Writer’s Forum: Cultural appropriation in the art market

The Crestone Eagle • March, 2020

by SD Youngwolf, a tribally enrolled Native American artist

Colonial powers have appropriated Native cultures around the world for hundreds of years. For five hundred years the Native cultures of the Americas have been under assault. Tribal nations have been the victims of genocide, theft, brutality, rape, and murder. Additionally, objects, arts and designs have long been exploited by colonial commercial operators. Things considered sacred in Native culture  are appropriated and sold for money. Museums display sacred pieces that were stolen from the people to whom they are important objects that serve a sacred purpose in the people’s lives.  In our time, the exploitation of Native culture continues in the form of cultural theft and exploitation, and the dominant population thinks nothing of co-opting these things, including ceremonies, to copy and commercialize.  White supremacy is closely related to cultural appropriation. It is a facet of white privilege that people feel they have the right to take whatever they like from any culture. Native cultures are now taking a stand, and saying our culture is not for sale!

It should be recognized that the practice of taking anything from anywhere and commercializing it as if it were your own is a colonial mindset, and should not be encouraged or accepted. This is true of ceremonies, as well as designs, artifacts, instruments, or other objects that have a sacred significance.

I propose that it is time to make a commitment to stopping this abuse by galleries and art markets, refusing to show pieces that incorporate any form of cultural appropriation. I strongly urge artists to recognize that the gallery should not be a place of cultural appropriation.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian-produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. For a first-time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties up to a $250,000 fine or a 5-year prison term, or both. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000.

Under the Act, an Indian is defined as a member of any federally or officially state-recognized Indian tribe, or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian tribe.

Cultural Appropriation is addressed on Wikipedia: “the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, and such displays are often viewed as disrespectful, or even as a form of desecration, by members of the originating culture.

Cultural elements which may have deep meaning to the original culture may be reduced to “exotic” fashion or toys by those from the dominant culture.

Kjerstin Johnson has written that, when this is done, the imitator, “who does not experience that oppression is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.” The African-American academic, musician and journalist Greg Tate argues that appropriation and the “fetishizing” of cultures, in fact, alienates those whose culture is being appropriated.”

It is a symptom of a colonial mentality that  sacred ceremonial objects are copied and marketed as if they were  genuine articles, often at a lower price, thus  even competing with the real thing. If an imitation of a Native American sacred object is displayed in a gallery, there should at the very least be a disclaimer, stating that this is a copy, not a genuine article, and not made by a Native person. so as not to mislead anyone that it is a genuine article. Without such a disclaimer, this could be seen as a violation of the AIACA. Better, it should not be displayed at all. It should be recognized that some things are sacred, and not everything in the world is appropriate to copy for commercialization and profit. Any item displayed that is derived from traditional Native American arts and crafts should be created by a person who conforms to the AIACA definition. It would be a good thing if the galleries posted a statement that cultural appropriation is not practiced or condoned by the owners nor the artists represented.