Cultural Appropriation & My Personal Journey
What is Cultural appropriation, how does it apply to my journey and why is it important (at least to me)?
Here is a definition I found online from Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who defines cultural appropriation as follows:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
A shorter form definition translated and embellished by me, although I have no credentials other than 20 plus years of living in these spiritual practices:
"Stealing someone's traditions, often with little to no real understanding of them, and misrepresenting yourself as an expert, representative of those cultures, or otherwise capable of teaching and presenting these traditions. Exploiting this misrepresentation for personal gain. This can take many forms."
My book is called White Man Red Road. I wrote it to fulfill a vow to my teacher, who requested I write it. This title may upset people or lead them to think I am stealing. The title is simply an honest description of what I was raised as and my journey.
My family lineage includes a full blooded member of one of the "Five Civilized Nations of the Indian Territory" as they were so "graciously" named back around the Trail Of Tears. This is something I just learned about regarding my lineage after 23 plus years. My "blood quantum" is there, but it is low. Blood Quantum is often but not always a standard used by some Nations when considering eligibility for affiliation or citizenship. Affiliation, however, is not the same as growing up in a specific culture.
I cannot honestly represent myself as affiliated with that Nation until such time as it actually occurs, if it ever occurs, and even then would have no right to represent myself as capable of conveying any of their teachings. That would be a disrespectful lie at best and at worst very harmful. I would need to spend years living in the culture, if invited, to even begin to touch it.
Here is what I can represent and how I conduct myself. My teacher was a mixed blood person, meaning only "part Indian". He warned me about about what was then called Cultural Poaching and said I would be challenged on this issue over and over. He then also told me I had a responsibility to pass along what he had taught me, because that is why he taught me. Finally, he supervised my early years of teaching to make sure I was passing things along correctly.
I was taught a particular set of practices and traditions he called the Red Road. These traditions share many similarities to Lakota, Shoshone, and Crow traditions that I have also been exposed to, however they also include many differences. They are not specifically of those particular Tribal cultures I just listed.
So what I have done for these decades is to transmit these teachings as I was authorized, taught and then required to do. This was how I was to repay the gift of being taught. I spent years learning and understanding them as an apprentice. I have never charged money for these traditions although at time people have fed me, and offered donations for my time and expenses such as travel.
Like my teacher, I have never represented myself as anything other than someone who has been taught these things and passes them along. I represent the teachings, and not a specific culture.
Along the way I was blessed to meet a man named Robert Perry. Robert Perry led me in Sundance, in the Shoshone Bannock tradition. I learned a great deal. However I do not teach about doing Shoshone Sundances. I am not authorized or educated to do that. I teach about what Sundance taught me. I introduce people to Robert Perry and his family.
So for me it is simple. Never misrepresent yourself. Do not steal what has not been given to you. Teach only what you have earned the right to teach. Sharing your life experience is a different matter.
Those who read this, or my written work, will judge me as they choose. In this message I am attempting to convey my heart, and my Life’s work in this Give-Away. My community is a place where people gather to pray in a certain way. The goal of such prayer is to become a person who can contribute in a constructive way to the world.
I would like to close by addressing my experience with Culture.
It is humbling and beautiful to be invited to share in someone’s Culture. It must be respected. Unless you were to fully immerse yourself in that Culture by invitation and live within it for years, you will always be an outsider in that Culture. This does not mean you cannot respect and enjoy all the ways it is both different and similar to your own. You may also honor it in the way you are asked to participate.
You may be given the opportunity to express your experience with that Culture, however unless you honestly become of that Culture you may not claim it as your own. In some cases genetics and bloodline are considered so fundamental to a Culture that without those components you may never be considered more than a beloved adoptee, almost but not quite fully a part of the Culture you are living amongst and desire to be part of.
This is a hard path to walk, but your heart must follow your Spirit, and your Spirit will lead you to where you belong whatever the sacrifices that may be required. You will meet people within the culture where you seek a home that will see your heart, and they will help you and make you their family. They see a bigger vision.
That vision they see is another Culture that we find on this journey of Life and it is one to which we all may claim birthright. It is the Culture of Spirit.
Transcending all other Cultures, the Culture of Spirit is where we may meet as honored and respected family. In this Culture of Spirit all ways are honored, and all Life. Not merely the humans, but all living things and our Mother the Earth which fosters all Life. Beyond the Earth itself this Culture of Spirit honors all Creation and the many ways it is expressed and sought to be understood.
This Culture of Spirit is our only hope for saving the journey of Humans. We have too often become mired in defending our respective cultures for fear that we will lose the sacredness of who we think we are as those cultures are distorted or lost. There is a valid and important struggle of cultural preservation that must be waged. Even so, we must not lose sight of what these cultures have been created to serve.
At the Center of all Creation is Creator. You may call Creator by many names, including God, Allah, Yahweh and others. The name is the sound your voice, mind and heart makes to call Creator, but the name itself is not Creator.
All Cultures are spokes that lead to the center of the wheel where Creator lives. The center is where we will find balance. The spokes do not bring us balance, they bring us a path to balance.
We must honor these spokes. We must keep the spokes of individual cultures well maintained and cared for so they do not become twisted and bent. One bent spoke will affect all the other spokes in the wheel. What is most important is to keep the whole wheel strong and always know Creator is in the Center.
Honor all Paths. They are meant as a journey to the center of the wheel of Creation. They are sadly used too often as a tool to create reasons to disagree and fight. We are fighting with Creator when we do this, and using each other and our cultures as justification for a process that grows only harm. Misunderstanding and the fear it breeds are the fuel for this conflict. The need for one culture to try and dominate or destroy other cultures in order to obtain more power or resources is usually at the root of these conflicts. Greed and lust for control are universal, spanning all cultures, and must be met on the higher plane of Spirit in order to be defeated. The battle will be long......
I pray that you and I meet in the healing Culture of Spirit. I have been raised in one culture and given tools and a road for healing through another. It has brought me conflict and pain, and it has brought healing and beauty in far greater measure. I have heard, and believe, that the only way we will heal the wounds between cultures is to meet on Spiritual Ground. This has been, and remains, my mission.
We must not pretend to be what we are not. We must not steal what is not given. We equally must not be shamed from our honorable journey. We must never do harm. If we do harm we must make every effort we can to heal that harm.
Whatever your culture, please continue your path to this Culture of Spirit. We must be resolute in our intent to grow and nurture this Culture of Spirit. The world we occupy requires it of us.
May You Always Walk In Beauty, and May You Always Leave Beauty In Your Trail….