Cultural Symbols: 121 Years After Wounded Knee

121 years ago yesterday the massacre at Wounded Knee took place.  December 29, 1890.  By the time it was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded, though some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. And this anniversary got me thinking, for a number of reasons that go well beyond the lack of recognitions at the national level of one of the greatest atrocities in American History. It made me recall the comment someone I knew made many years ago after watching Dances With Wolves – the person in question, understandably moved by the realization of what had happened to native populations in the US, decided that she was metaphorically Sioux.  “I’ve decided I’m Indian. Maybe not by blood, but I am by how I feel.” This blond-haired, blue-eyed person began buying dream catchers, adorning herself with an array of turquoise and listening on occasion to Gabriel Ayala – consumption was the expression of her new-found respect and she saw the repurposing of another population’s material culture as an expression of solidarity. However, her first visit to the Kickapoo reservation was, shall we say, a bit of a shock and led quickly to disillusionment. The realities of the “Noble Savage” in the modern world were a shock, as was the fact that her announcement of Indian-hood wasn’t met with the enthusiasm she expected. Understand, I don’t write this as a condemnation of her or her motives. I mention it because it reminded me that representations of culture are more than objects to be consumed by the dominant population, they have meaning, particularly if the population having its culture appropriated has been beaten, exploited and mythologized. I got to thinking about the nature of cultural appropriation, globalization and how we make money.

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It often denotes acculturation and assimilation, but it often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture as well. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. Once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, they take on meanings that are significantly divergent from those they originally held. More often, they are simply stripped of any real meaning.

George Lipsitz developed the notion of strategic anti-essentialism to address the phenomenon. It is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group. Increasingly, in a hyper-branded, postmodern world where people are in a near-perpetual state of self-reinvention, adopting material and symbolic elements of another culture is the norm. Their symbolism and significance is retooled and they become something new. Granted, this is a normal aspect of cross-cultural interaction, but there are issues of power at play here that can’t be overlooked.

I remember a colleague getting terribly upset of the number of people in Hong Kong wearing crosses back in 2005 – the use of the cross as a fashion statement had become common, even amongst non-Christians. When I pointed out that he had a yin/yang tattoo but wasn’t a Taoist, he had no difficulty justifying the appropriation of that symbol. While he continued to struggle with the idea of his religious symbol being used in a largely non-Christian context as a fashion piece, he did recognize that it was bound to happen in a changing global milieu. But the difference between the context of Western/Eastern cultural appropriation is shaped by scale and wealth. Unlike China, native populations in the US (or the world over, for that matter) aren’t seeing the equality gap change. There is no semblance of equal power. “When the majority culture [or elements of it] attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.” So what does nay of this have to do with businesses and brands? Quite a bit, actually.

Depending on the brand and the product, it is often difficult to puzzle out whether a company is attempting to make a comment about the oppression and condescending observation of the “other” by the dominant culture, or simply reflecting a stereotyped feeling of the exotic in a way that was insensitive and ultimately diminishing to the people from whom they have taken cultural expression. And that’s a problem. Not only is it morally suspect, it can lead to a backlash against the brand. What this means is that companies need to do more than have a superficial understanding of the symbols they use and the products they sell. They need to understand the people behind them, what is off limits and how the use of those symbols and objects will be interpreted both by the minority culture and the population as a whole.

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