«NO ONE CAN REALLY OWN CULTURE»

– ON WHITE PRIVILEGE AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Siv Jensen’s Instagram feed with the following text, «Harvest fest in the financial department».

«What’s the deal with cultural appropriation? All cultures borrow from one another, so no one can really own culture!»

This question was asked of me some years back when I attended a workshop on how to do ethical research in the humanities – and believe me, the irony of this question being asked in said context does not escape me.

At that time, the then Minister of Finance in Norway had recently posted an image of herself dressed up in a costume marketed as «Indian» by the suppliers. In the aftermath, several critical voices, many of them Sámi, initiated a public discussion on cultural appropriation citing Siv Jensens choice of costume as a text book example. [1]

To give some context, as an Indigenous Sámi, I have become quite accustomed to being expected to answer all kinds of questions relating to my own indigeneity and issues of colonial consequences- including cultural appropriation.

And, as the second day of the aforementioned workshop approached its end, another attendee, not surprisingly, saw fit to pose the question I initially cited.

Before I go on, a short definition of cultural appropriation is in order.

Emerging in discussions of post-colonial critiques of Western expansionism during the 1980s, cultural appropriation was coined to describe how members from dominate cultures appropriate from disadvantaged cultures. [2] Or more to the point, cultural appropriation is what happens when colonizers pick and choose elements from cultures they have colonized and apply as they see fit.

In all fairness, we live in a world where an ever increasing globalization promote cross-cultural exchange, which in turn has often been used as an explanation, as well as a sort of carte blanche for appropriation of any kind, arguing that cultural appropriation is both natural and necessary. As was the case when lifestyle reporter Jenny Avins in October of 2015 discussed cultural appropriation, stating that:

«In the 21st century, cultural appropriation—like globalization—isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive. We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work. The exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.»[3]

The argument offered by Avins owes much, I think, to the idea of artistic inspiration, where the ‘borrowing’ of ideas, motifs, plots, technical devices and so fort between artists seems to be the thing to do – especially in the context of post-modernism. [4]

Art, in other words, preach that «artists who engage in postmodern appropriation are not, or not necessarily, engaged in cultural appropriation«. [5]

Head of a Sleeping Woman (Study for Nude with Drapery) by Pablo Picasso [6] is an excellent example of post-modern art ‘borrowing’ from cultures foreign to the artists, and is as such a case in point of cultural appropriation as it takes much inspiration from African masks [7]

So, whenever claims of cultural appropriation is levelled against white mainstream society from Indigenous communities and/or people, they are generally dismissed because the «uncomfortable truth» according to George Chesterton, who is the Managing Editor at GQ and GQ Style, is that «culture can’t really be owned«. [8] But uncomfortable for whom?

The seemingly logical arguments of Chesterton and Avis does not disguise the fact that in the context of Indigenous culture, appropriation is always embedded in deeply problematic and asymmetrical relations of power disadvantaging some groups to the benefit of others.

Because even when highlighted as a human right in the UN declaration of Human Rights [9], autonomy – the right to decide for oneself – has not always been afforded to people of Indigenous descent. As a matter of fact, until very recently a collective West denied Indigenous people any true ownership of land, history, languages, cultures and identities, and in some cases even their dead. [10] Many still lack such ownership, and cultural appropriation is a reflection of said lack. [11]

Or more specifically, the arguments made by Chesterton and Avins is very much centered in white privilege, or the societal privilege developed to protect and center the interests of white people and white culture over non-white and Indigenous peoples. [12]

So, the uncomfortable truth isn’t that culture cannot be owned. Rather, the uncomfortable truth is that White Europe – the colonizers – during the onset of imperialism took ownership of Indigenous cultures. Now, when the originators are reclaiming their ownership, the general reply is as the attendee at my workshop stated, that culture cannot be owned – at least not by Indigenous people.

Or, in a more cynical articulation; If white Europe can no longer own Indigenous cultures, than neither can Indigenous cultures be allowed to do so.

The Sámi gákti is an illustrative case in point.

A small note of clarification, the Sámi are the Indigenous people of the Nordic countries, or the Nation states of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Prior to the colonisation of Sápmi, the Sámi homelands, society was organised in the siida/sijte structure.

There were of course regional variations, but in general a siida referred to a specific stretch of land, and there were strict rules and regulations as to who had the rights of use to the territory – be it foraging, hunting, fishing etc. The rights to a siida was ensured by inheritance from preceding generations, marriage or adoption as kin an/or into a clan. [13]

Today, when the Sámi no longer live in the siida-structure of old, at least not in any way that is recognised by the colonial Nations-states whose borders cross Sápmi, the relation to kin and land is materialised in the gáktis. As such, when you wear your gákti, you make your relations evident, which in turn place you within the social order of Sámi society.

Given that Sámi society historically has relied on either orally or bodily transmittance of knowledge, our literature and documents is not found in books or archives. Rather, they exist in our objects and things, and in our gáktis. [14] The gákti is, in other words, a legal document and as such plays an important role in maintaining and governing the judicial system of Sápmi. [15]

It would be easy to say that the meaning and value of the gákti is simply a thing of the past and that it in no way impact on our present day. But still it is said that women «hálddašit bures sohkavuogádaga dieđuid», or that they best manage and know the system of kin and clan. [16] And this knowledge is kept and transmitted through the generations, in both stories and the making of our gáktis.

Whenever someone without an ancestral right to the gákti wears it, they make a mockery of our history, of our customs and of our knowledge. Worse, they make a mockery of the struggles and hardships borne by our ancestors to ensure that this knowledge survived and continue to exist within us.

Picture from the Instagram feed of rasisme_i_norge (racism_in_norway) displaying a man and two women dressed in costumes that are meant to represent the Sámi gákti. It was taken from a popular web site that sells costumes to adults.

Thus, when the same costume company that marketed the «Indian» costume worn by Siv Jensen began advertising a «sami costume», SoMe blew up with accusations of cultural appropriation. In face of these accusations, the company – that is making a hefty profit selling costumes meant to represent cultures and people considered «exotic» and or «foreign» – replied that there was no intent to harm. In fact, the company wished to honor the Sámi culture, and added that they also sold » costumes of cowboys, Indians, Mexicans, Hawaiians without it ever being a cause for concern». [17]

To a trained eye, the costumes marketed by said company are of course easily spotted as fake, but its not so much a question of the visuals being authentic or not. To a much larger degree, the problem is that our cultures are still perceived as a free for all, the property of no one, or at least no one Indigenous, and therefore applicable to everyone.

And so, when cultural appropriation occurs, it is yet another reminder of the highly assymetrical relations of power disadvantaging Indigenous groups. It is another example of the access that privileged (and white) groups have to Indigenous heritage, and worse their assumption that said access is natural.


[1] https://www.nrk.no/norge/debatt-om-bruk-av-kulturelle-plagg-og-kulturell-appropriasjon-i-dagsnytt-18-1.13737857

¨[2]Coutts‐Smith, Kenneth. 1976. Some General Observations on the Problems of Cultural Colonialism».

[3]Avins Jenny. 2015. The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation. The Atlantic. (October 20, 2015). Accessed 18.02.2021.

[4] Burgard, Timothy Anglin (1991). «Picasso and Appropriation». The Art Bulletin. 73 (3): 479–494.

[5] Young, James O. 2010. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Wiley-Blackwell, pp.4

[6] MoMA, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40528089%5D

[7] Joshua I. Cohen, «Picasso’s African Influences,» in The «Black Art» Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents, Oakland: University of California Press, 2020.

[8] Chesterton, George. “Cultural Appropriation: Everything Is Culture and It’s All Appropriated.” GQ, 15 Jan. 2019

[9] https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[10] Hilden, Patricia Penn. 2000. «Race for Sale: Narratives of Possession in Two ‘Ethnic’ Museums.»  TDR: The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies 44 (3 [T167]):11-36

Henare, Amiria. 2005. Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange: Cambridge University Press.

Cubillo, Franchesca. 2010. «Repatriating Our Ancestors: Who Will Speak for the Dead.» In The Long way home : the meanings and values of repatriation, edited by Paul Turnbull and Michael Pickering, 20-26. New York: Berghahn.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. [1997]2012. Decolonizing methodologies : research and indigenous peoples. 2nd ed. ed. London: Zed Books.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. 2019. Restructuring relations : indigenous self-determination, governance, and gender. New York: Oxford University Press.

[11] Kuhn, Gabriel. 2020. Liberating Sápmi: Indigenous Resistance in Europe’s Far North. Oakland: PM Press.

[12] Jensen, Robert. 2005. Race Words and Race Stories. The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege. City Lights Publishers, pp. 8.

[13] Solem, Erik. 1933. Lappiske rettsstudier. Vol. 24, Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforskning. Oslo: Aschehoug, pp. 94.

Rydving, Håkan. 2003. «Innledning.» In Mytisk landskap : ved dansende skog og susende fjell, edited by Arvid Sveen, 9-23. Stamsund: Orkana.

Ween, Gro. 2005. «Inför lif eller död? : om kulturell kontinuitet og et sørsamisk verdensbilde.»  Sørsamiske sedvaner 5:12-34, pp. 19.

[14] Hirvonen, Vuokko. 1999. «Sámeeatnama jienat : sápmelaš nissona bálggis girječállin.» DAT.

Guttorm, Gunvor. 2001. «Duoji bálgát – en studie i duodji : kunsthåndverk som visuell erfaring hos et urfolk.» Det humanistiske fakultet, Institutt for kunsthistorie, Universitetet i Tromsø, pp. 49

[15] Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2020 «It Speaks to You – Making kin of people, duodji and stories in Sámi museums», Det Humanistske fakultetet, Institutt for kulturstudier og orientalske språk, Universitetet i Oslo, pp. 131.

[16] Somby, Liv Inger. 2016. «Mus lea ollu muitalit, muhto dus nu unnán áigi : Life-stories told by elder Sámi women – A critical social analysis.» Master in Journalism, Sámi Journalism, Sámi University of Applied Science, pp. 27.

[17] https://www.nrk.no/nordland/fjerner-samedrakt-fra-kostyme-nettbutikk-etter-kritikk-1.15382538

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