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What is cultural appropriation and how do we avoid it?

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By Deborah Hoger

Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture takes something from another culture that is experiencing oppression. In Australia, it usually refers to when a non-Indigenous person/organisation/group/business takes an element of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture and uses it without permission, cultural respect or any form of reciprocity or payment.

In the early childhood context, this issue becomes applicable to when we are purchasing Indigenous resources to be used in our classrooms. We should be asking ourselves whether these resources are Indigenous-made, or created in a partnership or under the guidance of Indigenous people.

How cultural appropriation can be damaging to Indigenous communities

Terri Janke, a prominent Indigenous lawyer and expert in Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property, outlines the many reasons why cultural appropriation can be highly damaging to Indigenous people and communities.

Firstly, it is important to consider the cultural context of Indigenous arts and symbols; they are an expression of Indigenous belonging and connection to Country. For example, symbols may originate in ceremony or represent landscape features, bush foods, historical events and ways of knowing. Indigenous stories are passed down through generations via artwork and so when symbols and art are used without meaning or context by non-Indigenous people, they devalue and disrespect the proper cultural meanings. This misuse also doesn’t allow Indigenous people to maintain ownership of their own cultural heritage or indeed, to take credit for their own culture.

“Cultural appropriation is detrimental to all progress in reviving and keeping the culture alive. When an Indigenous person is not consulted or has not created the art it lacks true authenticity and damages the cultural identity of Indigenous people. It is not only disrespectful for the Indigenous community but also on a wider level the misappropriation may show the Indigenous culture for only one part and not its deep and rich surviving heritage,” says Lena-Jade Cochrane, Gamilaraay Graphic Artist, Mirii Designs

Secondly, cultural appropriation allows mass-produced products to flood the market and compete with legitimately produced and licensed Indigenous products, thus taking away opportunities for Indigenous people to commercialise their culture in their own ways and for the benefit of their own families and communities.

“Being Indigenous artists deeply connects us to our culture and is an integral part of our identity which we maintain and share through our artwork. We have learned it and been entrusted with it from our Elders. This is what makes Indigenous art so unique,” say artists Nadine Foley and Rosie Kwaima from Culture Weave

Research has found that Indigenous businesses are 100 times more likely to employ Indigenous workers than other businesses, so the Indigenous business sector has an important role to play in closing the economic gap which exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

There are many Indigenous businesses creating and designing resources and delivering services which are culturally respectful and through which the economic return goes back to Indigenous people and communities. It is these businesses where we should be purchasing any ‘Indigenous’ resources.

Do your research and know the source of our purchase

While there are certainly varying levels of ‘allyship’ in regards to non-Indigenous businesses that sell products or services relating to culture, and while there are many non-Indigenous businesses that are collaborating respectfully with non-Indigenous communities and individuals, there are many more who are not, so the best way to avoid participating in the practice of cultural appropriation, is to do your research and know who you are buying from.

Supply Nation is Australia’s leading database of verified Indigenous businesses, and this register can be found at www.supplynation.org.au. When purchasing ‘Indigenous’ resources, people shouldn’t be afraid to ask where the resources have come from.

Cultural appreciation vs cultural appropriation

The issue of cultural appropriation in the classroom is definitely one which educators should reflect on. What we want to achieve in our classroom is the promotion of cultural appreciation, not cultural appropriation. Having children learn about elements of Indigenous culture and participate in activities inspired by Indigenous culture is a wonderful thing; it is always strengthened by having Indigenous people actually come in and share with children on a personal level, but obviously, this isn’t always possible, and so sometimes it is left to the educator to create the engagement space to explore Indigenous Australia.

You should always approach this space with cultural respect, having done your own research around the topic you are exploring. Something seemingly simple like having children do their own ‘dot painting’ for example, could have multiple levels to consider.

For example, some Indigenous artists may not wish their artwork to be copied, as it may represent important cultural stories not to be re-shared, e.g. men’s or women’s business. In this case, it would be disrespectful to have children ‘copy’ the artwork, like you might do with say a Van Gogh piece. On the other hand, if we take the time to talk to children about dot painting, where it comes from (dot painting originated in the 1970s in Papunya, Northern Territory, and prior to then was not a widespread expression of Aboriginal art practiced across the country), and how it is one particular type of Aboriginal art, and then we have children explore using this method themselves, we are approaching the activity from a much more culturally respectful place. In the end, that is what we should be striving to do as educators; encouraging our children to engage respectfully with, and to appreciate the uniqueness of Indigenous culture.

References:

https://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/ipaust_ikdiscussionpaper_28march2018.pdf

Author Bio: Deborah Hoger is a Dunghutti woman and owner and director of Riley Callie Resources, a business specialising in Indigenous educational resources. She is passionate about using early childhood as a platform to introduce children to the rich depth of knowledge and unique perspectives that Indigenous Australia has to offer.

Further reading:

Avoiding the trap of tokenism – Amplify

Resources:

Aboriginal story stones – Gowrie/KU

Narragunnawali’s early learning, primary and secondary curriculum resources

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