Cultural Appropriation and Photography

“Cultural appropriation is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.  Cultural appropriation is often portrayed as harmful in contemporary cultures.

According to critics of the practice, cultural appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or cultural exchange in that this appropriation is a form of colonialism: cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture”

I’m revisiting the concept of cultural appropriate after reading Sheila Kennedy’s post about it this morning.  The article is about the controversy surrounding a high school student wearing a Chinese cheongsam as her prom dress.

From the article: “The critics of her choice insisted that, not being Chinese, she should not wear a recognizably Chinese dress, that doing so would amount to “cultural appropriation.”

“Criticisms of ‘cultural appropriation’ raise some fairly profound issues. Have our politics become so tribal that any ‘crossover’ is viewed as an attack, rather than a sign of appreciation? When is the adoption of an element of minority culture by members of the majority culture a compliment, and when is it an insult? When does such adoption advance intergroup understanding, and under what circumstances does it diminish appreciation of and respect for the ‘appropriated’ culture?”

Perhaps my own first experiences with this relates to taking photographs at the Kheprw Institute (KI). In my early days there I took photos because that is the “lens” I use to document and share what I learn. But soon after I began going to KI, someone asked Imhotep about me taking photos, to which Imhotep said I was one of the good guys. But I did soon stop taking photos there, partly because the kids were documenting the events I attended. I was glad when I was asked to teach about photography during summer camp there.

One part of this is reflecting on what your own culture is.  I have heard some Native Americans say “we are all Indigenous”.   I was surprised the first time I heard that.  I recognize the expression as an invitation to feel connected to what I thought of as Indigenous people. There are several reasons why I think it is important that people who consider themselves white in the United States embrace “we are all Indigenous.”  We can change how we act if we reject the colonizer mindset, and return to our own Indigenous ways.  And we can improve our relationships with those of other cultures.  This has been much on my mind these past several years, as I have been blessed to learn more about Native American culture in the context of protecting our water and Mother Earth. And even more important as I see more clearly that Indigenous people have the spiritual and natural tools to lead the way in addressing our environmental chaos.

The numerous public gatherings I helped organize in Indianapolis related to the Dakota Access Pipeline featured participation by a number of Native Americans. Since these were public events, I didn’t think that would be viewed as cultural appropriation.

Last year’s annual meeting of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) included a panel discussion about building bridges with Native Americans. At that presentation Donnielle Wanatee invited us to attend the Mesqwaki powwow, which my father and I did attend. I contacted the organizers of the powwow ahead of time about what would be appropriate to photograph. I was told photos of the public ceremonies were appropriate. Photos outside of that could be taken if permission was given by the subject. I was also asked to share the photos with the Mesqwaki community, and did so. The photographs were added to the powwow’s Facebook page. I appreciated the opportunity to provide photographs.

Similarly, I contacted one of the organizers of the Prairie Awakening, Prairie Awoke ceremony that I attended ahead of time, to get permission to take photos there. Permission was granted, again with a request to share the photos afterward, which I did.  There was one part of the ceremony that we were asked to not take photos of, which was the ceremonial gift of a pipe.

At a meeting earlier this year, the photos were displayed during a meeting of those who would be planning future Prairie Awakening celebrations.

My hope is always that I can use my photographs to contribute to events.

I also took photos related to another pipeline protest event in Minneapolis this February. That public event also included Native Americans and other water protectors. Being a public event, I didn’t think cultural appropriation was an issue.

This entry was posted in #NDAPL, Indigenous, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cultural Appropriation and Photography

  1. I was a sociology major. Great post

    I just started blogging agin. I hope you visit me at See you there!

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