Miss Appropriation…if you’re nasty

Cultural misappropriation isn’t something I have seen discussed much in herbological circles, but it’s been making the rounds of the blogosphere in related topics such as magic and spirituality*, and I am starting to see it trickling into herbal discussions too. In fact, here is an article that touches on the subject.

"I don't always steal oppressed peoples' cultural signifiers, but when I do, I prefer Native American artifacts."

“I don’t always steal oppressed peoples’ cultural signifiers, but when I do, I prefer headdresses.”

“Modern western herbalism is one of many ways of herbal practice, and even within modern western herbalism, only certain voices are often heard.  There has been a lot of talk about the last forty years being an herbal renaissance….For many people, especially communities that have not been the recipients of wealth in capitalism, there has been no herbal revival because plants have always been relied on for medicine.

“Western Herbal medicine has developed in the context of a white supremacist, sexist, ableist culture, and every one of us is losing something when we ignore this dynamic. We must take a close look at aspects of herbal medicine and culture that have been shaped by the dynamics of oppression, including cultural appropriation, binary gender essentializing, and classism within herbalism. When we hear and understand each others’ individual experiences, when we are humble and open to learning from each other, when we connect with our own histories and understand the stories that inform our relationships with each other and with the plant world, this work we do reaches its full potential.” (more)

I’m a little hesitant to write on this subject because it can trigger heated, not to say hurt, feelings as well as moral indignation. Opening up about one’s opinions can make one the target of a real poop-storm of vicious (and in some cases I’ve seen, quite psychopathic) comments. My take on it is a little different from what I usually see, which means it will either be very unpopular or a useful contribution to the dialogue. I’m hoping the latter. I hope you’ll bear with me because it’s a big topic, and this is going to get kind of long.

As background you need to know that I am by training an anthropologist and archaeologist. Both of my parents are too. I grew up steeped in a value system that was rich in everything historic, espoused cultural relativism and approached mainstream American culture from a more-than-normally observational standpoint. Also my parents were hippies. Not the Woodstock-flower-child-moonbeams-and-rainbows kind, but the let’s-make-our-own-mead-and-goat-cheese! kind. For as long as I can remember I was attracted to “the olden days” and artifacts from the past, including but not limited to herbalism. Also relevant is that for three formative years (age 15-18) I lived and went to school in Europe because that’s where my mother happened to find a job. At the time we thought it was a permanent move so I made every attempt to adapt to the local culture and learned the language, in anticipation of spending the rest of my life there. Last but not least, I’m a white American (minus the parts of my worldview that developed between 15 and 18 anyway). My DNA is 100% of European descent***. I recognize that being white + having letters after my name (academic bona fides)  = certain privileges within the context of American and “Western” society, and that some colonized and non-hegemonic people view anthropology and archaeology as exploitative. I also belong to certain non-privileged groups, for example I’m poor and female. The very fact that I am laying out this context for you so that you have a better idea where I’m coming from is testament to the way I was schooled and the fact that for a long time, my career has been essentially thinking-about-thinking. But I don’t want to get too meta here, so let’s move on and please understand that I could critique each of my own thoughts in this post if we wanted to go there. But I don’t think we do.

So. The idea of cultural misappropriation is that members of imperialist, colonizing cultures have taken to illegitimately adopting certain signs, practices, and artifacts from the people they oppress. We might call this a form of theft. Modern liberal** people deem it really, really evil. I agree but I think that identifying true misappropriation is not nearly as easy as the level of judginess it provokes would lead you to believe.

There are really egregious examples of misappropriation. The one that leaps instantly to mind for me is white hipsters wearing pseudo-Dakota feather headdresses they bought at Urban Outfitters. I mean yes, the real headresses are spectacular and dare I say sexy, and I can totally understand why anyone would want to wear one. But it’s not a privilege that’s open to everyone, even in Lakota/Dakota/Nakota society. You can want to, but that doesn’t mean you get to. Except that in America, being white and having money (as hipsters almost all are/do) lets one feel entitled to buy at least a facsimile of the headdress no matter how blasphemous it is to L/D/N people, and you don’t have to care about how they feel because there’s nothing they can do to stop you. I used to live in a major Midwestern city that was crawling with hipsters. Most of the Native Americans in the area were very poor and their communities subject to all the indignities that can happen to poor indigenous survivors-of-genocide whose land has been stolen (speaking of misappropriation) and whose cultures and languages are hanging on for dear life. Hipster headdresses just add insult to injury. What else can we (= white Americans) take from these people for crying out loud? How many more ways are there to show them we don’t care about them or indeed even recognize them as people?


(Hipsters by definition steal cultural signifiers from everyone, including other–usually poorer–whites. They do not so much produce as collect, and consumption seems to be the highest endorsement they can give. So they probably are genuinely baffled that their headdress-wearing is offensive and not seen as the “tribute” they feel it to be.)

On the other hand I recently read an opinion piece that argued that for white women to do Middle Eastern (“belly”) dance, raqs sharqi, is cultural misappropriation because these dancers are not from the Middle East. I am inclined to disagree with that assessment because–as the author points out at great length–(1) within a Middle Eastern cultural context this form of dance has been open to all women, but also (2) “belly dance” is widespread throughout various cultures in and adjacent to the Middle East, ranging from Greece to Yemen,  so clearly no one was worried about its adoption by other cultures, and (3) because raqs sharqi dancers themselves have often been at the vanguard of their respective societies when it comes to adopting from others. I acknowledge that an “Orientalized” people adopting certain practices from their former colonizers is not equivalent to the colonizers taking cultural signifiers effectively by force, but raqs sharqi is not a fossilized, “classical” dance form. It relies heavily on extemporization, improvisation, and personal expression and has always been characterized by a high degree of cosmopolitanism and innovation. I’m not saying there are no appropriations happening within the belly dancing world, and I could certainly understand if the author felt that a would-be dancer should live in the Middle East in order to learn the dance in its native context, but I personally don’t think the mere presence of white belly dancers qualifies as misappropriation.

The broadest definition I have seen of cultural misappropriation is “the adoption of certain elements of one culture by those from a differnt culture” (source). By that definition, we are all guilty. Humans have always “appropriated” from their neighbors. In anthropology it’s called diffusion. Sometimes it happens from close up–“Hey, your pot looks awesome! Show me how you did that cord-marking decoration!”–sometimes from far away–“I saw some hunters across the pass who had these stick-thingies they used to throw spears…we should totally get some of those.” Basically, when humans see anything that works or they think is pretty (especially shiny things), we will try to take it or make it. That is what inspired imperialism in the first place. In the scale of human history there is very little delay between people first starting to accumulate “valuables” (shiny stones, bits of copper, shells from far away), archaeological evidence for warfare, and the rise of the first empires. The love of shinies is the root of all evil.

Let me reiterate that.

The whole impetus for imperialism and exploration was to take stuff from other people (including the people themselves) without having to pay for it. To mug them, basically.

Globalization is not a new thing. It’s evident even by 2500 years ago, and by the time the processes become archaeologically visible they’d been in action for a long time. The Silk Road goes back waaaaaay before the first historical references to it. Horses and the wheel accelerated the process, as did ships later on. They brought us into contact not only with our neighbors but with people from far, far away.  Compared to all other primates, humans are the only ones that move long distances, which means that we are constantly bumping up against other communities. Even if we try to ignore them completely (as the Norse colony in Greenland attempted to ignore the Inuit), that is still a form of interaction because studiously avoiding someone requires keeping tabs on them. Most human interaction involves not only the exchange of goods and ideas, but also of spouses. My mom and me moving to Europe for work was in no way a new thing in human history.

There are no impermeable boundaries around cultures, ethnic groups, or races. People don’t move around in single migratory events like big arrows swooping across a map (no matter what the Romans or the Venerable Bede say, the archaeology just doesn’t back it up); we move in chains, in constant trickles and in back-and-forths. Just as the principles of permaculture state, the most fertile zones are the interfaces. This is where innovation and inspiration happen.

This doesn’t justify attacking people and stealing their children, their stuff, or their land. I am merely pointing out that cultural mugging is something humans have done for a long, long time. One of its most insidious forms is a belief that one is entitled to interpret everyone and everything else according to one’s own value system (ethnocentrism in other words). But cultural sharing is also something humans have been doing for a long time. Cultural sharing should be the antidote to ethnocentrism yet interactive situations are the very place misappropriation is most likely to happen, because in the 21st century the interacting parties are seldom on an equal politico-economic footing. It is hard when ontologies clash–I remember having an epiphany years ago while watching a documentary about the peopling of the Americas in a class. After detailing the archaeological evidence that so far indicates humans arrived in the Americas sometime around 15,000 years ago, there was an interview with a (I think) Dakota man who said that the Creator created his people in North America and they didn’t need any scientists condescending to explain their origins to them. If people want to know the origins of the Dakota, they should ask the Dakota–and accept their answer. I realized that there would never be any way of reconciling archaeology with that worldview, and I had to agree that the Dakota (and other indigenous peoples) should have the right to not have their bones and houses and stuff dug up if they don’t want it to be. But modern Western people simply cannot accept another culture’s answer unless that answer conforms to our scientific understanding. “I accept that’s your story, but what really happened?” we seem to always be thinking. We like to think that there is an empirical, objective truth that exists outside of all cultural origin stories, and that we can discover it–we forget that this is yet another origin story!

I think about this as I’m learning about herbal healing. In the US, the dominant models of herbalism are Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and pseudo-scientific phyto-pharmacology, although Ayurveda is becoming more popular. Although I’m seeing more and more mentions of cultural misappropriation in the context of herbalism, I haven’t seen any specific examples of what this would look like. I haven’t heard any Chinese people complaining that white students of TCM are misappropriating their cultural legacy. But I have heard some Hoodoo rootworkers, who use herbs extensively, state that whites should not practice Hoodoo, and I’ve seen some white herbalists criticized for publicly sharing Native American herbal healing techniques or philosophy which was, ostensibly, supposed to remain secret. (I have no idea if that particular accusation is true.) When I took a medical anthropology course in college we were required to peer-review each other’s papers and I was frustrated by how the (predominantly pre-med) students were completely incapable of understanding other medical systems on their own terms. I remember one paper on acupuncture which never mentioned qi at all! The efficacy of acupuncture was put down to stimulation of endorphins or some such. From the western point of view, qi “doesn’t exist,” so we don’t have to take it into account.

I think we have all been colonized by a worldview that privileges reductive, materialist (in both consumer and philosophical senses), sciency-seeming (not necessarily scientific) explanations for everything. Go ahead and look up some antique Western scholarly disciplines on the Wikipedia–oh, say, astrology or alchemy or even, yes, herbal medicine and note the not-so-subtle way our ancestors’ cherished “sciences” are trashed by “guerilla skeptics.” (I have linked to a blog post that discusses this in a bit more detail because I can’t find where I originally read about it, but I have seen it myself. I have no idea what the rest of that blog is about.) I have noticed that at times, the effort to discredit an erstwhile-science is so brutal that it actually completely misrepresents the historical facts, though I think this is perhaps equally due to the editors’ poor and unsubtle vocabularies. (Of course, this is why professors do not allow students to write papers based on Wikipedia research.) I don’t advocate throwing the science baby out with the bathwater. And I’m not saying we should all go back to taking mercury and being bled whenever we’re sick. What we do need to do is recognize our own programming so that we can evaluate how well it fits with our subjective experience of the world. I feel that to some extent the increasing focus on cultural misappropriation derives from an attempt to establish ownership of certain intangibles–“traditions.” I think I can understand this from a political standpoint. When you are dealing with cultures (the “West”) that only recognize value in monetary and proprietary terms, you need to speak that language just in order to get your message across. If non-Western cultures are angrily proclaiming ownership, the West forced them into that position. Indeed I can’t help but feel like one of the worst legacies of western domination has been the grasping, boundary-drawing, “mine!” mindset and its application to absolutely everything. So while I feel it’s an understanable reaction, I’m not sure if it bodes well for the long-term, especially when every single example of diffusion is labelled “(mis)appropriation.” But in the meantime, maybe modern Western white people would better understand indigenous cultures’ contributions if we looked into our own history and saw how our own minds were, and remain, contested territory.


*Historically speaking, most of the people who would have used herbs for healing also believed them to have supernatural and/or symbolic properties. This is true even in a Christian context, for example, using rowan and red thread to keep misfortune away from one’s cattle, or the belief that St. John’s Wort was attractive to fairies. Every medicinal herb has its list of magical powers, and vice versa. Also, people with an interest in “alternative” healing modalities often also have an interest in other alternatives to the dominant practices of their society, including in spirituality/religion.

**I refer to liberalism not in the sense of American politics but the larger philisophical-historical sense.

***To the extent that anyone is, I mean we are all Africans ultimately if you subscribe to the scientific origin story–and in this case I do, but your mileage may vary. My father’s male ancestors seem to have ridden into Europe from the Eurasian steppes sometime in the Bronze Age. But from about 3000 years ago until about 350 years ago, my ancestors were all European, and mostly British/Irish. I’m as white as it gets.


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