Afternoon Inquisition

AI:Cultural Appropriation

Maria’s unavailable this afternoon due to…I think she mumbled something about cabana boys? Or was it banana boys? I’m not sure. Anyway, you’re stuck with me today. Be gentle. Despite my vast Quickies experience, this is actually my first AI.

Bug Girl shared this article written by Lakota Chief Arvol Looking Horse in response to the sweat lodge deaths in Arizona.  The author is understandably angry that an important spiritual part of her culture has been appropriated by New Age-type fraudsters for financial gain.

Our ceremonies are about life and healing, from the time this ancient ceremonial rite was given to our people, never has death been a part of our inikag’a (life within) when conducted properly.   Today the rite is interpreted as a sweat lodge, it is much more then that. So the term does not fit our real meaning of purification.

Is cultural appropriation necessarily harmful or can good come of it? Is appropriation inevitable given the way that Western culture evolves? How do we define what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to the absorption and integration of other cultures?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.


Amanda works in healthcare, is a loudmouthed feminist, and proud supporter of the Oxford comma.

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  1. Life isn’t static, it is dynamic. Change will come whether it is appropriate or not. The sweat lodge didn’t spring, in it’s current form or it’s early form, whole and unchanging from nowhere. Cultures will all absorb and change and mutate. The French can no more keep their language pure than the Klan can keep the “white” race pure. No culture is pure. No human is pure. Ardi isn’t a pure human. Lucy isn’t a pure human. They aren’t human by today’s standards but we came from them. In 200,000 years humans and human culture will be very different from today. Trying to keep a culture pure is impossible and ultimatley futile.

  2. What’s the difference between cultural and religious appropriation? I can understand why the Lakota Chief was angry but isn’t his argument more religious than cultural? In protecting people’s culture, aren’t we also validating their religion in some cases?

  3. What IS cultural appropriation, anyway? Is the belly dancer at the Greek restaurant one? Or the adoption by Christians of the Yule tree as the Christmas tree? Or the Christians appropriation of Saturnalia for Christmas?

    Maybe this Lakota chief should be thanking the new-age bozos for doing their version of the sweat lodge. If it wasn’t for them doing it, the whole concept would effectively fade into extinction.

    There are 2 options in life (whether it’s a culture or a biological creature): Adopt/evolve or go extinct. Pick 1.

  4. My thing is-their culture has been passed down for many generations, and people were taught how to perform such ceremonies, and what to do when X, Y, and Z happen, and etc, etc, etc.

    Well, the case in question isn’t one of their tribe performing this ceremony for those who are gullible interested enough to try to cleanse themselves, but a man who saw a niche market, maybe did a little research, and sold for 10 G’s a chance to purify yourself.

    And then something went horribly wrong….

    I’m not justifying this, and I don’t condone the practices of these peoples. I do think similar things may have happened if these same people went to one owned and operated by a native tribesmen. I think the biggest difference is the effect would have less severe.

    In short, this isn’t absorption, this isn’t integration, this is a bastardization of an idea that was already bad, and things went to hell in a heat lodge.

  5. Is it always bad? Of course not, we adopt portions of other cultures all the time. It’s part of how cultures grow and change. Usually it is good, it makes the cultures exchanging traditions richer.

    In this case the Chief has every reason to be pissed off about this incident because some self-help jackass used it in a way that killed people. It’s not that all cultural appropriation is bad, but that because the person didn’t have a full understanding of what he was doing and he warped their tradition into something for profit with little regard for the people participating. That would upset anyone who saw one of their traditions abused in that manner.

  6. I think appropriation is inevitable. People see things that they like, and they take and modify for their own uses. The mistake they make is in pretending that it is still connected to the original path/ tradition/ ritual/ whatever.

    I don’t think we can define what is and isn’t appropriate, unless one of us gets to be the decider and can decide against stupidity and douchebaggery and, you know, harm.

    It doesn’t HAVE to be harmful, though. It can just be cute or interesting or fun. Such things might be blasphemous or sacrilegious or anathema to the original purpose from the culture itself, but not inherently harmful.

  7. I don’t think the cultural appropriation bit and the doing horrible things bit are connected in this case.

    1. Guy cherry picked the notion of sweat lodges from part of a larger tradition. No big deal.

    2. Guy killed some people by mismanaging his extreme experience show and/or directly preventing them from leaving an environment that they could not survive. This part is a big deal.

    That he did #2 by means of #1 doesn’t make it any worse (or excuse it in any way.)

  8. “Cultural appropriation” is a liberal arts anthro101 buzz word that I avoid.

    The first comment pretty much gets it right. We’re still just like our ancestors, in that we move around and take other people’s good shit and maybe let them have some of our good shit.
    What we should be alarmed about is exploitation. Totally different thing.

    I still feel bad about white people stealing rock n’ roll from black people and only offering country and western in return.

  9. @MacarthurSoup: But you are assuming that black people developed rock in roll in a vacume which they didn’t. Rock and roll developed out of earlier music some of which was strongly influenced by country music. No one invents anything that absolutly original and free of the influence of others.

  10. There will be no kind words here…
    I’ve seen enough child abuse, assaultive behavior and sex abuse associated with native sweat lodges and spiritual practices to think the ol chief can go fuck himself. Stone age superstitions are crap regardless of cultural associations.

  11. @MacarthurSoup:

    I still feel bad about white people stealing rock n’ roll from black people and only offering country and western in return.

    Can we consider the exchange of hip hop to be sufficient to balance the books?

    I am a Hedge

  12. I think the emerging consensus is pretty much on target. There is certainly a justifiable degree of anger that comes from looking at someone that read the CliffNotes of something important to you, and is now doing it horribly, horribly wrong- witness our own ire when scientific vocabulary gets smeared across woo-laden products. I think there is a dimension of that anger that can certainly be transferred to cultural practices, and maybe the chief is looking at it from that angle, that turning a week-long series of trials, ceremonies, and introspection into a two-hour seminar is missing the point. Nine times out of ten, though, the notion that I have access to a body of knowledge and you don’t because my parents did and yours didn’t is folly bordering on bigotry. And as James said, there isn’t much more that’s defensible about the chief’s set of beliefs relative to that of the New Ager, save that his have had more generations of practice to mellow out. In general, cultural crosspollination is a good thing for the same reason it is in plants- the more experiences and tools a person can access, the better.

  13. I’m Canadian by birth and Belgian by ancestry. It’s rare that anyone bothers to appropriate anything in my culture. I now live in the US, so I’m not even sure I have a culture that I can call mine anymore. As a Canadian, the only thing people from other cultures did was try (and fail) to do a Canadian accent. My usual reaction was a pitying shake of the head. Bloody tourists.

  14. I’m a Jew who manages to turn her goyische friends (by osmosis, I guess) into Yiddish speakers. That’s fine, but if they start killing babies for their bread I’m going to be really pissed. It’s supposed to be for *matzoh.*

  15. @Gabrielbrawley: Oh, I agree that the notion of a “pure” culture is ridiculous. It’s a fucking small world and we’re swapping cultural bits constantly.

    Mostly, I can’t stand New Agers and their gullible, destructive absorption of anything vaguely exotic and “spiritual”, especially from Native American belief systems. It’s an irritating, crass fetishization.

    @Sam Ogden: Next up, solving world peace. ;)

  16. @Amanda: Please don’t think I was trying to defend the New Age or it’s idiots. Their “philosophy” is so lazy and so ill defined, it infuriates me. The whole notion of “ancient” wisdom is lazy and self destructive. The believe that we are the degeneriate offspring of hyper intelligent, super powered ancestors if laughable. It is simply the expression of imature humans wishing for a non-existent “golden age” when everything was wonderful. It is expressed in all the creation myths that I am familiar with. People just can’t accept that we, who are lucky enough to live in industrialized parts of the world, have it really, really good. The fact that we have time to sit around and debate these questions is an indicator of how good we have it. I’m in Texas, some of you aren’t even in America be we interact like we were all in the same city, sometimes like we were in the same room. Now, right now, is the height of human knowledge and human progress. Tomorrow will be better. Be happy people and then work to make things better.

  17. @Mully410: What’s the difference between cultural and religious appropriation? I can understand why the Lakota Chief was angry but isn’t his argument more religious than cultural? In protecting people’s culture, aren’t we also validating their religion in some cases?

    The thing is, prior to one-size-fits-all religion, religion and culture were more or less inseparable. I think that’s part of why there are conflicts between Arab Muslims and, say, American Muslims. For Arab Muslims, their religion and their culture are heavily intertwined… even things that aren’t religious are counted as part of their ideas of Islam. By the same turn, American Muslims have a religious culture of Islam, but their secular culture is very different. This leads to a view among Arab Muslims (including many who immigrated here from the Middle East) that Western Muslims (many of the children of those who immigrated here from the Middle East) are decadent, when really they’re involved in two very different cultures… the Arab Muslims seeing themselves as being “Muslim”, with Arabic cultural traits subsumed into that identity, and assumed to be a core part of it, and the Western Muslims seeing themselves as “British and Muslim” or “American and Muslim” (usw), and thus not having the Arabic cultural traits attached at the hip to their religious traits.

  18. Appropriation can be a good thing or a bad thing. Most religions seem to be the result of appropriation of some sort or other of other cultures, traditions and philosophies. The appropriations we see in regards to new age woo-woo claims is a form of lazy appropriation, they aren’t even bothering to reinvent the appropriated traditions to become uniquely their own, just claiming it as the original tradition, only done half-assed. It’s all ultimately part of the fluid nature of culture, nothing remains in it’s original state, and someone will eventually see something they think they can use and will try to utilize it to varying degrees of success. And all that stuff.

    Completely off topic, but it was something that occurred to me to ask as a result of something mentioned in another thread, which marathon are you training for to run or at the very least planning on training for?

  19. @Mark Hall: This is reminiscent of the issues with Jewish identity. Often what makes a person Jewish is not just the culture within which they live, but the religion they live under. It results in an issue for me as I really don’t follow any Jewish religion or culture but am considered Jewish because of the cultural/religious tradition that states that if you are born to a Jewish mother, you’re Jewish.

  20. There’s clearly respectful and disrespectful appropriation. It’s fine for composers to borrow from the music styles of other other cultures, for example. But there can also be Ugly American borrowing as well.

    One related example is the naming of sports teams. I’m a moderate on this issue. On one hand, I think that the Washington Redskins of the NFL should be renamed. First “Redskins” isn’t the most polite of terms for Native Americans. Second, there’s no particular historical reason to give a Washington, D.C. team a name related to Native Americans.

    On the other hand, the University of Illinois has run into trouble for using the name Illini. I thought this was rather silly, as Illini is not a disrespectful term, and it links the State university to the Indian nation that the state is named for. I don’t see much of a problem here.

    Here’s another one to ponder – There are some mountains that are held sacred by Native Americans, or by other indigenous/aboriginal people in other parts of the world. So, mountain climbers are not supposed to climb to the very top of these mountains. I have mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, I don’t recognize the right of other people to declare some of the greatest spots on Earth off limits, especially for superstitious reasons. On the other hand, you don’t want to be a visitor who deliberately offend locals. I’d probably be willing to compromise on this one – If they want me to stop just one foot short of the summit, well O.K.. If they declare the whole mountain off-limits, not O.K..

    So, where would you draw the line on respecting off-limits “sacred” locations vs. asserting your right to see the wonders of the world?

  21. @Amanda:
    I think the CliffNotes cut both ways – they exist for a reason that sometimes is about discarding the chaff. I remember reading once about indigenous Brazilians showing curare to visiting science folk of some stripe, complete with fancy preparation ceremony, and the visitors proceeded to churn through the recipe, determine that the herbal mixture in fact contained only one plant of interest, and proceeded to sell better curare to the locals. You might be able to draw a similar analogy between, say, the benefits of Catholic confession and psychotherapy- same great taste, less cultural baggage and woo.

  22. I think culture approbation happens when the person’s who tradition its not looks at the activity (or what have you) is exotic and otherly. Or as someone very wise once said to me, “It crosses the line when you start fangirling (or fanboying) a culture.”

    The Secret guy probably does see sweat lodges as exotic. I mean, there has to be a reason he charges almost $10,000/person and can market it successfully that way. (Except for the obvious greed.)

  23. Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle?
    Okey dokey…Up until the point where folks got killed, you gotta hand it to the Secret guy for making tens of thousands for giving people a sauna. I reckon Mr. Pipe Bundle and his ilk are a little bit sad that they aren’t raking it in like that.
    As far as cultural appropriation, well, “cultures” don’t have property rights. Nations do, but cooking people in a tent is a technology as old as the hills. Hell, folks in Bronze Age Central Asia were even doing this, but instead of sage on the coals they threw ganja…I don’t really see any patent infringement here…Not that Mr. Buffalo has a patent anyhow.

  24. This is the classic modus operandi of CAM. What is Traditional Chinese Medicine? What is acupuncture? There are a few new types of CAM. Homeopathy, Chiropractic, E meters, magnets, supplements, bioidentical hormones for example. But it takes a significant marketing effort to get a new woo modality accepted. Much easier to adopt the brand of an old modality and “improve” on it.

  25. Art and design, being all subjective-like and…stuff, is also quite often a topic of similar discussion. The symbology of a work of art or design for public consumption is often as fraught with wackadoodle personal interpretations as a religious ceremony, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t think about how it’ll play in Peoria (or Prague, or Pakistan) before publication. So when you want to adapt/adopt/incorporate/honor/call attention to a particular religion, culture, or lifestyle, how do you do it? When is it appropriate to appropriate?

    In a recent discussion of the native imagery on the Vancouver Winter Games medals, someone made an interesting point.

    “How would it come off if the Olympics were held in Vatican City, and they put the Virgin Mary all over the medals and promotional artwork? Or if it was in Baghdad and everything was covered with sacred symbols of Islam? Or in Tibet and appropriating Buddhas and mandalas?”

    Would this discussion be any different if it was a Major Religion whose practices had been appropriated and subsequently resulted in multiple deaths?

  26. The very language we use is the product of cultural appropriation. Every meal we’ve ever enjoyed, every piece of clothing worn, every work of art and architecture ever marveled at. Our music, our hairstyles, our literature….culturally appropriated, all.

    The problem is when a culture begins to define its identity by its cultural output, either from within or from without. (For example, referring to hip-hop as “black music”….what, so no one else is allowed to listen to, or create hip hop now?….what of country music: must only pickup driving white-trash claim ownership?). This is the lesson that the postmodernists and identity politics academics haven’t learned yet, and it greatly complicates people getting along when we are judged only by the content of our culture, not the quality of lives in that culture (education, longevity, infant-mortality, poverty rates etc…).

  27. @James Fox: Hey everybody – I’m having some trouble choosing a Christmas present for James Fox. Help me out here. Would he like the lint-roller made from a Buddhist prayer wheel? Or would he prefer the Sham-Wow Prayer Shawl?

  28. The problem named cultural appropriation is that it’s really easy for members of the dominant culture to take a small slice of a marginalized culture, twist it about a bit, and produce a parody that will substantially take the place of indigenous culture in media and society.

    Even if you think those wacky native religions are stupid, people who follow them have at least as much of a right to be respected, personally, as followers of the major western religions. (Not to mention the people who don’t even follow the religion or orthodox cultural practices typically associated with their ethnicity, yet have to deal with the baggage anyway.)

  29. @violet: Just so I’m clear, that means it’s okay to disrespect all religions equally?

    Anyway, I’m always down for the cultural appropriation because I love me some morality fables and just-so stories, and I’ve already heard all the christian ones.

  30. @ZachTP: It’s not exactly symmetrical, is it? Christian culture isn’t entirely heterogeneous, but it’s certainly pervasive and its institutions are powerful; mocking Christian culture isn’t going to have the same effect on Christians as mocking Arapaho culture does on Arapaho, by and large.

    (Of course, “looking at” isn’t the same thing as “appropriating”.)

  31. @violet: True, it’s not quite equal in its effects. But I don’t think that justifies protecting the weak side from mockery (and/or criticism).

    As long as you’re mocking something for being foolish rather than being different, I’m not sure how problematic it can be.

  32. First off, daedalus2u is right. Much of the CAM in the world is nothing but essentially religious rites taken by shucksters and sold independent of the ritual and rather more complex belief. In ots original form, it may still be false, but at least the people who believe it have the excuse of being brought up in the culture that generated it, and not simply being gullible half-wits.

    And the diffusion of cultural traits is nothing new. It’s always happened, it always will, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s inevitable. The fact that, among the “self-help” crowd, it seems to be primarily commercial in nature is what gets my hackles up.

    Second – much like with issues of racism or sexism, people on this thread keep talking about cultural appropriation in isolation of history. You can see all of these Native American religions as being false – I certainly do – and still remember that they have become more important to people because of the fact that historically it has been a dominant, largely Christian, culture that had sought to destroy it and now seeks to co-opt it for profit. An earlier poster said that the chief sounded like a 13-year old. No, he sounds like someone who is tired of seeing idiots who don’t get what his beliefs are try to take them to make money, after a few centuries of maltreatment.

    I have written about this modern version on my blog, I refer to it as “culture porn” as it seems quite similar to pornography – it’s the commodification and sale of an airbrushed, overly-sexy version rather than an acknowledgement of the real thing, warts and all.

  33. It’s always bugged me that the woo’s appropriate ceremony, religion and mythology from cultures that have only an oral tradition and no written record. – Egyptian rites, American Indian, the druids, etc.

    For example, the heavily documented religious ceremonies & beliefs of the Hawaiians and South Pacific islanders are for the most part ignored. Yet it includes the anthropomorphism and earth-worship beloved by neo-shaman and woo-peddlers.

    Makes sense, of course. You can’t say “We shall now reenact this worship to Athena by bathing in a lake at midnight!” When someone can come along and say “No, you’ve got it all wrong. Callimachus has a lovely poetic version of Athena bathing but that’s just part of her mythology. Her rites were generally performed in temples and were the usual sacrifice and calling for donations.”

  34. @Gabrielbrawley:

    People just can’t accept that we, who are lucky enough to live in industrialized parts of the world, have it really, really good. The fact that we have time to sit around and debate these questions is an indicator of how good we have it. I’m in Texas, some of you aren’t even in America be we interact like we were all in the same city, sometimes like we were in the same room. Now, right now, is the height of human knowledge and human progress. Tomorrow will be better. Be happy people and then work to make things better.


  35. @killyosaur: Well it is still 18 months to 2 years before I will have the time to devote to training but the town I live in, Wichita Falls, has a marathon and then if I am willing to drive down to the DFW area there are several, White Rock Lake Marathon or maybe Cowtown.

  36. @BonnieBeth: I was being a bit sarcastic. Just thought it was a good point in that native or indigenous religious symbols never seem part of the separation discussion. I’m a short drive from many of the venues and will not be going for one reason only. They’re all ridiculously expensive.

  37. I used to argue with some native American students at Humboldt State who were mad that whites were trying to be environmentally friendly. You see, living in tune with the environment was part of their culture, not ours, and we were thus “stealing” their culture.

    This really pissed me off. I grew up on the Navajo Rez in northern Arizona, which was still dealing with the effects of past efforts to destroy their culture. It wasn’t all that long ago that the kids would be taken away to boarding schools to be “civilized”, and would be severly punished for everything not considered proper, like speaking in their own language.

    Not quite appropriation, but I’ve also heard modern feminist speakers talk about how well native American women were treated, and even that they were revered when they were on their period. Sad to say, I’ve never heard of any native American culture that actually did that. At best, only the senior women of the clans in power were respected.

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