Reframing the cultural appropriation conversation towards synergy, co-learning, and peace

Introduction

In the wake of Lucidity Festival’s second year, I’d like to take some time to engage in an important conversation that’s been percolating within and around transformational festival culture for some time now. Most recently this conversation has revolved around the topic of ‘cultural appropriation’, or the borrowing of cultural memes and symbols, and has significant overlap with the subjects of Indigenous Intellectual Property and Cultural Heritage Management. The conversation holds relevance for our Lucidity community, transformational festival culture in general, and for the future of our One Human Family. In this article I will introduce my unique perspective lens, address cultural appropriation as an important issue, identify and acknowledge the places where Lucidity is learning and growing, and finally offer some reflections on how best to carry this conversation forward in peaceful and effective ways.

Claiming Perspective- Humanizing the Public Face of Lucidity

When embarking on a conversation of this nature, one that is ultimately about cultural legitimacy, I find it imperative to disclose my background and perspective lens. My name is Jonah Haas and I am the Marketing Director of Lucidity Festival. I am also a lifelong lucid dreamer and have a Masters degree in Cultural Anthropology. By all stereotypical surface characteristics, I represent the epitome of privilege… white, of European descent, 30-something, educated, male. And yet, my socio-cultural experience of life in modern North American society has been far different than what the stereotype would have you believe.To be sure, I’ve experienced class-ism, racism, and overly assumptive pigeon holing. I’ve also spent long periods of anthropological fieldwork living in contexts where I am “the other”. I share this not to make comparisons to or to discount the deeply embedded trivialization and marginalization of other cultural and ethnic groups by the global elite and the dominant capitalist ideology, rather I’m simply offering that I come from a humble place of empathy and compassion.

We are living in a rapidly changing time characterized by increasingly free flowing information, rampant cultural remixing, and the breakdown of the hyper individuation that has been programmed into our beings for generations. For these reasons, this time is ripe for a massive healing of the collective trauma that has kept us in shame, in blame, in fear, in separation. I speak for Lucidity when I say that we are committed to opening safe spaces for this collective transformation to take place. In this eagerness to contribute to a collective shift, we have come up against some sensitive issues and we are learning how best to navigate these delicate waters.

Cultural Appropriation – The Issue

beautiful-cultural-appropriation-ethnic-fashion
Example of inappropriate cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the process by which one cultural group borrows, utilizes, or otherwise adopts some element of another cultural group. Certainly this goes on all the time in the liminal zones, or in between places, where cultural groups articulate. And yet, it is a process that has generated a fair amount of critical discussion when the two groups share histories and lived relationships that involve unequal power dynamics, domination and subordination, genocide or holocaust, or heinous violations of human rights. In the context of this article, cultural appropriation is most frequently used to describe the borrowing of cultural symbols, memes, or themes without express permission from the cultural group responsible for the creation of said symbols, memes, or themes. Within festival culture, there has been a large conversation around participants being disrespectful and unconscious toward specific indigenous groups. Festival producers have also been criticized for producing festivals on native lands and appropriating cultural symbols that are not up for grabs. For example, read about why it isn’t appropriate for hipsters to wear headdresses. In 2013, Lucidity Festival had the educational experience of walking the cultural appropriation edge and in some cases we clearly overstepped fair use of cultural memories and images, and stand corrected.

Lucidity Festival 2013 – The Totems’ Return

The first discussion of Lucidity’s marketing materials as an example of cultural appropriation occurred on Facebook, in a comment thread. The thread was for a post that was asking our audience to vote on proposed designs for the art that would appear on our water kanteens. You are welcome to read the comment thread here. This was a valuable lesson for us as event producers, because while we were very careful to design our own custom imagery for our Lucidity Totem Pole, we did not consider the fact that the very silhouette of the totem pole we created had its creative nexus with a specific First Nation cultural group.

totem_poster11x17_final_for_WEB
Our discontinued graphic

It is true, we were inspired by the Kwakwaka’wakw totem pole AND, we personally were informed by the Totem Animals we represented on our graphical totem. The Owl graced the Healing Village, Coyote informed camp placement for Trickster’s Playground. Troops of Turkey graced our Family Garden. Upon engaging in this discussion, we humbly thanked those who spoke out and decided to not print the totem pole imagery on our water vessels. Furthermore, we removed that imagery from every place where it was elsewhere used. We also went on to invite the women who brought up the issue and offered them a scheduled time to facilitate a panel on the subject.

We are sincerely apologetic for the appropriation of the totem pole in our marketing materials and for any unintended strain or reactions, including feelings of not honoring the ancestors of the First Nations peoples to our north. We can commit to more careful consideration and consultation around the usage of sensitive iconography in the future.

Onsite at Lucidity Festival, two of my team members and I sat in counsel with a couple of cultural bridgewaters, Spencer Wilkinson and Gitana Martinez, of The Co-Evolution Institute. They spoke to us as ambassadors of their own work and as allies of the Forward Alliance, which was then called Decolonizing Festivals Alliance. During our time together we had a chance to share our perspectives and intentions around the notion of cultural bridgewalking. In a summary of his experience on the ground at Lucidity, Spencer writes

 

“We enjoyed our time at Lucidity and noticed many of the positive aspects you incorporated. The environmental impact appeared to be addressed around trash with your plate exchange, lack of printed materials, etc. There were great workshop offerings, wonderful facilities and beautiful art all around.
 
The main issues that many folks were concerned about and addressed prior to the event were around the use of imagery and language in your promotions that appropriated cultural symbols, such as the totem pole and language of “tribes”, “clans”, etc. (email communication 5/30/13)

 

These first two interactions, on facebook and in person, are wonderful examples of positive engagements in the cultural appropriation discussion. Both unfolded openly, respectfully, compassionately, and maintained a solutions-oriented attitude from both parties. What’s more, as a result of the conversations, our organizations have set the intention to get shoulder to shoulder and form an alliance. The details of what that alliance will look like are still being worked out.

These humanized approaches are highly appreciated, especially given the fact that a large body of the cultural appropriation literature floating around the web is steeped in a tangible anger, resentment, finger pointing, and deeply embedded hypocrisy. As an example, read the article “When You’re Lucid Dreaming You Can Do Anything But That Includes Being Racist” by Alex Dunn. This author does an adequate job of framing the issue, however, spends much of his energy criticizing the audience of Lucidity as an over generalized populace of drug-consuming white hippies. His attack feels mean spirited, is full of conjecture and uses evidence out of context to strengthen his argument, is not informed through direct experience of the festival, and uses a flavor of discriminatory language that renders himself subject to the very critique he is launching. What’s more, when I reached out to him in a diplomatic way and suggested that we meet over coffee to share perspectives and learn from one another, he skillfully skirted the invitation and requested my response be digital. I find that many of the articles written on cultural appropriation follow a similar unfortunate pattern: aggressive and hypocritical usage of language, hiding behind a digital intermediary, unwilling to engage in face-to-face co-learning, thus adding to the perpetuation of a culture of separation and divisiveness. I have compassion for the place where this anger arises, and will continue to stand for more productive and effective ways to communicate.

To Tribe or not to Tribe

I’d like to spend a few moments considering the particular critique around the usage of the word “tribe” as it’s been used to refer to emergent social configurations that are springing forth within transformational festival culture. From my perspective, the term ‘tribe’ isn’t exactly a cultural appropriation as it is more of a pan-cultural descriptive word. It is, however, steeped in a colonial history and has it’s own problematics. One of these problems is that there are many ‘tribes’ of indigenous peoples that are officially recognized as such by national governments and inter-tribal organizations. By co-opting the term, the argument is that it devalues official tribes’ legitimate claims to a cultural heritage that has already been marginalized, trivialized, and in some cases, intentionally destroyed.

The flip side is that the term has been used heavily in anthropological literature to refer categorically to a type of small-scale social organization with a particular set of characteristics. In this light, utilizing the term tribe, or ‘neo-tribal’, to refer to some of the emergent social groupings that are popping up around and within transformational festival culture is perhaps more appropriate. The term is being used to describe groups that are characterized by strong kinship bonds (even if these ‘familial’ bonds aren’t blood-based), a shared culture and mythos, councilship for decision making, earth stewardship practices, ritual and ceremony at the center of a spiritual practice, and a range of other characteristics which are looked at as distinct from (while emerging within) our postmodern nation-state.

Finally, in terms of common usage, the word “tribe” and “tribal” have been used within festival culture in the above ways for quite some time… consider the popular social media site tribe.net that dominated our scene before facebook and myspace. You may be familiar with Heart Tribe or Bass Tribe, two groups of like-minded event producers out of Santa Cruz and San Diego respectively. Also consider the “Tribal Convergence Network“, an emergent group of social architects and paradigm-shifters who are synthesizing many ancient, contemporary, indigenous and modern wisdom traditions for the development and implementation of co-creative models that recognize and honor all traditions, including ones that are in development and modeled after existing legacies. By citing these examples I’m not suggesting the usage of the term isn’t problematic, I am simply identifying that it’s meaning in common usage is in a process of being reinvented.

Reclaiming and reframing the word ought to come from a well informed place and be supported by our diverse alliances and anyone else interested in participating in the conversation. This question holds direct relevance to Lucidity Festivals because our proposed year 5 theme is “Tribe Quest”, signifying a time to learn from our collective histories and ancestors, and reinvent what tribe means to us in a modern context. So, the deep inquiry is: Stand for a re-framing of the word or creatively arrive at a new name that says the same thing, but doesn’t use the problematic term? “Kindred Quest” has a nice ring. We’re open to your thoughts and feedback.

Reframing The Conversation for a more Fruitful Engagement

Cultural appropriation, especially in it’s unconscious, naive, and disrespectful forms, is something to shift and transform, AND to this end, I think it would be valuable for us, as a collective,  to slightly reframe our perspective around the phenomenon. While there may be validity in identifying privileged white ravers who fashionably wear imitation headdresses as ignorant, naive, insensitive, or foolish, the question that arises for me is: where does this get us? Where are the wayshowers to compassionately educate these uninformed youth? Shaking a blameful finger at the ignorant, telling them that they should know better, does not lend to productive and healthy education. Nor does it glean the source of the impulse to embrace and embody commodified cultural reflections of “the other”.  I see one solution to be creating safe containers to engage in co-learning around these topics, within and outside of the transformational festival context.

The “what” of cultural appropriation is relatively easy to address, but I’m mostly interested in the WHY. From my vantage point, I see a culture of disconnected, disenfranchised children who are deeply yearning for the connection of a people and place. It’s not exactly their fault that the dominant wayshowers for their generation have come from television, cinema, and video games. What we see in the transformational festival culture is individuals beginning to awaken from the societal sleep they’ve been lulled into and are often, for the first time, engaging in a journey of personal discovery. As a mixed-blood of European descent who has been disconnected from his own cultural roots, I can say that I have indeed experienced a yearning for the primordial embrace of my own indigeneity, the knowledge of which was lost long before I was even born. I am sympathetic to the yearning of a connection to tribe and community, and so when I see (and have engaged in) the grasping for symbols of such things , I understand that we’re dealing with cases of misunderstood intentions and misdirected desire for connectivity.

awaken sitting
We are humbly awaiting, and in many cases actively seeking, the wayshowers of Now.

Framed in this way, the widespread commoditization of culture feels slightly less egregious. It’s easier to swallow knowing it isn’t coming from a place of malicious intent. Instead of pointing at naive children making ignorant decisions and maintaining a victimhood mentality that their behavior has rippling negative impacts on the psyches and spirits of everyone, what if we stood strong and confident, offering hands of support to them, to co-learn about kinship, anthropology, and their own authentic cultural heritage, thus directing their enthusiasm in a manner that is more likely to be received? Speaking as an event producer who’s event was that naive child this past year, I can vouch for the fact that my face-to-face interactions with Spencer and Gitana, that were deeply humanized by being in each others presence, founded in a compassion and appreciation for the things we share rather than that which divides us, had the most positive impact on our organizations’ thinking and doing around this topic. Indeed, Lucidity Festival’s founding Family grew up in the shadow of our brothers, sisters and their Ancestors of the Northwest Coast First Nation. We honor and admire their cultural heritage, are blessed to have forged new alliances, and look forward to what the future holds.

Sources

The Controversy: Water Canteen Proof put up for vote by Lucidity Festival
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=476667425719669&set=pb.292660907453656.-2207520000.1373771936.&type=3&theater

Forward Alliance Mission and Vision

http://forwardalliance.org/?page_id=23

 

Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage: Appropriation of the Month: First Nations Totem Poles

http://www.sfu.ca/ipinch/outputs/blog/appropriation-month-first-nation-totem-poles

 

When You’re Lucid Dreaming You Can Do Anything But That Includes Being Racist

By Alex Dunn

http://baruffio.com/docs/lucidity.html

 

Native Appropriations “But why can’t I wear a Hipster Headdress?”

http://nativeappropriations.com/2010/04/but-why-cant-i-wear-a-hipster-headdress.html

4 thoughts on “Reframing the cultural appropriation conversation towards synergy, co-learning, and peace

  1. Hi Jonah & readers of the article. Thank you posting this to the Lucidity site. Found it via a link in an Evolver Sporeganizer group on Facebook. I recall making the initial comment on Facebook when the poll was put out about the bottle art work mentioning cultural appropriation and showing it to others affiliated with what is now being called Forward Alliance. I am thankful for this continuing stream of thought about the topic and not glossing over the issues that arose but showing how much Lucidity has taken these issues to heart. As someone who has also spent considerable time invested and involved in the dance culture (since the late 90’s prior to festivals) I have seen this story unfolding and been myself examining for some while my own involvement in appropriating culture and the power dynamics within it. It would be easy enough I suppose to walk away from the mess we’re in. Or not. Maybe I’m attached to the music and the dance, the community vs isolation, the chance at truly transforming what is wrong with the world. Sometimes I think this festival culture will never grow up to what’s most pressing in the world. There are big issues facing us that go way beyond greening festivals, most of us know this.

    The sensitivity required to heal historical trauma I think is a good pre-requisite and addition to spiritual practices & sustainable practices that are being fielded in transformational festival culture. It connects us to the history of where we live here on Turtle Island and makes us participants in the cultural healing that can I think deepen all the other approaches being worked on to move things back in balance with the Earth and the people we’ve displaced so much as settlers.

    Assuredly such discussions will cause triggers to be triggered on all sides of the equation. From newcomers to the discussion to long time allies involved in the struggle. Can there be a way forward without leaving others behind? I hope not. I hope we can truly become worthy as a movement to use the notion of oneness as a goal that yes is fundamentally what we are but buried beneath classism, racism, power and privilege. We need to have the sensitivity of an archaelogist seeking to escavate the past without damaging it so all can properly gain knowledge. Using blunt instruments at this time to me is a continuation of colonization. This includes creating division with arguments and closing the ears to opinions that do not match our own, no matter how justified our opinion may seem. We need to hear the whole arc of this story that contains all of us. Not just some of us. How can all people tending this issue be sensitive with the cultural wound still bleeding and still needing mending. I think it will take some spiritual strength, intellect alone would be potentially further damaging. Similarly we need to find ways to take action where its needed culturally and festivals represent at the moment a widening of the gap most of the time rather than a narrowing of it where only the parts that are liked by participants are examined ie. shamanism while things that are serious matters of life and death ie. poisoning of waters and land and killing off of fragile cultures and ecosystems are de-emphasized.

    We clearly have our work set out for us. Here’s hoping we can be a worthy younger brother to take our role with humbleness in the coming times as a festival culture. Here’s hoping the programming of festivals can reflect this need and work going on. Here’s hoping that participants and organizers support this conversation to be tended well and moving to the forefront of transformation.

  2. I could easily see this article being updated to include what seems to be an ongoing appropriation of East Indian culture within our “tribe” too, with all the bindi-wearing goddesses and wanna-be sadus who may enjoy the physical sensations of yoga and kirtan chanting but in reality are only in it for the hipness factor. The new hippies, I guess, still trying to find the truth in outer appearances…

  3. The original use and meaning of Native American headdress has evolved over the last 180 years of cultural appropriation. Now, music festival goers are under attack for style-copying the war bonnet. The anti-headdress drumbeat shouts false claims of genocide & racism, and unnecessarily attempts to create villains and guilt.

    http://aoxoa.co/native-american-headdress-music-festival/

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