Cultural Appropriation

Native American Man
Watch out for the differences between appreciation and appropriation. Photo Credit: Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Cultural appropriation is a term you may see referenced in many discussions of modern Pagan religion. It refers to, quite simply, the appropriation of one culture’s practice and belief system by another, but without the true cultural context. For example, NeoWiccans who integrate totem animals, vision quests, and sweat lodge sessions as an homage to Native Americans – but who are not Native Americans themselves, and do not understand the usage of those practices on a cultural level because of it – could arguably be accused of cultural appropriation.

Be aware that different people view cultural appropriation in different ways. Some see it as homage – a way to pay tribute to another group by adoption their music, dress, or religion as one’s own. Others find it insulting, and say that if a person from Group A is going to borrow things from Group B, it’s no more than blatant theft and disrespect – particularly if Group B is a marginalized or minority group, and Group A is in the majority.

In a religious context, many people are troubled by the adoption of Native American practices by eclectic non-Natives who, because they have never had the Native American experience, may be basing these appropriations off some imaginary or wishful interpretation of what “Native American” really means. In general, the lack of social or historical experience of the majority culture makes it impossible for people to accurately understand what it’s like to be a part of the minority group they are attempting to emulate.

A prime – and tragic – example of cultural appropriation gone horribly wrong is the case of James Arthur Ray, a self-help guru who charged tens of thousands of dollars for spiritual retreats.

In October 2009, three people died following a sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona, Arizona. Following the event, many Native American elders spoke out against Ray’s practice, pointing out that he wasn’t qualified to run a sweat lodge, had never been trained by a Native American shaman, and – as an added example of incompetence – constructed the lodge structure out of plastic tarps, which caused a number of participants to suffer from heat stroke.

A month later, a group of Lakota filed a lawsuit against Ray, saying he had committed fraud by "impersonating [an] Indian," and said he "must be held responsible for causing the deaths of the victims and injuries of the survivors, and for the destruction of evidence through the dismantling of the sweat lodge."

Some refer to people who perpetuate this sort of thing as “plastic shamans.”

In Australia, the aboriginal peoples have struggled for many years with non-Aboriginal artists who have created artwork that mimics that of the indigenous cultures. One well-known art dealer was convicted in the 1990s of selling non-Aboriginal work as indigenous art, and since then there has been a movement towards getting a statement of authenticity to create a provenance for Aboriginal goods and products.

Another example of cultural appropriation could be that of non-Buddhists getting Buddhist tattoos. The tattoos, which are incorporated as part of a spiritual ceremony and created by monks, have become popular among western celebrities and others. However, one could argue that if the individual receiving the tattoo has shown the proper degree of reverence and respect, that it’s acceptable for them to embrace this part of Buddhist culture and practice.

Again, people have different viewpoints about the adoption of other cultures’ practices. If you are incorporating a practice into your belief system, ask yourself whether you’re doing it because you’re truly called to do so, or whether you simply saw it in a book and thought it looked appealing. Carefully evaluate the practices you borrow, and make sure that if you choose to use them, that you do so with respect and reverence towards their original owners.