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Chris Rock

I ran into a Chinese colleague in a break room at work and mentioned that I’d seen her engaged in a “pow wow” with a senior staffer, and she asked, “Pow wow?” I tried to explain the Native American origins of the term for a gathering or meeting, and I think she liked that, but I joked that my use of the term might represent “cultural appropriation” (CA). A second colleague who’d entered the kitchen glanced at me with a raised eyebrow. Knowing them well, I’m not sure either of them knew what I meant. As it happens, describing the pow wow as a celebration is more accurate, so my use of the term to describe a meeting was too narrow. In fact, in modern usage by Native Americans, it is a celebration of culture, but meetings take place at these events as well.

CA occurs when aspects of one culture are used in some way by others. It is criticized for trivializing the traditions or symbols of the source culture or because it robs it’s members of intellectual property (IP) rights. I can think of examples of cultural trivialization, such as the “Ugg-a-Wugg” song from the musical Peter Pan. Such complaints strike me as hyper-sensitive, but perhaps the umbrage taken by Native Americans to this song is understandable. Nevertheless, I stand more strongly behind the right of free expression. This song, which is rarely performed today out of respect for Native Americans, was part of a larger Neverland fantasy that has great appeal. And after all, the Indians were good guys in the story!

Works such as Peter Pan and Huckleberry Finn are historical and reflect the times in which they were created. As such, some argue that they should be left in their original form. And I agree, in general. However, in the case of a musical that is performed publicly again and again by various professional and amateur groups, I am sympathetic to the notion that potentially offensive elements can be excised if the changes do not do great damage to the story. If it is not in the public domain, the owners of the story’s rights have the final say.

The IP argument is flawed to the extent that IP arguments are always flawed: ideas are non-rivalrous and non-exclusive. Moreover, even IP rights recognized under U.S. law are limited to individual “property”; they do not extend to the traditions and symbols of various cultures that coexist in society.

Another area emphasized by critics of CA has to do with historical grievances against a dominant culture, often without regard to current circumstances. Apparently, such grievances place the minority culture off-limits. Under this view, cultural exchange is fundamentally bad, which is fundamentally absurd. It has the faint ring of “separate but equal” — paradoxical given the avowed desire among critics of CA for an end to racial and social division.

While European colonialists certainly exploited the native inhabitants in many lands, today’s liberal order in the West is attractive to members of different cultures around the globe.They adopt similar institutions and practices at home, and some of them bring their cultures to us. We all gain in the exchange.

Strong condemnation of CA has been all the rage on college campuses over the past few years (see several of the links here). It reflects a hyper-sensitivity about the normal mixing of cultures. Cultural exchange tends to elevate appealing aspects of all cultures into the larger society. Should we really condemn any of the following harmless activities?

  • Yoga classes at the Jewish Community Center?
  • Cinco de Mayo celebrations by non-Mexicans?
  • Caucasians celebrating the Chinese New Year or Moon Festival?
  • St. Patrick’s Day celebrations by non-Irish, non-Catholics?
  • Flower Drum Song or The King and I?
  • Caucasians playing Delta Blues?
  • African American Mardi Gras Indians?
  • Caucasians watching Bollywood movies?
  • The Grateful Dead at the Pyramids?
  • Caucasians cooking “ethnic” foods?

I grant that respect dictates avoiding use of another group’s sacred symbols. Beyond that, it is difficult to conceive of any objections to activities like those above. They are all forms of cultural cross-pollination, even if they seem to trivialize in some cases. This sometimes  involves cultural interpretation by “others” that might not be accurate, but that is always the case when cultures mix. People incorporate or adapt features of other cultures that they enjoy, which is hardly a sin.

Curious about pow wow, I found the following qualification in the Wikipedia entry for pow-wow:

…the term has also been used by non-Natives to describe any gathering of Native Americans, or to refer to any type of meeting among non-Natives (such as military personnel). However, such use may be viewed as cultural appropriation, and disrespectful to Native peoples.

Well, well, well! Pow wow is used in conversational english to lend an air of informality or lightness to certain proceedings. It may simultaneously convey a serious diplomatic purpose and an opportunity to resove differences. Sometimes, non-Natives might even use the term to sound clever, like using the French term soirée rather than “party”. Or perhaps they are amused by the image of corporate managers seated akimbo around a camp fire, passing a peace pipe. Or any pipe. Trivial? Maybe, but if that possibility outrages Native Americans, it strikes me as an over-reaction. After all, the joke is partly on “the suits”, and there isn’t much the Indians can do about it under the law.

I have always been fascinated by American Indian history and culture. I do not use the term pow-wow in disrespect. I use it because it’s colorful and I like it. The cross-pollination of language and culture is borne out of the utility of a particular word or practice. It can hardly be bad that a few shards of Native American language and culture are incorporated into broader American society.

My sister has a beautiful scarf bearing the profile of an American Indian in full head dress. She has always had an interest in the art and culture of the American southwest, which has benefitted from the heavy influence of Indians who are native to that region. So it was unsurprising to me that she would be drawn to the beauty of the scarf. It is a work of art and she does not wear it out of disrespect for American Indians.

Certain acts of CA are thought to intersect with racism, however. How about the Washington Redskins football team name? The team logo and merchandise use Native American symbols. The same goes for the Atlanta Braves and other teams. However, the term Redskin almost certainly has overtly racist origins as a description of an enemy thought to be savage, much as “Nips” was a derogative used by Allied soldiers in World War II as a term for the Japanese.  Defenders of the team claim that “Redskin” is not meant to trivialize or denigrate Native Americans, but instead to recognize their honor and ferocity in battle. The team owner and many fans insist that the tradition of the team name should continue in tribute to American Indians. Nevertheless, the name is understandably objectionable to Native Americans today as a crude description of their genealogy. My friend John Crawford tells me of a proposal to change the team logo to a red-skinned potato, but apparently the idea was rejected by the U.S. Patent Office.

In all of these matters, free speech outweighs all other considerations. While cultural appropriation is sometimes regarded with hostility, that does not give the aggrieved special rights to prevent it. The same is true of racism, however regrettable it is. Even so-called hate speech is protected under the U.S. Constitution, short of “fighting words”. Critics of cultural appropriation can seek to educate, influence, boycott and to shame those believed to have run afoul of their standards. In most cases, however, I think the best advice is to chill out.