When you raise the subject of cultural appropriation, it’s not uncommon to be dismissed, often with rolling eyes or other criticisms such as “PC gone mad!” People don’t like to be challenged in their complacency, and more often than not Cultural Appropriation is a term that is not well understood. For many, addressing cultural appropriation is seen as ‘too hard’ or ‘too messy’. The problem with these attitudes is that they rest in a position of privilege. Being able to ignore the effects of cultural appropriation because it does not affect you personally does not make it any less of a problem for those who it does impact, and it clearly does have impact. To add further insult, dismissing it makes it twice the problem. Aotearoa positions itself as a bicultural society, Te Reo Mãori is one of our official languages and the founding document of New Zealand, Te Tiriti o Waitangi is built on the understanding of an agreement between European colonisers and the Māori people. But this does not mean that we have it sorted. Far from it.
This is illustrated when you look at the issue of cultural appropriation and how it manifests. In many ways the natural parenting and birth community are susceptible to issues of cultural appropriation. This is because many of the approaches that form the spectrum of physiological parenting techniques are derived from different cultures. Most usually those that, from a Western perspective are considered more primitive or tribal.
Before we can start to pick apart the threads that tie this conversation together, it would be helpful to look at a robust definition of what cultural appropriation can be defined as.
One definition is “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive.” Susan Scafidi
Through cultural appropriation we see what could be considered a double theft. Colonisation which was enacted by the western imperial world, actively damaged the culture and traditions of many indigenous peoples through the eradication of language, culture and narratives. Now that the colonisers see value, both commercial and personal, in these same cultures and traditions they took part in destroying, they seek to align themselves with these values in a misplaced attempt to reclaim traditions which they themselves feel an absence of.
This may seem harmless, but depending on how this is approached there is potential for great harm, in the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities a resolution was made that expressed “there is a relationship, in the laws or philosophies of Indigenous peoples, between cultural property and intellectual property, and that the protection of both is essential to the Indigenous peoples’ cultural and economic survival and development.”
So why have I brought this conversation to the natural parenting and birth community? When we look at ‘natural’ parenting including birth through the lense of cultural appropriation we can quickly identify a number of examples that illustrate the mechanisms which make cultural appropriation what it is. Parenting approaches that are considered to be natural, generally have in common a desire to return to more physiological guided techniques of nurturing our children. Things such as a babywearing, birth ceremonies that honour the woman, and physical nurturing such breastfeeding are all good examples of meeting biological norms. These approaches are based on meeting the needs of the mother infant dyad and ultimately founded in the most fundamental human physiology. However, in a post industrial world, and depending on how these are engaged with, there is the risk of appropriation.
The problem arises when we turn to cultures not our own and ‘borrow’ these techniques as our own. I want to be very clear though, using techniques that are part of recognised cultural traditions, in itself is not problematic. But it can become problematic very easily. Especially when these techniques are commodified and commercialised or used without context. For example, instances where the Amauti, a traditional babywearing parka is made and sold by non Inuit people is a clear example of theft and there is very little protection available to the true owners of this intellectual property under current Western law. This article written by Aaaminah Shakur highlights how the babywearing community has problematic elements. This is not to say women can’t wear or carry their babies. It is almost certain that every single people had a form of carrying their babies prior to the invention of the perambulator.
When it comes to the physiological nurturing of infants, no one ‘owns’ that relationship you build with your baby. However having an awareness of how we integrate elements of other cultural approaches into our day to day nurturing is important. It may seem harmless to have a blessingway, use a rebozo during birth and bury your placenta with karakia. But this is not always the case. Many people feel they are honouring a certain culture when they take these traditions into their own cultural narrative. But this is not always based on a true and honest exchange. For more understanding on what constitutes exchange and what constitutes appropriation, this article published on Every Day feminism sums it up pretty clearly.
So why does it matter? An example can be found in the rising trend of ‘Blessingway’ ceremonies for expectant mothers. Many women in the birth community have blessingways to celebrate the arrival of their baby. And for many this can be a healing, inspiring and empowering process. However as this trend builds popularity in birth communities, we see a process of glamorisation and fetishism where an important ceremony is taken out of the context of its people and used without a true understanding of its origins or intent. It may seem extreme to many to call this theft. But when white America profited from the blues, jazz and rock n roll explosion brought to their shores by an enslaved nation we see an illustration of how this process can disempower the very people that are having their culture ‘borrowed’ This is also seen through the fetishisation and sexualisation of Native American traditional clothing.
So does this mean we can’t have blessing ceremonies for our expectant mothers anymore? Of course not. It just means we need to be aware of the context we give these ceremonies and be aware of our purpose and intent while undertaking them. Even better, we could reflect back to our own cultural traditions that flourished prior to industrialisation (where we saw the loss of community wisdoms in favour of commercial and scientific precedence), and give those life instead.
A now defunct website called ‘About Pregnancy’ received a request from Diné Feminists which read “We request that the term ‘Blessingway’ no longer be used to describe non-Navajo prenatal ceremonies such as the one described in this article. The term ‘Blessingway’ refers to a sacred spiritual ceremony performed by the Navajo people to celebrate rites of passage that occur throughout the entire life cycle, and not only the passage into motherhood. We suggest the term ‘Mother Blessing’ is a more appropriate term for a ceremony that is influenced, and respectful, of Navajo tradition, but not practiced in accordance with Navajo faith and culture.”
This is an excellent middle ground, and in Aotearoa we can see examples of this in action when we look at the traditional tattoo known as Ta Moko. Non Maori can get tattoos inspired by traditional Maori design, but by definition these tattoos will not be considered Ta moko and are known as Kirituhi. This does not mean that all Maori style tattoos are not appropriated, but seeking a traditional ta moko artist who understands the difference is the best way to ensure that appropriation does not happen. It also keeps the commercial value with those who have connections to the style. This approach may seem precious or unimportant to people who do not value Maori perspective or ownership, but when people walk around with sacred moko designs specific to the face, on their butts. It becomes pretty clear that this can be insulting and problematic at best.
Using a cultural tradition without context is one of the primary issues when it comes to appropriation.
This is summed up by a Diné medicine woman Firewolf, when she talks of the blessingway trend “I am a Dine’ Medicine Woman who is infuriated by what I have heard! These women have NO idea what they are doing! The Blessing Way is an ancient Ritual that, yes is used to welcome children into the world, but by far, that is NOT it’s only use, but just one of many of it’s functions. I am not permitted to explain the many times we use Blessing way in ritual, but some of the rituals would be surprising for those not of the Dine’. Anyone not of the Dine’ people should not be using our Sacred rituals bastardized in such a way for their own idealized mentality – it is more dangerous then they could possibly realize. We have certain “spiritual safeguards” on protecting our Old Ways & what is misused or misappropriated would have dire consequences for those who try to take what is sacred to us & is not of their people, but of the Dine’. To place this upon innocent babies is an anathema”
In New Zealand there are many Maori traditions that have become part of the birthing milieu for all kiwi women. Placenta burial, muka cord ties and saying karakia are common parts of birth for many non Maori families, and in general these approaches have been taken on with respect and care. However it is worth reflecting on the colonial past in New Zealand, where the right to traditional birth practices were removed from Maori people, and now that traditional birth practices are being brought back, much of this is happening through Western perspectives.
Marnie Renfields, Kaihautu at Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki says “Ultimately how individual families deal with their afterbith is their business. However what interests me is … what have these non-Maori women forsaken in their own whakapapa in choosing this option? I believe all cultures prior to the dominance of the western medical model in maternal health would have had process around the afterbirth. Is that knowledge still available to them? Is there a disconnect so grand that non-Maori women have appropriated a tikanga Maori”
And she raises a relevant point, is the desire to connect to birth at a more spiritual or level so strong that we seek connections with cultures not our own? Is this easier than re-constructed traditional herstories in Western birth culture that have been so absent?
Where things get really concerning is when commercial interests become a part of the conversation. Maori style design is an ubiquitous part of our New Zealand image. We see Maori motif appear on our National carrier Air New Zealand, on New Zealand Post packaging and throughout pop culture and commercial design. This might seem like a positive approach that honours our bicultural history, but it also brings challenge.
As raised by the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights document published by the Mataatua Declaration Association “The most fundamental right to determine what Indigenous People see as being their intellectual property has been destroyed through the processes of colonisation. The long history of the export or destruction of artefacts (the ‘cultural’ property) of Indigenous peoples grew out of this imperial belief in the right to define. Out of it also grew the still pervasive belief that any concept of Indigenous intellectual property was a contradiction in terms’. This process may be termed ‘cultural invasion’. Cultural invasion promotes the preservation of oppression, a parochial view of reality, a static perception of the world, and the imposition of one world view over another implying the ‘superiority’ of the invader and the ‘inferiority’ of those invaded.”
So when we see Trelise Cooper parade a series of models dressed in native American ceremonial headdress’ down the runway , we see not only a blatant example of cultural appropriation, but the theft of intellectual property, which would not be allowed if we lived in a world where the colonial and Western narrative did not supersede that of the colonised. I can’t imagine Cooper would consider ‘borrowing’ a Dior design without some sense of shame or at least some reflection on the unoriginality that inspired this move. Yet the cultural appropriation is common in the fashion industry and is considered ‘edgy’ to borrow these elements. Yet the key fundamental to correctly borrowing from another culture involves admitting that your inspiration comes from somewhere else.
If you want to explore non appropriative Native American inspired fashion you need look no further than Bethany Yellowtail’s line of true to tradition haute couture. Or see how Rihanna owned red carpet during the Met Gala event celebrating Chinese culture, she was one of the only attendees wearing a dress designed by an actual Chinese designer.
Recently in the babywearing community there was an instance where it was hard to ignore the effects of cultural appropriation as is so often and so easily done. Well known woven wrap maker Oscha, who are based in Scotland released a design called Rapoitia Papango, their intention was to honour traditional Maori design and create a special wrap to reflect Aotearoa. But what started with good intentions unravelled pretty quickly. As was quickly pointed out by the babywearing community in Aotearoa. Not only was the design not named or referenced correctly (being a traditional kowahiwahi depiction of the hammerhead shark called Mangopare, often seen carved into meeting house rafters) but it was also a direct copy of a known traditional piece. As Veranoa Hetet, a traditional Maori artist and weaver stated “The name of this pattern is Mangopare. It was taught to me when I was a child, by my father who turns 78 tomorrow. It was taught to him by a koroua, who was 70 at the time, who had been taught this design by his teacher who was 60”. Designs like these aren’t just ‘pretty designs’ as many Oscha supporters stated, they are the history of a people passed from tupuna to tupuna. The artist (a non Maori) who designed Rapoitia papango for Oscha made a statement that the wrap was “inspired by’ a piece she had seen at a museum. Setting aside the issue that indigenous arts are so commonly stolen by museums as a further part of colonisation, when you compare the designs side by side, you can tell immediately that it is a direct copy and not inspired at all.
Too often traditional designs get stolen because there is no way in Western law to attribute intellectual property rights to what is owned by a people as their absolute birthright from their ancestry (in Aotearoa, this concept could be described as Tino Rangatiratanga) but this does not make it right. As stated in the Cultural and Intellectual Rights Document “Indigenous peoples argue that all heritage, intangible and tangible, including lands, waters and resources constitutes cultural property but as can be seen, western norms simply cannot accommodate such a world view within the parameters of ‘culture’. So entrenched is the separation of culture from a western capitalist world view that natural resources are regarded only as tradeable commodities and not as an expression of cultural identity. Hence, much of what Indigenous peoples would regard as cultural property has been transferred into the legal construct of intellectual property.”
Designers and companies wanting to utilise traditional design styles have a duty of care to ensure their work is authentic and original. The easiest way for Oscha to do this would have been to employ a traditional Maori artist who understood the kōwhaiwhai style. Failing this, they could have engaged in a robust conversation with the iwi and hapu to whom this design held meaning. Oscha instead got a non Maori designer to do the work and then went to Toi Maori, which is a group representing Maori artists to check the veracity of the design. This might have seemed like a good process to follow. But getting a rubberstamp approval from an external representation group does not necessarily guarantee good outcomes. Too often this approach is seen as ‘going through the motions’ rather than an act of good faith.
The press release issued by Toi Maori highlights the gap in understanding that caused these issues to arise.
“Toi Māori Aotearoa was not in a formal consulting role but had offered opinion. Risk was identified but not investigated. It would not be correct to infer that we were consultants to the project.
For contract advice, Toi Māori has devised mechanisms to minimise such copyright and cultural appropriation risk. We engage Māori designers innovating on tradition rather than copying. In that way Māori art evolves, under contract the artist licenses worldwide exclusive use and fees are paid.
Ownership of design remains with the artist. Toi Māori stands by the client through duration of usage. The alternative carries risk with non-Māori designers adapting old designs or using them unaltered. This is the model Toi Maori uses on opinions sought”
The opportunity arose for Oscha to step forward and own the error they made unreservedly. By working with the people who this affected most deeply to bring resolution they could have done much to fix problem. Unfortunately the many Maori who raised their voices about this issue were silenced through the deletion of comments or the dismissal of their criticisms. On the Oscha facebook page we saw hundreds of comments in approval of their actions from people who could not understand why this was problematic. This is common when cultural appropriation is called out. People who have no lived experience in or connections to the culture appropriated feel they have a right to tell people what is and what is not appropriation. This is both insulting, and wrong. In this way, the narrative that is heard and that has primacy is not that of the people who have had their work appropriated, it is the voice of the appropriative. This in its own way is more damaging than the appropriation in the first place. Several statements from Oscha were made about the issue. But none of those statements stood behind the lack of proper process or owned the errors and the damage they caused. This statement found on their public facebook page
“When taken outside of this context the concept of cultural appropriation can be somewhat meaningless. People from different cultures have always drawn inspiration from each other, indeed cultures are not static, they are formed through diverse influences both from inside and out with the group.
Cultural appropriation is also a highly problematic concept to be used outside of a meaningful context as it displaces people of ‘mixed’ origin, has many issues for those who live in other countries, and it pigeonholes everyone into set cultural groups with all the associated constrictions of freedoms associated with that.
Although based in Scotland, Oscha is a multi-cultural business with wide ranging cultural heritage and influences” Clearly indicates that while they acknowledge they have upset people, they do not at heart believe they have done wrong.
The whole foundation for cultural appropriation is that important intellectual and cultural property is taken out of context. And while cultures often take part in an exchange, there is a marked difference between a mutual exchange, and the use of an oppressed peoples Rangatiratanga for commercial gain. If the people whose culture you have appropriated stand up and ask you to stop. It is incumbent on you to listen.
To help us understand why this is so important and caused so much anger, these words from Māori Artist Veranoa Hetet might illuminate.
This is an excerpt from my mother’s book, published in 1989, that speaks of protecting our patterns
“Patterns are jealously protected within many whanau and iwi. Handed down from mother to daughter, grandmother to grand-daughter, a tribal pride in relation to patterns was maintained. The handing over of patterns was part of the teaching process. Sometimes a way of teaching patterns or recording them took the form of a tauira, a weaving piece featuring the pattern or patterns to be learnt by the pupil. My teacher, Rangimarie, gave me a kete which featured eight patterns and told me to learn from it. As I became more proficient, I became aware of the unpatterned weaving in her kete. Weaving that is smooth, with no bumps, and closely woven, with no gaps, indicates the weaver has a good eye for line and angle and has an even tension. So a tauira is able to teach even if the tutor is not present. In recent times, material has been published which has threatened to destroy this tradition. Many young weavers now have ready access to many ‘protected’ patterns. One such pattern has been found decorating a certain brand of tissue boxes. What has happened to the mana of this pattern? Tribal uniqueness in patterns and the protection ofthem (and all that involves) is in danger of being lost.”
(Puketapu-Hetet, E. Maori Weaving. 1989. Wellington)
Here is that tauira that Nanna gave to mum – eventually given to me with the words “Learn from this”
Things don’t have to be like this though. When baby wrap designer Solnce wanted to create a pacific inspired wrap, they took a different approach.
“ Solnce has one pattern which is inspired by the Pacific cultures. It has not been created by a native artist because we didn’t mean it to be related to one or another culture. We have taken some elements with universal meaning which can be found in the artwork of several Pacific cultures and created a pattern of our own. However, in the process of developing the pattern we have asked advice of several Maori babywearing mothers in naming the pattern and the colorways. The name of the pattern Whenua has been suggested by the Maori mother,s and Erena Tomoana is assisting me with finding names for the colorways. It has been an interesting and truly inspiring process. We have talked a lot about the Maori culture, because Erena is a native Maori herself and knows a lot about her own people. We talk about which names are respectful to use, and which are not. I have received a very positive feedback from our customers about our approach with the names. They like that we give credit to the Pacific cultures by using Maori words for the names of the colorways and that they have a beautiful meaning.”
I want to make it clear that the Oscha approach is not guaranteed to end in cultural appropriation, a lot of what happened through that process was a result of too much trust and poor communication. Nor am I saying that the Solnce approach is not a guarantee to end with a culturally respectful design. Oscha went into this process with great intentions and a lot of heart as did Solnce. But having good intentions is not protection from outcomes such as these. If one good thing came from the heated discussions online it is that many people who had not even heard of cultural appropriation had their eyes and hearts opened to this and it is by keeping an open heart through this we can hope to avoid things like this happening again.
When I approached Erena Tomoana about her collaboration with Solnce she said this “I have honestly spent so many hours on researching, consulting and sharing culturally appropriate approaches & info with her (the owner of Solnce) she has such an open mind and heart and is very committed to getting it right.”
Avoiding cultural appropriation is not about ticking boxes, or meeting minimums, it is about listening, and taking time to truly hear.
This topic is so big, bigger than I could hope to cover in one magazine article. But I wrote this hoping to shed some light on what is a broad ranging issue that affects many, but is often dismissed because it is considered unimportant or simply ‘too hard’.
Throughout this article the focus has been on cultural appropriation and how it relates to birth, and by extension, infant nurturing, pregnancy and parenting. For ease of communication I have settled on ‘birth’ as a catch all label to signify all things birth related. This is because we are a birth magazine, and birth is the heart of our kaupapa. Throughout this article I talk about a concept most generally known as ‘natural’ parenting. This taxonomy loosely encompasses a range of parenting approaches from attachment parenting, to physiological birth, to baby wearing. What unites these different concepts is a desire to approach parenting from a physiological standpoint where biological precedents are honoured and there is a trust in the systems built through evolution to meet the needs of mother infant dyads. I toyed with various terms such as ‘primal parenting’ or ‘needs based parenting’ but quickly decided that these carried connotations that were unhelpful. I have settled on ‘natural’ knowing that this is a subjective and easily manipulated term. But one that is widely understood and acknowledged
I have also made an intentional decision to keep this article specific to Aotearoa, for obvious reasons I hope. This doesn’t mean I haven’t referenced events or instances of cultural appropriation occurring off of our shores. But when I talk about the impact of cultural appropriation I will be talking about how it directly and indirectly affects our Tangata Whenua.
The last, and hardest decision I made was on the use of the woman as the article pronoun. This was not done to exclude men from the conversation or imply that all cultural appropriation is a women’s issue. But to recognise that birth as a physiological process is a woman centred process and that as a magazine that deals with birth, women are at the heart of our kaupapa. I started this article many times trying to use gender neutral or broadly inclusive language, not only did I find this erased women from the birth conversation but my sentences started getting heavier and longer and more clumsy. I was struggling to make a point that was succinct and meaningful. As well as this, for many centuries, the language and ownership of birth was masculine and this is continued in many of the reproductive rights conversations happening now. Our intention is to reclaim these narratives from a male medical model and bring it back to women who birth their babies.
Home Birth Matters recognises that families take many forms including same sex couples, gender variations and adoptive and single parenting models. We awhi these families and these parents and consider them as an integral part of our community. We honour their contributions and the love and wisdom they bring. For the purpose of simplicity in writing we choose language which most broadly covers our birth herstories.