Monday, January 2, 2012

Decolonize Christmas! Stop Turning Culture Into Kitsch!

Every year there seems to be more and more Christmas kitsch which misappropriates an indigenous cultural symbol. In the 1990s, Kokopelli was a central figure in the Southwest Christmas fad. The image could be seen everywhere, stripped of its original meaning and commercialized to the point of absurdity. Kokopelli was used without permission to brand products sold to tourists and expanded to promote the fashionable Southwest Christmas. His likeness appeared on every conceivable product from Christmas ornaments to key chains, baseball caps, cigarette lighters and even boxer shorts. In the process, the meaning of the flute player was twisted into everything from a hyper-masculine, amoral “sex god” to a matriarchal goddess.

Lately, I’ve seen the Ojibwe dream snare, or dream catcher, commodified in a similar manner around Christmas time. The symbol has been so completely appropriated that it is no longer anchored in Ojibwe culture in the mind of the public. The dream snare has been reduced to the brand logo of the corporatist “positive thinking” movement.
The well-intentioned white liberals I encounter can’t seem to understand my outrage at their invasion and occupation of my cultural space. While many of them are actively engaged in criticizing the wealth gap in this country and Wall Street’s role in that, they don’t seem to be able to examine the morality of their own consumer choices.

There’s a movement among indigenous activists to change the “Occupy” movement’s name to the more all-inclusive and coherent “decolonize”. An essential element of the colonial mind set is not stopping to think if indigenous peoples want to occupy space in Christian or neo-pagan lore. The appropriation of the Ojibwe dream snare is a sub-genre of the more blatantly racist Christmas kitsch made popular several decades ago. (See my post Beginning To Look A Lot Like Racism from last year) Cultural appropriation is an act of colonization that reinforces the power imbalance between the colonizer (consumers and New Age marketers in this case) and the colonized. Marketing cultural artifacts is an exercise in the colonial prerogative to appropriate meaningful symbols from indigenous culture, to strip them of traditional meanings that threaten the status quo, and to replace them with corporatist values.
Using the dream snare to promote the idea that the New Age concept of “negative energy” can be warded off by magical objects is objectionable on many levels. It helps to promote the corporate agenda to coerce workers into becoming subservient, mindless cheer leaders for “positivity.” It serves the needs of corporations to convert the workforce into enthusiastic , loyal customer service reps who have voluntarily stripped themselves of any part of their humanity that the corporation deems “negative.”

Appropriation of the dream snare by neo-pagans only serves to prop up consumer capitalism and to reinforce corporatist group think. It is reminiscent to me of the forced acculturation Ojibwe people encountered in the boarding school era, but instead of imposing purely Christian ideology on Aboriginal culture, it imposes a hodge-podge of incoherent New Age philosophies that serve to confuse indigenous people about the original meanings in their own cultures.

What gets lost among all the corporatist propaganda, is the authentic meaning of the dream snare developed in Ojibwe communities over thousands of years. Its name in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) is Bwaajige Ngwaagan or dream snare, not dream catcher. Every aspect of its construction is imbued with symbolism and meaning that has been lost through commodification. A dream snare was constructed out of natural materials that had meaning to Ojibwe people. It was intended to be placed on or near the cradle board of an infant, and it was never meant to last very long. Its temporal nature had profound meaning to those who followed a traditional life way. Its shape, design, type of feathers used, all had deep meaning in Ojibwe culture. All this has been lost in the Disneyfied versions that are marketed to clueless cultural outsiders as an “alternative” Christmas ornament.

It’s not just insulting and inappropriate to trivialize the dream snare. By making it out of pink plastic or making it something cute and fluffy it infantilizes the cultural symbol. Making the dream snare into a magical shield against “negativity” is an affront to the beauty and intelligence of the Ojibwe concept of the dream. This act reduces it to the intellectual level of a Harry Potter book.
The dream is a profound and essential element of Ojibwe culture and ceremonial life ways. It has nothing to do with vapid New Age group think about negative and positive “energy.” A dream, to the indigenous mind, is a much broader, more profound concept. A dream is part of a path of life, a spiritual inspiration that initiates a course of action that leads to a good life, a way of living in balance with all of creation and in good relations with other human beings.

A dream snare was never intended to be used by adults, to be marketed to people who had no concept of Ojibwe culture, to be put on T-shirts, used in Christian Nativity scenes and especially not hung from the rear view mirrors of gas guzzling SUV’s on the way to a high-end plastic sweat lodge. The Ojibwe understanding of the use of the dream snare for their children is much deeper than a magic amulet that prevents road rage or filters out any criticism of one’s actions.

The mass marketing of the dream snare has done more to strip it of its cultural power than the missionaries could ever do. The vapid negative energy shield concept has supplanted the Ojibwe concept of the dream and replaced it with the empty alienating idea of the American dream. To the Ojibwe, a dream is a gift from the creator to be lived out in daylight. Part of living a good, balanced life is struggling to keep the good path, the good values central in the minds of the community. The American dream is a competitive race for scarce resources. It glorifies selfishness and is antithetical to traditional Ojibwe values. Advertisements for objectionable, racist New Age philosophies have recently been attached to image of the dream snare. Beliefs such as the Law of Attraction that blames the oppressed for “attracting” their own oppression through their “negative” thoughts falsely claim alignment with indigenous values in order to make themselves more palatable. The worst part of the misappropriation of the dream snare is that an Ojibwe cultural artifact has become the logo for the mandatory “positive thinking” and lack of critical and realistic thinking required by corporate America. This isn’t a movement that enlightens the public about the value of a good dream. It is nothing but a means of social control. Appropriation takes indigenous concepts that threaten the status quo and converts them to the exact opposite in order to coerce obedience to the values of those in power. To market a cultural artifact to maximize the number of consumers requires that its cultural power be diluted so that it can be understood and sold to the least common denominator in society. The consumption of cultural artifacts is calculated by consumer capitalism to make the consumer feel more and more empty and alienated so that more and more artifacts will be consumed. Last year consumers bought went koo koo for Kokopelli Christmas stockings. This year, they went out in herds to get a dream catcher wreath, next year it will be something else. All the cultural artifacts, stripped of any real meaning, will be discarded and forgotten once their real meaning is erased by the free-market. The worst injustice is to the indigenous youth who won’t be able to recover the meaning to their culture once their artifacts have been devoured and spit out by the “free” market.

Anyone who really wants social justice should take a long look at the false equivalence of associating the bad dream (the wrong minded, selfish life way) with “negativity” Hard questions should be asked about why thinking realistically is “negative” in consumer culture. Progressives would do well to stop mindlessly consuming and altering indigenous cultural artifacts and to take a hard look at what corporate American defines as negative: whistle blowing, critical analysis, calls for reform, union organizing etc.

Decolonize your mind from these thought patterns! The Ojibwe world view revolves around the concept of balance. Think about that and think about how to avoid getting caught in the trap of the Western mind that only thinks in extremes of “negative” and “positive.” Think before you buy a dream snare. Think before you tell your friends it drives away “negative energy”. Think about what politics you are really espousing. Discuss with your friends why corporations fear “negativity” so much. Why does American business culture require its workers to constantly purge themselves from the sin of “negativity”.

Question people who mandate positivity. What’s so threatening to them about honest, spontaneous emotions? Don’t accept the black-and-white thinking that the opposite of positivity is despair. It isn’t. The opposite of the extreme out-of-balance thinking of “negativity” and “positivity” is realism, and it’s closer to the traditional way of thinking than the thinly veiled Christian ideology in the positive thinking movement.

The person who twisted the dream catcher in this obscene and offensive way has probably justified her action in her mind based no her "good intentions. There are so many things wrong with this that I don't know where to begin, but a productive discussion with a colonized mind that has been trained to repeat the same liberal politically correct rhetoric over and over again to avoid painful self-examination is nearly impossible to achieve. If indigenous people and those who claim to admire us are going to be able to work togethter, we need to start the discussion about how to "un-cool" expressions of cultural appropriation like this.

Question the morality of cultural appropriation. Listen to indigenous activists who write volumes on what an immoral act of conquest and domination it is. Don’t go looking for the easy rhetoric that allows the colonizer to lead the unexamined life.

To indigenous people, the type of kitsch that neo-pagans create is visual terrorism. It’s a form of cultural colonization that devours everything with meaning and spits out bland propaganda that serves a corporate agenda. To us, cultural appropriation is an assertion of power and control by the 1% of privileged neo-pagans and well-intentioned liberals with the means to exercise economic control over indigenous culture. It’s their power over us, the 99% of the indigenous peoples on the planet without any power to stop them. The buying power of cultural outsiders far outweighs the limited power indigenous people have to educate them about the power dynamics that reinforce their privileges.

When New Age symbols and indigenous symbols are marketed as interchangeable, the result is always the annihilation of the indigenous symbol. What’s left is only the empty form where a dynamic, meaningful cultural symbol used to exist. This is cultural genocide. If indigenous people and occupiers are to work together, the well-intentioned and those who claim to admire and respect indigenous people need to wake up and realize that ALL their consumptive patterns matter. Those who see themselves as progressive need to realize that indigenous people do not see the commercialization of our cultural artifacts as harmless. Their “innocent” purchases have profoundly negative impact on our cultures. When the preservation of cultures that have been attacked by the colonial beast for centuries is at stake, the absence or presence of “good” or “bad intentions” is irrelevant. Occupiers need to realize that is an assertion of colonial privilege to refuse to see cultural appropriation as an immoral act.
For those who cannot or will not decolonize their minds, typical excuses will be uttered defensively over and over again. The most dishonest one being that every culture “borrows” from every other culture. This justification is one of the most offensive because it implies that outsiders are part of an indigenous community and possess an indigenous way of thinking. It also implies consent where there is none. If you borrow something from an equal, you return it in its original condition. When you take something without asking permission, alter it and change it in ways that are offensive to its guardian without any concern for the impact of your actions, that’s not borrowing. The typical excuses made by apologists of cultural appropriation may vary, but they all reveal a mind deeply indoctrinated by colonialism and consumer capitalism. The statement, “no one owns it” in reference to indigenous cultural artifacts, only reveals the twisted thinking of consumer capitalism that places “copy rights” on everything, only to the benefit of the monied class.

Another offensive excuse for erasing cultural meaning in indigenous artifacts is, “Everything has already been done before.” This uses the banality and lack of imagination of the indoctrinated as an excuse to continue to exist in that flawed way. Those who want to decolonize their minds need to examine the need for novelty that consumer capitalism instill in them and how that impacts the cultures that are strip-mined for the next neo-pagan fad. They need to examine what place fads have in a “spiritual” movement in the first place. Ever moral person can easily see who the rightful guardians of indigenous culture should be. There are no excuses for not listening to the objections of indigenous thinkers who have articulated the argument against cultural appropriation over and over again.
I’d like to challenge the “Occupy Wall Street” supporters who claim to be supportive of indigenous struggles to include indigenous people, as whole human beings, in their movement. I’d like to challenge them to decolonize their minds by (Un) occupying our cultural space.

A lot has been said about what the Occupy Wall Street movement needs. In my opinion, Occupy Wall Street doesn’t need a political platform so much as it needs a good dream in the Ojibwe sense. We all need a good vision for a world-wide community that enjoys their natural rights to land, clean air and water, nourishing food, health, education and the freedom to create their OWN real and meaningful culture. We all need a vision of what freedom from corporate control and manipulation can be like, and you don’t get that form the obligatory consumption of indigenous peoples’ culture as a fad. We all need to free ourselves from the corporate fascism that prevents us from feeling what we honestly and spontaneously feel, whether it’s “positive” or “negative.”
There’s a saying in Ojibwe that says, “How can you stop a woman who has dreamed a dream like mine?” If Occupy Wall Street had such a dream, maybe they would be as unstoppable as the Ojibwe with a good dream.

Further Reading:

These are some readings that are a good place to start for anyone who is truly interested in an honest discussion of commericalized culture.

Cuckoo For Kokopelli

Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America
by Barbara Ehrenreich

Culture Jam

The Meaning of the Ojibwe Dream Snare (Note: there's a lot more meaning to the dream catcher than this, but I would never publish anything more specific than this descripton on the internet for fear that is would be exploited by someone with a colonized mind.)

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insightful writing.

Unknown said...

I agree. Stores making money off sweetgrass and sage, traditional medicine. This infuriates me!