On the theft and appropriation of Indigenous cultures

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A recent discussion over a cup of coffee with friends in Edmonton brought up four very different examples that had me considering how indigenous culture is flagrantly (mis)appropriated and twisted.

They are: a self-proposed, self-described "chosen shaman" of multiple indigenous nations named "Little Grandmother" Kiesha Crowther, the deaths and injuries that took place in an appropriated sweat lodge at a "New Age" retreat in Arizona in 2009, a noted pretender who once taught at my Alma Mater in Minnesota, and a "Quantum Healing" business-owner in Saskatoon who legitimizes culture-vulturing by means of a "Treaty of Eagle Bowl."

Then there was a fifth experience, one I had personally. On a drive to the west coast in 2009, between Kamloops and Victoria, I had the displeasure of taking a wrong turn and seeing a number of New Age hippies staging a mock pow-wow in tie-dye with Tama bass drums adorned in turkey feathers, shawls made from burlap sacks, and a central arbour that seemed to be purchased at a outdoor furniture store with a cranked canopy. They even used Canada Day sparklers.

These are all very different in many respects, but sharing the same deplorable root.

Over a second cup of coffee with my company, further discussion helped me to consider the implications of how cultural (mis)appropriation and New Age frauds impact the present and the future, and in turn even affects the past by opening up the scars of yesterday -- and fanning mistrust.

And now, my third coffee is poured while I write this piece. Cheers.

Many of our generation, living on and thriving on partnerships built, cultivated and maintained across once great ethnic and cultural divides and boundaries, speak and aspire to ideals.

We seek these ideals of circumstance, progress and improvement in days ahead, where the fires of justice extinguish the dark dusk of inequity.

However, those placing value and promise on the benefits of future partnerships and collaborations across the cultural rifts in order to create and shape a better world that yields painfully to positive change may continue to find, in these lands and abroad, both intentional (and unintentional) sabotage of our wondrous mechanisms to meet such aspiration together.

This sabotage is Theft.

Let us reflect and apply the legacy of memory.

The multi-generational bandit mask (not of heritage or background, I wish to point this out and make this understood, but, rather, of conduct of some) has been passed to a successor many times:

Indian Agents wore the cloak of thievery towards our traditional means to govern, the churches and residential schools stole our children and family legacies, the federal and provincial powers continue to seek to plunder our traditional territories, and now modern times reveal one more pilferer functioning in the same light as the suit and the black robe -- appropriating the most sacred of what we have left.

And what each past malefactor sought to take is this:

Culture

The above-described thieves, whether they realize it or not, have assumed the duty to finish what many, such as; residential school priests and administrators, assimilationists in the halls of government fuelling the fires in the engines of colonialism, and those who sought to exploit resources; have sought to do in the past. This is to appropriate, to exploit, to steal, to acquire, to minimize, and to capture a sacred culture.

But now for personal, obsessive, or profiteering reasons.

The issue of "culture vulturing" and cultural appropriation remains one of ethics, decency, and injustice. Likewise, it is a matter where such exploitation continues fanning the flames of mistrust within a great number of our People reaching across the ethnic and cultural line.

It stifles increased progressive partnerships of many due to the unsavoury greed of a few, by this I mean both "plastic shaman" services carried out for profit, as well as personal opportunism and ego taking advantage of others due to inadequacy, a lack of moral compass, or the vain wish to be reborn within an objectifying obsession and fascination.

The same suits and black robes of yesterday adorn bandit masks over the eyes of many today; the self-absorbed tie-dyed hipster invading ceremony to hijack, the New Age appropriating "shamanic healer," the swank "visionary" who fraudulently self-promotes as an elder and a majestic, the rootless fraud who claims self-styled wings as he who is called "Dreams of Eagles", and the profiteering non-indigenous self-nominated "vision quest guide."

This is greatly done by those who live out their romanticized fantasies by minimizing a strong People and a strong culture down to the jewellery one makes and sells, the "Indian at heart" they claim as a "should have been," similar, to a large degree, to those making a fortune off selling the sports team logo upon one's chest while fans adorn themselves with a plastic head-dress, Halloween war paint, and foam tomahawks at game time.

The hippies with the Tama bass drum and sparklers aren't just a North American occurrence, as mock pow-wows take place in Europe -- in places such as Germany and England, jumping aboard the Appropriation Train. Others choose similar appropriation to twist culture and science into new age "quantum" religions or to make quick-dollar-books about impending crystal-and-drum changes foreseen to take place in 2012.

(By the way, on the first morning of 2013, will these sorts finally lose their book deals and speaking invitations? Please?)

Thievery is thievery.

Appropriation is appropriation.

Exploitation is exploitation.

Minimization is minimization.

Objectification is objectification.

Frauds are frauds and facts are facts.

And the radical point I wish to share:

Meaningful partnerships are based in respect, integrity, ethics, and trust.

Meaningful partnerships based on trust, co-operation, and brotherhood have enormous value for all.

We all deserve a future based upon such ideals. If we collectively wish to close the divides rather than doors in the wake of the ethically bankrupt, efforts must be undertaken and responsibility assumed to uproot the mistrust by separating the past victimization and thievery from a future of more of the same conducted by those I've described.

These grave-robbers of yesterday are those that pilfer the mounds of memory today for personal gain.

If memory and continuity of culture truly equates survival, then the clumsy digging of open-pit mines into the sacred by the selfish is significant disrespect by those who 'cling to and drain from.'

Such flagrant opportunism minimizes an entire People and culture, minimizing much from the respective levels of sacred cultural autonomy of protected foundations for our future generations of our People. The opportunists wear mere Halloween costumes of our culture, which sacred ceremonies, teachings, and cultural affinity dress the self-justified, the ignorant, the most well-intentioned, or those who claim they do not know any better.

It is my contention that it is not only a slight against our ancestors, against our true spiritual leaders, and against the cultures that are pilfered by such character, but also against the very foundations of our Nations.

Culture and spirituality are thus undermined and again, mistrust caused by few eviscerates much promise of personal and collective investments towards many seeking effective partnerships and valuable progressive relationships; potential is lost; potential we all deserve as we look to brighter futures. Together.

So, Exploiters for personal obsession or profit:

If you truly value progressive partnerships and work towards a more just society for all, built of integrity and respect for many rather than the betterment of few; then hang up The Delusion, The Illusion, and The Thievery.

I am also speaking directly to the New Agers who attend our gatherings, who choose to twist both indigenous knowledges and science to attempt to sell our own knowledge back to us, derailing the teachers for many who take the insidious bait.

To Plastic Shamans, plunder divides partnerships.

Culture Vultures, stop picking the bones of our ancestors clean. One who appropriates because they "love the culture and respect the Native" neither loves nor respects the exploited any more than the pornographer loves and respects the actress.

No matter how one justifies or pacifies; exploitation is exploitation.

And facts are facts.

Robert Animikii Horton, "Bebaamweyaazh", an Anishinaabe member of Rainy River First Nations of Manitou Rapids and from the Marten Clan, has built a reputation as a progressive and outspoken activist, contrarian writer, and respected orator on an international scale, speaking on topics such as community organizing, political/social/economic justice, and youth empowerment. He is a sociologist, social and political activist, and spoken-word poet.

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