Cultural Appropriation 101 for Dead Critter Artists

In recent years, wearable art with animal parts has become downright trendy, particularly, though not exclusively, among twenty-something hipsters and their “ironic” ilk. Feathered earrings are all the rage, fox tails are on everyone’s purse and belt loop, and “hipster headdresses” are showing up everywhere from college campuses to Coachella.

Unfortunately, some artists are participating in an older, undesirable tradition: cultural appropriation. For decades, particularly since “going Native” became cool with the hippies in the 1960s, non-Native people have been grabbing bits and parts of various Native American cultures—or at least what they think “playing Indian” is supposed to be like. And there are those who deliberately misrepresent themselves as Native artists or purveyors of Native art, when they’re in actuality not associated with any tribe, and may even be reselling dreamcatchers and other things made in China.

So why is this a problem? Read on:

–What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the borrowing/theft of elements of one culture from another. More specifically, the culture doing the appropriating is generally more powerful than the one being borrowed from, and often there is a history of oppression and even genocide. Appropriators generally don’t think about the effects the appropriation could have because it’s part of their privilege to not have to think about things like that.

Anyone have a source for this? I got it from Native Appropriations, who were also looking for the source. Artist! We want to credit you!

Most commonly with regards to dead critter art, appropriators are cashing in on “Native American mystique”, either accidentally or intentionally misusing elements or perceived elements of Native American cultures in their art. This is not just a case of mistaken identity, as in happening to use animal parts in your work and having someone else accidentally assume it’s Native, but rather things like people “dressing up like Indians”, or mass-produced dreamcatcher car air fresheners. Hipster headdresses are an especially bad trend; these are quasi-Plains-tribe feathered headdresses, like old Indian “warbonnets” from 20th century Westerns, worn by (almost always white) hipsters for “irony”.

–Why does it matter?

There are a few reasons:

First, racial stereotyping. There are still entirely too many people who think that Indians are just imaginary beings that exist in some romanticized past, or are all horse-riding savages out on the plains, or are all unemployed alcoholics, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Artistic appropriators usually draw on the “noble savage” stereotype, where Native Americans are hyper-idealized as nature-loving, broken-English-speaking shaman-elders dispensing medicine to wide-eyed whites. That, or they draw on the “all natives wear feathers and buckskin” stereotype, drawing together some Hollywoodized smattering of supposed Plains Indian traits into a cultural trainwreck.

Second, buying “native-inspired artwork” does nothing to help actual Native people. This includes artists who may have some Native blood in their background, but have absolutely no contact with any indigenous cultures. News flash: being 1/16 Cherokee does not predispose you to being able to work with dead animals in your art, nor does it make you an expert on your distant family’s culture if you’ve had no contact with your tribe. While certainly not all Native people live on reservations and not all are impoverished or struggling with addiction, the truth is that many reservations are among the poorest places in the United States and this all too often gets ignored and even encouraged by non-natives. The money that goes to non-Native artists posing as “Native” could be going to actual Native artists, either on or off the reservations.

Third, continuing to pander to stereotypes does nothing to help these issues or the people affected by them. Playing dress-up Indian just sends the message that Native people are stereotypes, costumes, images, and otherwise not real people. Additionally, the confusion can draw attention away from actual Native artists who are trying to get their work out there and clarify what is and isn’t genuine tribal artwork. “Hey! We’re over here! Someone pay attention?” often gets drowned out by “NEW NAVAJO NATIONS SHIRT ON SALE 50% OFF AT URBAN OUTFITTERS!!!!!” If we’re going to have any hope of turning these harmful trends around, we need to be paying better attention than we have been.

Now, for some more specific points:

–Why is it bad to associate feathers and antlers and furs with Native American art? Don’t they use these things in their work, too?

Some of them do, some of them don’t. The sort of indigenous artwork you’ll find in Guatemala is very different from what you’ll see in South Dakota, which is all different from what you’d find in British Columbia, and then on into Alaska. And while many modern Native artists do incorporate these things in their work, not all stick to traditional art forms and patterns; there’s just as much innovation of new designs among Native artists as anyone else. So just as there’s no such thing as a monolithic “Native American culture” or “Native American spirituality”, so there isn’t one single style of “Native American art”.

And as a side note, if you think about it, “Native American” as a general title is a remnant of what’s happened to a diversity of cultures over the past five centuries. Most non-Natives wouldn’t take the time to identify someone as Cherokee, or Salish, or Diné. And so to those non-Native people, “Native American” is as specific as they feel they need to get, effectively erasing cultural diversity even further. “Native American” as a concept didn’t exist 521 years ago.

Anyway, back to art—yes, some indigenous artists use animal parts in their work, but some don’t. And of those that do, the exact materials they use, and how they incorporate them, varies not just from tribe to tribe, but from artist to artist. Some tribes use almost nothing in the way of animal parts in their work, or none at all; others’ art looks very different from the buckskin shirts and feathers found in some Plains tribe artisanry. For example, weaving plays a significant part in a number of tribes’ art and culture, from Guatemalan sheepherding cultures, to the Chilkat weaving of Northwestern tribes. Woodcarving is also important in the Northwest and elsewhere, and far north the Inuit are known for intricate carving of bone and ivory.

Also, assuming that ANY art with animal parts is Native or stealing from Natives is itself a form of stereotyping. This essay was prompted in part by a situation where a neopagan artist was using very personalized designs in her art with animal parts, designs that anyone even barely familiar with actual Native art would know weren’t indigenous. Someone called her out as an appropriator simply because she had a piece with an antler and some feathers. That critic was furthering stereotypes herself, by automatically equating dead animal parts with Native art, as if that’s all that indigenous people ever use. I think I’ve made the point that “Native American art” is much more than antlers and feathers, and to continue the idea that antlers and feathers is all it is is just more limiting and stereotypical.

–“So why can’t I have my hipster headdress? It’s just ‘Native American INSPIRED’”.

It’s also racist. I’ve been sorely tempted on more than one occasion to ask someone in a hipster headdress “So, do you wear blackface on Tuesdays?” Think about that for a moment. American culture (other than a few pockets of pure ignorance) has rejected the stereotyping of black people by blackface performers. We see what’s wrong with it, and so we don’t do it anymore.

But in the same way that blackface was a farcical, marginalizing stereotype of African Americans, so hipster headdresses and similar “Native-inspired” art can do the same to Indians, yet fewer people are speaking out about it. Really, how does wearing chicken feathers on your head and acrylic paint on your face honor people whose homes were forcibly taken from them, whose numbers were drastically reduced to just a fraction of what they were by deliberate mass murder, and who today still often suffer the consequences of physical and cultural genocide?

Keep it classy. Source: with hat tip to Native Appropriations

Unfortunately, indigenous people are still all too often made invisible in civil rights efforts. So most people don’t see what the issue is with chicken feather headdresses and “Pocahotties” at cowboy-and-Indian-themed frat parties because they haven’t encountered any opposition to it. The current hipster headdress trend doesn’t help this invisibility one bit; it simply reinforces the idea that “playing Indian” is somehow okay. (By the by, this is a MUCH more detailed and eloquent explanation of what’s wrong with hipster headdresses.)

–But so and so is Native American and they said my artwork was cool!

Well, yes. Native Americans aren’t one big group in full agreement on everything. Some are going to think that there’s nothing wrong with the made in China dreamcatchers and may just think the hipsters in headdresses are silly, nothing more. Others are more pissed off about the effects they see these things having on their people and other tribes.

It’s because some of them are upset that I feel it’s worth paying attention to. If Person A isn’t upset about something but Person B is, it doesn’t mean that I should just assume Person B is full of shit because it suits my personal interests to do so, especially in a situation where there has been definite damage done to the ancestors and cultures of both Persons A and B by people not listening to them. And, on top of it, as a person who is NOT a part of an indigenous culture, I have even less authority to decide that that complaint is worthless. Finally, given the history of white people NOT listening to Natives’ complaints, to include today, do I really want to continue in that tradition of not-listening?

–So what can I do to help?

First and foremost: educate the fuck out of yourself. Check out the Native Appropriations blog at and read the archives, as well as checking out the blogroll. For a historical perspective, read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. If it seems like each chapter is just telling the same story over and over again but with different people in each, then that should tell you something about the consistency of how badly various tribes were treated. If you have a Netflix account, both Reel Injun and Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action are on instant queue. These are just a few tiny starting points, but even they can be good eye-openers.

Study up on actual Native artwork, too. Some art and history museums have collections (however ill-gotten) of artwork and artifacts of various tribes. Read up on various tribes’ artworks, both historical and contemporary. Head over to sites like and If you want to buy genuine Native American artwork, ask the artist about their tribal connections, and make sure you’re buying from the right people (powwows are a good starting place). Oh, and make yourself familiar with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

Second, take a good long look at your own artwork. Have you been trying to make Native-style artwork? Are you still developing your own style, and are there ways you can make it more your own rather than borrowing from others? I’ve been developing my own work for over a decade, and I still periodically look over what I’m doing to make sure that I’m not encroaching on someone’s traditional designs; it’s part of why I no longer use loomed and applique beadwork in my art, and why I no longer make dreamcatchers, as a couple of examples.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2011.

Presentation is important, too. I have a big disclaimer on my artwork page on my website and in the main description of my Etsy store that specifically says I’m not Native and I’ve never claimed to be. I’m even wary of using certain key words in my Etsy listings; I’m okay with using the fairly generic “pagan” and “shaman” as they’re a part of my background as a neopagan since the 1990s. (However, I’m also aware of how neopagan culture has itself appropriated from indigenous cultures, as well as the troubled recent history of the word “shaman”.) I’m less okay with keywords like “medicine”, even though I know that people looking for generic little leather bags will use that term, which has been drawn further and further away from its origins much in the same way as “shaman” and “totem”. But I refuse to use “Native American” on my listings (with one exception) even though it would probably get me more hits from people who don’t know the difference between a Native American artist and someone who makes stuff out of deerskin.

Third: find your own balance. I’ve explained above how I have my boundaries currently set, and those may change over time. Even writing out this article has given me reason to test those boundaries and how I feel about them. You may not be as concerned as I am, and be okay with making dreamcatchers as a non-Native person, or not see an issue with using the term “Native-inspired”. Or, for that matter, you might be even stricter and see my calling myself a “shaman” or using the term “headdress” for the wearable animal hides I make as appropriative actions in and of themselves. I can’t decide for you where your boundaries are, though I will respect you more for at least giving them thought.

And that’s really where I want to leave this for now–something for people to chew on, and think about, and discuss further. Feel free to link to this, if you like; it’s a public post.

35 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation 101 for Dead Critter Artists

  1. But see, you are a very rare beast indeed for actually giving a ton of thought and internal debate about your choices and actions. Most people don’t go that deep into their motivations. The average hipster or pagan will have two thoughts in general, “I want to wear fur” and “I don’t want to be connected to the Western commodification and exploitation of animals which is socially unacceptable in my subculture”. That is what has given rise to some fur artists providing (often untrue) loopholes*** of pelts from roadkill, zoo animals who died of old age, vintage pelts, and pelts from sustenance hunters (believing that sustenance hunter means tribal and respectful, when it doesn’t always *glances at Sarah Palin*).

    ***(which is not to say that these options are always false, nor is the choice to use the options always a shallow attempt to cover cognitive conflict. Many do carefully think about the choices before them.)

    I strongly suspect that today’s psuedo-Indian fur products have a little less to do with “wanting to be Indian” than it was in the days of the hippies. I think it is more beinging used as another loophole. The thought being “well, Indians were respectful of animals and used fur, so if I do it just like them I don’t have to worry about my motivations and the impact of my actions”. I don’t think, compared to hippies, todays’ hipsters and pagans want to steal the *identity* of Native Americans so much as find a guiltless context for a spiritual desire (or, sometimes, a very material desire disquised as spiritual).

    I hope this made sense, was not offensive, and isn’t seen as a condimnation of the totality of fur crafters and purchacers. I know of many that I deeply respect, nor do I require people to make all the exact choices that I would make. I’m just cynical of people in general and often worried the trend is heading in an unhealthy direction. Heck, for over a year I’ve been dealing with a vast amount of internal debate on wishing to purchase a dance costume but am suspicious of *myself* where I worry I may be masking a material desire with what feels like a spiritual connection to the idea.

    I’m certainly grateful that there are people like you that discuss the topic in depth rather than just “going with it”.

  2. Turquoise is another thing that is stereotypically linked to Native peoples. People tend to assume that if a piece of jewelry contains turquoise, it must be Native American (NA). That’s obviously not true, and there is NA jewelry that DOESN’T contain turquoise.

    Having said that, I have always loved turquoise myself, and since the Hopi peoples (which is the tribe that my small fraction of Native blood comes from) did use turquoise in their jewelry, I wear a turquoise ring as a nod to my ancestors.

    Now, having said that, I did make sure when I bought this thing that a NA did in fact make it. If I’m going to wear something with that kind of meaning attached, I wanted it to be made by a Native artist. Unfortunately the artist who made my ring was not Hopi, but of another, more local tribe (Hopi were SW tribe, I’m in Indiana) that I forget the name to. I also quite like the fact that the artist inscribed his initials on the bad of my ring.

    (Note: I have never had actual contact with anyone from the Hopi tribe, I have simply read a book on them and googled some information. The learning process is, however, ongoing~)

  3. Cultural appropriation is a sticky topic in general, and I’m genuinely torn about the relevant arguments and their connected subjects.
    I agree with you completely about the hipster BS– I was downright baffled when I went to the mall some months ago and saw Native American-inspired (Navajo, mostly) prints on everything from blouses to panties to leggings. I didn’t even know that this was a fad.
    The angle I come at this topic from is spirituality, as that is where I have most of my educational and practical experience. I can’t really talk much about any art or fashion scene, though there is quite a bit of overlap from art/fashion into the pagan spirituality sphere with the way people outwardly express themselves.
    Last year I went to a Lakota-Sioux sweat lodge hosted by a lovely group of extremely devoted practitioners or the Lakota religion– and not one of them had a drop of NA blood. Several of them had been up to the Reservations, and told me about how the people who trained them were descendants of the medicine man who served Chief Sitting Bull. A few of them were all but formally adopted into the tribe, and went up almost annually for Sun Dances and the extremely occasional Vision Quest. Some participants of the Inipi were more casual, using sweats as a tool like one would incorporate acupuncture into a health practice. I also know several pagans, mostly Druids, who easily incorporate the plants and animals of the Americas into their shamanistic-styled practice, in addition to Native practices such as medicine wheels and sweats (though sweats are by no means exclusive to the Americas either; they have just seen a resurgence in popularity through this type of appropriation).
    I think one major difficulty of teasing out the threads of this subject lies in separating concept/symbolism/practice from culture from ethnicity/”race”. It is doubly tricky here because we have a group of people who are at an extreme civil rights and financial disadvantage, which “our” cultural heritage caused. Cultural appropriation of Nordic art and cosmology in everything from comics to tattoos to genuine expressions of spirituality isn’t looked on in nearly the same light as appropriation of Native American concepts– namely because the Nordic peoples are doing just fine. I don’t have to put a disclaimer on a set of runes I make stating my lack of Norse blood.

    Part of your post made me a little sad– “I still periodically look over what I’m doing to make sure that I’m not encroaching on someone’s traditional designs; it’s part of why I no longer use loomed and applique beadwork in my art, and why I no longer make dreamcatchers, as a couple of examples.” Art borrows, by its own nature– inspiration cannot exist in a vacuum. I take inspiration from other artists, experiment with drawing in different styles, design apparel and jewelry with all sorts of different flavors. I cook interesting, new things, by trying other cultures’ recipes. The sanitization you’re suggesting would require artists to stay in their own cultural boxes, and I don’t think creativity of any sort can do that.

    I don’t have a concrete argument to say for or against your post– it is extremely well thought-out and expressed, and I agree with a good deal of it. I do, however, think that there is more wiggle room than you do.

    Sorry that got long! But I hope a hearty discussion comes of it 🙂

    • “Part of your post made me a little sad– “I still periodically look over what I’m doing to make sure that I’m not encroaching on someone’s traditional designs; it’s part of why I no longer use loomed and applique beadwork in my art, and why I no longer make dreamcatchers, as a couple of examples.” Art borrows, by its own nature– inspiration cannot exist in a vacuum.”

      I seem to have missed this part, but I think I share Kayla’s response in finding it sad. Beadwork is very cross-cultural. The black, red, and green beaded work I recently sent you was originally given to me by a woman of Eastern European heritage (Hungarian and Slovakian) who said it was a traditional form of artwork there.

      I personally see beadwork as being in the same category as leather work and using feathers and fur in general as being something universal so long as you don’t copy very specific cultural motifs. IMO, if beadwork speaks to you, perahps you should take it up again.

    • I do tend to agree with you regarding the art portion of it. If you’re good at something, or want to branch into something, then I say do it, by all means! You can find a balance between those forms of art and your own. As an example Van Gogh is a HUGE inspiration to me and where you can def. see his influence in my work, of course it’s also plainly mine. I’m sure with beadwork (to stick to Lupas example), a way could be found around it.

      I knew the feathers were a trend right now-go to target to the jewellery section and it’s RIGHT THERE-but I never once mistook it as native. Are there other elements of it that people are using right now that’s in? If so, I had no idea. Now THAT broaches on appropriation to me, of X is saying their stuff is NA when it’s really not and no proceeds go to the tribes at all.

      As a painter, and not a craftsperson, I am split down the middle of this. While I do see where you’re coming from, as it’s been mentioned, if we don’t get creative enough to make our own way, or if we stuck ourselves in a box and never branched out, no one would ever grow and nothing would ever change. I can also understand that a lot of white middle class Americans (et al) feel genuinely out of touch with ‘rea’l culture and are looking for something they feel has more substance outside of Paris Hiltons latest jail bent. Even though it’s not right to steal from other cultures, I can see why it happens. The thing is, if we don’t address the root problem, the ones that spawn off it will never go away. What a lot of people are told to believe in clearly is not fulfilling, and people feel they’ve lost something. How do you even begin to address that?

  4. First of all, congrats on a well written explanation of cultural appropriation and its effects on the culture being taken from.

    Personally, as an Anthropologist, an artist and shaman as well, my experience has led me to a few conclusions about cultural appropriation and how it influences my life. In our current world, we have a number of cultures. In America, it seems that a great deal of cultural appropriation happens for two reasons, Profit/advertisement and lost generations syndrome as i like to call it. the first is pretty straight forward, kind of pointed out in the new age shops and some holistic medicine, geographical areas, and more directly pointed out by that South Park episode that had Cheech and Chong selling “Cherokee hair tampons” and dream catchers and the like.

    The lost generations idea, is a more anthropological theory, which points out that a member of a culture may find it hard if not near impossible to recognize the culture they are a part of, unless there is a contrast of another culture to interact with. In this, cultural appropriation is either due to the feeling of not having a culture of one’s own, or that there are problems with the culture you are a member of, and by appropriating aspects of another culture, one can attempt to correct the problem. Why do I call it the lost generations? because many young people, and those who were born before me, often feel that we do not have a culture to call our own and go out in search of a culture. This can be shown in certain fads and sub cultures that have emerged across America in the last three decades.

    I’m not saying that cultural appropriation is a good thing, in fact it is often damaging to one or of both cultures in the short term, though this is more a part of cultural interactions, which leads to the evolution of cultures as a whole. To point out a moment of this in American history, many tribes during the colonial times, it was common for them to adopt European clothing, housing and even religious ideas, just as it was common for Colonists to adopt farming, fishing and housing techniques from the native people. In the end of that however, we do know that the christian missionaries as well as the English colonists did end up trying to commit genocide, they did stand back and call many Natives as impure due to the natives adopting European culture, when they were simply culturally changing as European interactions continued.

    Culture is always changing.

    Cultural appropriation has its downfalls, and there are many of them to count, but sometimes it can also lead to understanding. It may take a long time for the understanding to spread, but eventually it does.

    I am not for the mass production of cultural items, but in the same light telling a non native person that they should not wear a leather loin cloth with bead work, or perhaps even a feathered head dress (though personally i know what the head dress means and do not personally agree with someone wearing one who has not earned it) is like going to a reservation and telling a Native that they cannot wear Cowboy boots because they are not cowboys or wear baseball caps because baseball is a big part of European culture and not part of theirs.

    So in the end, what I’m trying to say, is that cultural appropriation is a part of cultural interaction and evolution. Maybe it isn’t “right” in the short term and a lot more time needs to be taken in looking into the cultural significance of what is being appropriated before it is (even though i know that is unlikely to happen) but it is going to happen.

    Sorry for the long winded post, and in the end I feel that the appropriation and marketing of specifically religious or deeply culturally identifying parts of culture is wrong on the deepest levels and may cause damage not only to the culture, but to the very soul of the peoples involved on both sides of the appropriation.

    • I think there is a huge difference in a Native person wearing cowboy boots to the kind of appropriation Lupa is talking about here. Adapting from another culture – which, as you say rightly here, is *inherently* neutral – can have a variety of contexts.

      The thing with using parts of Native art or culture is that these are oppressed peoples – in the past, AND very much now. It is different. It has so much more gravity than someone just using something some other country far away uses. Using Native motifs comes with the context of genocide and continued historical oppression.

      Also, I think most would not have much sympathy for this ‘lost generation’ who feel they have little culture. That doesn’t justify further oppressing a group with less privilege just to feel more fulfilled and meaningful, because cultural appropriation *is* oppression, whether or not you think it’s inevitable or just part of natural, open cultural evolution.

  5. Gosh I must be living under a rock. I grew up with hunters, and we used all of the parts of the animals for various stuff. Deerhide slippers anyone? No one ever thought in terms of Native American, just not wasting stuff. I never associated animal parts with Native Americans.

    I did go through something similar when I was vending my pocket animal buddies (made from beads). In the beginning, I chose the name “Animal Teachers” since animals do teach people. I felt that ‘totem’, ‘familiar’, and ‘power’ animals were reserved terms. Since I am not a shaman nor attempt to be, I wanted something more generic but understandable. I wanted to place a boundary between what I was doing which was connecting people and animals and shamanism and Native American ideas which I was not doing. Basically I was trying have people understand what the local squirrels were trying to tell them, not have them find some exotic animal to be their “power” buddy.

    So setting boundaries is necessary. I think that sometimes we overthink and get all twisted up though. My animal buddies were simply little beadworks for folks to put in their pockets. What I ran into were people who pretended to be Native (White folks who believe that they are really Native beyond Native). They accused me of ripping off stuff and all of that. I was like ‘huh?’, and just shrugged it off. I am still trying to figure out how a manatee ceramic bead or a duck glass bead is Native American.

    As long as we know where the boundaries are, we are o.k. However, the folks reading your posting aren’t the ones who I guess you are trying to reach. We get it.

    But your post reminds me of the ones that Raven Kaldera plaster on each and every page of his Northern Tradition pages, and still some people think that Kaldera is promoting deviant Asatru — which of course by careful reading of his disclaimer, proves otherwise.

  6. Coyote Kane: there’s no need to apologize for a “long-winded” post of this sort, you made some very cogent and thought-provoking points. Thank you.

    Lupa: thanks for posting this great article, but I appreciate you more for your dedication to being a person, as Paleo pointed out, that “actually gives a ton of thought and internal debate about your choices and actions.” To me, that’s the main problem with humanity in general. They want the easy options, and they don’t want to have to think or do the work being a truly moral or honorable person requires.

    As for myself, I have tried to skirt the worst of appropriation, though it often is a tough choice to decide. As someone who is the exact example Lupa mentioned (ie. a white person with 1/16 Cherokee blood, but no real tribal background), I do my best to give all the Native tribes the respect they deserve. This includes avoiding any appropriation. I have one dream-catcher- it was given to me as a birthday gift by a Native. However, it was not handmade by a Native, but rather manufactured, though very high quality. Should I hide it away and not use it simply because of its questionable origin, at the cost of offending the giver? Or should I hang it proudly above my bed, after heavily smudging it with sage in ritual circle? This is the fine line I have to walk. (I think you can guess which choice I made here.)

    For me, appropriation is defined by intention. If you make your own Native items naturally, for your own use, or for those of your friends, without expecting financial compensation, that’s generally okay. It falls under the category of “inspired by” or better, “expressing respect for.” It’s hard to believe that wearing items like a deerskin tunic could be considered “playing Indian.” But as Kane said, I believe that specific items such as the feathered warbonnets of the Plains tribes, which are badges of honor which must be EARNED by the members of the tribe, go well beyond that fine line.

  7. yup, yup to all of it.

    I do use terms like “pagan”, “shaman”, and “totem”, but those are not strictly native terms- african, old european, and asian tribes used similar terminology to describe things. Pagan connotes a connection to nature, shaman, someone who attempts that through trance, (there are australian shamans as well, celts, etc) and “totem” has come to mean the representation of an animal spirit-

    however I dislike even seeing “native inspired” on things.

    In my own work I try to go back to before any of that, I am more interested in animism in general, the notion, which goes back well before the tribes scattered through the continents, that everything is alive. I am aiming for more primitive feelings, more neanderthal roots- and so most native imagery and motif is actually too modern for my taste.

    I used some buffalo teeth in a piece recently, and one of my friends (who is native northwest tribe) now owns it. She said that while it looks nothing like the art of her culture it has a feeling to it which reminds her of her family’s history and culture- I find that much more flattering than any imitation I could have made.

    Native artists need more recognition. If this trend is to continue, I hope it brings fortune to the people who deserve it, and who can properly represent it.

  8. “…is like going to a reservation and telling a Native that they cannot wear Cowboy boots because they are not cowboys or wear baseball caps because baseball is a big part of European culture and not part of theirs.

    So in the end, what I’m trying to say, is that cultural appropriation is a part of cultural interaction and evolution.”

    With respect Coyote Kane, I completely disagree – these are not at all the same things. Logically it seems like they would be, but I think the core of this matter is being left out, which makes it not at all an equally two-way equation. Namely, colonialism: the fact that one of the two cultures is dominating and genociding the other, not just historically but RIGHT NOW AS WE SPEAK. I can think of a dozen situations at this moment of white corporate/government interests trying to destroy indigenous land – and that is only one facet of their ongoing struggle for survival. As long as colonialism remains the underlying dynamic between white culture and indigenous cultures (ongoing), the equation of cultural appropriation will never go both ways equally.

    This is a great article, Lupa! It’s interesting that you mention being “part-native” doesn’t give someone the right to culturally appropriate. That brings to mind something an indigenous writer wrote, that I read on the blog “unsettling america” ( in their view, there is no such thing as being part Indian. Either someone is (they self identify as Indian, no “partly” about it), or they aren’t. In other words, if someone self-identifies as part Indian, then they aren’t.

    I don’t think that precludes a connection to one’s ancestral lineage, if part of it is indigenous. Not only do our blood ancestors return to guide us as helping spirits, regardless of the culture we currently identify with, but I also believe that we are all connected, and if we go back far enough we are all descended from the same ancestors (so we are connected to ancestors not of our own bloodline, as well). But I think that native perspective on what it means to truly “be” Indian as we live today is quite interesting.

    • Jessica, I would argue that colonialism and cultural appropriation are separate. While we see them often together, it is actually more common to see them separately. While, this particular situation that was brought up of Native Americans and foreign immigrants does hold a severe range of imbalance between the cultures, on the greater scale, cultural appropriation has had some massive cultural changes in equal cultures. Look at Japan, which was partially forced upon, but also continues to willingly adopt parts of other cultures, such as America and England, even prior to their defeat in WWII.

      I see that you are focusing on indigenous peoples, but I also see a rash of native people selling their culture to foreigners. Colonialism is far more about destroying a culture and forcing the new culture upon those colonized. As a northern tradition follower, I can look back at how my ancestors were colonized by Christians, and I can tell you the damage that was done by that colonialism, however the cultural appropriation that occurred was likely not for “fun” or anything constructive, but more likely to make things easier to control.

      For this day and age, the incidence pointed out by Lupa, is more likely about ignorance and that hipster ideal of “irony” than anything else, yes its about profit, but it is just another gimmic for our under taught and hardly raised youth. I may not agree with it, but i know that such things will come and go, and next month there will be something else to complain about.

      When it comes down to faiths and practices, there does need to be more caution and time taken to think things out, but at the same time, this specific type of sharing and appropriation has always happened, and freely. our Hunter Gatherer ancestors shared such things readily and widely, i mean just look at the spread of Celtic art styles that cover almost all of Europe.

      • I agree with your comment. Information wants to be free, and sacred knowledge is no exception. People have been borrowing from each other for millenia; it happens whenever different peoples come into contact with each other. Sometimes this occurs via trade, sometimes via the brutality of war and genocide. Trying to stop it is a futile effort.

  9. This article just speaks my mind. Points you made are exactly what I think. Cultural appropriation is dangerous element in our society. It tends to facilitate things. It tends to idealize something, that does not even know.
    The most important question is how to put an end to this? You can do it basically by two means – prohibition or education. And because I´m not a big fan of prohibition, I think that education should be the way. The best way is to get to know the REAL art and culture (for example in Canada, we have Aboriginal and Inuit art galleries, where I take my children). Another way is to read and study their history. History, which our ancestors destroyed by the so called civilization and Christianity.

  10. Came to this via Etsy. I largely agree, especially the equation you make between the pocahotties and blackface. I have some problems though with the way in which the concept of cultural appropriation can be – and has been – used as a stick to beat the normal process of artistic development. I’ve just posted something on my own blog which is likely to be the first of several on the topic.

  11. I came across your blog? from an Etsy link……As an Anishinaabe woman who used to love spending hours and hours on Etsy, browsing and making wish lists, I can tell you that over the past year, i have almost stopped visiting altogether due the amount of cultural appropriation that goes on. I am not talking about leather work, fringed purses, “medicine” bags or pony bead key chains…..or even Dreamcatchers. I don’t understand the non-Native’s fascination with them. Were they to actually know what they are……a child’s crib mobile/”nitelite”….I doubt people would be so quick to stamp them all over shirts, or hang them from their rear-view mirrors or get them as tattoos. Truthfully, we tend to get a good laugh when we see the proverbial dreamcatcher tattoo with the lone feather dangling from it.

    But the headdresses……….that is what makes my blood boil, and my Nation wasn’t ever all that big on wearing them. The thing most nons don’t get about us, is that we aren’t out seeking converts. We don’t try to recruit people to our ways…we don’t write books about our spirituality or hand out flyers inviting people to come to our ceremonies. We closely guard these things, as they were given to us and only us. The feathers in a headdress have meaning…must be earned. Its insulting to see people treat them with such nonchalance…..or worse yet, to stick them on the heads of scantily clad, overly made-up women.

    The word ‘totem’ is another that really bothers me. Totem is an English phonetic version of a word from my language…..’doodem’… means clan. In Cree, the word ototema means ‘my relations’….There is a similar word in several Algonkin languages. Somehow, someone decided that our totems are representative of animal spirit guides? I’ve been Indian my entire life…..grew up with Tradition…..grew up with other Indians….and have come to know many other Indians from many other Nations thanks to the internet. One thing we all scratch our heads about is this animal spirit thing. My clan is an animal….but it isn’t MY animal. Just like a totem pole is the equivalent of a sign post at the end of your driveway… means these clans live here. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked what my animal spirit guide is….and when I tell them I don’t have one…don’t know any Natives that do….they get upset and demand that I am ignorant about my own culture because of a wiki article they read, or a movie they saw. I HATE what the word totem has become.

    We have fought for hundreds of years to keep what is ours…..They took our land. They took our way of life. They took our children. And now they even want to take our culture. In the words of Sherman Alexie “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
    all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.” That is how many of us feel when seeing nons wearing headdresses….

    I get that art is created from inspiration…but there has to be a line drawn somewhere. Its nice to come across non-Natives that get it. I try really hard not to co-opt things from other’s cultures that they are not freely giving. It would be nice to get the same back from more than just a handful of enlightened people here and there. Miigwech.

  12. I have read your posts and have understood perfectly the inherant and destructive nature of cultural appropriation. I agree that the commercialization of another’s cultural is no more than rampant greed and disgusting.

    I believe there is another perhaps unique and rare element that has not been discussed. I am a white man in my forties and live in Canada. I am not religious as I believe religion is simply a tool that societies use in subjugating their peoples and controlling them. I do however believe in spritual connections.

    For some unknown reason and throughout my life I have had a deep connection with the plains tribes of American Indians. I have had visions during my dreams and believe that in a past life, I too belonged to a plains tribe. I believe i was a warrior and have the need to fullfill a spiritual need to have feathers tattooed on my arm.

    Before, you destroy my post, I believe the creator has a mission or destiny for all people. I don’t think that because you were born in this life with a particular skin colour, you are or were destined to be that skin colour in every life. Cayote Kane mentioned a theory regarding the lost generations. This could be relevant to many, but I believe there are a few perhaps out there like myself that believes his spirit was an indian in a previous life. I feel I have the right to proudly wear a feather tattoo (and yes I do know what it means) out of respect and honour of the culture.

    I don’t think anyone, no matter what race or culture they belong to, can pretend to know what the creator has in store for each of us.

    This is posted out of respect for your culture and not intended to be salt on an open wound. This is simply my opinion.


      • To be honest, zero. I have many friends who are Coast Salish here in BC. I have grown up in a small town and lived next to the reserve. I understand small town racism and mentality and also understand the culture of the coastal indians. I have been invited to big house ceremonies and have a pretty good idea of their lost way of life and current realities.

        In Canada, there were residential schools set up by the government and run by the church. This was done to ‘assimilate’ the indians into white culture. It was a crime and cultural dissaster. Children were literally taken, never to see their parents again.I know many people who still suffer from this today.

        It is the plains indians however that I have always had an afiliation with, but I do not know why. I reccently went to Alberta and Saskatchewan and the pull was incredible. It was like a small piece of a bigger picture falling into place. Something about the wide open grasslands brought again, this pull for me to go there, to live, to find out.

        Believe me, I’m not some new age, hippie, left wing flako, this is pretty real for me.

      • That’s where the problem is, then. How can you know whether the connection is anything other than your own bias if you’ve had absolutely no contact with the people themselves? And that’s why people get upset over the “I was an Indian in a past life”, because you’re going entirely on your own conjecture, and not checking it against the realities of the people themselves. Even reading history books doesn’t count, because they were almost all written by non-indigenous people.

        So you are approriating, and “I was Native in another life” isn’t a solid defense. Having dreams and feelings is no substitute for being in contact with the culture itself.

      • That isn’t reality. It is pure fantasy….
        Real isn’t a feeling. It is waking up everyday, and not being able to hang up your Indian identity in the closet, until the next time it is fun or convenient to bring it out. Being Indian isn’t a feeling…..

    • If you knew what a feather represents to many Native cultures, you wouldn’t think you have the right to wear it all. It is NOT respectful nor does it make us feel honoured.

      If you were meant to be one of us, the Creator would have made it so……but he didn’t.

      • I do know what a feather represents and I understand the honour, esteem, courage and bravery associated with receiving one. In my situation, it also signifies a spiritual connection with the creator and a journey of enlightenment and wisdom.

        I don’t intend to disrespect you, your people or your culture. There always seems to be a ‘them or us’ attitude. Sometimes I think, there’s just people. We’re all here trying to live our lives. If, the creator wanted me to be me, (no matter what my skin colour or eye colour is) then, there must be a higher purpose for wanting me to embrace your culture.

        Who’s to say, you won’t be born a white girl in England once your body dies, because I believe our spirit continues. You would then be a white person with a very strong affiliation for the native american culture. I think we are spriritual beings and I think everything happens for a reason.

      • If you claim to know what a feather represents….and you are OFF the mark with your assessment……then you would also know exactly how disrespectful it is that you have taken it upon yourself to bestow one upon yourself. No ndn is going to say ‘hey, there is a dude who must have a deep spiritual connection to all the perceived stereotypes he knows about us’. Nope. It is going to out you as a Pretendian, Generokee, Twinkie…whatever term you prefer…..because you knowingly went ahead and did something you knew we would find disrespectful.

        And no, as there is NO rebirth in my Traditional beliefs, I will NOT be born again….and certainly not as a Caucasoid Anglo Saxon.

        If you truly believe everything happens for a reason, then there must be a reason behind why Native people, and nons too, are telling you what you are doing is wrong on many levels…and it makes you a Culture Vulture. You will never have any more than just a base, new-age fantasy concept of our spiritualities. You cannot learn them from books, websites or movies. We are taught from a young age NOT to share them with those they were NOT given to…and they were NOT given to you.

        There is an ‘us and them’ mentality because we are NOT like you. We do not even think in the same way you do… made clear by how you attempt to justify your leaching…….We are Nations built upon family connection, mutual understanding, history and shared traditions. None of which you are any part of.

      • Wow, ok, hmmm, intolerance, racimsm, non native, you got your point straight through. Maybe, just maybe, you are the one preventing understanding, equallity, reverence of ones spiritual nature because you have a heart filled of hate? distrust? animosity? I don’t know, but you know what, we share this world TOGETHER. Why hate each other or quibble on our differences.

        Obviously we share different beliefs. Why not embrace our differences so that we may embrace our similarities, for we are all people.

        Ok, could sound like a lot of lame shit to you, but, I still believe our spirit doesnt die but lives many lives, of different cultures perhaps.

      • Of course. Every time a Native points out that we do NOT want to share our beliefs, we must be racist….makes perfect sense. As opposed to the real reasons we do not want to share. The co-opting, the appropriation for financial gain, those who take the little they do know and twist it until it is unrecognizable…..see your answer about feathers, animal spirit guides and not understanding land ownership for that one.
        And of course it is our fault for keeping us divided and not trusting those outside our communities. Its not like we were ever herded off our own lands, our traditions made illegal and our children beaten, molested and killed for trying to hold onto them……
        What I mean to say, is that we should just take you at face value and believe that you are sincere…right?

        You are right about one thing….we do share this earth together. That doesn’t mean you have a right to take whatever it is you want from us, for your own personal use. You only have a right to what we want to share with you.

      • I hear your pain and heartache in every word of your answer. I do understand your unwillingness to share your culture and your lack of trust of white people in general. That is well deserved. Everything you say is true, there have been atrocities on top of atrocities. I understand completely the complete disregard for your values, traditions and way of life that white people have been responsible for. No, you shouldn’t take for face value anything I say because I belong to the race that did these things to your people.

        What I am saying is that perhaps, maybe we’ve reached a tipping point in our history together. i think more and more non-native people support aboriginal initiatives and support your traditions. I think there must come a time, when trust can be established. Maybe it’s not now, maybe not for another hundred years, but there will come a time that this will come to pass.

        I do not have any rights to take anything from your culture for personal gain, but what if it is for my own spritual needs? Who is to say, these are not one in the same as yours?

      • LOL,,,

        You keep going on and on about race…yet you forget that a person can easily be Native AND white or black or etc. The part that matters is that they ARE Native. Tribal citizens, that are part of the cultural community. It has NOTHING to do with your skin colour and everything to do wit the fact that you are NOT part of the community. Not by birth or acceptance. So it was NOT the Creator’s will.

        WE do NOT want/need your support for our traditions/spirituality. We need to be left alone……to govern our own lands as we see fit, control our own moneys, not get dolled out increments from INAC/BIA, like children asking for their allowance, and no more leaching of natural resources leached/mined to support YOU.
        You will have to look elsewhere to suit your spiritual needs… won’t get it here. And a word to the wise, Hindus and Buddhists are just as annoyed with the co-opting.

  13. To therioshamanism, you know I can’t determine if the connection is my own bias or not, so could be conjecture, I give you that. However, that is why I must find out for myself.

    So, I must be appropriating eh. Well, I’m beginning to think that this is much like the Salem witch hunts. Excuse, the unjustified reference, but, I think, your opinion is made up irregardless. Just another white guy, indian wanna be… wtf? Why would I strive to want to be part of a culture that been victim of genocide, crimes beyond imagination and systematic segregation. Oh, will you say because my culture has taught me to feel ashamed and sorry for the unknown white people responsible? I say bullshit.

    I think you are just painting me with the same brush because perhaps you have,nt come accross many like me before.

    I think your opinion, perhaps premature, is relevant based on the people you have known. However, like I said before, if the creator made you and I, then there must be a higher purpose.

    • We can’t prove past lives. There’s simply no way. Any information about them is confirmation bias at best. To equate that to living knowledge of people we know have and still do exist is a false comparison.

      I’m not saying that you’re a horrible person. But what I am saying is that instead of simply sitting back and having this notion of what you think it may have been to be a part of those cultures based on your subjective interpretations, instead get involved with the communities as best as you can–not for your own purposes, but for the betterment of all.

      • Hi, my previous post dissapeared. To sum it up, yes, to this point everything has been subjective interpretations. You are correct, there is no way to prove past lives, just as there is no way to prove the creator exists. But, we all agree there is a creator…..
        I whole heartedly agree with your last comment. What we do, dictates who we are.

    • “I think you are just painting me with the same brush because perhaps you have,nt come accross many like me before.”

      Sadly, I come across people like you EVERY DAY. Every day. And it stopped being amusing over a decade ago.

  14. Question, why is it sadly? Because I am one of those people you come accross every day?

    Maybe, just maybe, some of those people are worthy of your scorn……

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