that developed it “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.”
Michelle Goldberg convincingly demolishes this argument in a piece in Slate. She notes that Indian nationalists enthusiastically supported the introduction of yoga in the West to demonstrate the richness and sophistication of Indian culture. The engagement of Indian advocates of yoga with Western audiences changed the discipline significantly. The emerging, cosmopolitan version of yoga has become so identified with India, Goldberg reports, that in 2015 “Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, succeeded in getting the United Nations to recognize International Yoga Day on June 21, which was celebrated with mass yoga demonstrations worldwide.”
The final stop of this tour of widely publicized recent allegations of appropriation is a protest by Oberlin College students who claimed that the apparently inauthentic or substandard ethnic food served in the college’s dining halls was not just unpalatable but represented a form of harmful cultural appropriation. A Japanese student, among others, resented the poor-quality sushi served in Oberlin’s cafeteria. She was quoted as saying, “When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture. So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”
Most of the published comments that I’ve seen on the Oberlin tempest-on-a-sushi-tray are unsympathetic, even snarky, and justly so. But the students’ denunciation is not just silly. It is a classic case of misusing a moral claim in a way that degrades its meaning and power in much the same way that the casual, uncritical invocation of terms such as “racism” and “ethnocide” distorts their meaning and threatens their legitimacy. When cultures collide, there is bound to be friction and boundary-infringement of many different kinds, some of which may be unjust and destructive, others of which are merely annoying. Still others, of course, evoke delight and mutual appreciation. For a multicultural society to survive and prosper, citizens need to learn to make critical distinctions and exercise judgment about what kind of injuries are worthy of complaint and which are best shrugged off as the price one pays for cultural difference—a price well worth paying.
Back in the early 1990s, when I was doing fieldwork for a book that eventually became The Channeling Zone, I was invited to an ayahuasca healing session in Santa Fe. I had seen enough ayahuasca consumed in northeastern Peru to think that the prospect of full-on emesis and purgation in the house of some stranger was singularly unappealing, so I decided to take a pass.
Now I have regrets, mostly because the sacramental use of ayahuasca is on the cusp of becoming a permanent part of the colorful religious landscape of northern New Mexico. After years of litigation, it now seems likely that União do Vegetal (UDV)–or more formally, O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal–will build a temple in Arroyo Hondo, just outside Santa Fe. UDV has thus far successfully fought a series of legal battles that have established the legality of the sacramental use of ayahuasca and prevailed against NIMBY lawsuits from neighboring property owners. UDV claims to have other centers is the states of Colorado, California, Texas, Florida, and Washington as well as in several countries beyond Brazil, where it originated.
Aside from concerns about the legality of ayahuasca use in the US or local objections to the construction of a UDV church, the spread of this new religion raises challenging questions about whether its practices represent a harmful form of cultural appropriation. The unauthorized use of the knowledge and cultural productions of other ethnic groups, especially indigenous ones, remains a serious problem worldwide, even if accusations of cultural appropriation sometimes descend to silliness that trivializes real injustice. The growth in what has been called “ayahuasca tourism” in Amazonian countries has come in for its share of criticism, some of it convincing.
But it is harder to see how the global diffusion of a religion that uses ayahuasca for sacramental purposes could have a significant prejudicial effect on the Amazonian peoples whose knowledge led to the discovery of the relevant plant species and their incorporation of their visionary properties into a range of religious traditions. There might be short-term environmental impacts if global demand for Banisteriopsis and Psychotria extracts exceed supply. Presumably, however, practitioners of UDV are already attempting to cultivate these plants in their home countries.
It’s true that the situation contains an element of unfairness: the Amazonian creators of ayahuasca-focused spirituality derive little or no benefit from the global spread of a new religion based on their knowledge. In some cases, the purveyors of this new religion are conspicuously wealthy. Does this matter? The ethics strike me as ambiguous when considered in light of the accelerating movement of images, ideas, and technologies around the globe. Could something good come from it? Equally hard to say. I’d welcome a careful, non-tendentious assessment of the impact of a global religious movement that draws on Amazonian understandings.
Brian Sheets, “Papers or Plastic: The Difficulty in Protecting Native Spiritual Identity,” Lewis and Clark Law Review, 2013. [Contains no direct discussion of the UDV but reviews the legal status of efforts to control the appropriation of Native American religions in the United States. Relevant concluding passage: “While it is difficult to try to define what constitutes appropriation from sincere religious beliefs and then try to protect Native culture from its dilution and misrepresentation, at least one thing is clear: destructive acts that bring the repute of Native culture and religion down need con- sequences. And whether that is to be formed in a court of law or public opinion, the difficulty arises from culture-clash that is still in the process of being resolved” (p. 634).
Crowd-sourcing works! Within hours of uploading this post I heard from a number of friends from the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA, natch) who suggested additional sources. Probably the most significant is a series of books edited by Bia Labate (Beatriz Caiuby Labate) and others, a complete list of which can be accessed at her website. She is co-editing yet another relevant work, The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies, with Clancy Cavnar and Alex Gearin, due out in mid-2016.
This site offers information about the book UPRIVER (Harvard UP, 2014), other books by Michael F. Brown, issues related to Amazonian peoples, events at the School for Advanced Research–Santa Fe, and occasional meditations on anthropology and human social life in general.