Thursday, October 15, 2015

Unsettling Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Growing up in Ireland, Cora Anderson's grandfather, Pete Rivers learned to work with herbs.  When he came to Alabama in the nineteenth century, he sought out Cherokee healers and they exchanged information about the names and uses of plants.

I tell you this at the outset, because I want to say that there are times in history when people from Europe have met Indigenous people from North America on respectful terms and shared medicine.   But, things were different then.  Like my ancestors, Pete Rivers was an Indigenous person displaced from one continent to another.   He met his Cherokee neighbors on a certain equal footing.

My own great grandfather was probably two generations younger.  When he arrived in Lynn, MA, at the age of 21, a young Irish revolutionary with a price on his head, the Irish were not yet "white."  He, and my grandfather, faced the Ku Klux Klan who were terrorizing Irish neighborhoods in Massachusetts.  (Other ancestors of mine likely faced the same struggles when the Klan was going after Quebecois communities in Maine.)

But, three generations later, my body is read as "white" in thus culture, and I am an uninvited interloper on unceded WSANEC territory.    While the term "settler" doesn't, in my mind, fit my great grandfather, I am, against my will, a beneficiary of colonization, and of a white supremacist capitalist culture that values my life, my voice, my existence more than it values the lives and voices and existence of Indigenous people or Black people or Brown people.   And as much as I try to resist the violence of capitalism and white supremacy, I live within them.    The "privilige" given to me is not something I can renounce or give away.   So I do not enter into relationship with the people whose land I am living on with the same kind of equal footing that Pete Rivers held.   

This doesn't make true exchange impossible, but it complicates it. 

Adrienne Rich wrote that  "poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history."   The same is true of herbalism.

And in the case of relationships between the Indigenous people of this continent and the descendants of Europeans, that history is one where colonizers have again and again taken whatever they wanted and needed from Indigenous communities.    And, now that capitalist colonialism has stolen almost every material thing from the original inhabitants of this land (and is doing its damnedest to take what's left), a lot of people who materially benefit from that theft are looking to Indigenous communities to feel their spiritual needs as well.   Some are approaching respectfully, but most less so.    And so Indigenous communities are rightly and understandably outraged when outsiders claim their medicines and their ceremonies as their own, especially when they profit from them without giving back to the people they took them from.

Its true, plants belong to themselves, not to cultures.   I disagree with the claim I have heard (though it is a rare one, and I hear people denouncing it more than I hear anyone making it) that white herbalists have no right to work with Osha or Devil's Club.   We do have a right to make relationships with those plants on our own terms.   And, then, to learn what there is to know about traditional understandings of those plants that might give us better context for our own relationships with plants.   Where I draw the line is at claiming to be practicing the traditions that knowledge comes from without understanding and sharing the full cultural context they emerge from.    And at harvesting these plants in ways that disrespect and disrupt Indigenous people's ability to access the plants that helped to shape their cultures.

Its also true, that even in the presence of this history, real conversation and real exchange around plant medicine can happen between people form different communities.  But most of the time I find that those conversations happen quietly.   And the white people who engage in them don't tend to make bold, public claims about having a special knowledge of Indigenous medicine.   They happen when one plant person recognizes another, and they get curious.  

Just like Pete Rivers and the Cherokee healers he met when he came to Alabama.


Sophia said...

Thank you for sharing your valuable words and perspective on a topic, so delicate and emotional to unfurl. I am forever curious about and questioning my own privilege and that of others, and yet this is a conversation that I at once long to have and resist having for fear of offending people I mean to respect. So, thank you for sharing so transparently and compassionately here. It creates space for others to have dialogues that might not have happened otherwise. I have worked much with Redwood as a medicine for making peace with my own sense of displacement as well as forging meaningful relationships with the places I have been called Home to. I wonder what part it could play as an interpersonal ally as well when navigating the murky waters of cultural appropriation.

Louise said...

Sean-thank you for your sensitive & well-worded comments.
It is a challenging topic to explore on many levels-one which needs to be more openly discussed & no longer politely ignored if there is ever to be any real healing from the past transgressions which still cause silent & not-so-silent divides.
I agree with your comment that plants belong to themselves & not to cultures. As a descendant of Western European immigrants living in the Pacific NW, I have struggled for decades to come to terms with the fact that I was born to this beautiful land which was violently forfeited by a people who called it home for centuries before me. While I use & honor the plant medicine available here, I am careful to honor it in my own way & not through the spiritual practices of a culture of which I was not born into & whose practices & rituals I was not invited to share.

Goldberry said...

Thanks for writing about this.
I have had a challenging time with the vagueness in which activist circles determine what is and is not 'cultural appropriation' to the point that, as a white person with obvious privledge, I do not know where to step. Being involved in the herbal world, as well as the primitive craft world, and then being from the deep south, I feel a lot of mixed things about how to handle cultural appropriation, and privledge. Some things are obvious- like wearing an indian headdress or a doing a sweat lodge with native chants. But something like- learning how to tan hides, an interest of mine, some would say, is a kind of cultural appropriation. Even though this art has happened all over the world, and my connection to the deer is my own. But, because buckskin is 'associated' with native peoples, it's enough for some people who say it is cultural appropriation. I then wonder, what about appropriation of white cultures? Like wearing a kilt, and not being of Scottish descent, is that cultural appropriation? Reading a book to learn about Cherokee plant use, is that? I have been told, by others' vague interpretations, that all of those thing are not okay.
Discernment and sensitivity, of course, is important and necessary to really figure out what it IS after all.

Another point, that I am also afraid to add to these conversations in person with fiery and intimidating activists- is the idea of syncretism. This means "the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought." As a person who has a Religious Studies degree, studying the history of belief, spirituality, thought and cultural memes brings an obvious point to consider. People are influenced by other people. Our cultural symbols shift as we encounter new people. Seeing how others think and believe, inherently will have an effect on the seer. How can we not, living in a world with access to the 'exotic other' including the native peoples who inhabited the land before whites, be affected by that other? Or vice versa? There's no excuse for disrespect, of course. Syncretism happens everywhere, all over the world, all the time. Maybe there is a difference between syncretism and cultural appropriation. This too, seems blurry to me. So, as a sensitive and intelligent person, yet again, I do not know where to step.
There are a lot of thoughts and questions I have and are seeds for further conversation. Thanks again for the thoughtful and well worded post.
-Kelly Moody

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I found it in searching for resources on herbalism and cultural appropriation. There are not many resources I am finding so appreciate that you laid out your thoughts and experiences.

One thing I wanted to ask about is the statement "We do have a right to make relationships with those plants on our own terms". I'm not sure I understand what this means. To me responsible relationship is not about what "rights" the dominant group has, and framing it this way reinforces the message that people in the dominant group are entitled to things. While white people came here in all sorts of different ways and for many different reasons (my ancestors came as refugees from antisemitic violence), even those who didn't come here as a deliberate expansion of white empire still live in a culture predicated on the assumption that white people have inherent rights simply because we are already here.

I see this manifest all the time in my own life in how I attempt to enter into relationship with land, water, critters, and plants here. If I come at this as "I have the right to be in relationship with you", how does that continue legacies of colonial violence and rape culture? What would it look like to ask about whether relationship is wanted or invited, to approach relationship from a place of seeking consent -- which includes listening to "no"? Fundamentally, refraining from cultural appropriation here on WSANEC and Lekwungen lands includes, for me, repeatedly taking white people out of being the centre of the universe, not assuming that we have any rights to relationship let alone to demand that relationship be on our own terms. Relationship must be mutually consensual. What does that mean when colonization is still actively happening everyday?

Rather than talking about our "rights", I am hoping that more people who work with plants can talk about our responsibilities. A fundamental responsibility might be to make a sincere effort to reduce the harm that we and other settlers cause to Indigenous people, cultures, and territories. Framed in this way, we can perhaps re-examine what might be responsible relationship when it comes to Indigenous medicines. Our responsibilities might include supporting Indigenous people who are working to protect Indigenous medicines, stopping settler appropriation and regulation of Indigenous medicines, stopping settler destruction of lands used by Indigenous communities to grow or gather medicines, opposing settler commercialization and appropriation of Indigenous medicines.

These are things that I'm struggle with every day and I don't have any answers. I'm glad that there are people genuinely engaging with the questions and hope we can find ways to share what we are learning and wrestling with and how we are learning to come into right relationship with these lands and with each other.

Best wishes,

Joshua Goldberg