Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Felicity Cahill

In recent times there has been much debate over whether cultural ‘borrowing’ of Native American and Australian Aboriginal spiritual practices and concepts constitutes cultural imperialism or productive maturation of non-indigenous and indigenous negotiations. Precisely defining the groups and movements that are involved in the cultural appropriation debate is not an easy task. This is due, in large part, to the fact that movements such as the New Age, which York describes as ‘a disparate and loosely co-ordinated confederation of contrasting beliefs, techniques and practices’ (2001, p. 364), and the vast array of modern ‘alternative spiritualities’ generally have no central authority to speak on their behalf. In spite of this difficulty, the literature pertaining to cultural appropriation makes it possible to include the New Age movement and various alternative spiritualities, neo-paganism (York 2001, p. 364), earthen spiritualities associated with the Deep Ecology movement (Taylor 1997, p. 185) and whiteshamanic practitioners (Rose 1992, p. 406) amongst the non-indigenous bodies and individuals involved in cultural appropriation. The focus of this essay will be centred upon the implications for Native American and Australian Aboriginal cultures that stem from the respective practices of adherents to New Age, the Deep Ecology movement and alternative spiritualities who draw on indigenous cultures in formulating their own spiritualities and/or commodify indigenous goods and services in the spiritual marketplace. Although it is acknowledged that those of Native American and Australian Aboriginal descent also engage in the spiritual appropriation of their tribal counterparts, such practices are beyond the scope of this essay.

The New Age movement is considered to play a significant role in indigenous cultural appropriation in both America (Aldred 2000, p. 329) and Australia (Marcus 1998, p. 267). Interestingly, Possamaï asserts that New Age is subsumed under the general rubric of ‘perennism’, a term which he uses as ‘a heuristic tool for describing alternative spiritualities’ (Possamaï 2002, p. 199). According to Possamaï, perennism is a syncretic spirituality whose adherents interpret the world as monistic and seek spiritual knowledge in order to develop their potential human ethic (Possamaï 2002, p. 199). In spite of the eclectic nature of New Age, or perennist, spirituality, York asserts that the ‘transcendent value’ of the movement is an understanding of the universe as a single interconnected cosmos (2001, p. 364; Deloria 1992, p. 36). Another common theme in the discourse of the New Age is the supremacy of self-authority. Wood asserts that the New Age is seen as a spirituality ‘in which people choose what to do, and how to do it, on the basis of their own authority, rather than being directed by authorities external to them’ (2007, p. 2).

The combination of the ideas of the primacy of self-authority and the interconnectedness of the universe foster the growth of the notion that all beings are equal in New Age thought. It is not only New Age but also western doctrines of egalitarianism which promote the idea that all individuals are equally entitled to access sites of cultural and spiritual significance (Marcus 1998, p. 257). Western notions of liberal capitalism and the right to free trade are compatible with New Age, which is a movement that York alleges supports ‘the idea that all past and present spiritual legacies are no longer private property, but belong now … to the public domain’ (2001, p. 368). Whilst it must be acknowledged that certain aspects of New Age cultural and spiritual appropriation potentially amount to ‘the kind of exchange incumbent for productive maturation (York 2001, p. 371), others would argue that the sometimes selective dispensation of spiritual knowledge within certain hierarchically-structured indigenous communities and the New Age desire for esoteric knowledge do not sit comfortably together (Heelas 1996, pp. 27-8).

Taylor (1997) refers to Gary Snyder, whom she describes as an ‘elder’ of the North American Deep Ecology Movement and author of Turtle Island, in demonstrating the potential for a well-intentioned non-indigene to engage in unwelcome appropriation of Native American culture. For Snyder, who synthesizes Buddhist, European pagan and Native American spiritual principles and practices in his own experience (Taylor 1997, p. 185), spiritual knowledge is somewhat proprietary in nature. Snyder contends: ‘[a]s artists we are all free to write about anything we like’ (1980, p. 155). In a similarly liberal vein, Snyder describes shamanism as ‘a worldwide phenomenon and not limited in a proprietary sense to any one culture’ (1980, p. 155). Although individuals such as Snyder appear to be well-intentioned and purport to ‘honour’ indigenous cultures (Mulcock 2001, p. 180), it is difficult to overlook the argument that their reliance on notions of ‘“artistic licence” or “freedom of speech” inherently empowers them to do what they do, no matter whether [indigenous people] like it (and, ultimately, no matter the cost to native societies)’ (Rose 1992, p. 405).

Snyder maintains that western societies suffer from spiritual barrenness and, ‘given the state of the world today, we all have not only the right but the obligation to pursue all forms of spiritual insight. … [Non-indigenous people] have as much right to pursue and articulate the belief systems developed by Native Americans as they do…’ (Churchill 1992, p. 192). In conjunction with a dissatisfaction with and decline in traditional religion (York 2001, p. 362), a palpable and ‘harsh materialism’ (Townsend 1997, p. 460) characterises western societies with ‘violent and dispossessing’ (Mulcock 2007) histories. Although Wendy Rose, a Sioux scholar, is severely critical of those who engage in Native American cultural appropriation, she recognises that

[a]n entire population is crying out for help, for alternatives to the spiritual barrenness they experience, for a way out of the painful trap in which their own worldview and way of life have ensnared them. They know, perhaps intuitively, that the answers – or part of the answers – to the questions producing their agony may be found within the codes of knowledge belonging to the native peoples of this land (1992, p. 418).

Certain groups and individuals in the West have responded to what they perceive to be the ills of modern society by offering for purchase indigenous-inspired spiritual services, in the form of various rituals, practices and workshops, and commodifying indigenous goods and symbols in the spiritual marketplace.

Although some commentators insist that indigenous people might actually benefit from actively participating in the marketplace as consumers and producers of cultural goods (Muir 2007, p. 238), others maintain that ‘the commodification of indigenous spirituality is a paradigmatic instance of cultural imperialism’ (Whit 1999, p. 170). To further complicate matters, activities involving spiritual appropriation by non-indigenous individuals elicit a broad spectrum of responses to the sharing of cultural knowledge from indigenous communities (Mulcock 2001, p. 180). Basically, there is no single indigenous voice on this issue. Whilst certain Australian Aboriginal people are at ease with imparting particular cultural knowledge and spiritual beliefs to non-Aboriginal Australians (Mulcock 2007), others view such sharing as expropriation of indigenous culture (Possamaï 2002, p. 201). Similarly, there are those, like Vine Deloria, who suggest that sharing certain Native American cultural rituals with non-indigenous participants is potentially valuable (1992, p. 37), whilst others, such as Ward Churchill, insist that cultural appropriation categorically leads to the destruction of ‘the living fabric of Indian society’ (1992, p. 212).

According to Jocks, certain non-Indigenous representations of Native American traditional practices are either so inaccurate that they undermine the integrity of the culture from which the practices emanate, or are too accurate, in that they reveal aspects of Native American spirituality that are intended to remain esoteric (1996, p. 418). In the former case, Lynn Andrews’ novel Medicine Woman serves as a prime example of a non-indigenous individual undermining Native American culture through its over-simplistic and idealised representation. In Medicine Woman, Andrews, a white, upper class collector of tribal art (Donaldson 1999, p. 681), elucidates the teachings of Agnes Whistling Elk, an alleged Canadian spiritual guide, which amalgamate Lakota, Cree and Hopi concepts to produce Andrews’ own eclectic spiritual philosophy (Bell 1997, p. 52). The kind of spiritual eclecticism depicted in Medicine Woman is deeply offensive to many Native Americans, who view such representations ‘as an assault on the integrity of the extremely personal and specific ties of kin and country that underpin their belief practices’ (Bell 1997, p. 52). Indeed, in Churchill’s essay on ‘spiritual hucksterism’, Matthew King (a deceased spiritual leader of the Oglala Lakota) asserts that mixing the ways of people from other cultures destroys balance, which ‘is a disrespect and very dangerous’ (Churchill 1996, p. 359). However, it appears as though certain adherents of New Age or alternative spiritualities are ‘willing to disregard the rights of American Indians to any modicum of cultural sanctity or psychological sanctuary’ (Churchill 1996, p. 334).

The misrepresentation of indigenous culture by non-indigenous individuals is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Indeed, in Australia, the issue of Aboriginal spiritual appropriation is alive and contentious, and is exemplified by certain New Age rituals that have been carried out at Ayers Rock in recent years. According to Marcus (1998), Ayers Rock is a site of mystic significance and power for New Age ‘pilgrims’, including members of the Rainbow Group and the Fountain Group, and indigenous Australians alike. To the chagrin of the Aboriginal Australians who inhabit the Ayers Rock region, these ‘settler mystics’ refer to the sort of egalitarian values that permit non-indigenous individuals to perform their own spiritual rites at sacred indigenous sites on the basis of an overriding cosmic interconnectedness. Marcus refers to the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, an American entrepreneurial mystic gathering held at Ayers Rock, during which pilgrims gathered, camped and performed rituals (derived from Aboriginal sources) at the sacred indigenous site against the wishes of the local Aboriginal community. Attempts by New Age mystics to ‘tap into’ the power of Ayers Rock, Marcus contends, are interpreted by the local indigenous inhabitants as a symbolic ‘mining’ of Aboriginal culture and legitimate non-indigenous interpretations of Aboriginal cosmologies (1998, p. 271). Certain aspects of Aboriginal spirituality and knowledge are intended to remain secret, which is an idea that is not easily reconcilable with New Age notions of egalitarianism and freedom.

The assumption that particular ceremonies, myths or religious symbols unambiguously and unequivocally ‘belong’ to a given indigenous culture involves, to a certain extent, reifying that culture’s heritage as ‘a form of property’ (Harrison 1999, p. 11). One of the problems associated with the idea that the spiritual practices of certain indigenous cultures are ‘immutable’ or ‘geographically enclosed’ is that it ignores the sometimes syncretic nature of cultural development (Taylor 1997, p. 199). Indeed, the romanticising of indigenous cultures as ‘timeless’ and ‘pure’ is at odds with the notion of syncretism, which Leopold defines as ‘the negotiation and interaction of new elements into a particular group or domain that stem from “essentially” different groups or domains’ (2004, pp. 3-4). In terms of non-indigenous and indigenous relations, in both Native American and Australian Aboriginal contexts, the dichotomy between white perceptions of indigenous societies, which are sometimes nostalgic or overly-romanticised (Mulcock 2001, p. 179), and ‘objective’ reality creates a theoretical impasse. In Australian race-relations, this dichotomy is actualised in the divergence between the settler fantasy of Aboriginal society as an immutable, undifferentiated and unadulterated whole and ‘the present corrupted Aboriginal social body’ (Povinelli 1999, p. 20). In relation to American culture, certain critics, such as Philip Deloria, argue that the fantasy image of the romanticized ‘Noble Savage’ is so far removed from reality that it is arguably no longer relevant (Aldred 2000, p. 341). Ultimately, the problem with pitting the supposed projections of ‘dominant’ non-indigenous society against the perceived realities of ‘subordinate’ indigenous groups is that such a division oversimplifies the complex interactions and relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people (Muir 2007, p. 245).

The division between the perception of indigenous culture as timeless and pure, on the one hand, and fractured and corrupted by modern civil society, on the other, potentially stems, in part, from a resistance to recognise the blurring of boundaries that accompanies cultural exchange (Muir 2007, p. 247). Although a nostalgic imagining of indigenous society appears to be constellated in particular spheres of western consciousness, certain scholars posit that the borrowing of cultural practices and symbols from one group by another is an essential element of cultural and religious development (Taylor 1997, p. 184). However, a prudent consideration of cultural ‘borrowing’ involves the identification of the ‘differential access to sources of social, economic and political power … [which] ensures that some groups will always be able to take more freely, and without fear of consequence, than others’ (Mulcock 2001, p. 178). It is also important to recognise the distinction between neutral syncretism, where the transposition of culturally significant practices or symbols from one culture to another has a bridging effect, and conflictual syncretism, where cultural practices or symbols harbour such a deep significance for the society from which they emanate that they are untranslatable (Starkloff 2002, p. 94).

One need only turn to America to encounter numerous examples of Native American cultural practices that certain indigenous people deem appropriate to share with non-Native Americans and, conversely, practices that are intended to be closed off from those who neither descend nor live in accordance with the dictates of a Native American tribal group. Vine Deloria opines that Native American ceremonies involving sharing a pipe and saying prayers are amenable to the inclusion of respectful non-indigenous participants. Deloria goes so far as to suggest that such ceremonies have the potential to foster a sense of community and sharing in western society, which is ‘totally ravaged by greed and individualism’ (1992, p. 37). On the other hand, Deloria cautions that the non-indigenous appropriation of Native American sun dances represents a serious transgression and he encourages ‘traditional’ Indians to issue a statement prohibiting outsiders to the relevant tribal traditions from performing such dances (1992, p. 36).

The idea of Native American-imposed disavowals of authorization for non-indigenous individuals to participate in culturally sensitive traditions and rituals is far from novel. The unanimous passing of a ‘Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality’ in a 1993 Lakota Summit, comprising 500 representatives of up to 40 different Indian tribes (Irwin 1997, p. 45), is arguably the most well-known interdict against the appropriation of Native American spirituality. The Declaration of War is aimed at non-indigenous individuals who not only imitate Lakota ceremonies, but also charge a fee to those who wish to witness them (Irwin 1997, p. 45). Although certain non-indigenous persons, including New Age practitioners, create scope for the degeneration of indigenous and non-indigenous relations by flagrantly or ignorantly failing to seek permission from tribal groups to appropriate their practices (Jocks 1996, p. 418), fragile yet promising frameworks for native-settler negotiations are beginning to emerge in western societies.

In Australia, there is an indication that some Aboriginal people are willing to impart certain spiritual beliefs and cultural knowledge to non-Aboriginal Australians, which has led to the creation of a new framework for indigenous and non-indigenous relations (Mulcock 2007). Tjnara Goreng-Goreng is one such Aboriginal individual who conducts workshops on ‘The Ancient Wisdom of Aboriginal Women’ for non-indigenous women. Goreng-Goreng asserts that there is no consensus amongst Aboriginal people on whether or not to share indigenous cultural knowledge with non-indigenous Australians, and that ‘[Aboriginal views on this issue] range from “it’s none of their business” to … “it’s good for them to know …”’ (Mulcock 2001, p. 180). Whilst Goreng-Goreng would never reveal esoteric Aboriginal knowledge to a non-indigenous individual or allow such a person to go near a sacred site, she believes that there are certain aspects of Aboriginal culture that should be shared in order to ‘educate’ non-Aboriginal Australians (Mulcock 2001, p. 180). In her workshops, Goreng-Goreng encourages the participants to engage in various Aboriginal rituals and ceremonies, including a ritual called ‘face painting in the sewing circle’, a ‘headband ceremony’ and a ceremony referred to as ‘Women dancing Water Dreaming’, in order to instil a sense of belonging in the participants, whose western lives she feels lack ritual, ceremony and a sense of female companionship (Mulcock 2007).

It appears as though the sharing of indigenous cultural and spiritual knowledge with non-indigenous groups and individuals is acceptable, and even viewed as having an ameliorative effect upon non-indigenous and indigenous negotiations, where it takes place ‘among equals, in a discourse of mutual respect, with the permission of both parties’ (Jocks 1996, p. 416). In order to encourage constructive dialogue, it is necessary to steer away from unmitigated condemnations of cultural appropriation and instead redirect energies towards a consideration of the development of ‘positive dynamics’ (Taylor 1997, p. 204) between indigenous and non-indigenous parties. As Muir contends, ‘processes of spiritual and cultural exchange, appropriation, commodification and consumption require … scrutiny rather than dismissal’ (2007, p. 247). Whilst it is both appropriate and desirable to condemn cultural appropriation where it has a demonstrably negative impact on the people from whom practices or concepts are ‘borrowed’, careful consideration is called for in situations that are not commensurably ‘black-and-white’. Ultimately, it is important to nurture, rather than altogether abandon, the nascent and fragile framework for indigenous and non-indigenous relations that is emerging in western societies.


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