A look into cultural theft

I see the term “cultural appropriation” getting thrown around with wild abandon, without careful thought about what cultural appropriation is and what exactly is wrong with it. I don’t want to give out examples I’ve seen, because people might wrongly believe that I am trying to say that whatever they were pointing out was not real cultural appropriation. I will not make that judgement unless I am a member of that specific culture. It’s not my place to weigh in on white people wearing dreads*.


I am saying that if you’re going to point it out, you better know what cultural appropriation really is and be able to back it up. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem. People who don’t believe in cultural appropriation will use your well meant but clueless arguments about the subject to prove the concept is ridiculous and overblown. If you’re going to name it and shame it, you better have a good solid answer for what it is when someone asks. 

It’s more than a lack of respect.

I try not to argue the issue if respect alone on this issue. I focus on the money. If someone is taking something from someone else and passing it off as their own, it’s stealing. There are laws against it. There are laws protecting the cultural Crafts and traditions of several nations. They were thought to be just as binding. When you steal images and stories from a Nation protected by these laws, you are in violation of the law. You are supposed to pay a fine.
You might argue somehow that the laws protecting these Nations are not as binding as copyright law. Still, there are cases when artists and performers had their copyright violated and it went ignored. It wasn’t merely disrespectful for white musicians to steal songs from African American musicians. It was violation of copyright law. People recognize this now, but I’m guessing there are families currently earning royalties from songs their fathers and grandfathers stole in the 1950s and earlier. 

My introduction to the laws

I first learned specifics about cultural appropriation in a class at Ball State University by Professor William Magrath. **It was a 100 level course and was an intro and overview to World Mythology. He never taught a class that specifically covered this topic, when he shared myths or stories from certain specific cultures, he treated them in a very special way. When he did this, he’d tell you why. 
It was most noticeable when he taught myths from the Diné
I believe that he only said the word ‘Navajo’ to let us know or remind us that the Diné are known as the Navajo people outside of the community. It wasn’t simply a “liberal nice guy” thing to do. Most professionals in the social sciences will refer to a community of people by the name they call themselves, instead of what outsiders call them. He spent a long time as a guest of the Diné inside their nation. 

Example: Diné mythology is legally protected material.

My professor was a storyteller who relished in telling a tale. He was full of bravado, and made a dramatic performance of everything. The first time he introduced a story from Diné folklore, he told us the pains he took to get permission to tell the story. I’m looking for a link to the exact steps he took, but I can’t find any at this time. For all I know, it’s not up for public display. 
I can’t remember exactly what he told us. My memory is fuzzy, so don’t take my word as gospel. 
  • In order to get permission, he had to buy  He didn’t buy it entirely with money. There were specific goods he had to trade, so that he understood that it wasn’t a simple monetary transaction. Each item had a cultural or religious significance. 
  • I believe that he wasn’t allowed to buy it until he lived with the Diné for a set period of time
  • During that time, he had to learn it and memorize it exactly the way it was told.
  • He had to agree not to edit or embellish it. He needed to recite it exactly as he was told.
I assumed at first this was just his way to show respect and teach us to respect the culture of others. I was wrong.

 Not just respect. It was the law. (Or at least understood as law.)

The next time he shared a story with us, he didn’t tell it himself. He had a cassette recorder. Before he played the story, he told us the steps he took to get permission to record a Diné storyteller. The steps were not as detailed, but he paid for the right of each individual story. He agreed to a specific set of rules about the appropriate use of the recording. This didn’t sound like simple respect this time. It sounded like he was contracted to tell us this in a fair use agreement. 
I was studying fair use agreements in another class, so I was quick to notice. I asked him about it. He told me that’s exactly why he he told the class how he got permission to share the stories and why he was required to share them in specific formats. He told me that the copyright the Diné people had over their stories was legally binding*** and it was always important to follow the legal requirements when sharing these materials. He assumed that the Navajo Nation could rightfully win a case against copyright infringement in a court of law.
Most professors and social scientists respected this law. I believe most of them still respect these transactions as law. Unfortunately, few other people seem to. 
In 1982, the Navajo nation fought with several of nations around the world to legally protect their oral tradition and folklore from being exploited for profit. In 1990, the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act was put into affect to protect cultural exploitation. Supposedly, violating this act can result in a one million dollar fine. 
When the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters, it wasn’t simply because the company showed no respect for their culture . The company violated the law and should have paid the fine. I haven’t dug down into what failed here, but I can’t believe that a clip art creator has more legal protection than the Navajo Nation. 
It took decades to prove that the Happy Birthday  Song was public domain and the family could no longer collect millions of dollars each time it was used. That song, which sounds nearly identical to the Good Morning**** song they wrote earlier and didn’t have the same protection. That song and the descendants of the women who who wrote it had more legal protection than the entire Navajo Nation. They both had specific laws in place to protect their rights. One group was protected and the other was not.

When arguing against Urban Outfitters, focus on the law!

You won’t change anyone’s mind, but you can be confident that it’s not just a touchy feelie “liberal whiner” or whatever you might get called. Argue about how the law was not properly carried out. If you opened up your own homebrew  clothing store and called it “Urban Outfitters” those lawyers would be all over you. Even if you made no profit, they could demand and win a ton of money. They’d win it. If the judge treated them the way the Navajo Nation was treated by the courts, they’d pitch a fit.

My lithmus test:

I’m not saying that anything that doesn’t meet my definition of cultural appropriation. I just try not to argue in public over it unless it meets these standards. I also have non-monetary standards that aren’t directly legally protected. But when I go up against the big dogs, I leave these arguments out, because they can refute me arguments more easily. I’ll have to study more before I’m confident enough to tackle those issues.
  • Are you earning money from something that strongly resembles items that are or should be protected by copyright or far use laws? 
  • If so, did you get permission? Did you pay a fee? Do they earn royalties whenever you earn money from their work?
  • Do you publically give credit to the ethnic or religious minorities or minorty groups who are protected or should be protected by laws?
  • If your name or brand has public recognition, is there a higher chance consumers will have access to your product than one produced by the original creators? Is there a chance people will buy your product instead of a similar one made by a member of that community, due to price (because you can mass produce or use cheaper methods of production) 
  • Basically, is someone out there not making money making the “real thing” because you undercut them with fakes?
  • Are you using the name of an ethnic or religious minorty entity as a brand name or a style? If so, is it because this group has a reputation for making products of high quality or spiritual significance? Are you implying that your product is guaranteed to have the same level of quality or spiritual significance?
  • Are you following all laws in place protecting these items?for instance, it’s not simply disrespectful to create and wear a war bonnet, its illegal in many States, if not on. National level.

I’ll be posting a bit on this over the next few weeks. I’d like to know what anyone thinks. Thanks for reading and thinking about this.

I Links to good stuff:

The early history  of copyright law and materials from sovereign cultural traditions.
The original arguments for and against supporting copyright of cultural traditions.

Whenever I make a star in a paragraph, look down here if you want to hear a random rant or ramble.

* I will mention that every negative thing I’ve heard about dreads being ‘unwashed’ or ‘dirty’ is because most white people do disgusting things  to maintain their dreads. Their hair is too finely textured to naturally stay that way. Dread wax looks like dried up boogers on white hair, FYI. Don’t think that crap is a better alternative to not washing your hair. I hate that black people with dreads get a bad reputation because white people are the ones not washing their hair. If your hair is the right texture, you can keep it clean without the filthy hippie lifestyle. 

** He was such a great professor that I almost changed my major to classical studies. Now that I fully know how useless an undergraduate degree in my field is mostly useless to me, I regret not changing majors.

*** That link is dry and written for lawyers to sort out. I glanced at it, but couldn’t get through it.

**** This case had been resolved and the family LOST. People are currently suing to get their royalty payments back, but I guess that this won’t go far at all.


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