By Pegi Eyers, Stone Circle Press
To understand how cultural appropriation shows up in our environmental movements and spiritual life, we need to look at the backstory, or how cultural appropriation came to be. About 50 years ago a strange phenomena began to happen. In mainstream society young white people were rebelling against the imperialist machine, while in a much less visible sphere, First Nations were just starting to recover from the dark ages of genocide, oppression, residential school displacement and segregation. In the dominant society of the mid-20th century, our ties to a genuine spiritual life had been broken, organized religion was on the decline, and all of a sudden young white people were reconnecting with nature. This was a wonderful thing – but they had no role models to follow so they turned to First Nations, freely adopting these cultural tools and spiritual traditions, and some going so far as to create a whole new indigenous identity for themselves. Without proper boundaries, the whitewashed genre of “Native Spirituality” was born, and cultural appropriation became imbedded in the flourishing New Age Industry.
Of course we owe a huge debt to the original rebellion of the hippies and the counterculture that gave us the alternative choices, sexual freedom, new spiritualities, holistic self-care and healthy life-sustaining practices we enjoy today. These are features of society we now take for granted, but unfortunately within the massive self-help, transformational and New Age marketplace the genres of “Native Spirituality” and “Shamanism” have been normalized. Being exposed to this material for so long, many New Agers are shocked to find these genres being questioned, yet an interrogation is exactly what is needed. Not only are white practitioners of “Native Spirituality” on shaky moral ground, First Nations have made it abundantly clear that they are completely opposed to the theft of their cultural and spiritual property.
Today, cultural appropriation occurs on a continuum from relatively harmless practices, to serious mental disorders such as identity theft. Having moccasins, native jewellery, native art, or a drum in the privacy of your own home (acquired from native artisans) can be considered good Allyship by supporting the livelihood of First Nations. But in mainstream industries like fashion, fine art, entertainment and home décor, items like dreamcatchers and headdresses are big business, and these cultural signifiers are casually used by white people for fun and self-expression. Many of these symbols, often products made in China, are the sacred property of First Nations! We can just imagine how deeply hurtful this must be.