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Byron Shire
April 16, 2021

Appropriated culture: a closer look

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Local Aboriginal Arakwal custodian Delta Kay says the wearing of Native American headdresses is appalling – ‘whether they be at bucks’ and hens’ parties or at festivals.’ ‘Each feather is a symbol of honour and respect that a First Nations man has earned through great deeds.’
Photo from www.ebay.com.au

Hans Lovejoy

When is it okay to adopt traditional cultural practices for your own? Are there physical and psychic dangers?

Does cultural appropriation improve or dilute the powers of both the ceremony and the traditional leaders who have held them for perhaps thousands, if not hundred of thousands, of years?

While there are no easy answers, it’s a topic worthy of exploration given Byron Shire draws so many who are both looking for, and want to provide, a spiritual/cultural experience or enlightenment.

Cultural appropriation takes many forms; it could be wearing traditional facial symbols, First Nations headdresses or costumes, as well as taking part in ceremonies and ritual dances which are led by unauthorised indigenous and non-indigenous people. Money exchanged for taking part in ceremonies can also be considered cultural appropriation, whether paid to indigenous or non-indigenous people.

While some traditional ceremonies are conducted privately – in homes for example – public events are also held, such as the Spirit Festival. Ceremonies of all kinds can be found throughout online social media too, all for a cost. 

Custodian speaks

Local Aboriginal Arakwal custodian Delta Kay said that cultural appropriation ‘makes my blood boil.’

‘I wouldn’t wear a digger’s uniform for Anzac Day, for example. Their uniforms and badges were earned and have a high rank. 

‘The wearing of Native American headdresses is appalling – whether they be at bucks’ and hens’ parties or at festivals. 

‘Each feather is a symbol of honour and respect that a First Nations man has earned through great deeds.

‘Earning money or advancement from another person’s culture is degrading and disrespectful. 

‘I am often told by people who hold fire ceremonies, for example, that they have been given authority by an elder from another part of Country. I tell them they should go back to that Country and hold the ceremony with guidance from that elder.’ 

‘When our First Nations elders give talks, it can get twisted or misunderstood as there are a lot of lost souls in the area and it’s easy to be led unless you are informed and aware.

‘I implore people to appreciate all First Nations cultures and just be yourself, because we all belong to this beautiful world.’

Venue protocol

Instead, Delta says First Nations peoples’ cultures need greater protection and supports a venue protocol for the region.

‘As a community, we can discuss a better system for cultural protection,’ she says.

While most ceremonies are harmless to the participants, there are dangers.

Over the years, The Echo has reported on local deaths from South American plantmedicine ceremonies such as Ayahuasca and San Pedro.

Shaman training bar lowered

Local activist and film-maker Dean Jefferys says he has delved deeply into the plant-medicine world over the last 40 years, which includes ceremonies both locally and abroad. Those ceremonies include Ayahuasca, DMT, Salvia, San Pedro and mushrooms.

The Echo asked, ‘Despite reported deaths in the past, do you believe that there are safe practices being upheld by local plant-medicine practitioners?

‘I think the bar of what a trained Shaman is has been lowered over the last 20 years.

‘The term often used to describe a non-indigenous worker with the plants is Practitioner rather than Shaman. The Shaman I first drank Ayahuasca with in 1992 spent a year in the jungle by himself naked, as part of his training, then he trained with his father for 20 years after that.

‘Now, some people with no or very little training are mixing up Ayahuasca or other substances they bought on the internet and charging lots of money to take people on a shamanic journey.

‘Even though these natural organic compounds are not usually physically dangerous, there can be psychological damage done if there is not proper guidance and support.

‘Most “practitioners” I know have deep respect for the medicine and its origins.

‘I have been working with others to develop a Practitioners Code to safeguard potential initiate.’

‘You said that you often talk to those at festivals etc who wear Indian headdresses to remind them that it is culturally inappropriate. How is it different from holding a ceremony that is perhaps only an approximation of the original indigenous ceremony?’

‘I don’t conduct ceremonies for other people and prefer drinking with a fully trained shaman in the jungle.

‘Yet, if I feel the call, I will partake in an entheogenic ceremony that I design myself from what I have learnt over the last 40 years. It is a delicate process and huge responsibility to run a ceremony and then there are the preparation and integration issues to consider.’ 

‘With the ever increasing interest by non-indigenous people in this area, how does a traditional culture maintain its integrity with its ceremonies?’ 

‘I feel ceremonies are changing and morphing now and respect needs to be given and shown to the indigenous people who have kept the ceremonies alive through the ages. That said, we are all indigenous to Planet Earth. Many of these special ceremonies that are emerging from the forests and plains, to the west, honour the Earth and its creatures and help to bring the planet and is inhabitants back into balance.

‘I feel that with the right intention, training and due respect, some of these ceremonies can be shared by non-indigenous people.’

Open the discussion

Kate Little, who co-organises the Spirit Festival, told The Echo that ‘There does seem to be a line between traditional wisdom being handed appropriately to “westerners” and then an inappropriate use of wisdom without permission.’

‘Yoga itself is an Indian tradition that has various lineages that have been shared with people of various cultural backgrounds for more than a hundred years. 

‘We are certainly going to open this discussion at the festival so we can look at it from all perspectives and learn with each other. We feel that part of creating cross-cultural harmony is the sharing of cultural traditions in a way that is respectful.

‘We are also looking at how we can create new rituals and ceremonies that are meaningful to us now and it is likely that these will be influenced by our combined ancestry.’

Asked if she supports a protocol guideline for venues, Ms Little replied, ‘I have spoken with the local mob for years about developing a protocol guideline for events generally and specifically those with strong cultural offering.’ 

‘I always try to liaise with Delta Kay prior to events to ensure we have her permission/blessing and that we get the protocol right… that is a learning process for sure!’ 

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