Indigenous people have a rich and vibrant culture that has long been the subject of close inspection and attempts at replication. Native culture is beautiful and it can be tempting to adopt the traditions and practices of its people. However, there is a marked contrast between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. It’s important to know the difference.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is when someone takes elements of a culture that is not their own and remakes or reduces it into a trend, stereotype, or pop culture item. Some examples include mass producing headdresses as trendy accessories or mimicking tribal face paint as a way to get dressed up for a concert or festival.
Headdresses are sacred items that are gifted to leaders who have earned the right to wear one through a complex process of ceremonies and protocols. Similarly, tribal face paint is part of a network of sacred traditions that you disregard when you paint your face for fun. By disregarding these traditions, you disrespect the people who created them and that is at the core of cultural appropriation.
Perhaps the most egregious and well-known disrespect for Indigenous cultures are Halloween costumes that perpetuate harmful stereotypes that Indigenous people have fought against for centuries. Cultural appropriation takes advantage of sacred practices and cultural traditions and instead reduces them to fun and stereotypes in a way that severely disrespects those the traditions belong to.
What is Cultural Appreciation?
You can practice cultural appreciation by taking the time to research and learn about the culture you are interested in. Being informed demonstrates that you seek to honor the culture instead of take advantage of it or twist it into something geared toward mass marketability. This is considered cultural appreciation.
The key is consent and participation. Include indigenous people in the conversation. Ask questions about their culture. Learn the collective history of your country including the history of its Native people. Most often, disrespect of a culture is a direct symptom of a lack of knowledge about that culture.
What Can I Do?
To put it simply? Learn. And listen to your instincts. If something feels like it is blatantly taking advantage of another person’s culture, it probably is. But, you can know for sure by understanding the history of Native people and their most sacred practices and traditions.
A great place to start is simply learning how it is appropriate to refer to Indigenous people and in what context other names are acceptable. You can find a great video that will walk you through the do’s and don’ts here!
Language is important and there is power in names. Learning how to correctly refer to Indigenous people is an important first step toward demonstrating your informed appreciation for a culture, rather than appropriating it.