Tag Archives: tribal shaming

Cultural Appropriation

This week I want to explore the idea of cultural appropriation . In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions I want to address.

I intend to approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote and illustrated several books, among them ‘Draw Me a Star’. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .

The Artist

“Sing me a star …”
And the Artist sang a star.
It was a shining star.
“Color me a sun,” said the star.
And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather.
It was a red feather.
“Weave me a tree,” said the feather.
And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web.
“Build me a fence,” said the spider.
And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world.
It was a glorious world.
“Tell me a story,” said the world.
And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …”
It was a wonderful story.
“Tell me some more!”
So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories.
They were strong people.
The people said, “Teach us what love is.”
And the Artist said,
“Sing me a star …”

Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.

Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island, by Kitaro ,a Japanese artist.
Maryam, by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
Aye Lon Lon Vadjro, by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
Kozuma, by Professor Trance and the Energizers , who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
Stars Align, by Lindsey Stirling , an American violinist.
Mwari, from the album World of Rhythm.
Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu, by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
Barcelona Nights, by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence by Kitaro.

I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects that belong to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.

Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes that cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.

It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. The fact is that science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.

Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.

Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?

We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life that persists is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank goodness and all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.

What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.

Have you noticed, though? Life–human, animal, plant–goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain that goes right back to the first humans.

Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of ‘Draw Me a Star’ to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.

The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.

Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.

The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and all the other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to commit the daily crime of adding myself to the culture of humanity and passing it on.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

Resistance

I read a post on resistance lately from one of my favorite writers, Sharon Blackie, and was deeply comforted. She reminded me that we all have something to offer the world. Ever since reading it, I’ve been thinking about what resistance means to me, and the different forms it takes in my life.

Then, last week, Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor (but not elsewhere!), and Mitch McConnell made history with his justification.  “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“

A violated rule. Heaven help us. Disobedience. Failure to comply.

Resistance and persistence. What an unholy pair.

This morning I sat down to write this blog, as is my habit on Wednesday morning before I go swimming, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it. All I could think about was this quote, and how it makes me feel, and how absolutely persistent resistance is! After a few minutes the words stopped making any sense at all.

So, I went swimming. In the pool, I began the rhythm of stroke and breath, felt myself held by the water as though it loved me, and entered into the ebb and flow of my thoughts and feelings, not struggling for wisdom, focus or creativity, not trying to problem solve, just being.

“She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“

I thought about how hard I’ve tried to earn love all my life with my silence, and how it hasn’t worked, and how now, in my fifties, I feel overwhelmed with grief because I wanted my family to be proud of me. I wanted to be allowed to love them and to feel loved and supported in return. I wanted to get held and reassured. I never wanted to be the boat-rocker, the problem child, the difficult one, the dramatic one, the disappointment. I never wanted to drain any resource, need anything, be a financial burden or cause any harm. I wanted to be a joyful thing, not an embarrassment and a failure.

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“

I thought of the persistence of things. Life, women, children, longing, desire, dreams, cycles and seasons, death, black flies, weeds. The persistence of grief. The persistence of loss. The persistence of love, in spite of everything, even if never returned or expressed.

I cried in the pool, as I swam one lap after another. For all you non swimmers out there, having a good cry while wearing swim goggles makes the goggles fog up, in addition to filling with salt water. On the plus side, you can make as much noise as you like underwater, and no one will ever hear you. Also, having a wet face and red eyes at the swimming pool isn’t remarkable.

I needed to cry. I needed to swim. I paused every two laps and cleaned out my goggles.

It came to me then that this is my resistance.

This. My tearful swim and fogged-up goggles. My blog. This messy, painful, not-pulled-together, nonheroic experience I call my life is my resistance, and I persist in it. I cannot beat, starve or mutilate myself into someone else, not even to get loved. Believe me, I’ve tried. In the end, though, the half-wild thing I am still looks out of my eyes and lurks in my heart. Perhaps not attractive or worthy of love, but there. Wanting. Alive. Persistent.

Some people think that power is the ability to shut someone up, but power and force aren’t the same thing at all. The ability to throw acid on someone, to fire someone from his/her job, to rape, to behead, to kill someone’s family, to detain someone, to torture, to murder—that’s not strength. That’s not real power. Silencing others doesn’t mean we’ve won, or that anything has changed. All it means is, for the moment, we’re not forced to hear something we’re afraid of, but the words and resistance are still there. They’ll be spoken again, in music, in writing, in action, on YouTube. Someone else will pick them up and say them, and someone after that, and someone after that.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

At the end of the day, the only power we have in life is to do what we can with what we have, and the one thing we all have is ourselves. The self is a persistent thing.

So much is needed in the world. So much love, so much healing, so much courage and forgiveness. We need heroes and leaders, activists and rebels. We need organizers and people to march, hold placards, make phone calls and show up in front of the cameras with hard questions.

My gifts and abilities are not these.

But we also need people who nourish roots. We need people who whisper to trees. We need people who gather bones and seeds. We need storytellers and lovers, dancers and shamans, intuitives and creatives. We need people who can collaborate, share power and shape self-sustaining community that’s not based on capitalism. We need people who can include, connect, learn and grow. We need people who can hold another human being in their arms while they weep.

We need persistent people who know how to resist a diseased overculture and endure tribal shaming, abuse, tyranny, injustice, poverty and loss. We need people who think for themselves, who are persistently curious, who aren’t afraid to break someone else’s rules. We need passionate people who know how to feel deeply.

These are things I do.

These are things I am.

So, today, my resistance consists of tears and laps, this week’s blog, and being persistently present in my quiet, unimportant, ordinary life. My resistance is my persistent longings and desires, my refusal to give up and be silent. I don’t resist because anybody cares or notices, or because I think I can make a damn bit of difference.

I do it because that’s what I do and this is how it looks.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Yes, indeed.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted