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Cultural Appropriation

This is Ašli from the ƛo?os Nation. Today I wanted to talk about cultural appropriation – something that I have been thinking a lot about as of late, as examples of appropriation seem to be cropping up a lot in my life lately. As the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation passed, and as we head into “spooky season”, I have witnessed inappropriate crafts being made in elementary schools, (non-Indigenous) small businesses selling “traditional medicines” and “Indigenous-inspired” art, TikTok creators sharing sacred knowledge with their followers, and “Native American Princess” costumes pop up in stores.

As a starting point, I will use this imperfect definition of cultural appropriation from VeryWellMind: “Appropriation involves pieces of an oppressed culture being taken out of context by a people who have historically oppressed those they are taking from, and who lack the cultural context to properly understand, respect, or utilize these elements.” Although this definition may sound innocuous, I want to walk through a few reasons why it is not. Cultural appropriation is unethical because:

  1. It is based in entitlement and white supremacy – the belief that sacred knowledge and practices are owed to you and should not require gatekeeping. (a). In many Indigenous cultures, traditional knowledge is a gift – it is not owed or expected.

  2. It takes an aspect of someone’s culture – often something that a marginalized person may have experienced discrimination for – and “rebrands” it as something else. (a). Appropriation removes cultural context, which is disrespectful and can perpetuate further exploitation and stereotypes. Stereotypes (even positive ones) cause harm because they dehumanize us; they diminish us to stereotypes, and not as unique individuals.

  3. Indigenous people on Turtle Island have had so much taken and stolen from them – land, culture, language, ways of knowing, ways of governance… Indigenous peoples have been persecuted and marginalized for their cultural practices and beliefs since contact. a. It is time for non-Indigenous people to respect that Indigenous people have every right to keep what’s sacred, sacred. We do not owe you our culture, our language, our food, our traditions, our stories, or our medicines.

Before taking on aspects of another culture, or if you’re not sure if you are, please do some research. Ask yourself some questions: Where did that practice originate from? Why do you feel the entitlement to that information/practice? In what ways might you misappropriate or misrepresent something that could be sacred to another group?

Indigenous peoples have a right not only to practice and keep traditional knowledge and cultural expressions, but also to maintain, control, protect, and develop their intellectual property over such expressions (UNDRIP). Please be respectful of these rights and consider how you might better inform others on how appropriation can cause harm.

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