A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation

by Katie J.M. Baker

This fall alone, Paul Frank served “Rain Dance Refresher” cocktails at a “Pow Wow”-themed fashion week event, ASOS debuted a “Go Native” Navajo-inspired line with cringe-inducing copy, and Karlie Kloss walked the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show runway in a floor-length war bonnet and not much else. Why are fashion brands so bad at discerning the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation — and, moreover, why don’t they care about putting in enough effort to get it right?

Fashion brands are often quick to apologize after appropriation-related controversy ensues; most recently, Victoria’s Secret released a statement this week “sincerely” apologizing “as we absolutely had no intention to offend anyone.” Apologies are nice and all, but they’re not enough; how is it possible that, in the year 2012, no one at VS thought twice about how Kloss’s “sexy native” get-up might upset people? We could lament (and recently published an article on) how frustrating it is that so many companies clearly don’t feel the need to take the time to do basic research before launching offensive clothing lines and ad campaigns. (And sometimes they veer into illegal territory; remember when Urban Outfitters got in legal trouble for its tacky “Navajo Hipster” line of panties and flasks?) But we’re also interested in how consumers can shop responsibly, since it’s not always so obvious when a company is making a profit off an artificially constructed image of Native American identity.

A personal example of appropriation confusion: I love the concept of dreamcatchers, and have one hanging on my window; I also bought tiny dreamcatcher earrings from a Navajo woman when I recently drove through Navajo Nation on a road trip. Am I unconsciously promoting cultural appropriation because I like the way webs and feathers look dangling from my ears? I really wasn’t sure — and none of my friends or coworkers seemed sure, either. So we talked to a variety of experts, from Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi to Beyond Buckskin’s Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, in hopes of better understanding the legal and more “thoughtful” differences between offensive appreciation and positive inspiration.

(We’re focusing on Native appropriation in particular, because, judging by the past few months alone, that’s the fashion industry’s favorite culture to mock/steal from first and apologize for later. But the below guidelines work for other cultures, too.)

What is cultural appropriation?

Scafidi, the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, said even she found it hard to give a succinct and clear definition. Here’s what she’d go with: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”

To elaborate: “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.”

Metcalfe recommended Native Appropriation’sCultural Appropriations Bingo Sheet,” which she shows in her classes at Arizona State University because it “seems to make people laugh and helps to make cultural appropriations ‘click’ in people’s minds.”

Why is it such a big deal?

In their own words:

Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota):

“There isn’t just one Native American culture. There are hundreds. And there are millions of Native people. And we’re being ignored. We’re being told that we don’t have rights over how we are represented in mainstream America. We are being told that we should ‘get over it’ – but the people who are saying this don’t even know what the issues are. When people know of us only as a ‘costume,’ or something you dress up as for Halloween or for a music video, then you stop thinking of us as people, and this is incredibly dangerous because everyday we fight for the basic human right to live our own lives without outsiders determining our fate or defining our identities.”

Jennifer Weston, Endangered Languages Program Manager at Cultural Survival (Hunkpapa Lakota, Standing Rock Sioux):

“When modern Natives see half-naked chicks strutting around on runways or street corners completely devoid of knowledge of our real cultures and religions, AND misrepresenting and misappropriating these sacred symbolic articles, we must demand respect for our religious practices. Such misrepresentations sexualize, commodify, and pervert our traditions — and impart to children of all cultures and backgrounds that it’s perfectly acceptable to “play dress up” as a Native person, without regard for our ceremonial practices that have persisted here for millennia despite historic violence, and recent legal acts that literally outlawed our religions until 1978! Our ancestors and our parents survive attempted genocide (for their lands) and severe discrimination (for our languages and spirituality). So to pretend that we’re fictional characters vs. real people from real cultures is not only offensive, and racist, it’s a vicious act suppressing our lived realities as Native peoples, and an appropriation of our very identities.”

Are there any legal ramifications?

Sometimes! A few tribes have taken advantage of trademark law, like the Navajo Nation — that’s why they were able to send Urban Outfitters a cease-and-desist letter. You can use the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) to search the 500+ tribes to see if they’re trademarked.

But some tribes don’t want to trademark their cultural property because, as Scafidi explains, “the requirement that U.S. trademark be used in commerce may itself be offensive if the name or symbol in question is something that is sacred, secret, or otherwise not an appropriate subject for commercialization.”

There’s also the American Indian Arts & Crafts Act, which makes it illegal “to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization.”

But most lucrative products aren’t considered an art or a craft, from cars (Jeep Cherokee) to mass-produced clothing (clothing designs aren’t copyrightable in the U.S. in general) which makes it easy for companies to shirk the law. Basically, if you’re not falsely suggesting that your items are Native-made, or the product of a particular Native Nation, you’re legally good to go.

Should non-Natives refrain from purchasing Native American made or inspired goods out of respect?

Not at all! Just make sure you’re doing it right.



“Consider the 3 S’s: source, significance (or sacredness), and similarity. Has the source community either tacitly or directly invited you to share this particular bit of its culture, and does the community as a whole have a history of harmful exploitation? What’s the cultural significance of the item — is it just an everyday object or image, or is it a religious artifact that requires greater respect? And how similar is the appropriated element to the original — a literal knockoff, or just a nod to a color scheme or silhouette?”

Tell me more about “source.”

Sasha Houston Brown, American Indian academic adviser at Minneapolis Community and Technical College from Dakota’s Santee Sioux Nation:

“One important factor to consider is the role of agency and self-determination in the representation of Native peoples, culture and art. As sovereign Nations, Indigenous peoples have the right to speak for ourselves and not have dominant Euro-American society project and profit off of an artificial and socially constructed image of “Indian” identity. When you have major corporations commodify and take possession of various components of Native culture and intellectual property it speaks to the ongoing dehumanization of Indigenous peoples.”

How can I figure out if something is sacred and therefore off limits?

Buy from Native artists and designers, says Metcalfe:

“Non-Native people can and should buy Native items from Native artists and designers. That’s why I created Beyond Buckskin and the Beyond Buckskin Boutique. It’s a place where people from all backgrounds can come and appreciate Native American creativity and design. Furthermore, the Native American artists and designers who I work with are members of their communities, and they are knowledgeable about which aspects of their cultures will never be for sale for sacred reasons (again, think of the headdress). So, the items for sale are created as non-sacred items to be appreciated by everyone.”

And/or do some research. Here’s a start: dreamcatchers aren’t very problematic. War bonnets (sorry, Karlie!) are, according to Weston:

“Dreamcatchers come with stories (sometimes from dreams) among several tribes like the Ojibwe, Navajo, and Lakota. Since they’re cross-cultural items and adapted for contemporary arts and crafts (w/ kids, and for sale) by multiple tribal artists and schools, there is less concern about appropriation. On the other hand, the plains Indian war bonnets that the ubiquitous hipster/Victoria’s Secret & other fashionista “feather headdresses” are modeled on are actual historical sacred ceremonial pieces, sometimes called regalia (but not costumes). While ceremonies varied among the diverse plains tribes who produced these headdresses, most involved specific prayers and actions, often relating to EACH single feather. Honor songs and ceremonies, for men and women warriors, come from our languages and represent ancient spiritual practices deeply tied to tribal homelands and their biodiversity.”

Brown pointed out some other items that you might not know are “much more than just visually beautiful”: turquoise squash blossom necklaces, beadwork, quill earrings, birch bark baskets and Dine rugs.

Hmm, this isn’t so tricky after all. Why are fashion brands so shitty at it?

Because they don’t care.


“For some reason, people think that our designs and patterns are in the ‘free bin’ and any one can use them to make a shirt, etc. This is false. Some of these are designs owned by communities, owned by families, or owned by individuals, and companies cannot steal them for profit. Yes you can be inspired, but inspiration requires some creativity and skill of your own.”

You would never copy a design from Prada — or, at least, you’d be pretty sneaky about it — but Urban Outfitters thought nothing of using the word “Navajo” to promote their hipster panties.

What should I do about my dreamcatcher earrings?

Scafidi told me I passed the “3 S’s” test, and therefore, her (very charming) advice “would be to enjoy the dreamcatcher earrings that you bought from a Navajo artisan, and — if style inspiration strikes — feel free to pair them with everything from a preppy polo to a mandarin-collared blouse,” said Scafidi.

But not if I only like them because they’re pretty.


“If non-Natives buy crafts, jewelry and clothing from Native peoples, it does not necessarily mean that there aren’t inherent dynamics of power and appropriation at play. A major issue to consider is the cultural and religious significance present in Native art, jewelry and apparel. Each tribe has unique and very specific meaning imbedded into their art, regalia, crafts and jewelry…Despite what dominant society and mainstream media say, Native culture is alive and present and if people are inspired by that they should take personal responsibility to educate themselves. If non-Natives decide to buy native art, they should wear or display it with respect for the culture it represents.”

In short: Don’t be scared off purchasing Native-inspired goods completely, but do some research before you buy — and, as a rule, stay away from items mass produced by fashion chains that seem more inspired by a mythical hipster Pocahontas than actual Native Americans.

Originally published on Jezebel. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

Jezebel has written 39 articles for us.


  1. I am Anishinabe, a traditional Native American dancer, storyteller, nurse, mother, wife. I would like to address the appropriation of Native symbols by Non-Natives. We are people who have been here for tens of thousands of years. Our languages, our traditions, our stories are a direct connection to who we are and where we come from. They are a living narrative of us as a people, and they are filled with power. That power is cheapened, diminished and perverted when taken out of context. Example: Dreamcatchers. These were (the popular story goes) created by Native grandmothers and mothers to hang over beds and cradles. (So why people hang them in their cars is a puzzle.) What most people DON’T know-what is crucial to understand–is that dreamcatchers were a survival tool. A child who could weave a dreamcatcher could also fashion a net to catch fish or a snare to catch rabbit. That child could fashion a pair of snowshoes. In a harsh environment where chidren were sometimes on their own, the ability to weave a net might mean the difference between life and death. That truth has been lost in the ‘Made in China’ landscape of the non-Native world. I look at dreamcatchers and I see centuries of mothers who loved their children and wanted to protect them. It saddens me to see them trivialized for the sake of the windigo mentality of dominant culture. So many of our traditions have been co-opted and trivialized by people who would be better served to explore their own traditions and celebrate them.

    • Thank you for this. Even though I had a friend make me a dreamcatcher as a gift as a child, I’ve since found them to be tacky if used frivolously. I’ll be sure to keep your explanation in mind just in case those close to me have or want to buy a dreamcatcher for novelty.

      I have a question though – would you consider it to be disrespectful for a non-Native individual to use a dreamcatcher for its proper use (i.e. to protect children from evil spirits)?

      • They were not used to protect children from ‘evil spirits’. Most of the traditional people I know don’t believe in evil spirits. In the presence of evil? Yes…but all things come from Creator and the struggle in the Universe is for balance; evil is done by people who are not walking in balance. Dreamcatchers were/are a teaching tool. Yes, a story was woven along with the webbing; a story about good dreams and bad dreams–I’ve NEVER heard any Anishinabe person talk about ‘evil spirits’ in connection with a dreamcatcher. Stories help enhance remembering. Stories connect us with the past. If you are a young child being taught to weave a netlike structure, will you remember better as a rote lesson or as a story? If that finished product hangs over your bed, and you gaze at it as you fall asleep, will you sleep more peacefully imagining those good dreams drifting through the pretty bead and dripping from the feathers into your sleeping form? Of course you will, and the power woven into that is the purest expression of love and magic.

  2. The question about dreamcatchers and evil spirits is a perfect example of what is lost when people appropriate something from a culture that is not their own…and it is hugely distressing to me. I believe that real, genuine power exists in the love and energy we invest in our traditions. I pray with medicines every single morning, because I believe in the power of that tradition. When traditional Anishinabek do beadwork, many of us say a prayer with each bead we add. Many of us include one ‘wrong’ bead as an acknowledgement that only Creator is without flaws. Do you understand what this means? If I make you a necklace or a bracelet, it is not just time that I am investing in it–it contains my prayers for your well-being. That power–that energy–stays with that beadwork. If you buy “Native American style” beadwork that is made in a sweatshop in China, it is invested with something entirely different, and it does a huge disservice to the traditions behind that beadwork. Maybe the mass of dominant culture consumers doesn’t care-but I do! The whole context of what things mean below the surface is lost when it is spewed out into an uneducated and fickle audience.
    Sorry to sound like I’m ranting, but it is so difficult to watch the on-going misuse of things that are sacred to me; and to know that the people ‘playing’ with Native cultural symbols will likely never have a clue about what has been taken; what has been lost.

    • Gurrl, I feel the same way, that is why I “Rage and Bake.”

      I remember kneading dough saying to myself “all these silly mofos need to take A STADIUM OF SEATS with their bullshit,” when I was dealing with the crazy during the election in the U.S. I made sweet maple (vegan) bread. YUM!! After rage baking, I rage ate and it was delicious. This needs to be a thing.

  3. I guess I’m just not convinced that there’s an ethical way to wear someone else’s culture. Even with the best intentions and research and source-checking, you’re still participating in making someone else’s culture trendy. A non-dominant culture that becomes trendy in the dominant culture gets separated from its meaning, gets commodified. It also someday becomes untrendy, which is also problematic. Fundamentally, I don’t think we’re there yet. I think everybody needs to get on the same page about cultural appropriation being problematic before we can get more into the nuances of it.

  4. A blog I follow made a check list for white people to go through when they can’t tell if they are appreciating a culture or appropriating it.Basically if you answered yes or “I’m not sure” to the question then don’t freaking do it.

    1) Is it marketed to you as an object/custom from a marginalised culture without any context?

    2) What are your reasons? Are you appreciating it because you feel bored, or because it’s cool, or you think it’s aesthetically pleasing (“exotic”)?

    3) What is the history/meaning of objects/languages/rituals in the culture? Are you aware of the meanings/history of these things? Will you be using them in a way that misrepresents them, or diminishes their power?

    4) Are you comfortable with the understanding that as someone benefiting from white privilege, you may be contributing to the suppression of others’ cultural symbols, & that by your actions there is a strong possibility of further oppression? Are you willing to work through the nuances of privilege that occur when the question of cultural appropriation is brought up?

    5) If someone from calls you out on appropriation/racism, are you going defend your perceived right to appreciate their heritage, & how they shouldn’t be offended?

    Number 5 is the one where a lot of people fail terribly on.

  5. My family is Vietnamese. One time I stayed at a friend’s house and her family asked me one of those awkward where are you from questions. Upon saying Vietnam, she raved about the tourism she’d done there. Her whole house was covered in art from far away non-Western cultures. I realized some of it was Vietnamese lacquers. Then, I went to stay in the guest bedroom, and for decor on the shelf above the door were two of the conical hats you see the classic pictures of people wearing in Vietnamese rice fields. I had a really uncomfortable gut reaction.

    Now, no one in my family ever really used one of those hats – they lived in cities. In fact, when we went to Vietnam, my dad bought some as a gag and they also sit on OUR shelf. We have pictures of him on Tet (New Year) as a child playing with one for fun. Is it really my culture?

    I actually have a lot of trouble with why one of these was okay with me and why one wasn’t. I think the differences are:

    1. I felt like in her house, these were exotified objects. In my house, they were funny hats. In her house, they were Vietnamese hats.
    2. She talked like she knew all about Vietnam and could relate to me. In my house, these hats were part of our trip to understand our heritage.
    3. She had so much stuff from all different cultures as decoration in her house…it kind of felt like she’d grouped together all third world cultures. I’m sure she did it to “support local artists” but it felt condescending, like here are the rice field hats and then the tribal totems and so on…

  6. Mehh.

    I bought a cheongsam when in Hong Kong. It’s a fusion of Chinese tradition and modern style. According to the source, significance and similarity thing I’m totally good- but…

    The question is this: if I wear it in public will people look at me with that mixture of pity and annoyance reserved for white women in Indian wedding saris? I bought it partly because it’s beautiful and partly because the woman who owned the shop was awesome and super nice. Those probably aren’t good enough reasons though…

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