Some Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Photograph © Chris Hornbecker., via pendleton-usa.com

Last Sunday I linked to a photo essay at Slate on the Pendleton trade blanket, or as it would be more commonly referred to, the Indian blanket.  If you have not read the essay, you really do need to before reading my post.

Cultural appropriation has become a hot topic lately, not that is a new topic, as I remember discussing some of these issues in collage in the mid 1970s.  I  became interested in this several months ago when my blog stats showed a lot of traffic being driven to my posts on Pendleton.  I did a bit of searching myself, and found the blog that is linked to in slide 14 of the essay.  In this post, the writer expresses her concern about the use of Pendleton Indian blanket fabrics in clothes that are being marketed toward “hipsters.”

So what is cultural appropriation?  Simply put, it is when one culture adopts or uses specific things from another culture group.  It can be music, art, food, religion, celebrations or fashion.  That does not sound so bad, but the term cultural appropriation tends to have a negative connotation, with elements of racism and imperialism implied in the term.   Also implied is the fact that the appropriator does not understand the original meaning of the item being used.

A good example is the use of “Indian” feathered headdresses by children who are playing “Indian.”  It is pretty much assured that the kid running around the yard, chasing little sis with a faux tomahawk has no idea of the significance of a feathered headdress to a person in the culture that uses feathered headdresses in religious ceremonies.  The parent who bought this play headdress did so without thinking that the real item is a sacred object.   And it’s just possible that the play headdress was made by Cherokee in their Cherokee, NC factory.  The only Cherokee who wear feathered headdresses are the “chiefs” on the street who want you to have your photo taken with them.

So we have  one simple toy, being appropriated for fun and profit, with no thought of nor respect for the true significance of the object.  It’s easy to see why people to whom the headdress is a part of their religion would be upset.

But not all examples of cultural appropriation are so easy to grasp.  Part of the reason is that humans have always looked outside their own culture for something new.   There are plenty of examples going back to ancient times.

As for fashion, I’ll start with the paisley shawl, so important to the well-dressed Victorian woman.  The paisley design originated in South and Central Asia, where followers of Zoroastrianism consider it to sum up the essence of their religion.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, woven paisley patterned fabrics were taken to Europe by the East India Company.  Before long, European factories were making the print, which was called paisley due to so much of it being made in the Scottish town of Paisley.  Demand for paisley shawls continued through Victorian times, as the huge shawls were easy to wrap around the largest of hoop-skirted dresses.

Today, paisley is seen mainly on men’s neckties.  I have a very strong idea that no man who puts on his necktie has much of a clue that the print on it might have a deeper cultural meaning to the followers of  Zoroastrianism.   Even though the use of paisley has all the earmarks of cultural appropriation, is it somehow wrong for a Western man to wear it?

There are plenty of other examples.  In the 20th century, Western fashion and fabrics designers were heavily influenced by other cultures.   In the 1910s Paul Poiret made his reputation on his “Oriental” collections.  The 1920s brought a fascination with Egyptian-inspired fashion due to the opening of King Tut’s tomb.   Before and during World War II there was a craze for Germanic folk costume.  There was Tina Leser, and her famous 1947 honeymoon of inspiration, where she tapped into every culture imaginable.  And in the 1960s and 70s, if it was “exotic,” it was fashionable.

Frankly, I’m having a very hard time picturing fashion history without these influences.  And the bottom line is, take away all the cultural influences and you aren’t left with much.  I’m tempted to say we’d look like we were wearing the Maoist era Chinese uniform of grey, but that too is a cultural appropriation.

Pendleton Indian Blankets – for many generations a part of the daily life and ceremonials of the American Indian – have been adopted for their picturesque beauty and utility by all outdoor’s folk.

“Pendletons” are servicable companions for any outdoor adventure – no hardship being too severe for the strength of their weaving or the performance of their dyes.

You will see countless “Pendletons” on the beaches this Summer – a flash of bizarre coloring – an all-protecting robe.  You’ll meet them, too, when motoring, camping, canoeing, picnicing; on the verandas and in the homes.  They’ll be accompanying the young folks to college next Fall – to make their appearance on the sleeping porches – at the big football games – for all Winter sports.

Ad in Vogue, July 1, 1926

As for Pendleton, the real appropriation took place years ago, when the blankets were first designed and marketed. As the Pendleton site says, the blankets were designed by the mill owners, using designs and colors they thought would appeal to Native consumers.  It doesn’t say that these blankets were also sold to White consumers as “Indian” blankets, but of course they were, as were similar blankets by other weavers like Beacon.

What seems to make the Pendleton blanket different from other appropriations is the fact that it has been embraced for many years by many Native communities. So I can see why some Native cultures would have these feelings of ownership.  It is an important part of their culture.

Pendleton using these “Indian” designs on clothing is really not a new development, as they have been doing this at least since the 1970s.  It’s just that now Pendleton has found a way to capitalize on the growing “heritage” trend in clothing styles.  Not Native heritage, mind you, but classic American brands heritage.  Having collaborations with Vans, Levis and Opening Ceremony is a way to get Pendleton woolens before a wider, younger, audience.  And not just the “Indian” patterns, but the plaids as well.

When you look at the economic pressures a company like Pendleton faces, just to continue manufacturing in the USA, you can see why they are taking this route. For them, it may make the difference between surviving or not.  In fact, as recently as July 2009, the company announced employee lay-offs and wage cuts.  I can hardy blame them for looking into their own history to find products and designs that appeal to the consumers of today.

I do find certain “trends” to be offensive, and others to be silly.  Why would any (non-native) adult think it is cool to wear a feathered headdress?

copyright gq.com

or a stuffed animal on their heads

via voices.girlybubble.com

Though I’m of the mind that “spirit hoods” are more Luna Lovegood of Harry Potter in origin, than any Native culture.

Via harrypotter.wikia.com

The way I see it, it would be virtually impossible to erase all the cultural influences in fashion.   My new Bass loafers, a descendant of the moccasin, is  good example of how we often do not realize the influence is even there.  But before you don the next New Agey/Native/Spititual influenced fashion, do a little research and make sure you are not sending the message that you are a cultural nincompoop.

A little personal aside:   My father’s family is Cherokee.  He was not reared in the culture, as they lived outside the Boundary in a White community.  They are listed on the Baker Role of 1924, an official listing of the members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.  My father was not born until 1927, and he was never enrolled in the tribe, but his two remaining siblings are today Cherokee elders.

I claim no special understanding of how Native people feel about this issue.  I can tell you from another aspect of my life that cultural stereotypes and appropriations are hurtful.  Being from the mountains of Southern Appalachia, I find the cultural stereotype of the “hillbilly” to be highly offensive.   Yet the word is tossed around in the US as if it were harmless, without thinking that behind the stereotype are real people, few of which are toothless, barefoot and illiterate.  Please excuse me, as I’ve got to go out and run off the next batch of moonshine!

And could someone explain to me, exactly what is a hipster?

24 Comments

Filed under Viewpoint

24 responses to “Some Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

  1. As always, Lizzie, your post provides lots of great information and food for thought. I like what you have to say here. After reading the Pendleton article last week, I started wondering how Scots of various clans feel about their tartan being worn by those of us who aren’t Scottish or aren’t in the clan, purely for fashion. (I’ll have to do some research on this.) It also got me thinking about what my style would look like if I wore only those things belonging to my heritage: American born with most of my ancestors (many years back) German. I’m thinking I’d be in doubleknit polyester dirndls, mostly.

    As much as I might enjoy wearing a certain item (plaid, for example), I’d hate to think that my wearing of it would upset people for whom it had a deeper meaning.

    Like this

    • Thanks Karen.

      You know, I really considered mentioning plaid, but the darn thing was beginning to ramble. Here in the US most of us are clueless as to the wearing of tartan. I know I’d be lucky if I could identify 2 of them correctly. I’d guess it is different in Scotland (thoughts on this, Debi?). I do know from the great abundance of authentic Scottish Tartan skirts found in thrifts that they are, or have been, marketed to tourists. I guess that is sort of like Native made jewelry that you can buy all over the Southwest. You get to be a bit “Indian” and your purchase helps out their economy.

      Like this

      • I live up in the Scottish Highlands, and there’s an awful lot of shops aimed specifically at tourists, trying to get them to buy things that are suitably Scottish, with a small card summarising the item, and a lot of these tourist-aimed items go to foreign tourists with a distant Scottish familial connection. There are many who don’t seem to grasp the difference between sharing a surname and being part of a still surviving clan. A lot of stuff is deliberately aimed to be part of a stereotype of Scotland, one where all men are red-heads with bushy beards, kilts, swords and targes and where all the music is bagpipes and all the women turn up in matching tartans serving haggis, venison and whiskey… That isn’t how everyday ordinary Scotland is, and a lot of what people believe to be Scottish is actually 18thC onwards romanticisations. Selling the Scottish stereotype is HUGE business, though, and does good for an economy that has been hit by the loss of industry over the last few decades and the changes in North Sea oil and gas and in fishing.

        Like this

  2. Fabulous post! Thank you!!

    Like this

  3. this is a thoughtful, well-written post about a timely and sensitive issue, well done. Native Appropriations is a blog I’ve read regularly for over a year now. One thing I think is maybe not explicitly stated here is that a big component of appropriation is the power dynamic between ethnic groups, both today and historically. Why I mention this is b/c I’m not of european heritage but like so many people around the globe, I wear clothing largely derived from western european or Western US sources but I wouldn’t call it appropriation so much as a direct reflection of the history of world economy. Does that make any sense?

    as for the term hipster… loaded in some ways. I think for me it is mainly based on aesthetic and musical tastes (which are important for this subculture) and general liberal views on social and political issues. I consider myself a hipster b/c of my tastes/leanings and have no problem being called one b/c it is just a label, not the be all end all of my personality. I know from my experiences that ignorant douchebags and snobs exist within every subculture. here is a thought provoking article on the subject: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html

    Like this

    • Thanks so much for the Hipster link. I do know a hipster or 2!

      And, yes, there is much more to this story that I covered, especially in the politics of it, meaning that part of the definition is that the appropriators have political/economic… power over the other group.

      Like this

  4. tom tuttle from tacoma

    excellent post.

    Like this

  5. JudyAnne

    Interesting post, and blog! Since most of my family comes from Scotland I tried to continue some research while visiting several years ago. The librarian who helped me explain that, for example, not every Davidson is related as these people obtained their surnames from the fathers first name David and unless one has remained in Scotland and the family keep records (or you come from a famous family) it is unlikely one can trace back to Scotland. That has been my experience so far. She also said the tartan are mostly a modern invention by the manufacturers to sell more cloth. There are also clans that sell memberships to Americans with the same last name, of course, they are making money and don’t care if there is a real relationship… That’s the brief version of my conversation, it was very interesting for me and explained why we were having so much trouble with our search. So, can a culture appropriate its own culture? Is there a culture that’s never appropriated something else? Personally I don’t think it should be viewed as negative to borrow from or be inspired by other cultures. Looking ridiculous does bother me, I would never dress in a pendleton (or any other) onesie, how silly.

    Like this

    • Thanks so much JudyAnne. I agree that on a much lighter level, some of these examples simply look silly.

      After reading your post it occurred to me that I have missed a resource that is nearby, the Scottish Tartans Museum. http://www.scottishtartans.org/index.html I’ve got a trip planned and will do a bit of questioning.

      Like this

      • JudyAnne

        That sounds like fun, I look forward to your report! On a side note, do you remember the Cherokee chief of the eastern band in the 80s? He was half Cherokee and half Scottish, when he’d dress up he’d wear his kilt with his headdress, he made a striking picture.

        Like this

  6. From an historical perspective, as you mentioned, apparel would barely exist without using textiles and styles borrowed from other times and places. A 1986 Playboy (12/1986, pg. 183) magazine interview with Koko the gorilla gives insight into how basic the love of new, bright things is to mammals. One thing that struck me was her love of gold jewelry, which she wanted to wear. I think we can assume that humans are also hard-wired to behave like that. So “we see, we want”. And if that means we want a new, bright fabric, that may happen to belong to another culture, our past shows that we as humans will make every attempt to get the real thing, or copy it. In all probability no amount of cultural indignation is going to change all that.

    Try to imagine a world without: chintz fabrics, blue and white tiles, checks/plaids and tweeds, bandana prints, anything kimono style, cheongsam style, smocked tops, corn, coffee, chocolate….

    BTW, I am amused that Ralph Lauren seemed to escaped this current trend of thought when he went through his very profitable use of the blanket theme during the 1980′s and 90′s. His designs don’t appear to be very different that the current styles for sale at Opening Ceremony (which I have seen in person, and they do look alot like his 1980′s styles).

    Like this

  7. I actually visited the Scottish Tartans Museum yesterday, and they agreed with JudyAnne. While tartans are quite old, and the wearing of them goes back centuries, their association with clans is much more recent. There is no “Tartan Police” and anyone can wear any tartan.

    I’ll be blogging of my visit to this fascinating little museum later today.

    Like this

  8. Pingback: Friday Favorites « BrightHaven Days

  9. Pingback: Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans | Collectors Weekly

  10. Pingback: Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans « Clock Shop « Clock Shop Online

  11. Just want you to know how much I appreciate this, and that I linked to this article on my blog: http://theepicadventurer.blogspot.com/2011/12/travel-and-social-justice.html

    Like this

  12. Pingback: Vintage Tips, Tutorials and Links Round-Up | Penny Dreadful Vintage

  13. Pingback: Pendleton and Outlet Shopping | The Vintage Traveler

  14. Pingback: Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations | The Vintage Traveler

  15. Pingback: An “Uneasy Exchange”? | livesinliminalspaces

  16. Pingback: article – Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans | Collectors Weekly | Database

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s