Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

Beyond hoop earrings: The damaging impact of the cultural appropriation meme

The Moana-themed costume that Disney pulled out of stores after intense public criticism, Fall 2016

The vapid debate about cultural appropriation continues in social media, the latest reductio ad absurdum being the claim that hoop earrings belong to Latina culture and shouldn’t be worn by Anglo women.  The neocon press loves these stories because they illustrate the alleged excesses of identity politics in American colleges and universities.

Conservative interest in accusations of cultural appropriation may explain why I was called by Alice Lloyd, a reporter for The Weekly Standard, and invited to explain why appropriation has become such a pervasive meme.  To her credit, she was more interested in efforts to limit the appropriation of indigenous knowledge than in tempests-in-teapots like the hoop earrings issue.  Her curiosity appears to have been sparked by criticism of the glacially slow efforts of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to develop protocols for the protection of traditional knowledge and indigenous genetic resources.

Although I admire the efforts of legal thinkers such as James Anaya to nudge WIPO to promulgate global policies that provide an umbrella of protection for indigenous peoples, I’m skeptical that protocols on that scale can effectively address the particularities of local situations and multiple conceptual domains (e.g., genetic resources, biological knowledge, expressive culture, sacred understandings, etc.)  One has only to read WIPO’s draft documents to wonder whether endless micro-editing of terminology can lead to successful solutions in our lifetime.

Any way one slices things, legal protocols must resolve knotty questions.  Who qualifies as indigenous?  Who legitimately speaks for communities given local disagreements about whether formally constituted Native governments (e.g., the tribal councils of federally recognized Indian nations in the United States) are qualified to represent the community in matters relating to religious knowledge?  Can one ever reconcile a global IP system predicated on time-limited monopolies—patents and copyrights— with what indigenous peoples typically see as the eternal status of their values and practices?  Should the cultural-protection rights of indigenous communities always trump the right of indigenous individuals to share life histories that may include religiously sensitive information?  Can WIPO’s necessary focus on nation-states ever be fully reconciled with the complex and often fraught status of indigenous communities within those nation-states? These and other tough questions have made the journey toward international protections a painfully slow one.

The article that emerged from the Weekly Standard interview is more thoughtful than most, and I’m flattered that Lloyd says nice things about a book I wrote years ago.  Still, I feel obliged to correct an error in the account.  For the record, the School for Advanced Research wasn’t founded by “frontier-minded and Bryn Mawr-educated heiresses with cash to burn.”  It emerged from the efforts of an early anthropologist, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, and the archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett to establish a center for the study of American prehistory that would rival institutions that studied the archaeology of the classical world.  The Bryn Mawr graduates mentioned by Lloyd are presumably Martha Root White and Amelia Elizabeth White, who built a home in Santa Fe in the 1920s.  Amelia Elizabeth White bequeathed the estate to SAR in 1972, 65 years after SAR’s founding.  Details here.

It’s fair to say, as Lloyd does, that many members of Santa Fe’s Anglo elite had an appropriative attitude toward Native American culture.  Early in the twentieth century, Santa Fe and Taos served as meccas for educated Anglos searching for an America that owed little to European high culture.  They found this primal authenticity in the New Mexico landscape and its indigenous and Hispanic populations, especially the Pueblo peoples of the region.  Although Hewett, the White sisters, and others like them were deeply sympathetic to Native Americans and in some cases fought vigorously to defend indigenous land rights and religious freedoms, their attitudes were often condescending.  They presumed that they were more qualified to speak for Indians than Indian people themselves.  In this sense they were creatures of their time.

The SAR of today is a different place.  In particular, SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center is committed to doing what it can to facilitate the transfer of indigenous knowledge between generations and to work collaboratively with the communities in which the IARC’s collections originated. And the IARC is extremely careful about maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive religious knowledge, to the limited extent that it can be found in the IARC’s records. Perfection achieved?  Not by a long shot.  But we are making progress despite the current economic and political headwinds.

It remains to be seen whether public understanding can move beyond trivial arguments about hoop earrings, yoga, and Asian cuisine to acknowledge the real injustices suffered by indigenous peoples when their hard-won traditional knowledge is commercialized or otherwise misused by outsiders.



On trademarks.
  The recent Supreme Court decision in Matal v. Tam has defined trademarks as a form of speech, thus voiding restrictions on disparaging marks and opening the door to continued legal protection of the controversial name of Washington D.C.’s football team.  I’m no legal scholar, and I understand that complex issues of free speech are at stake, yet common sense (for what that’s worth these days) says (1) that commercial speech is different from political speech, and (2) that trademarks are not a fundamental constitutional right but a license granted by the government upon satisfaction of a set of stringent conditions. Commercial speech is held to standards of accuracy that prevent a company from making wildly inaccurate claims (“Our toothpaste cures five forms of cancer!”) that are protected in the context of political speech (as when Donald Trump claims that his election victory was the greatest in American history).

I thus fail to see why the government should be obliged to authorize trademarks that disparage and hurt specific communities, especially minority ones.  Granted, the use of disparaging trademarks doesn’t seem likely to become widespread; after all, it will drive away many customers, thus defeating a trademark’s commercial intent.  But in an era as polarized as ours, I can imagine some people being moved to register and use offensive trademarks . . . well, just because they can.  Even legal scholars who defend the decision accept that it may also  void restrictions on “scandalous” trademarks, meaning that we can look forward to more vulgarity in popular media and on the shelves of our local shops.  It is hard to celebrate this decision as a positive validation of American free-speech rights.



Update on the STOP Act.
  On a more encouraging note, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) has just introduced to Congress a revised version of the STOP Act (Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony).  The director of SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center, Brian Vallo (Acoma Pueblo) was involved in revisions to this bill and in promoting conversations between Native American leaders, attorneys, and dealers in Native art that have led to refinements in the proposed legislation.


Update, 17 July 2017.  Don’t miss Arthur Krystal’s essay “Is Cultural Appropriation Ever Appropriate?” L.A. Review of Books, 17 July 2017.

An Amazonian religion in New Mexico’s high desert

udv-psicodelico
Image from https://vimeo.com/66879503

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.


Some relevant sources:

Controversy Brews Over Church’s Hallucinogenic Tea Ritual, “National Public Radio, April 2013.

UDV documents related to its Supreme Court case and other issues.

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.

With a special tip of the sombrero to Josh Homan and Glenn H. Shepard.