Understanding Cultural Appropriation

The difference between sharing and stealing.

By David Arv Bragi


In today’s global village, networking between artists from different ethnic or national backgrounds is more common than ever. Modern creatives are used to finding inspiration in each other’s works and styles and it can be argued that such interconnectivity helps to create the tolerance and understanding between peoples that, in these volatile times, the world truly needs to help promote peace.

On the other hand not all artists and all communities are invited to these cross-cultural parties, many cannot afford the tickets and some would rather not attend, anyway. Yet, when they are tribal artists, especially from politically-marginalized populations, their creativity often shows up in galleries and on stages anyway, often under the “authorship” of someone else.

Inuit Woman, 1907. By Lomen Bros., Nome [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Inuit Woman, 1907. By Lomen Bros., Nome [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Celebrating indigenous traditions is one thing. Crashing their party, slipping out the back door with their birthday cake, then passing yourself off as the chef is something quite different. It’s called cultural appropriation.

Sharing or Stealing?

In a nutshell, if you’re taking creative ideas from a society that hasn’t already made the decision to freely share it, either with you or the world at large, then it’s appropriation. Put simply, if you don’t have permission from the tribal elders, then it doesn’t belong to you.

In Canada, performance artist Zinour Fathoullin, who is Russian, has come under criticism from the Inuit tribal community for creating what amounts to modern spin-offs of traditional cultural practices, charging attendees as much as $800 for a half-day of drumming, dancing and storytelling. They claim that, after working as a choreographer for an Inuit dance group, he began passing himself off as an expert on tribal culture, earning money from audiences that might otherwise have attended authentic Inuit-run events and generating income for real Inuit artists. For his part, Fathoullin claims that he is only interpreting indigenous traditions and that an unnamed “shaman” gave him permission to do so (Oudshoom, 2015).

While I don’t feel qualified to judge Mr. Fathoullin’s case personally, it does resemble an all-too-common storyline. First an artist or teacher or entrepreneur from a dominant society makes contact with an indigenous community, attends some meetings or events and maybe makes a few friends. The next thing you know, he or she starts advertising their own indigenous-themed books, pipes, drums, classes, sweat lodges, and shamanic journey weekends for big bucks, with not a dime flowing back to the indigenous community that he or she no longer seems to have time to talk with.

Copyrights versus. Community Rights

In modern society, individual persons (including corporations) have formal legal ownership, called copyright or trademark rights, over the works that they create. Such rights are so deeply ingrained into our laws that they can be bought and sold just like any other piece of property. The courts have developed complex bodies of case law to interpret them and international treaties regulate them between sovereign countries.

Japanese Traditional Song Performance, 2008. Rico Shen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 tw (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/tw/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Traditional Song Performance, 2008. Rico Shen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 tw (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/tw/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, when it comes to indigenous societies, those rights seem to mysteriously disappear, just like the property rights of tribal villages whenever settlers from a dominant culture show up with money, guns, and lawyers. If no individual holds a piece of paper issued by the dominant culture claiming ownership over a textile design or folksong then, in modern eyes, it’s up for grabs.

What the modern world doesn’t understand is how indigenous societies can practice a form of social ownership of culture. When most modern people think of traditional folksongs, they envision something that belongs to nobody, living in a kind of legal no-man’s-land called “the public domain,” where exploitation is available to anyone anywhere, inside or outside of its originating culture.

An indigenous society might think of those same songs, along with the stories and meanings behind them, as belonging — not to an individual or corporation — but to the people as a whole, held in trust by its elders, kept alive by traditional practices and protected, as much as possible, from outside influences.

Living Close

One example of someone who does it right is the visual artist Tazouz, who is of Eastern European heritage and whose paintings and drawings depict the lives of indigenous people worldwide. “I express all cultures as I see them, with respect grace and dignity,” says Tazouz. “Each of my paintings reflects the inner beauty of each person” (Tazouz, 2015).

Among her most interesting collections are everyday portraits of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a Native American tribe from the southwestern United States and northern Mexico (Tazouz, 2015). Tazouz lived with them for eight years in the US state of Arizona, making friends and discovering just how much she loved their ways.

An indigenous society might think of those same songs, along with the stories and meanings behind them, as belonging — not to an individual or corporation — but to the people as a whole.

“At first I was as shy as they are, and since I felt honored to be on their land I waited patiently for the right opportunity to show itself,” says Tazouz. “I was approached by a young man who asked me if I would teach the adult classes and this was the opportunity I was waiting for. Rapport came naturally after that.”

“I simply do not associate with any artists, or any person who is disrespectful or exploitive toward mankind in general,” says Tazouz. “I’m very selective in my choice of friends and associates so that I don’t have to ‘deal with it.’ If however, I see this behavior I find a way to make the person(s) aware of it and that I don’t consider it appropriate.”

A young Tohono O’odham girl, 2011. By U.S. Department of Agriculture [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A young Tohono O’odham girl, 2011. By U.S. Department of Agriculture [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

High Fashion or Highway Robbery?

The well-known Japanese apparel designer Junya Watanabe recently caused a stir in the fashion world during his men’s collection show in Paris. His creations were inspired by African clothing styles, yet he used an all-white cast of runway models (Milligan, 2015)

Further complicating matters, the online news site Quartz noted that some of the fabric patterns come from the Dutch textile manufacturer Vlisco, who copied Indonesian motifs in the nineteenth century and exported them to Africa, which readily adopted the styles (Bain, 2015).

So, a Dutch company ripped off Javanese artisans to spread Asian art to the West African subjects of a European empire until a Japanese fashion designer employed Caucasian models to present an Asian interpretation of African culture.

So, is this imperialist theft followed by cross-cultural celebration followed by unconscious racism? Or is it a case of artistic exploration followed by cross-border cultural contamination followed by mercantile exploitation? We can bandy around as many terms as we like, and this is why journalists (like yours truly) can expend gallons of ink trying to decipher right versus wrong in the global village.

So please, if you’re a creative from a dominant culture, make it easier for everybody by creating art and networking with artists in an ethical fashion. If you’re thinking about incorporating an indigenous culture’s traditions and motifs into your own creative output, do the right thing. Show up at the door, introduce yourself, bring a gift, offer to help with the dishes, be clear about your intentions, and ask permission before handling the family silver.

Depending upon who you visit, it will either save you the trouble of walking into a house where you’re not welcome, or help you to develop strong and lasting friendships in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

If you’re a part of the dominant culture and want to get a taste of what cultural appropriation feels like, check out this video from the Latino-oriented comedy group Flama, If Mexicans Celebrated the 4th of July like … Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo (Pacheco, 2015).




Bain, M. (2015, June 29). Junya Watanabe’s Africa-themed fashion show was missing a key element: black models. Retrieved from Quartz: http://qz.com/439866/junya-watanabes-africa-themed-fashion-show-was-missing-a-key-element-black-models/

Milligan, L. (2015, June 29). Controversy over paris menswear show. Retrieved from Vogue News: http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2015/06/29/junya-watanabe-menswear-show-accused-of-cultural-appropriation

Oudshoom, K. (2015, June 26). ‘Cultural appropriation:’ Inuit react to Calgary man’s drum dance. Retrieved from CBCNews: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/cultural-appropriation-inuit-react-to-calgary-man-s-drum-dance-1.3129515

Pacheco, H. (2015, June 30). If Mexicans celebrated the 4th of July like…Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Retrieved from Flama: http://theflama.com/mexicans-celebrate-4th-of-july-like-americans-celebrate-cinco-de-mayo

Tazouz. (2015). Conversation with the Artiist. (D. A. Bragi, Interviewer)

Tazouz. (2015). Tazouz. Retrieved from Tazouz Art: http://www.tazouz.com/


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