Cultural Appropriation in Australia

Opinion piece by IWOE Advocate Jennifer.

Cultural appropriation has been a complication for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders since colonisation, unfortunately it is becoming an ever increasing issue for Australia’s First Nations People to navigate in today’s society. The Oxford dictionary describes cultural appropriation as this : the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.

Many deny they’re appropriating culture saying they are appreciating it. Let’s explore the terminology of appreciation; the Oxford dictionary’s definition is : appreciation (of/for something) the feeling of being grateful for something. So those who ‘appreciate’ the many cultures around the world do not take it for themselves, they do not falsely represent it, and they definitely do not profit from appreciation; however all these situations do occur during appropriation.

When someone appropriates a culture, they benefit in ways other than spiritually. When an individual comes from a dominant culture and does not give back to the culture they have taken from, they are benefiting in a way that further takes from the people who have already been stolen from.

Australian society expects that its citizens will abide by its laws and policies, Aboriginal People have the same expectation with regards to our lore and protocols. Often when I make this statement I am faced with responses that go along the lines of Aboriginal culture not being their culture so that individual is not bound by Aboriginal lore. But I ask these individuals if they go overseas do they abide by the laws of those countries? If they go to the Middle East, would women walk around without covering their hair? Would they photograph individuals without consent in South Korea? Would they spit or chew gum in Singapore? Or how about holding salmon under suspicious circumstances as per an unusual UK law. No they do not break these laws, even if they find the law to be strange or even silly. Yet here in Australia where the oldest living cultures in the world exist, the laws (spelt lore for us) are broken on a daily basis.

While the 500+ nations of Aboriginal People openly welcome individuals to learn about aspects of our culture, there are times we are appalled by how far some will take it. Just this year alone numerous businesses and groups have appropriated Australia’s First Nations culture to conduct music lessons and concerts with Didgeridoos. Concerts featuring women playing the didgeridoo or businesses providing didgeridoo music lessons to women fall outside the bounds of our cultural lore and protocols.

Aboriginal women from some of our cultures are given permission to play the didgeridoo; however there are very strict protocols to follow. But the majority of the Aboriginal nations do not grant this permission to women, and this fact means it is something we are not willing to accept from those who do not value our cultural beliefs as we do. Didgeridoos are connected to our Songlines; they are more than just a musical instrument, they are founded in lore and protocol. Didgeridoos are Men’s Business, Men’s Business is not something women have access to, we have Women’s Business instead.

* Please know the separation of Men’s and Women’s Business is not a divide between our people. Quite the contrary, lore and protocols specific to gender are focused upon during these sacred ceremonies. Enabling our cultural progression with these targeted strategies, perfected over thousands of generations.

Many are aware of an ‘event’ that occurred in Uluru during the 2020 December Solstice period. An event that reached across oceans, it drew attention individuals and businesses alike. However, this unfortunate situation took from a nation, their Elders, age old culture, and the spirit of an ancient and sacred location. Not only did it take, it did so without permission and without consideration. A sacred ceremony of Men’s Business was used and abused, changed and convoluted to make outsiders rich. The message was portrayed as something that was in affinity with Aboriginal culture; sadly many of our nations were unable to find these connections within their cultures, nor see the need for a sacred site to be the centre of a new age belief.

The group who ran this highly condemned event made thousands of dollars per individual who booked to attend in person, and hundreds from those who tuned in online. If a fraction of these funds had been accessible to the custodians of Uluru, the world could have witnessed a real Aboriginal ceremony that abided by the lore and protocols of the land. A real ceremony that shows the truth of the culture, not a convoluted version through an outsider's perspective.

The event that occurred also incorporated Aboriginal bodypainting, Aboriginal art work is infused with more than something that looks appealing, we don’t just use lines and dots to make something pretty - lore and protocol dictate and guide the painting, the history, the story and the ultimate message portrayed within the painting. This event also encroached upon these sacred meanings by using markings from other nations.

For generations fake art has been sold upon these shores both to tourists and the Australian citizens. These individuals go home thinking they have an amazing piece of culture they can hold onto. Little do they realise the damage that has been done by their trinket. Not only has a con artist essentially been paid for fraud, the people whose work has been appropriated have been robbed of their traditional culture and values with every purchase.

Across Australia stores can be found stocking imported fake Aboriginal designs, these are seen as paintings, prints, clothing, even key rings & jewellery.

Brands accessible in Australia have protections that prevent knockoffs from being sold as anything other than a knockoff - Gucci bags, Estée Lauder cosmetics &perfumes, even the entertainment industry have protections against films, shows and music being replicated without following the correct channels. The same protections are only recently being implemented for Aboriginal artwork and so far have produced little results on the overall perspective. And nothing much has been done to prevent other aspects of the cultures being appropriated for outsiders financial gain.

Aboriginal languages haven’t been free from cultural appropriation, in 2020 a business run by a Non-Aboriginal person attempted to copyright one of the Aboriginal words for sister; ‘Tidda’. Fisheries overseas have appropriated the Aboriginal word Barramundi to sell fish, but a ‘Barra’ is a species native to Australia and the name comes from one of the Aboriginal Nations.

I have heard Aussies loan items out and use the phrase “that’s a boomerang, it comes back”. While that line is not really one that we get upset about, it is still appropriation of our language; just as those who use the term whoop whoop to refer to a place far away from them.

Cultural appropriation is an ever increasing issue within Australian society. Unfortunately when individuals are contacted the first responses are anger & denial. These individuals often take to social media condemning the people who make contact, even if the contact is kind and professional. We understand the response, it is confronting to learn what you are doing is seen as wrong, or by our standards, a criminal action; and in some cases walking the line of racism.

But these negative emotions the individuals feel are not our goal, we often do not wish to make anyone feel bad - that’s how we feel in the face of cultural appropriation and it’s not a feeling we want to pass on. We merely wish to make the other understand how harmful their actions are towards all 500+ nations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders People. All we are seeking is that they do not continue to profit off something they do not truly understand. We ask them to involve our people so the correct information is delivered, lore and protocols are abided by, and the oldest living cultures in the world are maintained and respected. Alas this is often not the result, and a breakdown in communication creates a level of animosity which usually lasts a lifetime.

Australia’s First Nations People are often devastated when our Elders speak out about something that goes against our lore and protocols; only to have Australian’s, many who have never met an Aboriginal Person, object and impose their own opinions about our cultural values. This has become an overwhelming response thanks to social media, and is something that goes against the fundamental values of the Aboriginal People.

Our lore requires us to accept the cultures and values of others; all 500+ nations of Aboriginal People have their own versions of Dreaming (their own Heaven!). Each of our nations accepts the beliefs and values of other nations as their own. This is not a concept that has been sustained within the world we know today; most religions such as Christianity require everyone to be converted. The values that the wider Australian society are founded around that aspect, a good example are the calls for only English to be spoken upon these shores - a call that dismisses the many languages spoken by the Aboriginal Nations, languages that have existed for thousands of generations longer than the entire lifetime of the English language. Just as the Australia Day celebrations focus around the beliefs of assimilation & conversion; those who label it Invasion Day are ostracised or criticised by the majority of this society.

Australian’s often talk about respect and honour; but what is honourable or respectful in taking aspects of a culture which does not belong to them; or as per our values a culture they do not belong to.

Many do not fully understand how cultural appropriation disadvantages the individuals who belong to the cultures. Firstly those who make a profit from cultural appropriation are denying financial support to the people of that culture. Appropriation of culture results in a misrepresentation of the culture, which skews the opinions of those who come into contact with the appropriated materials.

Historically Aboriginal culture has been appropriated for museums around the world, examples such as the Gweagal Shield taken by Cook’s exposition team after they shot the original owner; or the carve trees that told the history of the Aboriginality People. Like many others, I have seen more scar trees in Australian museums than I have anywhere else in my life. Today these trees are so rare I myself have only ever seen one in the Australian bush, a loss my ancestors' hearts would be shattered over.

* Please note there are different types of scar trees - trees that were scared as a means of tool creation & the much rarer carve trees who’s designs told the story of an individual or a clan, found in areas of Vic & NSW.

Gweagal Shield
Gweagal Shield as seen in the British Museum

Around the world items such as the Gweagal Shield have seen the nations these items were stolen from, request their return. Just like in the case of the Gweagal Shield, the Eora Nation has been denied the item's return due to the ‘value’ the British museum applies to it. Similarly the Royal Society of Tasmania exhumed the body of Truganini and placed her on display for almost 100 years. An act that goes against everything the Aboriginal People value and believe with regards to our ceremonies surrounding death and how our ancestors' remains are handled. Almost 130 years after her death skin samples, held for scientific purposes, were discovered and returned to her descendants. The appropriation of Truganini’s body dramatically affected her descendants. Our cultures believe an individual will not rest if their body is not buried in the same place at the same time. This means Truganini wandered from Australia to England for 130 years, unable to join her Dreaming.

While Truganini was returned, there are thousands of families across Australia still mourning their ancestors. Because while their skulls or other body parts rest in scientists' hands in overseas locations, the spirits of their ancestors will walk the Earth without rest. If this was your cultural belief, would you not feel pain that your ancestors were unable to go to their version of heaven because society had appropriated their bodies for scientific research?

For those who have reached the end of this article, I for one thank you as you now have a better understanding of what cultural appropriation of Aboriginal culture looks like. Just as you have an idea of how much harm and damage these acts cause the 500+ nations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across Australia.

Our nations welcome individuals to learn about our culture, we appreciate the interest just as much as those who come with respect appreciate the knowledge & experiences they gain in the pursuit of our culture; but we never welcome appropriation of our culture and ask that if you see it you say something on our behalf; the more who understand cultural appropriation the less often it will occur and the better the wider Australian communities will understand the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

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