Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Ethics for Magical People: Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation (2 of 3)

To resolve my dilemma, I needed to know how “cultural appropriation” was defined. Noted art historian and critic, James O. Young observed that as cultures intertwine, their cultural motifs overlap. But he warned that using another culture’s motifs in art “carries with it certain responsibilities.” For example, Paul Simon often used the motifs of African cultures in his music. Since he approached the act of composing music with respect, Simon kept the authentic voices of the Africans intact. For that reason, people do not consider him a cultural appropriator.
            Young concluded, “I urge everyone to avoid making blanket pronouncements about cultural appropriation. As we have seen, cultural appropriation has many forms. Some examples of certain forms are certainly immoral. At the same time, many examples of all forms of cultural appropriation are morally unobjectionable. … Cultural appropriation is sometimes to be condemned but equally to be avoided is a restriction of artists to their cultural homelands.”
            Since many Neo-Pagans integrate the beliefs of various cultures into their practices, Patti Wigington, in “About.Com Paganism/Wicca,” addresses the issue of cultural appropriation. She states, “If you are incorporating a practice into your belief system, ask yourself whether you’re doing it because you’re truly called to do so, or whether you simply saw it in a book and thought it looked appealing. Carefully evaluate the practices you borrow, and make sure if you choose to use them, that you do so with respect and reverence towards their original owners.”
            In regards to Native American cultures, Laura Donaldson (Cherokee) believes that cultural appropriation “strips [them] of any historical specificity of contextual depth and interprets them with a colonial logic of cultural commensurability.” Vine Deloria Jr. (Lakota) adds, “It’s about what white people think Indians should be.” Others include in their commentaries that careless people perpetuate the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, lump diverse cultures together, or imply that Native Americans existed only in the 19th Century.”
            In her review of “Oracle of Shadows and Light” (Lucy Cavendish & Jasmine Becket-Griffith, 2010), Cat discusses the misuse of cultures in this deck. Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Destruction is displayed as a soulful-eyed being who takes bad things away. Meanwhile Amara, the Menehune is a stereotype of a Native Hawai’i an – soulful-eyed long haired girl, who wears flowers. Since this deck does not provide any cultural context, Cat wonders how Hawai’ians or Indians would react to these skewed depictions of their respective cultures. Moreover, she asserts that the authentic voices of these cultures (and others) are distorted and overwhelmed by “cuteness.”
            In my examination of “The Star that Never Walks Around,” I considered the following. (1) Did the deck portray the dignity of the Plains Cultures of the Native Americans? (2) Were the images of a particular stereotype? (3) Were the images taken out of context to be used for various Tarot meanings?  (4) Does the authentic voice of the Tarot come through?

What bothers me about this deck is how Bennett mixes the Tarot, Astrology, and Native American cultures. For example, “The Tower (XVI)” of the Major Arcana is represented by the Sun Dance, a sacred ceremony of the Lakota peoples. She writes that “The Tower (XVI)” is a “breaking down of Karmic ties,” The message of this card is “Liberating yourself from old ways and old belief systems will provide the path to a higher place within your spirit.” This is troubling to me since it takes a sacred ceremony out of its cultural context. The Sun Dance has a superficial commonality with “The Tower (XVI),” but is contextually different. The Sun Dance is a personal sacrifice for the welfare of the community. Since “The Tower (XVI)” represents an outside catalyst to instigate change for the individual, the Sun Dance is not appropriate for this card.
            A culture can express unique viewpoints of the Tarot, and not be shoehorned into the standard card meanings. I would prefer seeing how the “The Tower (XVI)” is expressed in Native American cultures than fitting those cultures into the “The Tower (XVI).” This is a subtle but important distinction. Unfortunately Bennett removes the original context of the Sun Dance and forces it into an artificial one. This ceremony sanctifies personal sacrifice for the sake of community, and is not “a breaking down of Karmic ties.”         
            Although Astrology and the Tarot are a natural combination, Native American cultures are not. Bennett’s explicit association of Astrology with the Major Arcana Cards implies that Native Americans practiced this form of divination. She makes the logical fallacy that since Native Americans watch the stars, they are astrologers.
Bennett tried to share two important parts of her life. However, she seemed to use Native American cultures to “fill in the blanks” for the Tarot. Rather than depict the various Native American cultures of Montana, she lumps them into one homogeneous group. In the process, she also skews the meaning of the Tarot cards as well. Bennett equates the “Royal Road” of the Tarot to be “Trail to Wisdom” in Native American cultures. This is a subtle form of stereotyping, since it assumes that Native Americans today are the same as those of the 19th Century.
I find that Stella Bennett’s good intentions are not enough. In my opinion, she violated both the dignity of the Tarot and Native American cultures.  Based on my review, I decided that the ethical thing for me to do is to shelve this deck.

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