I became interested in researching cultural appropriation because many of the shamanic practices I have learned over the past ten years have come from various cultures other than the one I have grown up in. I wanted to examine if what I was using in my practice was ethical.

I found through my research that there are many flavors of cultural exchange, which include the following variations:

Appropriation is defined as the taking of control, or possession, of property including intellectual property, for one’s own use. Cultural appropriation, which more precisely could be called “cultural misappropriation”, is when the dominant culture borrows, uses, or takes the characteristics of or intellectual property of a minority culture. To misappropriate is to appropriate dishonestly for one’s own use. To expropriate is to take possession of something quickly and forcibly. Most importantly, when something is appropriated by the dominant culture, it is done so without reciprocity or permission.

Assimilation is reverse appropriation. The minority culture takes on the customs and values of the dominant culture. This is usually done in order to survive and most of the time is forced upon the minority culture by the dominant culture or the dominant culture’s religious authorities.

Colonialzation is cultural appropriation in its most extreme form. It is the subjugation of a minority culture and the taking of pre-populated land by a dominant culture for the purposes of exploitation and profit.

Acculturation is a transfer of culture from one group to another.

Culture-sharing is the sharing, interaction, and intermingling between cultures. It is a shared activity and is inevitable in our non-homogenous world, a world that is continuously shrinking as population increases.

Syncretism is a practice of fusing different belief systems, especially when the beliefs of the dominant culture are overlaid on the beliefs of the minority culture. Examples of syncretism is found in Celtic Druidism, Santeria, Voudou, Candomblé, and indigenous Mesoamerican and Andean culture, where the Catholic saints have been merged with the deities of the now subjugated culture.

The dominant culture is almost always Western (mostly white) and the minority cultures that are most commonly appropriated from are African, Asian, Native American and First Nations, as well as other indigenous tribes and people of color worldwide.


Cultural appropriation involves ideas, symbols, artifacts, or other aspects of culture. The seriousness of the appropriation is based on a continuum from virtually harmless to extremely harmful. Some of the examples below, such as appropriating artefacts and sacred ceremonies, are very serious ethical infractions and some seem very minor, such as eating a burrito if you are not Mexican.

Western culture is an amalgamation of many cultures. Some cultural aspects cannot even be traced to their original source. For example, the Christian religion appropriated many customs, especially for Christmas and Easter, from pagan cultures. Many straight people have adopted characteristics from gay and trans cultures. Some cultures, such as Buddhism, have freely shared their traditions of meditation and other activities.

Being an indigenous soul and a member of a tribe is in our DNA, but modern Western society has stripped these concepts away from most people. People from the Western world are starved for spirituality, hungry for meaningful ceremony, and searching for a community they can connect to. I believe this is one reason that so much is being appropriated from Native American culture, which has retained its spiritual roots throughout the long history of abuse by Western society. And so, understandably, Native Americans do not give permission to have their culture appropriated because of the long history of genocide they have endured.

Below are some examples of how culture is appropriated:

Spiritual Beliefs and Systems Example: The term “shaman” was appropriated by anthropologists from Siberian cultures and has become a mainstream term defining a specific type of healer/mystic/medicine person in non-Siberian cultures.

Spiritual Ceremony Example: White non-Native people running sweat lodges or the Boy Scouts doing Native American dancing.

Art & Archaeological Artifacts Example: Hiram Bingham illegally exporting to Yale University enumerable items from Machu Picchu.

Plants Example: Corporations that take plant medicine from indigenous wisdom to sell for profit without sharing revenue with the indigenous people.

Music Example: Rap or Hip Hop music performed by white artists, white rock n’ roll, jazz, and swing artists taking musical style from black musicians.

Performing Arts Example: White people belly dancing or twerking. White minstrels painting their faces black for entertainment purposes.

Dress and Decoration Example: White people wearing dread locks, corn rows, “gang” fashions, feathered headdresses, saris, bindi dots, turquoise squash blossom necklaces, quill earrings, or henna tattoos. Decorating with dreamcatchers or in the “Oriental” style.

Food Example: Eating ethnic food such as Thai, sushi, burritos, etc.

Speech Example: Adopting slang or accents of non-white minority groups.

Sports Mascots Example: Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and Florida State Seminoles.

Commercial Capitalism Example: Jeep Cherokee, Winnebago Campers, Urban Outfitters Aztec designs on clothing. Winnebago campers trademarked the word “Winnebago”. The Winnebago tribe is prevented from using their own name to market anything.

Media Example: Disney movies romanticizing figures of other cultures such as Pocahontas. Disney even tried to trademark the Day of the Dead until they had to withdraw the proposal due to protests.

Holidays Example: Wearing Halloween costumes that portray minority cultures such as Indians or witches. US citizens celebrating the Mexican Day of the Dead with costumes and skull painting but stripping away the intent, which is to honor dead ancestors.

Tattoos Example: White people getting tattoos of Celtic, Aztec, or Maori designs or Chinese characters.

Other Example: Doing yoga, meditating, or taking martial arts.


Just like power and energy, culture-sharing is also neutral. It is the intent driving it that can make it positive or negative.

The positive aspects of culture-sharing are:

  • It fosters cross-cultural understanding.
  • It creates a new hybrid culture, hopefully adopting the better part of multiple cultures.
  • It is a natural evolution process of humans.
  • It promotes mutual admiration of others’ cultural perspectives.
  • It is a mutual exchange that occurs willingly by participants in right relationship.
  • It is a mutual exchange that is done with reciprocity.
  • With increasing globalization, it is inevitable.
  • It promotes empathy, education, and respect for diversity, free speech, and free exchange of ideas.

The negative aspects of cultural appropriation are:

  • It strips the object or custom of its meaning, significance, or sacredness.
  • It disrespects the members of the originating culture.
  • It robs minority groups of the credit they deserve.
  • It reinforces stereotypes of minority groups.
  • The appropriated objects or customs are taken without permission.
  • Profits from the appropriated object or fashion is redirected from the minority group to the dominant group.

Maisha Z. Johnson posted the following reasons why cultural appropriation is considered unethical:

  • It trivializes violent historical oppression.
  • It lets people show love for the culture, but remain prejudiced against its people.
  • It makes things cool for white people – but too ethnic for people of color.
  • It lets privileged people profit from oppressed people’s labor.
  • It lets some people get rewarded for things the creators never got credit for.
  • It spreads mass lies about marginalized cultures.
  • It perpetuates racist stereotypes.
  • White people can freely do what people of color were actively punished for doing.
  • It prioritizes the feelings of privileged people over justice for marginalized people.

Read her full article here: https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/whats-wrong-with-cultural-appropriation-these-9-answers-reveal-its-harm-hesaid/


Researching this article has really opened my eyes. There are things I have bought and things I have done where I was completely unconscious of the possibility that I might be “stealing” something from another culture. I am glad I am now at least aware of the issues and I can consciously evaluate what I consider would be inappropriate appropriation. I believe each of us must establish our own value system. We should all take the time to develop our own set of “rules” regarding what is appropriate and what is not. It is not for me to tell you what your moral system should be. I may even be guilty of doing something you think is inappropriate.

I have, though, compiled a checklist that can be used to evaluate when cultural appropriation may be appropriate. It is always important to separate your earthly ego and search your heart, soul, and conscious for the best answer. The appropriateness of instances should be evaluated on an individual case basis since the details of each instance will be unique. Below my list, I have included suggestions from other authors.

Drake’s Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation Checklist:

  • Be conscious of everything you are doing.
  • Identify what your intention is for obtaining or using from another culture.
  • Determine the context in which you will be using something from another culture.
  • Always recognize and respect the source of what you are obtaining or using.
  • Educate yourself about other cultures. Learn what is sacred in these cultures.
  • Always seek permission and practice reciprocity for obtaining or using from any source.
  • Purchase culturally-related products from their source and not from mass-market reproduced items.
  • Explore your own ancestors’ cultures. Learn about your own cultural roots.

Jenni Avins created this list of dos and don’ts of cultural appropriation:

  • Don’t dress up as an ethnic stereotype.
  • Pay homage to artistry and ideas and acknowledge their origins.
  • Don’t adopt sacred artifacts as accessories.
  • Remember that culture is fluid.
  • Appropriation is no substitute for diversity.
  • Engage with other cultures on more than an aesthetic level.
  • Treat a cultural exchange like any other creative collaboration—give credit and consider royalties.

Read her full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/the-dos-and-donts-of-cultural-appropriation/411292/

Katie J.M. Baker’s article quotes Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, as saying that to determine if something is cultural appropriation to consider:

  • Source: Has the source community either tacitly or directly permission to use this element?
  • Significance or Sacredness: Is the element an everyday object or is it a religious artifact?
  • Similarity: How similar is the appropriated element to the original?

Read her full article here: http://jezebel.com/5959698/a-much-needed-primer-on-cultural-appropriation

The Unitarian Universalist Association adopts spiritual rituals from many different cultures. They have done diligence is determining whether they are appropriately acquiring these rituals. As a result they created a comprehensive list of questions to guide in the decision making of appropriation. Some of those questions are:

  • How much do I know about this particular tradition; how do I respect it and not misrepresent it?
  • What do I know of the history and experience of the people from whom I am borrowing?
  • Is this borrowing distorting, watering down, or misinterpreting the tradition?
  • Is the meaning changed?
  • Is this over generalizing this culture?
  • What is the motivation for cultural borrowing? What is being sought and why?
  • How do the “owners” of the tradition feel about pieces of the tradition being borrowed?
  • If artifacts and/or rituals are being sold, where does the money go?
  • Is this really spiritually healthy?
  • How can we acknowledge rather than exploit the contributions of all people?

For a full list of questions, read: http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/introduction/misappropriation/23371.shtml

In summary, if you want to culture-share, do it with respect, reciprocity, relationship, and permission. Always ask yourself this: is what I am doing cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation?

Copyright © 2017 Drake Bear Stephen. Except where acknowledged.