(This piece led to considerable discussion on my FB page. In contrast to many experiences over this kind of thing, while disagreements were sometimes pointedly expressed, virtually no disrespectful attacks happened. My appreciation for what FB can enable has grown- at least with the right mix of FB friends. To my mind the argument I made survived just fine- but the ‘packaging’ could be made better- so at some point I’ll replace it with “Destructive Conclusions… 2.0” But again- I think the alternative perspective I give here is valid and important.)
A great deal of noise is now being made on campuses and within the Pagan community about a concept which, I shall argue here, perpetuates at a deep level the very problems it is attempting to address. That concept is “cultural appropriation.”
Worrying about cultural appropriation does not have Pagan origins, but it directly impacts our spiritual and religious practice. No NeoPagans practice traditions with an unbroken connection to pre-Christian times. In some cases, helpful writings have come down, either from external observers at the time, such as Caesar describing the Druids, or, in the case of the Eddas, by members of a culture where vivid memories still survived and records of the past had not all been destroyed. However, all that has survived is fragmentary.
So far as we know, almost all Pagan traditions have been mostly oral, and those teachings have been lost. If once Pagan practices have survived, their interpretation will have changed, as Sabina Magliocco has described in rural Italy.
To more deeply develop NeoPagan practices some of us have also studied other living Pagan traditions, hoping to learn what may be useful for ourselves. And it is here that the charge of “cultural appropriation” arises.
Most contemporary NeoPagans are Europeans or EuroAmericans. Usually we are citizens of countries that not long ago collectively subjugated most of the world to their will, and only recently relinquished that power to a degree. During centuries of Western domination, other ways of life were often attacked and undermined and religious traditions other than certain kinds of Christianity were suppressed, often violently. Sometimes genocide accompanied or followed subjugation.
The best among us regret our ancestors’ actions and oppose similar behavior by many of today’s powerful. We are seeking to come to a balanced understanding of the West’s crimes as well as its achievements. This task is not an easy one.
At the same time, people within cultures attacked by Western imperial powers have sought to preserve as much as they can from their former way of life, either adapting it to the modern world or safeguarding it from Western modernity’s homogenizing and secularizing impact. Theirs is not an easy task either.
It is in this larger context that the issue of “cultural appropriation” arises for NeoPagans. In one way or another, many of us have sought to fill in gaps in our own knowledge and traditions with what we have learned, either from teachers or books, about other non-Western traditions. Consequently, some argue when we smudge with sage or seek out spirit animals, or even meet in circles, we are engaged in “cultural appropriation.”
But does this charge make sense? I will argue it does not.
I will build my argument mostly through critiquing arguments made by Jarune Uwujaren, Maisha Z. Johnson, and K. Tempest Bradford. Their work is clear, compassionate, and often penetrating. At its best they sensitize us to how others can be offended by actions we take for granted without thinking about them. Also, rather than relying on self-righteous indignation in pace of an argument, they seek to grapple with the issues at hand. I am sympathetic to their motivations even as I argue the framework they employ cannot carry the weight they pile on it. Unpacking their errors, errors deeply embedded within Western culture, enables me to flesh out what I argue is a wiser approach to these questions.
The argument over cultural appropriation
Jarune Uwujaren defines cultural appropriation as “when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” In addition, there is a “power dynamic” such that “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Maisha Z. Johnson agrees, writing “Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” Cultural appropriation also “refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”
Let me offer a counter example to the contention this is always a bad thing.
The Romans conquered and sometimes enslaved Greeks, and in the process ultimately incorporated much of Greek philosophy and art into their own culture. The Roman writer, Horace, said Rome’s military dominance was ultimately second to Greece’s influence: “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive and brought the arts into rustic Latium.”
The Romans practiced “cultural appropriation” by the definition given. However, by adopting so much Greek culture, Rome strengthened Greek cultural influence in the Western world. It was not Rome’s adopting elements of Greek thought as important within their own culture that was bad, it was their military conquest of Greece. One could easily argue the Renaissance might never have happened had not Rome preserved important elements of Greek culture.
My counter example indicates that something is inadequate in framing the issue as “cultural appropriation.” Important words are being used where they do not quite fit. By the end of this discussion we will understand what happened with Greece and Rome very differently.
For me to appropriate something from someone is to take what does not belong to me. For example, I can appropriate your car. Now I have it, and you don’t. I can also appropriate your identity, as happened to me once when my wallet was stolen. I may have your ID and credit cards, but I am not you. The first kind of appropriation is theft, the second kind is fraud.
Can I appropriate ideas? Tastes? Beliefs? Unlike with the car, in every case, you still have them even if I am now also using them. If I claim expertise in a field or to understand an idea I know little about or to like something I do not like, or believe something I don’t, I am lying and perhaps committing fraud. But if I have truly made these ideas, tastes, and beliefs my own, I am not pretending to have incorporated a cultural element from elsewhere, I have in fact done so. I am not committing fraud nor am I lying. Further, by adopting them I have not deprived others of them. Rather, I have expanded the scope of these ideas.
The language of possession does not fit with regard to ideas, tastes, beliefs, and other contents of our minds. Ideas are not things. Ironically, it takes a capitalist frame of mind to seek to make them so. Whatever ideas are, they are not property in a modern sense.
Ideas are influenced in their meaning by the different contexts within which they exist, both between and within cultures. Ideas meanings are shaped by the relationships within which they participate. We see this today with the idea of “marriage.” In the West, at one time marriage was not so much for love as for creating a family. In such a context gay marriage was unthinkable. Once marriage increasingly focused on love, it was only a matter of time before gay marriage became thinkable, and now, a reality. All this happened within “American culture.”
The meaning and qualities of things are more impervious to shaping by context. Your car is not changed just because I have appropriated it.
Cultures as agents or things
Uwujaren writes, ideally cultures should relate as equals when they take something from another, and contribute something to the other in return. While I am sympathetic to what I think the author is getting at, making this point in cultural terms is confusing at best.
If I have what you want, by definition we are not equal unless you also have what I want, and want it with about the same intensity. Money works better than barter for economic exchanges because we rarely have what another wants when we want what they have. But any equality is not in what we exchange. We are equally free to make the exchange or not, a formal equality modified by the intensity each of us has to enter into the exchange. The more desperate one party is compared to the other, the greater one kind of inequality, even when both share equal abstract status.
This way of looking at exchanges works for understanding the market, but sheds little light on cultural dissemination. Cultures do not make exchanges, people within cultures enter into relations where one, or both, might seek to import the practices of another culture. There is also no reason for us to both want what the other has in order to make such a relationship legitimate. We are equal in choosing to cooperate, perhaps with me as your student and you as my teacher, but we are not equals in what we ‘exchange.’ There is no exchange in any strong sense of the term.
I am a Gardnerian Elder. If I teach someone Gardnerian Wicca, I may not charge for it. I teach because I have knowledge another values enough to want to learn from me, and my ‘payoff’ is helping to spread knowledge I regard as valuable, so as to enrich others and serve my tradition. As a rule, I expect little from my students beyond effort. I am not so much exchanging as giving a gift, a far older mode of social cooperation. But the gift is information, not a physical thing. After I give it, I still have it. The information has increased, for it is now held by us both. Again, the language of appropriation and exchange does not do justice to what we are doing.
Once someone learns something from another, they will often also change it somewhat. Years ago a Crow Sun Dance priest told me – “Gus, if I taught you how to conduct sweat lodges, there would come a time when you change it, and that is how you make it yours.” If I had asked him to teach me, and he had, will I have appropriated Crow sweats. Will I have done so if I change them at some point to “make them mine?” My Crow acquaintance would not think so. I would not think so. If he had the right within his culture to teach others, then the only thing that matters is between the two of us, and of course the spirits.
What is a culture?
People are individuals in a moral and ethical sense, whatever else we may be. We have self-awareness, can choose when and how to act, and possess creativity, so, whatever the status of free will, we are able to rework what we know, and perhaps add new discoveries of our own, thereby bringing something new into the world. The richness of our cultural environment plays an important role in enabling and enriching our creativity. Our cultures provide the overwhelming bulk of the concepts we use and ways of seeing how they relate with one another. In this sense cultures provide our mental environment in a way like the physical and biological world provides our bodily environment. Absent either, we would not be.
Cultures emerge from and are sustained by networks of individuals sharing some common characteristics over time, and their details and boundaries are always in flux. A culture is defined by the networks of commonality among its members, and so cultures can overlap and also exist within other cultures. Like a biological ecosystem, a culture’s pattern emerges from relationships among its parts, and while the parts are always changing, the relational pattern persists. When we read Alexis deTocqueville’s Democracy in America we recognize ourselves even though no one living then has been alive for well over a century and many details about America then have changed. Crucial parts of the pattern hold together, even if others, like relations between the sexes, have changed dramatically.
Within whatever culture we begin with, we will find smaller subcultures sharing unique characteristics of their own extending all the way down to the individual. For example, we are part of a Pagan subculture that in some ways shares more in common with nonWestern Pagan cultures than with American and European cultures, and in other ways shares more in common with mainstream American and European cultures than with any nonwestern culture. The elements that create our membership in one of these cultures differs from the elements that establish our membership in the other, but as NeoPagan Europeans we are members of both.
The ecosystem model helps us. The only complete ecosystem we know of is earth. But within it are rain forest ecosystems, some of which are tropical and some temperate. Within a rain forest we can examine the ecosystem of a river, such as the Amazon. The Amazon extends above rain forests into the high alpine ecosystems of the Andes. Different ecosystems overlap. The ecosystem we focus on is defined by our interests and other than the earth itself, has no truly independent existence.
The more cultures are exposed to other cultures over prolonged periods and in many dimensions, the more they tend to influence one another. Border towns are perhaps the clearest example. Again the ecosystem model applies. Here in Taos, where I live, the non-native Chinese elm is flourishing. So does bindweed. Neither are native. Tumbleweed, so famous in the West, came with Europeans and their cattle. American bullhead catfish now flourish in England and raccoons have become a pest in Germany. Some non-native species fit easily into established ecosystems, others are very disruptive. In time the ecosystem’s patterns adapt to include newcomers, extirpate them, or it changes into a different ecosystem.
Some readers might object at this point that I am trying to define away a genuine injustice. Native American cultures are distinct from EuroAmerican ones and people within the latter have grievously oppressed those within the former. I agree great injustice has taken place, But putting the issue in cultural terms gives “culture” a kind of reality it does not possess while excusing the criminals who committed the crimes. That is just their bad culture that is to blame. No, it is not.
Very inclusive terms such as “Western” or “Native American” entwine an enormous amount of characteristics that often stand in tension or even contradiction with one another. Cultures are not seamless wholes, and the bigger the cultural unit we are describing the more this is the case. Not only are Native Americans cultures often as distinct as Italians and Danes, their members sometimes have long histories of mutual animosities. For example, the Lakota and Blackfeet were long at war with the Crow, and conflict between the tribes was so great many outside observers thought the smaller Crow would be annihilated. (19-20)
Within particular tribes there will be groups nearly as opposed. Native American traditionals differ from those who have adapted Christianity to their needs. And within these groups there will be further divisions. For example, in his history of the Crow Indians, Rodney Frey writes
Because the Sun Dance religion recognizes, and even encourages, individual interpretation and realization within the spiritual, no dissonance generally arises when individuals hold contrasting understandings of the nature of the cosmos . . . .the need for a consensus on cosmology is subordinate to the function of the religion as a means to the spiritual. (67)
So far as I know, this characteristic applies to most traditional Native American spiritual traditions. Not surprisingly, some traditional Indians believe it is fine to teach Whites and others disagree.
The more inclusive the culture we describe, the more abstract its commonalities become and the more diverse its members will be on more concrete issues. Thus, it is often very unclear who ‘speaks for’ a culture. It is like asking who speaks for an ecosystem. No one does, or if someone does there will be other cultural members who think that person lacks authority to do so.
Worse perhaps, should an Anglo take it upon themselves to tell Christian Indians they are not as legitimate a representative of their tribe as traditionals are? And who decides among traditionals who disagree among themselves? I remember Joseph Bruchac, of Abenaki heritage (as well as Slovak and English) saying some years back, “Indians are people first, Indians second. Everything people do, Indians do.”
I do not mean to deny the existence of cultures. Cultures are very real, but they are real in a very tricky way for Western culture to grasp. Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme gets us on firmer ground.
If a culture is a kind of ecosystem, at the level of its defining traits, its inhabitants are called memes. I used to think “meme” is simply a word for “idea.” I now understand memesare much more interesting than that. Memes refers to ideas considered as independent entities that survive, decline, or mutate depending on the mental energy supplied them to keep them a part of our culture. Memes are ideas in their social context, and not simply as an isolated thought I might have that lives or dies with me.
If a culture is a kind of ecology, a meme is a kind of organism that exists within that ecology. Memes exist within an environment where they can replicate, adapt, and even mutate. The most successful replicate the most widely. They must accomplish this within individual minds, but their success or failure rests on their independence from any particular individual mind.
Memes populate the cultural ecosystem that enables us to be social beings with a language and mutually understandable meanings enabling us to communicate beyond simple signals. When we uncritically accept them we are their tools. It is our ability to change, empower, or disempower these memes at the individual level that frees us from being simply their vehicles for expression. Memes then become our vehicles rather we theirs, but as individuals our independence is always only partial. We can never question every meme in our society. We always question some from a perspective that accepts others. Thus we and memes are active agents powered by mental energy, and both they and we coevolve.
I am a White male American. American culture is relatively patriarchal. It has grappled for centuries with a racism as a central feature that many of us would prefer to be absent. America has also consistently acted aggressively towards militarily weaker peoples when convenient, from Native Americans to the world as a whole. As a young boy growing up in this culture I initially imbibed these values to some degree. But most cultures are not monolithic, and as we grow up we encounter competing memes.
The American cultural ecosystem is not stagnant, as the triumph of gay marriage as legitimate among most Americans demonstrates. The meme that marriage is for love was long not a dominant one, but today it is. Other memes about marriage also exist of course, like marriage is to create a family, but they are now secondary. The newly dominant meme ultimately transformed some of our most basic beliefs and institution. It legitimized interracial marriage in a racist society and has now legitimized gay marriage as well.
For decades I have supported feminism and the civil rights movement. I have also spoken, demonstrated, and written against American imperialism abroad. And I remain a White American male sharing a great deal with other white American males, only some of whom endorse these other values. However, over time cultures evolve and particular memes can increase, evolve (as ‘marriage’ has), or disappear. We would still be recognizably American if we ceased being patriarchal, and the evidence this is so are the many Americans who are not patriarchal yet still very much Americans.
In other words, while we can take a stand against some elements of our culture, we can never be completely separate from it. But depending on our stands, our culture can change. It is not a thing, but a pattern of relations each of whom takes its particular meaning from all the others involved within that pattern. And the pattern is far more stable than the relationships that comprise it at any time.
Nouns, Verbs and Possession
Even our language carries cultural messages, replicating some memes and suppressing others. Do we experience our world primarily as objects, or primarily as processes and relations? English gives credence to the idea of cultural appropriation out of all proportion to the realities. Our language encourages us to take what I have called a capitalist perspective on cultures and ideas.
English and most other Western languages possess lots of nouns and relatively few verbs compared to many, perhaps all, Native American languages. These languages possess fewer nouns but many more verbs. Nouns are things, verbs are processes. A thing can act, or not. A verb is action.
The Potawatomie were once a powerful tribe, and had history been different, they might sill be. In the Potawatomie language 70% of the words are verbs whereas in English 30% are. This difference shapes how we see and experience the world. As Robin Kimmerer explains in Braiding Sweetgrass: “A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun it is defined by humans, trapped between shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa – to be a bay – releases the water from bondage and lets it live.” (55)
Some might say this Native American approach is simply a subjective judgement importing human traits into the wider world. Nice for poetry, bad for reality. But this view ignores, or evades, how language shapes perceptions. Kimmerer explains “Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has grey hair.’ . . . In English we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as an it. . . . So it is with Potawatomie and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55) Indeed, from an animist perspective such as theirs or mine, the dichotomy subjective/objective is a cultural meme that very imperfectly describes the world.
Most Pagans will have sympathy with this perspective, and it certainly frees us from making errors such as treating ideas as things. We have a hint of how this transforms our vision when we consider that Buckminister Fuller received considerable attention during my college years when he titled a book I Seem to Be a Verb. Fuller’s title impressed many at the time as mind=stretching, but he simply recognized a dimension of who we are that our language tends to hide. We are more process than thing. Native languages such as Potawatomie recognize this dimension as more basic to reality than beings’ “thinghood.”
We live within a natural ecosystem and we live within a memetic ecosystem. In both cases there is coevolution. We and the contexts that shape us influence one another. Our freedom as human beings is in significant degree rooted in our ability to actively and deliberately understand and manipulate our natural ecosystem. Exactly the same point applies to the memetic ecosystem that provides us the tools by which and through which to think.
Our unique freedom comes when we do NOT identify with these memes. When we do identify with them, we become their tools, not they ours. At this point I could develop these insights to integrate them with the occult concepts of thought forms, egregores, and the like. But here I will integrate them into the debate over cultural appropriation.
We get into trouble when we subordinate ourselves to memes, and so blind ourselves to what might not fit them, as those who emphasize the wrongs of ‘cultural appropriation’ do.
A culture is not a thing. It is an ecosystem of memes and their co-evolutionary impact on the people who comprise it. Cultures are not monocultures. Their members will see many issues differently, even issues important to their cultural identity. Cultural identities are always dynamic in their details. For example, some people argue the term ”Indian” is a word imposed upon the people who inhabited this hemisphere before Europeans invaded. But many of these people have no problem with the term, and use it to assert their distinct identity from Euro-America. In Lawrence, Kansas, the most important university for ‘our’ indigenous peoples proudly proclaims itself as Haskell Indian Nations University.
Indian Nations. I find this a powerful statement affirming the worth of these peoples and their culture, not seeking assimilation or demonstrating cultural weakness. But I suspect some readers noticed with disapproval my occasional use of the term “Indian” in this paper.
What matters to me is the abuse of people and other beings. Identifying people with and subordinating them to “culture” disempowers them. It is sad that many good people are losing sight of the desirability of empowering people wisely, preferring instead to subordinate them to a rigid conception of culture.
The bottom line
Neither cultures nor ideas are ‘appropriated.’ They are not things and they cannot be owned. Cultures are mimetic ecosystems and ideas are the memetic organisms within those ecosystems. We are important elements within this ecosystem because our minds feed these memes, starve them, or transform them. But memes are not ours, not as individuals and not as cultures. When we think a meme is ours, we in fact have become its. We are its tool, not it ours.
A culture is a particular memetic ecosystem, but memes can exist outside any given culture, and in the process of entering one might adapt the better to prosper within a new environment. They have always been like this and it is a confusion to think otherwise.
What I am sure of is that people cannot rightfully oppress one another, no matter whether their cultures are the same or different. Most of the examples of ‘cultural appropriation’ the people I am critiquing have given as examples of cultural appropriation are also cases of personal failings. There is a lack of respect, or dishonesty, or fraud. And they are most appropriately addressed in those terms. Often the writers I have criticized here recognize this, and over and over emphasize that respect is needed when people of different cultures interact. I could not agree with them more.
But their insight is masked when they seek to address it from within the nebulous context of ‘cultural appropriation’ where eating a burrito, as Uwujaren argues, is as much ‘cultural appropriation’ as wearing another people’s sacred symbols as jewelry or seeking to create a NeoPagan sweat lodge. This perspective strengthens the meme that we are surrounded by objects, things, which the powerful can own and the powerless must keep control of or be robbed.
My analysis leads me to a very practical point along with the animistic one I have made so far. The language of cultural appropriation masks the real problems we face regarding exploitation and oppression. As Walter Michaels writes in the Chronicles of Higher Education, “The problem is that the whole idea of cultural appropriation is incoherent, and the dramas of appropriation it makes possible provide an increasingly economically stratified society with a model of social justice that addresses everything except economic stratification.” We’ll argue about the appropriateness of eating burritos, or perhaps of Taco Bell’s burritos, rather than discuss the corporatization of food.
Today today most emphasis on cultural differences and the supposed injustice of ‘cultural appropriation,’ comes from the left, and not from the right, as it once did). But it was not that long ago that White Westerners who loved jazz or rock and roll, music with African roots, were attacked by the cultural right as not honoring our own culture, preferring the inferior and degenerate cultural expressions of Africans. And I predict that this poison is again raising its head, using the same logic but applying different values as those who complain today of cultural appropriation.
The collapse of Marxism as the dominant challenging perspective to capitalism and market values has not so far been replaced by a challenger better able to take its place. Visions of liberating humanity as a whole have been at best, set aside. What remains is a deep sensitivity to how inequalities of power and respect ruin the lives of many and no clear way to make sense of it.
The left is rightly suspicious of the facile individualism of market liberalism that justifies the status quo, and in its place emphasizes how we are cultural beings, which we most certainly are. But when combined with the cultural meme that everything is a thing, this insight has led to a new collectivism of cultures as discrete things to which we are subordinated. People are within cultures and so they are injured when cultural traits are ‘appropriated’ by more powerful cultures.
This vision is remarkably like a war of all against all, except that while the right has long argued stronger cultures are superior and so should triumph, the left seeks to protect the weaker ones from expropriation. But the terminology ultimately helps the oppressors. This way of thinking empowers the oppressors while the ways of thought it encourages among critics of oppression do little to check them while undermining opportunities for solidarity. Some folks are too worried about the thoughtless eating of a burrito or the inauthenticity of a cafeteria serving General Tso’s Chicken to see the bigger picture.
I hope I have demonstrated that a focus deeply in keeping with the normal Pagan intuition of a living world where mind and will are significant players opens the door to a wiser approach to these matters, and helps end the foolishness about ‘cultural appropriation’ in our community. This perspective is also particularly appropriate from a Pagan perspective that sees life in everything and potentially the sacred as immanent in the world.