The men and I were beginning our usual Wednesday night’s Men’s Group meeting. George made an announcement during the business session that we were being asked to put on hold our various rituals that were connected to what were deemed to be North American First Nations cultural items and we were being taken to task for cultural appropriation by some unknown person, possibly from some affiliated group in the U.S. Specifics were sparse. Much conversation followed, some of it of the nature of “We shouldn’t be doing that”, some of it more like, “But we’ve always done that”.
The specific violations that we were looking at were strictly verbal in form. For example, some of us take on a spirit name, something we picked up during our participation in a New Warrior Training Adventure weekend. It wasn’t that we took on a particularly North American indigenous name. One of us calls himself “Strong Tree”, for example. I am called “Orca”, in honour of my British Columbians roots. The offense was that we used the phrase “spirit name”. Another example. Often during conversations, when a man finishes speaking, other men respond by saying “Aho”, which simply means, “I heard you” or the like. The word “aho” is deemed to be a word from the North American indigenous cultures.
My contribution to the conversation was not so much in dispute of whether what we were doing was some form of “appropriation” but rather than everything that takes place in our Men’s Group meetings and on the New Warrior Training Adventure is done with the highest respect. We cherish our participation together and choose forms of conversation that honour that sense of appreciation. I know from the feedback I got from most of the other men that I spoke for them. We ended our conversation on cultural appropriation by putting it on the table for future discussion.
Later back at home, I realised that I knew little about the topic. I knew that it was an emotionally charged issue for many and decided to investigate further. From Wikipedia I found the following definition that seems to capture the issue:
Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures.
The rational side of my brain immediately had problems with that definition, caused in using inappropriate and appropriate in the same definition in the two different meanings of the word. Here’s one of 3 definitions on “appropriation” I found: take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. But I settled myself down as I see all forms of appropriation, taking something for one’s own use without the owner’s permission as being inappropriate. Were we in our Men’s Group doing any form of appropriation?
I couldn’t, and in the light of my research, don’t see it. Picking up and using phrases and customs from other cultures cannot possibly be any form of appropriation. Copying and stealing are not the same. As I see it, ways of expressing myself that I have copied from another culture is a form of honouring that culture. I see it as a better way of expressing myself than I have in the past. That someone would find this offensive puzzles me. If I end our Men’s Group meeting by saying, “Ciao!” to the others, clearly I am using an Italian expression. Is that appropriation? How does that differ in kind from saying “Aho” to one of the men after he has spoken?
Sadly I see so much of this as being part of what I think of as call “Woke bullying”. Cultural appropriation has become a way of attacking someone, making them wrong, putting them on the defensive for something that I would declare inherently neutral or ambivalent in nature. I know well that each of us can be offended by words and customs that others express, but is that their problem or ours? Logic tells me it is my problem when someone upsets me when there was no intention to do so. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” springs to mind from my childhood, and that’s what I was advised to say to myself as a child when someone seemed to be out to offend me.
My challenge today is to examine this in the context of my A World of Honour ethos, do no harm, everything by agreement, and be your word. We in my Men’s Group clearly have and had no intention to do harm. We also had no agreement with anyone not to use phrases or ideas from other cultures. By the standards of the world I wish to live in, no violation occurred. I can understand that someone might be offended by our use of “aho” or taking on “spirit names” I can’t. I would also state that our Men’s Group has a high degree of “cultural awareness” as in “I’m aware of this as being a tradition developed by North American indigenous people and am appreciative of their contribution.”
But we do this in the privacy of our meetings. When someone in our group is offended we will take appropriate action. Meanwhile, we stand innocent of any offence.
I will close by offering a better expression: cultural contribution. I am declaring as spokesman and member of my culture, that whoever finds something of value in it, they can consider themselves free to take it for their own, to be used and cherished as they desire, as a contribution from us with no strings attached. And thank you for considering something that we have created as being so appreciated that you want to use it as your own.
In the spirit of generosity, may we go forth and contribute freely to each other from this day forth.
That’s what I think.