When Cultural Appropriation Goes Too Far.

One of my biggest struggles when I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area as a South Asian, was the unapologetic way self-proclaimed new-agers would appropriate Indian culture. Wearing Indian inspired clothing, listening to Indian music, eating Indian foods, studying Indian traditional medicine and of course, practicing yoga (including all various types of chanting and instrument playing). It has never been an easy line for me to tow. I believe that culture is fluid, it doesn’t necessarily belong to any one person and South Asian culture is the jam, so it is easy to understand why people are drawn to its complexity.
Or are they? Perhaps it was curious exploration, but to me it has always felt like the new-ager obsession with India feeds into the belief that Americans don’t have their “own” culture, so they need to participate and steal from “mine.” Even though I had adopted a Western lifestyle and it was definitely “my culture”–one trip to India made that very clear. Furthermore, it felt very convenient for people that hadn’t experienced life as a person of color and an immigrant in this country to participate in a culture by choice, one that I had been discriminated against for being a part of. My ambivalence to Westerners adopting and often distorting what I knew as my “home” culture has only grown, where yoga practice for me is sometimes my fight to deal with my anger around cultural appropriation.
This very personal confrontation I have had with cultural appropriation (and the fact that I am human) makes me think the incident with the Oprah-approved self-help guru, James Arthur Ray who took some 50-odd people to a retreat center in Sedona, Arizona, had them fast and then sit in a sweat lodge, after which 2 of them died and 19 were hospitalized, is especially disgusting. The blatant lack of recognition of cultural appropriation, how dangerous and deadly the situation turned out to be and the chilling reality that perhaps this could have been anyone of the new-agers I encountered in San Francisco, starved and craving a culture of their “own,” is irksome at best.
Indigenous leaders agree. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, writes personally on NDN News,

As Keeper of our Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, I am concerned for the 2 deaths and illnesses of the many people that participated in a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona that brought our sacred rite under fire in the news. I would like to clarify that this lodge and many others, are not our ceremonial way of life, because of the way they are being conducted. My prayers go out for their families and loved ones for their loss.
Our ceremonies are about life and healing, from the time this ancient ceremonial rite was given to our people, never has death been a part of our inikag’a (life within) when conducted properly. Today the rite is interpreted as a sweat lodge, it is much more then that. So the term does not fit our real meaning of purification.

Who knows what Ray’s intention was, but not knowing how to do the ceremony properly led to the unnecessary death of 3 people and injuries to countless others. According to CNN the deaths will be investigated as homicides.
I am so deeply disturbed by this.

Join the Conversation