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Shamanism and the Problem of Cultural Misappropriation


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Q. Lewis, I read an article in the Canadian news about a First Nations (Native American) women accusing a non-native healer of misappropriating native healing techniques. Can you explain the difference between multi-culturalism, cultural appropriation, and cultural misappropriation? I like Japanese food. Is that misappropriation?

A. It really has to do with theft and power. The use of another culture’s rites, rituals, and ceremonies is appropriation but not necessarily misappropriation. Putting a dream-catcher in your window does not necessarily repress a specific native people (though buying it “made in China” is kind of cheezy). Doing a sweat lodge and chanting the prayers of a tribe that doesn’t even use sweat-lodges is pretty close to the “no-no” line. There is no strict rule about this, so let’s do a bit of exploring.




In my school, The Acadamy of Shamanic Studies,  we address this issue of cultural misappropriation all the time. Once a student begins an exploration of the distinctions between appropriation and respectful exploration the distinctions become quite clear. Respectful exploration is usually benign or mutually beneficial. The exploration often leads to positive cultural mutation, product technological diffusion, and cultural empathy. One thing I want to make clear is that even though a person’s intention is sincerity rather than mocking it does not change the fact that cultural misappropriation may be taking place.






Still there are many instances where appropriate appropriation is part of a larger synergy. Here the merging of various cultural patterns may create something larger, equally powerful, and possibly more influential. One important example, for positive appropriation, is the film Star Wars, one of our great modern myths. With highly influential advice and support from Joseph Campbell, the pioneering cultural anthropologist, George Lucas appropriated elements from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which itself appropriated elements from Shakespeare. No one but the most rigid and dogmatic isolationist will deny that culture in the aggregate is arguably better off for each instance of appropriation. The fusion between cultures has produced such foods as American Chinese cuisine, modern Japanese sushi, and bánh mì, each of which is sometimes argued to reflect part of its respective culture’s identity. Then, of course, there is the Mexican Pizza you can buy at Taco Bell, and the “Pita/Nan,” that the fast-food Indian/Pakistani/Bengali/Sri Lankan Restaurant on my corner in NYC serves. When I explained to the waiter that Pita is Middle Eastern, not Indian, nor Pakistani, nor Bengali nor Sri Lankan, he disagreed and pointed to the menu where under the “Bread Column” he noted that it clearly stated, “Pita/Nan!” When I attempted to make my point again he thought I was nuts. In Ethiopia there is a pastry called a Sambosa, which looks exactly like a mini-me Indian Samosa – is this a form of ancient cultural misappropriation?






There is a very thin line that distinguishes cultural appropriation, and spiritual materialism from acculturation, assimilation, or cultural exchange. The easiest way to differentiate between them is to recognize when we are appropriating or faking it. Clearly, appropriation is a form of colonialism: cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture.


Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, and such displays are often viewed as disrespectful, or even as a form of desecration, by members of the originating culture. Often cultural appropriation can seem harmless but reflect the worst elements of spiritual materialism, such as hanging a Dream-catcher made in Taiwan, in your window as part of a personal “shamanic” exercise. Remember, cultural elements that may have deep meaning to the original culture may be reduced to “exotic” fashion or toys by those from the dominant culture. When the role of colonizing imitator, or spiritual materialist is taken on by a shamanic student, one who has not experienced that oppression, such an individual is able to ‘play’, a make-believe temporary, exotic other, without experiencing any of the repression, daily discrimination, or even the authentic experiences of those in the colonized and often oppressed cultures.





Again, there is a very thin line that distinguishes cultural appropriation from acculturation, assimilation, or cultural exchange but this line is nonetheless clear concerning shamanic practices. I note that the concept is often misunderstood or misapplied by the general public and that charges of “cultural appropriation” are at times misapplied to situations such as eating food from a variety of cultures or learning about different cultures.  Acculturation, assimilation or cultural exchange does not meaningfully constitute social harm in the way that cultural appropriation does.

There is no rule or guidebook concerning these distinctions and there are no easy answers to a student’s question, “Am I exploring ideas that are new to me, or am I stealing them?” Still, it is important that one drawn to shamanism, either intellectually, academically, or as a personal journey beware of what we call “the plastic shaman and plastic shamanism”.





It is also fair to say that the terms cultural appropriation or spiritual materialism lacks conceptual coherence.  It is like a mental puzzle missing a piece. Some argue that the terms set arbitrary limits on intellectual freedom and artists’ self-expression, reinforces group divisions, or themselves promote a feeling of enmity or grievance, rather than liberation. All of this is also so.




Let’s explore some ideas related to plastic shamanism, spiritual materialism, and cultural appropriation. I note here that some of the examples I offer have been integrated into many Neo-shaman and Western shaman schools of study.  One of the most common is the adoption of the iconography of another culture and using it for purposes that are unintended by the original culture or even offensive to that culture’s mores. Examples include sports teams using Native American tribal names or images as mascots; wearing jewelry or fashion with religious symbols such as the war bonnet, medicine wheel, or cross without any belief in those religions; and copying iconography from another culture’s history such as Polynesian tribal tattoos, Chinese characters, or Celtic art worn without regard to their original cultural significance. Critics of the practice of cultural appropriation contend that divorcing this iconography from its cultural context or treating it as kitsch risks offending people who venerate and wish to preserve their cultural traditions.


In Australia, Aboriginal artists have discussed an “authenticity brand” to ensure consumers are aware of artworks claiming false Aboriginal significance. The movement for such a measure gained momentum after the 1999 conviction of John O’Loughlin for the fraudulent sale of works described as Aboriginal but painted by non-indigenous artists.

In Europe and North America, a common example of cultural appropriation is the misrepresentation of East Indian symbols, mythology, and religious ideas as typified in Rudyard Kipling’s stories and Talbot Mundy’s Jimgrim book series including the highly discussed Nine Unknown and King of the Khyber Rifles. Movements to undo the biases, misrepresentations, and cultural inaccuracies made popular by authors like Kipling and Mundy have gained significant momentum since Kipling’s poem “If—” was scrubbed off Manchester University walls by student leaders. AAJA, a watchdog organization for fair and respectful cultural representation, works to point out and prevent these cultural inaccuracies in the media.





Cultural appropriation is not only a problem in the modern era and in the West.  Historically, some of the most hotly debated cases of cultural appropriation have occurred in places where cultural exchange is the highest, such as along the trade routes in southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe. For example

  • Some scholars of the Ottoman Empire and ancient Egypt argue that Ottoman and Egyptian architectural traditions have long been falsely claimed and praised as Persian or Arab.
  • During the 17th century, the forerunner to the three-piece suit was appropriated from the traditional dress of diverse Eastern European and Islamic countries.
  • The Justacorps frock coat was copied from the long Zupans worn in Poland and Ukraine, the necktie or cravat was derived from a scarf worn by Croatian mercenaries fighting for Louis XIII,
  • Many modern dictators who claim to loath Western culture have no problem wearing western suits and neckties, rather than the native dress of their own cultures when making speeches from the podium (re. The President of China),
  • The brightly colored silk waistcoats popularized by Charles II of England were inspired by exotic Turkish, Indian, and Persian attire acquired by wealthy English travelers.
  • During the Highland Clearances, the British aristocracy appropriated traditional Scottish clothing. Tartan was given the spurious association with specific Highland clans after publications such as James Logan’s romanticized work The Scottish Gael led the Scottish tartan industry to invent clan tartans and tartan became a desirable material for dresses, waistcoats, and cravats.
  • In America, so-called Scottish plaid flannel had become workwear by the time of Westward expansion and was widely worn by Old West pioneers and cowboys who were not of Scottish descent.
  • In the 21st century, the tartan remains ubiquitous in mainstream fashion, and is the uniform of many a non-Scottish rocker, from John Fogarty of CCR to Seattle Grunge Bands like Nirvana. By the way, is naming your rock band with the Sansrit word “Nirvana” cultural misappropriation?
  • By the 19th century the fascination had shifted to Asian culture. English Regency era dandies adapted the Indian churidars into slim fitting pantaloons, and frequently wore turbans within their own houses.
  • Later, Victorian gentlemen wore smoking caps based on the Islamic fez, and fashionable turn of the century ladies wore Orientalist Japanese inspired kimono dresses.
  • During the Tiki culture fad of the 1950s, white women frequently donned the qipao to give the impression that they had visited Hong Kong, although the dresses were frequently made by seamstresses in America using rayon rather than genuine silk.
  • Also in the late 1950s, teenage British Teddy Girls wore Chinese coolie hats due to their exotic connotations.
  • In old Mehico (Mexico), the sombrero associated with the mestizo peasant class was appropriated from an earlier hat introduced by the Spanish colonials during the 18th century. This, in turn, was adapted into the cowboy hat worn by American cowboys after the US Civil War. In 2016, the University of East Anglia prohibited the wearing of sombreros to parties on campus, in the belief that these could offend Mexican students. American Western wear was copied from the work attire of 19th century Mexican Vaqueros, especially the pointed cowboy boots and the guayabera which was adapted into the embroidered Western shirt. The China Poblana dress associated with Mexican women was appropriated from the choli and lehenga worn by Indian maidservants who arrived from Asia from the 17th century onwards.

One could theoretically accuse Jimmy Buffett of appropriating Hawaiian and Caribbean sensibilities, music, and style. I remember humorously wandering around the Island of Kawai in Hawaii seeking a Hawaiian made Hawaiian Shirt. Most of what was available at the time were the synthetic version imported into Hawaii from Taiwan. Imagine my surprise when I finally found what I was looking for – an actual Hawaiin made, Hawaiin shirt… in the local Walmart.

So how did we get to this point where political correctness and cultural appropriation clashes head-on with authentic cultural fusion in our ever-expanding multi-cultural reality?  There is no one place that it all began. It began everywhere and it isn’t always the powerful taking from the powerless. In Britain, the rough tweed cloth clothing of the Irish, English, and Scottish peasantry, including the flat cap and Irish hat were appropriated by the upper classes as the British country clothing worn for sports such as hunting or fishing, in imitation of the then Prince of Wales.  The country clothing, in turn, was appropriated by the wealthy American soc and later preppy subcultures during the 1950s and 1980s due to both its practicality and its association with the English elite. During the same period, the British comedian Tommy Cooper was known for wearing a North African Fez throughout his performances.

When keffiyehs (a traditional scarf often worn by Palestinian Arabs) became popular in the late 2000s, experts made a clear distinction between the wearing of a genuine scarf, and a fake made in China.  Palestinian independence activists and socialists denounced the wearing of scarves not made in Palestine as a form of cultural appropriation but encouraged young white people and fellow Muslims to buy shemaghs made in the Herbawi factory to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people and improve the economy of the West Bank. Of course, given enough time fashionistas and hipsters will get into the game. In 2017, Topshop caused controversy by selling Chinese-made playsuits that imitated the pattern of the keffiyeh.

Sometimes, any message or non-message can pose a mixed message. In 2012 during the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show, model Karlie Kloss was scrutinized for wearing a Native American headdress during her walk on the runway. There was a mixed public response. People of mixed heritage were the most sensitive to the headdress. USA Today ran a feature where they interviewed a woman of mixed heritage who said that the headdress is a symbol of leadership and honor, and also has a religious meaning behind it. This cultural meaning was not considered in Victoria’s Secret’s use of the headdress as an accessory. Victoria’s Secret issued an apology stating that they had no intention of offending anyone.

In my own childhood in the 1950s, I remember “Olympic Games in a summer camp where each team of five children was given the name of some Indian Tribe, “Hopi,” “Navaho,”  “Apache,” “Sioux,” etc. There were, and still are many other examples of groups associated with boy and girls scout troops attempting to duplicate Native American dance with varying degrees of authenticity.

This question of culture sharing or culture theft will obviously not be solved in this blog, but it is certainly something to think about.

Here is the article link that started this particular conversation. What do you think?

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