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.

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  1. This is awesome! I teach an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class at a university and before Halloween we went over cultural appropriation, Halloween costuming, and the politics of identity. I love the idea of playing “Bingo.”

  2. My only question is: if a Native person saw you wearing dream catcher earrings, would they be able to tell if you were appropriating the item or wearing it out of respect? It’s not like you can wear a “respectful intent” badge so others know you’ve put thought into what you wear.

    I’m not attacking anything in the article, I just genuinely don’t know whether, given the extent of white appropriation of Native items, a white person can wear something Native-made without looking like a jagoff.

    • Then again I guess there’s a difference between something hand-crafted by a Native artisan and something mass-produced by an overpriced clothing chain.

    • I think it’d be more problematic if people stopped buying native made jewelry for fear of presentation. I mean, as long as you’ve followed the three S’s and you feel confidently informed about the what you’re wearing I don’t see the problem. If they confront you, then you explain the origin of the pieces (maybe have even more interesting conversations about the subject) and you know you’ve supported a native artist who generally has to compete with all those companies making (shite) appropriative gear.

      • That’s absolutely true. A lot of people’s livelihoods depend, in part or in full, on selling handmade goods like jewelry.

    • I think I need a “respectful intent” badge. I offend a lot of people by being too politically correct.

  3. I think people also need to learn that war bonnets are never appropriate to wear if you’re not a Native person. I await the day when thin white girls stop taking self-portraits in war bonnets to ~symbolize my free spirit~ and stupid shit like that.

    • Yeah & the ‘I wear it to honor you natives!!!1~’ doesn’t hold much water when you’re in a bikini top and drunkenly grinding while wearing said war bonnet

  4. Thank you so much for re-posting this Autostraddle. More people need to learn about Native Issues, which is especially relevant after Louise erdrich took home the National Book Award last night for her book “The Round House,” which brings issues of tribal sovereignty, grey areas in tribal versus federal law, and the outrageously high numbers of sexual assault on Native Women, particularly when committed by a non-native.

    sorry for that rant! I, like my friend Jessica Metcalfe from above and Louise Erdrich, am Turtle Mountain Ojibwe. It makes me so happy to see this sort of article on my favorite website :)

    Louise is a wonderful woman and her new book is spectacular. Buy it here from her bookstore, Birchbark Books! http://birchbarkbooks.com/louise-erdrich/the-round-house

  5. I would really like to hear more about tattoos derived from native american culture. Do you guys think a dreamcatcher tattoo is cultural appropriation?

  6. Perfectly timed article, cultural appropriation is a buzz word lately on social media sites. I think the difference between someone wearing an item from another culture comes down to awareness. The author from Jezebel made an educated effort to source her earrings from an authentic artisan, rather than Forever21, UO, etc.

    Do you ladies feel that the latest internet trend of bhindis on hipster-boppers and Arabic-style text on t-shirts is cultural appropriation?

    Where do the lines blur when something like nose piercings/tattoos belong to the global culture rather than a specific culture?

    • I have to say that as an Indian, seeing bindis on random women definitely reeks of cultural appropriation, but nose piercings really don’t. I’m notreally sure why it feels different, considering that both have cultural/ religious significance. I think piercings have the excuse of having more cross-cultural use already? Also I think the bindi has a solely religious meaning, while nose piercings are sometimes just jewelry now…

      • I should probably also clarify that when I say “Indian” I mean that I’m culturally Indian but I’ve lived in the US my whole life/ am an American. I say this because I think it probably makes a big difference in the way I percieve cultural appropriation…
        Just a thought, what are people’s opinions on yoga?
        I think it would be interesting to know what my parents think. They seem to feel that whenever white people take things from Indian culture it’s proof that India is freakin’ awesome, so they’re far from offended. Do people think that attitude changes the standards of what’s acceptable to adopt?

    • I’d be really interested to hear more weigh in on questionably appropriative trends. I try to err on the side of caution. If I’m really wondering I take it as a sign that I should probably leave it be, but it’s still an un-rad place to come from, not having a detailed understanding where I ought to.

      Because some appropriated aspects of global culture fly over my head, I can’t speak very authoritatively, but there are times when things come off as very obvious and crude reproductions. I don’t feel entirely right about a lot of body modification, particularly gauged ears and gauged piercings in the labret area, and definitely can’t get down with the entire “modern tribal” thing.

  7. Letter G: But I’m doing it respectfully!

    And that is why I don’t wear saris. I collect them and once wore one for a presentation I gave about them. My friend had to wrap me in it because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Other than going to an event where it would be appropriate wear one, I don’t wear them.

  8. I appreciate the motivation behind writing this article, but I feel unsettled by it rather than informed, and still unsure of how to proceed without offending anyone…

    I was considering it while folding my laundry, and looking at how many patterns and styles we’ve appropriated from all different kinds of cultures. The ubiquitous plaid shirt – patterns originating from Scottish tartans, Scandinavian print sweaters, batik-inspired prints, Hawaiian print shirts (okay I don’t own any of these), etc. Many of these examples are taking important, meaningful, cultural symbols and appropriating them. Are they any different? Are all of these examples offensive? I would venture to say that next to nobody thinks about strife in Scotland when throwing on a plaid… should we? Part of my confusion is that I think that all of my examples follow the “three S’s” and should be safe, but I felt the same way about the Navajo flask, and clearly the Navajo Nation is uncomfortable with this use of their culture.

    I totally agree with the author and her sources that dressing in costume as a member of a particular culture is offensive. When it comes to being inspired by their styles, however, especially for non-sacred patterns and images, I am not clear on how to proceed. This article definitely opened my eyes to the potential faux pas of dressing in culturally-inspired clothing, but it left me asking more questions than it answered because borrowing styles from different cultures seems so pervasive. I honestly wish the author had expanded her view beyond Native American imagery because I think that might have helped make the point more clearly. Any thoughts?

    • yeah i wonder about designers being influenced by other cultures and where that fits in too sometimes

      i think the reason this piece focused on Native appropriation is because Native Americans have been uniquely oppressed by non-native Americans in a massive horrifying way, and so for our culture to disregard the truth of their actual lives but feel happy to take their sacred things and hang them on our ears is just more salt in an open wound. it’s just another layer of non-natives stealing from natives, a relationship that has defined most of american history. the same can’t be said for Scottish residents of this country.

    • I think (not an expert, here, just a thought) the difference is that most modern plaid patterns in the US a inspired by Scottish tartans, but aren’t actual patterns copied from specific Scottish designs.
      Another example is Maori-inspired tribal design tattoos. A lot of people think they look cool and get tattoos of designs they find online, etc. The problem is that Maori tattoos are actually a sort of personal history of the one who has the tattoo. So if someone gets a tattoo of a design they copied, it’s like walking around with someone else’s family tree inked on you. I read an article a while back in which a Maori man basically said to copy their designs outright is not okay, but if you do you research and get something that’s inspired by the art style, that’s cool. Obviously I can’t speak for the Maori people, and this was just one man’s opinion, but I think it does draw an important distinction. At any rate, I think the 3 Ss are a great rule of thumb :)

      • You’re right about the tartans, iirc. When an actual specific tartan gets used people do tend to get upset.

    • I think what also comes into play is perception and how people react to it. Like, the whole ‘When Lana Del Rey wears a Great Plains headdress in her music video it’s so hipster cool’. I almost feel like if she had worn a hijab the response would’ve been the same. That because it’s her (and she’s white) it’s cool and that the headdress loses all symbolism due to her as a white girl wearing it. I hope that makes sense.

      • I think Hijab would depend on the context, My friend went to a mosque and was asked to wear one as a sign of respect in there. Comes down to intent i guess.

      • I am from a very multicultural part of the world. I do not “belong” to any one culture- my parents each have a diverse background. I am Native (Iroquois), Scandinavian,Lebanese, Italian, Irish, and I’m not even sure what else. But I look like a white girl.

        I feel uncomfortable with the idea that my racial identity prohibits me from enjoying many of the aspects that makes this world an exciting place. I feel as though by focusing on the past and deriving offence from outsiders discovering aspects of new cultures is a huge obstacle in understanding one another.

        When I was younger, I didn’t even notice that the reason all my friends looked different than I did was because of where their ancestors were born. It didn’t matter. Everyone had different interests, but they were able to communicate with each other and share what made them happy.

        I wish that I lived in a world where we could share our ideas with one another on the safe and global forum that new technologies like the Internet are facilitating. It feels like everyone would rather get offended than share their feelings, and teach one another how to enjoy their culture respectfully.

  9. I have a question – I have Native American blood but I am not Native American in my cultural identity. Is posting/liking things like crafts made by the tribe my ancestor was associated with (Ojibwe) on Pinterest…could that be considered as looking at things as objects instead of culturally significant? The fact that really, in this context, it’s a picture of something and not an object in my own house that I own? Gosh, I feel so lame with this comment, talking about Pinterest.

    I read a funny blog post by a Native American woman on the internet that basically said: Everyone seems to have that ‘Cherokee great/great-great-grandmother. Always a grandmother. Always Cherokee being the tribe.’

    • Oh, and to add, I see so many pictures of hipster girls in Native American headdresses and it makes me cringe so hard.

    • I don’t think picking out those objects on Pinterest is a negative thing, and could be considered culturally significant since they have a particular resonance with your ancestry.

      Re: the blog post and Cherokee great-grandmothers, yes, I find that to be very true (living in the southwest u.s. in particular, it’s a very common claim). Sarah Vowell, author/former contributing editor to This American Life, made a comment which I find amusing and appropriate: “Being at least a little Cherokee in northeastern Oklahoma is about as rare and remarkable as being a Michael Jordan fan in Chicago.”

      At risk of sounding trite and repeating the cliché, I legitimately do have Cherokee roots on my father’s side, but I don’t culturally identify as such- to do so, I feel, would be a gross form of appropriation and is definitely not something I’m down with. When I hear people make blithely racist statements about native cultures or play dress up with face paint and feathers in their hair, the “oh, I’m like 1/144th Indian, it’s cool” statement is trotted out frequently and it makes me want to puke.

      • Totally agree with everything you just wrote. I couldn’t help but laugh when someone tried to defend Lana Del Rey’s costume by saying ‘I’m Cherokee and I’m not offended.’ And it’s like, um, if you were Cherokee, you would know that the Cherokee tribe don’t wear headdresses and never did….’

  10. I think, at least for me as a white person, the important thing is to a)be thoughtful and b) recognize that there is no point where I get to say “well, you don’t have a right to be upset by this/find it offensive”. I can agree and disagree with the points someone might make, and ultimately, I decide what to put on my body, I don’t get to tell a POC what to think of those choices. On the axes where we’re privileged, I think there isn’t magical threshold where we get to stop thinking about the consequences of our actions. Like Jay Smooth said, racism is not like having broccoli in your teeth.

    • I’m glad you point out how you still have the right to disagree and keep doing your thing, because it does annoy me sometimes how people on places like Tumblr and LiveJournal will take legitimate discussions on topics like cultural appropriation and stretch them as far as they can until it gets ridiculous, like the person arguing that if you’re not of Arab descent owning a hookah pipe is “cultural appropriation,” or even that person in the comments of a Get Baked article here acting like it was offensive to Asians for a white person to merely write a recipe of tofu stir-fry. And that’s a huge problem, because it makes it easier for people who tend to be dismissive of discussions about racism and white privilege to do that in ANY discussion about cultural appropriation, even really blatantly wrong shit like white hipster girls in war paint to prove they’re “free spirits” or something. It’s similar to how people trying to make a case that “stupid” or “homophobic” are ableist terms make it harder for people trying to get people to stop using actual slurs like “retarded” to be heard.

      Granted, I do think the people who take it THAT FAR are more allies who want to prove they’re the best allies ever, rather than actual POC/disabled people/insert relevant marginalized group here (which raises its own issue, of people with privilege distorting something for the sake of an intellectual exercise that is actually a really important issue for the oppressed group in question).

      • Basically this. The infuriating thing is whenever I try to discuss privilege with the people I know, they always reference this sort of stuff as a defense. Their first response is always ARE YOU SAYING I CAN’T EVEN LOOK AT NATIVE ART THAT IS FUCKED UP or similar, because the folks who want to bang on about even the smallest things in order to feel superior are also the loudest. You are also right in that I have noticed these people are frequently presuming to speak for a community they are not part of. Remember that radfem scorpion that said “I speak for sex workers even when they ask me not to” ? Yeah.

        I basically won’t use tumblr or engage in discussions on it because I find that a lot of times these so called activists are being ridiculously offensive. They take such a perverted joy in being as shitty as possible about it, too.

        • ALSO ALSO I find it problematic because they’re basically saying these communities can’t speak for themselves, so these ‘activists’ need to swoop in and be their saviors.

  11. Thank you for this article! I feel like I see the innapropriate use of the headress everytime I open a magazine or look on the internet these days!
    I just spent a year living in Haida Gwaii and I did purchase a fair amount of jewelry while I was there. I always bought it directly form the artist and did my best to get to know them, hear their story and learn about the pieces.

  12. Ok. Guys. I love you, and I love this article. I originally read it on Jezebel, and many of the comments in response to it on there were so hateful – and look at everyone on Autostraddle, asking honest questions in respectful ways! Warms my heart.

    Full disclosure: I am not an Indigenous person, so everything in this comment represents my own point of view as a white, cis-gendered, middle-class, agnostic, uni-educated, queer woman. I’m doing my PhD on Coast Salish cultural heritage and politics, so I have thought lots about this, but I’m by no means an expert.

    Krissy asks how do you know if the jewellery or whatever you’re wearing is appropriative. I think the question about dream catchers is kind of covered in the article; they are (or at least they have become – because cultures evolve over time) public symbols, and though there is/was a certain spiritual connotation, I’m unaware of any tribe or nation where they were sacred objects. But if you were, say, wearing earrings that looked like false face masks, that would be hugely inappropriate. Wearing war bonnets as a non-Indigenous person is likewise uncool, because of the meanings about leadership they hold. So… from what I have learned, if you want to show your respectful intent, ask the artist you’re buying the earrings from. In terms of how other people much judge you post-purchase, when you’re wearing your new earrings out on the town, that’s harder to gauge, but likely if you’ve made a respectful purchase, you don’t have to worry about it. I think Vy and Barnowl (who’s my IRL friend Bri!) demonstrate that there are a range of choices available to non-Indigenous people when it comes to deciding whether/what types of Indigenous objects they want to own or wear.

    I also totally second Taylor Payer’s comment; everyone should read Louise Erdrich!

    And Riese’s response to Julia is bang-on, too, though I think Julia asked a really good question that probably lots of people have. Why is it OK to wear plaid you bought at Urban Outfitters, but not OK to wear a Navajo t-shirt you bought at the same store? The difference lies partly in the history of both groups and their uses of the patterns (if you’re at all inclined, Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a great chapter on this called “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland” which talks about the development of tartans as largely a process of modernity, which contradicts our society’s idea that these tartans are ancient). The Navajo Nation, like all tribes in the USA, has been systematically oppressed by Euro-American colonialism, and so for a huge corporation to turn around and profit from their designs is not only cultural appropriation, but a shameless example of how colonialism and capitalism are two strands of the same structures that re/create power imbalances in North America. (Interestingly, during the Olympics in Vancouver, The Hudson’s Bay Company (or HBC, one of the oldest colonial institutions in North America, which was originally a fur trade organization and is now a major Canadian department store) was selling Olympic-themed Cowichan sweaters that were not made by Cowichan knitters. The knitters cried foul because the designs/style of the sweaters were their intellectual property, and the HBC backed off. Check out the story here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2009/10/28/bc-cowichan-tribes-olympic-sweater.html).

    I have heard a number of Sto:lo people, who I do research with, talk about living with a good mind and a good heart, meaning being open, genuine, and compassionate in the practice of your everyday life. That kind of logic really resonates with me and definitely helps me make decisions on similar issues.

    For more info on cultural appropriation, you should definitely check out the Native Appropriations blog, where these ideas are discussed a LOT. It’s excellent; the author is a Cherokee woman who’s doing her PhD in the States. nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/

  13. This is great. It acknowledges the complexities that are ever more present in our world today and offers a balanced and respectful perspective. Well done!

  14. My issue with this is that something like this is hard to challenge because (white) western capitalism find using brown and black bodies/culture to be too fucking profitable. They make so much money off of it. From labor, genocide, stealing land to appropriating the material culture, money is made and pennies are given to “redistribute” the wealth. This is how a lot of the British empire and other western nations made their money before the industrial revolution. This is something that still goes on today but under the guise of capitalism and commodification of everything. I think the only reasonable thing to do at this point is to not support entities that rip off the marginalized populations and actually do some research.

    I do believe in cultural exchange of material culture but there has to be in a space of equal footing of all the people involved and respect.

  15. timely! I was just about to post a question on facebook regarding my mukluks and appropriation. But, I now think that they’re not, considering that I bought them from an Inuit craftswoman and I’m using them for the intended purpose of keeping my feel warm. Which, they do very well.

  16. Important story about tattoos:

    I thought I wouldn’t get one for a really long time. Then I came up with an idea. I have studied Maya hieroglyphs, particularly from the Postclassic codices written in Yucatan, for many years. I decided to get the glyph “wind” (ik’) and four dots (placed differently from how they would be in Maya writing) to express the “symbol” of my college.

    It wasn’t until this year that I thought about ramifications of that act in terms of whether or not it constitutes cultural appropriation. I have, on my body, an adapted symbol of an ancient language. I can read it, it’s not just random. But my ability to read it is evidence of my privilege, given that very few Maya people can read glyphs (attempted cultural genocide and massive auto-da-fes will do that). But I, a white woman from another sociopolitical context, can read it. So now it is an important symbol to me as well of my own privilege and the reminder to always be aware of it.

  17. Ok, maybe I’m about to be really stupid, but hey that’s what commenting on the Internet is for right?
    I am of the opinion that the Native cultures of this land don’t need our help. They have a pretty sweet setup, especially considering the other cultural minorities that have historically been wiped out under the same circumstances. They don’t need our help. To be honest, they help us. I and my family have been greatly aided, in fact my life was saved, by Ezekiel Sanchez (aka Good Buffalo Eagle) and his work. But that’s not all. Our societies coexist beautifully. Yes, people are still stupid and need to respect sacred boundaries, but that goes for everyone. Far FAR worse things have been done and continue to be done to the Mormons and the things they hold sacred, but no one raises a fuss about that. Just because the native people’s of this land have a different color skin doesn’t mean they get special treatment. That is racism. So yeah, don’t cross the lines of basic respect and common decency, whether you are dealing with the Navajo Nation, or your local school board. It’s that simple.

    • I think once we have government-mandated genocide and generations of cultural destruction for Mormons, then this post will be less offensive. As it stands, I’m not really articulate enough for a rebuttal beyond: “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

    • I just can’t get over the ‘But that’s not all.’ smack in the middle.

      Like some late night infomercial. (I don’t even know what you’re trying to say, racism against white folks and crimes against Mormons, what history book did you hit your head on?)

    • I’m so confused by this comment and can’t decide if it’s a troll or not — the only reason anyone could get away with thinking they have a “sweet setup” is because by sequestering native americans on reservations, the devastating poverty and subsequent alcohol/drug abuse and chronic undermployment happening in many of those communities is literally invisible to most Americans. We don’t see it like we do with other struggling citizens because the government has set it up that way.

      “They have a pretty sweet setup, especially considering the other cultural minorities that have historically been wiped out under the same circumstances.” – what?? we should be grateful that the genocide only wiped out 70% of the native population instead of 100%?

      “Just because the native people’s of this land have a different color skin doesn’t mean they get special treatment. That is racism.

      No, actually, it’s not. There’s no such thing as “reverse racism.” Bigotry requires a power imbalance to be classified as “racism,” with the oppressed group being the one discriminated against by the group in power.

      • the only reason anyone could get away with thinking they have a “sweet setup” is because by sequestering native americans on reservations, the devastating poverty and subsequent alcohol/drug abuse and chronic undermployment happening in many of those communities is literally invisible to most Americans. We don’t see it like we do with other struggling citizens because the government has set it up that way.’

        That is EXACTLY how it is in Australia with regard to Indigenous Australians. Sad.

      • AND you’re being generous, Riese. Estimates are more like 90-99% of native people in the US were wiped out.

        I live on the edge of several reservations and their “setup” is anything but “sweet.” Many people are under the false assumption that native americans are cleaning up with casinos and US government cash handouts. These are straight up LIES. Most reservations do not have casions and these would not be viable business strategies because they are too geographically remote. And cash handouts? The US welfare state is paltry at best. People living off cash handouts are living below the poverty line even after they get support. Riese’s other points about poverty, substance issues, and employment shortages are super on point in my community and beyond. Not to mention chronic police violence and harassment. My town is not on the reservations, but our white police force has seemed to make it a sport to stop as many people with Chippewa nation plates on their cars as possible every weekend.

        Basically, Linnea. You are as off base on this as you can get. I won’t even delve deeply into how Mormons (and catholics and other christian groups) have had an enormous role in suppressing and erasing Naive American spiritual and religious traditions, and native languages. Ever heard of native American boarding schools? Ever read about mormon missionary work on reservations? Yeah, you should do that.

    • Hi Linnea,

      I think lots of people share your perspectives, but this is because history books/high school curriculum in North America has been written by settler-colonizers. So while it’s understandable you think that “Native cultures of this land don’t need our help” because they “have a pretty sweet set up,” I really hope that you’ll try to educate yourself further on this issue from other sources.

      The only point of what you’ve said that I am going to address is the idea that Indigenous peoples in North America have a great deal going. Frankly, this is completely inaccurate, both historically and contemporarily. Is it “pretty sweet” to welcome people to your land only to have them slowly take it over and treat you like a second-class citizen in your own home? To have been uprooted from your territories sometimes multiple times to make way for colonizers? To be perceived as being at the bottom of some other group’s racial hierarchy, and to be treated for hundreds of years as a savage? To fight, repeatedly, for your land and to protect your friends and family, and sometimes to win, but more often to be shot down? After a battle like Wounded Knee, to be hunted for miles as you fled, only to be shot in the back when a solider caught up with you and your body unceremoniously left on the ground? To be torn from your family and re-educated in over-crowded schools where speaking your language or maintaining your beliefs would earn you physical abuse?

      So, that’s the historical legacy. Wikipedia can tell us what it means today in terms of the lives of Indigenous people in the USA: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_social_statistics_of_Native_Americans (I normally wouldn’t use Wikipedia, but since I know you’ll be able to access it, I will). The intro states “Health standards for Native Americans have notable disparities from that of all United States racial and ethnic groups. They have higher rates of disease, higher death rates, and a lack of medical coverage.”

      Also, due to fallout from the legacy discussed above, Indigenous people have much higher death rates than everyone else: “Within the United States, Native American men have been found to be dying at the fastest rate of all people. The life expectancy of a Native American man is 71 years, six below the expectancy of a white male in the United States. Women fare at a similar level, with their death rate growing 20% over fifteen years of national decline.”

      So, really, please. Consider whether or not what you’ve said lines up with these facts.

      I recommend these books:

      Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

      Deloria Jr., Vine. “Self-Determination and the Concept of Sovereignty.” Economic Development in American Indian Reservations. R.D. Ortiz, ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979.

      Hoxie, Frederick. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

    • To Linnea…I STRONGLY suggest that you do some research about Native Americans in this country. Sweet deal? Is it sweet for your land to be held “in trust” because Native people are seen as unable to have self determination? Is it sweet to live in conditions worse than most third world countries? Is it sweet to live in communities with PUBLIC school mascots of “Redskins” (which is akin to be called a ni***r) with caricatures of big nosed heathens? To have your sons called “Chief” because white people think that’s cool? To have sacred lands–land that was given to our people by Creator to caretake–plowed under to put a road through to a subdivision? The list is nauseatingly endless, Linnea. Not too much of a sweet deal from my moccasins.

    • It’s QUITE ironic that you talk about Native Americans and Mormons in the same comment, pitying the Mormons and making MASSIVELY inaccurate statements about the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
      Full disclosure: I’m an enrolled Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal member. I also have Mormon family.
      Anyway. The Mormons were responsible for ruining much of the culture of the indigenous peoples of Utah and the surrounding areas. The Indian Child Welfare Act (which seeks to keep Native children in Native homes) was enacted partially because of what the Mormons did. They believe that Native Americans are actually descended from the ancient “Israelites”, and they believed God was telling them that they needed to show these “Israelites” the “one true religion.” So they “adopted” (and by adopted I mean kidnapped) many, many Native American children and rid them of their culture.

      Those poor Mormons. And those lucky Native Americans with their sweet set up.
      Ay Dios mio.

  18. Thanks so much for this! This issue is really important to me, coming from a college town whose native mascot inspired a lot of hateful/ignorant comments and just a generally hostile environment to anyone who challenged it. You should all read Native Appropriations, the blog mentioned in the article. It is so good and really helpful.


    • I have participated in many public school panel discussions and school board meetings about the ongoing use of Native imagery and names as sports mascots/team names by public schools. I was an ER nurse for 18 years. It takes a LOT to rattle me. After one public panel discussion (and I will name the town because I believe in shining light on things dark and slimy) in Marshall, Michigan, I feared for my life when I walked to my car after the meeting. The non-Native townspeople were hostile, venomous, and threatening; no damn Indians were going to tell them that they weren’t honoring us by using the name Redskins and a big ugly stereotyped picture of an Indian for their school. I am a small, soft-spoken woman; I am very traditional and I always approach these situations with gentleness–force and pressure always meet with resistance. Well, there were people who crowded around me after the panel discussion and were inches from my face; red faced and spitting saliva as they shouted at me. I have had similar discussion with people I considered my friends who had children in the Paw Paw school district. (“Paw Paw Redskins”)
      How do we justify to our kids–what example do we set–when a public school continues to use a demeaning, racist name and logo for their athletic program? Native people have been fighting for decades to have this practice changed, but it continues. It continues in spite of a mountain of evidence that the practice causes harm to Native children; and hundreds of groups (including the United States Commission on Civil Rights; they issued a statement in April of 2001, which said in part: “The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights calls for an end to the use of Native
      American images and team names by non-Native schools. The Commission deeply respects the rights of all Americans to freedom of expression under the First Amendment and in no way would attempt to prescribe how people can express themselves. However, the Commission believes that the use of Native American images and nicknames in school is insensitive and should be avoided. In addition, some Native American and civil rights advocates maintain that these mascots may violate anti-discrimination laws. These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping. They are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country. The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious or other groups when promoted by our public educational institutions, teaches all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, a dangerous lesson in a diverse society. Schools have a responsibility to educate their students; they should not use their influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture or people.”
      And yet, the practice continues. Could state and federal groups withhold funding from schools that continue to perpetuate this practice? Of course, but they don’t.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

    • This is an awesome list. Do you mind if I repost it? Some people on my Facebook really really need to read this.

  23. 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…

  24. 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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