Planetary appropriation: On drawing a line in the sand

The author in a Tuareg headdress. Courtesy photo.

The author in a Tuareg headdress. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

I was born here. This is my culture: all of it. I cannot “appropriate” what I was born to.

By born here, I mean on this world. Planet Earth. I am, at base, not a tribalist. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very glad to have been born into the largest, most powerful, and sometimes (though not always) the “best” tribe: the USA. But my home is the planet. Its cultures are my culture.

In the past couple of decades there has been a lot of talk, not to mention yelling and screaming, over something called cultural appropriation. To give one example, as residents of the state of Arizona we are probably more familiar than most with the term, given the interminable arguments over what constitutes cultural appropriation of Native American art.

There’s a fine line (and there has to be a line) between utilizing cultural memes out of admiration and as the basis for one’s own artistic endeavors. The best way to do this is via authentication. But even with authentication the lines can blur.

Take sand paintings. If the Navajo Nation was able to collect a royalty not only on every cheap rendition of a sand painting that’s sold in the Southwest but also on every skirt, t-shirt, dinner plate, light switch cover, piece of upholstery and bedsheet that utilizes those ancient patterns, they wouldn’t need to bother with a casino in the boondocks east of Flagstaff. But it can’t because, for better or worse, the use of those patterns have become so widespread not only in the U.S. but across the world that fighting all the users would cost more than could be reaped in income. Navajo sand painting has become a part of world culture. Of course, none of these millions of imitations are genuine because they’re not complete (the copies copy other copies, which are taken from originals left deliberately incomplete by their makers), but that doesn’t trouble the manufacturers of pottery, bedsheets, etc. Nor, apparently, the millions of buyers.

What the Navajo have been able to do, and the Aborigines of Australia and Panama hat makers in Ecuador (you did know that’s where “Panama” hats come from, didn’t you?) and Shona stonecarvers in Zimbabwe and, lately, Champagne producers in Champagne, is label the products of their culture as authentic representations of their particular culture. You can buy a Sami knife in Finland, but only those made by the Sami carry with them certificates of authenticity. Russia is full of imitation lacquer paintings, primarily on boxes, but only those from the three villages most famous for the art are allowed to legally indicate their origins.

Image components public domain. Illustration by 5enses.

As a citizen of Planet Earth I believe that this is all my culture, too. If I want to make a Sami-style knife or carve greenstone or make a Panama hat or paint the Dreamtime, no one should be able to stop me. What I cannot do is claim that my work is an authentic representation of that portion of terrestrial culture, because I’m not Sami or Shona or Ecuadorian or a child of the Outback. Nor would I claim to be. I’m proud to be a citizen of planet Earth and to be able, sometimes in words, to make use of various aspects of its multiplicity of cultures. For that I can be criticized or applauded, but not forbidden.

When the Mexican composer Silvestre Reveueltas wrote the symphonic piece “Sensemaya,” was he “appropriating” European musical traditions in utilizing a standard symphony orchestra? Every classical composer sooner or later employs folk tunes from other cultures in their work; sometimes overtly, sometimes without any attribution at all. Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer and the Nobel for literature largely for her depictions of peasant life in China. Does that constitute an “appropriation” of Chinese culture? If Edgar Allen Poe truly invented the modern detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is every subsequently written detective tale an appropriation of American culture?

I love this planet. I love its seas, its forest, its deserts and mountains. I love its people and their multitudinous ways and inventions, their music and dances and stories. I will continue to utilize them in my own work because terrestrial culture is my culture, and I glory in it all. Meanwhile, others are welcome to borrow from my own imaginations.

As long as they don’t try to copyright it as authentic me.


Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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