Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Cultural Appropriation of Indigenous Art, Music and Spirituality

Lauren Scheiwe

Cultural Appropriation can be said to occur when members of one culture take the cultural practices of another as their own, or as if the right of possession should not be questioned or contested (Hart, 1997:138). This essay aims, in theory and in practice, to explore the cultural appropriation of Indigenous culture by Western society, New Ageists and new age Pagans, with particular reference to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and American Indian culture. To gain an understanding of how Indigenous culture has been borrowed by mainstream society, I will look at art, music and spirituality. I will also look at the disadvantages and benefits of cultural appropriation for both Indigenous and non-indigenous people and explore the notion of reconciling these differences.

In Aboriginal Art, Identity and Cultural Appropriation (Root, 2005:1), D. Scott Mundine is quoted as saying, “Having taken away the land, children and lives, the only thing left [to Aboriginal people] is identity through art and this is now being abused”. This is true, Indigenous Australians have suffered greatly at the hands of Western society and this is continuing as Indigenous people in Australia and the world are having their insignia, music, spirituality and cultural art used and adopted in ways they have never been consulted about nor agreed to. One example of this is in Japan, where boomerangs and didgeridoos can be seen for sale at many alternate lifestyle shops. They are cheap reproductions, made in China and Taiwan. It is the same in the souvenir shops on the main streets in Australian cities. Many Indigenous people see the use of their art as a continuation of colonisation. On this issue, Galarrauwary Yunupingu, a Yonglu man and land rights activist, states,

They are using the same old tactics of assimilation, except this time they are trying to assimilate our culture into their world because it is fashionable in their eyes and will make money. …[W]e will survive these attempts to wipe out our peoples. … Just as our struggle for land is still strong, so is our fight to maintain and revive our culture, for our land and our culture are indivisible from our lives (Coleman, 2005: 2).

In Australia the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land has touched every region of the country, although some more than others. Children were stolen from their parents and forced to assimilate into mainstream society, indigenous languages forbidden and the missionaries and governments of the colonials banned many traditional customs. As a result of these atrocities languages and culture have been lost. It is reasonable to understand how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel about this history and that they want to prevent their culture being affected adversely by Western influence.

Music is a distinctive cultural practice of many of the world’s indigenous peoples. The success of Indigenous Australian bands and films across Australia and internationally has attracted attention and cultivated interest in the culture. Many non-indigenous people across the world have been inspired to buy instruments such as clap sticks and didgeridoos and desire to play them, purely for musical enjoyment and in some cases for spiritual practices. The question of whether it is appropriate or not is rarely addressed by these enthusiasts.

It is a widely held belief by non-indigenous Australia, that didgeridoo playing and making is strictly men’s business. If Indigenous women are not permitted to play the didgeridoo, then where does this place non-indigenous men and women who play the didgeridoo? Should they be permitted to play? Karl Neuenfeldt addresses this question in his article, The ongoing debate about women playing didgeridoo: how a musical icon can become an instrument of remembering and forgetting (2006: 41). He discusses how it is difficult to maintain if there is in fact taboo surrounding women and didgeridoo playing. Because Aboriginal Australians from regions where own their culture has been dramatically affected by colonisation have appropriated the didgeridoo. This appropriation has made it difficult to determine if there are taboos surrounding non-indigenous people playing it. In addressing this issue Manduwuy Yunupingu, lead vocalist of Yothu Yindi and brother of Galarruway Yunupingu states,

Yolngu understand that the yidaki has become an Australian icon and accept that non-Yolngu people throughout the world use it for informal purposes and enjoyment. Be aware, however, that its origins are sacred and secret to Yolngu men. Those stories cannot be told here, can only be shared with initiated men. The yidaki is a male oriented instrument. In Yolngu society women are forbidden to play it, as its origins are sacred to men. (Nuenfeldt, 2006:39).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is not homogeneous nor with American Indians. There are unique cultural practices throughout Indigenous Australia specific to clans and language groups. In Aboriginal Australia, it is forbidden in some groups for women to play the didgeridoo, but not in others. In the same way, some groups may not appreciate non-Indigenous people using aspects of their culture to better their own, and some are willing to share their culture with the outside world (Welch, 2002:31-33).

Didgeridoo workshops are not rare sightings at world music festivals, multi-cultural festivals and the like. There are also classes available in our cities and some regional towns. If these Indigenous people are willing to share their skills and talents with non-indigenous people then, is it culturally inappropriate? If one Indigenous person or small group deems it appropriate to share their culture with outsiders, it does not mean that all Indigenous groups would consider this appropriate or respectful. In fact the opposite is often the case. However, these workshops and other revenue raising ventures can be beneficial to communities as the money from workshops can play a significant role in self-determination. This has been the case for some Canadian Indian nations, by which money from casinos owned and operated by their people, has played a major role in the self-determination and has greatly improved the quality of life and life expectancy of those nations. The people of these nations have a better quality of life and live longer than non-Indigenous Canadians. Whilst it is important for Indigenous peoples everywhere to maintain control of their culture in relation to its appropriation into other cultures, self-determination, equality and health for indigenous peoples is also vital.

Westerners practicing new age Paganism and New Ageism have imitated the spirituality of Indigenous Australians and American Indians. Unfortunately indigenous people write few of the books readily available to new followers of indigenous spirituality, most are written by Western anthropologists and academics. American Indian sacred rituals such as, sweat lodges, sun dances and vision quests have been popularised by mainstream western culture and are sometimes being practised by Westernised natives who adapt the rituals to western standards (Welch, 2002:22-28). As a consequence of this, in June 1993, The Dakota, Lakota and Nakota Nations ratified the Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality. Addressing what they considered to be phoney and sacrilegious imitation practices such as sweat lodges, vision quests and sun dances, declaring them to promote systematic colonisation of their spirituality. The first of seven parts asserts, “We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing, and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of our Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people (Churchill, 1994:275)”.

The intention of those who practice new age Paganism and New Ageism is not to offend indigenous people, many genuinely believe that what they are involved in, in the way of cultural appropriation is not exploitative. There is so much available to them in terms of books, lectures and workshops, which supports their position, and despite the reactions of Indigenous peoples to the appropriation of their culture and spirituality there is so much to gain for the world as a whole in the acceptance and inclusion of Indigenous culture and practices into mainstream Western culture. Reason epitomises this well when he states,

Western worldview is based on a fundamental epistemological error that humans are separate from each other and from the natural world. The consequences of this are…ecological devastation, human and social fragmentation and spiritual impoverishment’ (Reason, P. 1993: 16).

A possible way that important messages and philosophies of indigenous cultures can be passed on to non-indigenous cultures could be for groups, clans or nations to decide between themselves collectively if they are willing to share their knowledge and if so, how it shall be done. That way the censorship and cultural copyright can be kept within the people they belong to. A point of reconciliation for Indigenous people and non-indigenous people on the issue of cultural appropriation could be that the dominant cultures can learn many important ways to improve society and the world. There are a multitude of ways we can learn from indigenous people if it is carried out in a respectful way with full cooperation with Indigenous peoples, as opposed to individuals adopting indigenous spirituality or philosophy without permission. In relation to the environment, and society, Western society as a whole would benefit from the application of these principles to the entire worldview. This in turn would create a positive change for Indigenous people of all areas of the world because non-indigenous people still largely misunderstand them and their cultures. If they themselves teach their customs and traditions to non-indigenous people, they hold agency over how they are represented as opposed to the way they, and their cultures have been represented in the past. Furthermore indigenous people would benefit, as would the entire world, from the reversal of destructive practices on society and for the natural world if the West along with the rest of the world adopt their practices.

Indigenous peoples have a far better connection and intricate understanding of the world. The Environment is an important one. Indigenous people have a profound connection to the earth and find intrinsic value in it. For example, Indigenous Australians have a long history of caring for their country, estimates equate to between 30,000 and 60,000 years. They belong to their country and are intimately and permanently tied to it. Furthermore, country is crucial for healing and well being within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Illness can result when individuals or groups are displaced or removed from their country. For the Kaytej women of Warrabiri, one remedy for lingering illness is spending time in the bush, away from the settlements contaminating influence. For this reason Warrabiri is sometimes called the ‘sickness place’ by the Kaytej women (Bell, 2002:146). Non-indigenous Australians could learn immensely from this. Given the state of the earth today due to its mistreatment by humans, it is more important now than ever to change our conception of the earth and how we use and care for it.

Another way non-indigenous people could learn from Indigenous people is with regard to family and society, particularly in Western developed countries. Kinship in the Indigenous Australian sense is entirely different to the western model, which has been corrupted by the invention of the nuclear family. In many Indigenous cultures family is a far wider extension of our notion of the family. Strict distinctions are not made between parent, child, cousin, uncle and aunt as they are in non-indigenous Western society. The extended family as a group care for the young and the elderly. The community acts as one group with no real system of hierarchy.

Spirituality is another important way Western culture can adopt from indigenous culture. For Indigenous Australians, spirituality is indivisible from country, culture and kinship. The application of this into Western society would prove as a valuable way to improve the western epistemological approaches to the world, its people and life in general.

In conclusion, Indigenous people and their culture have long been under attack by the Western world whether it has been intentional or unintentional, this needs to be recognised before indigenous culture can be adapted into mainstream Western culture. Whilst not all indigenous people find the concept of their culture being appropriated by others, particularly western culture, offensive, it needs to be acknowledged that many are offended by this. These discrepancies need to be discussed and negotiated. Finally, the world has so much to gain from indigenous cultures. However, indigenous peoples should hold control of how their cultures are appropriated and adopted in amongst other cultures.


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Burns Coleman.E. (2005) Aboriginal Art, Identity and Appropriation. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

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Churchill. W. (1994) Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America. Maine: Common Courage Press.

Hart. J. (1997) Translating and Resisting Empire: Cultural Appropriation and Postcolonial Studies. Ziff. B. and Rao. P.V. eds. Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation. New Jersey: Rutgers U.P

Hume. L. (2002) Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness and Aboriginal Australians. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press

Reason. P. (1993) Reflections on Sacred Experience and Sacred Science. Journal of Management Inquiry, 2(3) 273-273

Root. D. (1996) Cannibal Culture, Art Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference. Colorado: Westview Press

Rose. D. (1992) Dingo Makes Us Human: life and land in aboriginal Australian culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Neuenfeldt. K. (2006) The ongoing debate about women playing didgeridoo: how a musical icon can become an instrument of remembering and forgetting.

Trudgen. R. (2000) Why Warriors Lay Down And Die, Northern Territory: Aboriginal Resource and Development Services Inc.

Welch. C. (2002) Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol.17, No.1. Appropriation of the Didgeridoo and the Sweat Lodge: New Age Baddies and Indigenous Victims? Carfax Publishing

Whitt. L., Roberts. M., Norman.W., Grieves. V. (2001) A Companion to Environmental Philosophy, Ch. 1. Indigenous Perspectives. Blackwell Publishing

1 comment:

  1. Hello dear. I cannot find any painting here in your post but I want to share that I am a great admirer of Aboriginal Art. I never miss any Aboriginal Art exhibition in my area.