So a little while ago – some of our very best, and brightest, stars from Aotearoa gathered with other relations from across Te Moananui a Kiwa, and together, in a visual, musical extravaganza, launched a new tourism venture at Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/662V4GRhf04Exciting. Entrancing. And for some of us… concerning.
I struggled, over that week, to figure out why this was not an issue for so many other people. At times I wondered if WAI262 was actually a thing, or maybe it was a figment of my imagination. At one point I pondered at what point appropriation wasn’t an issue any more, and why I missed that memo.
I think before we go any further, it’s helpful to unpack this issue a bit – not least because some of the media exposure around it has been unhelpfully confusing. At least one media source edited my comments to make it seem as though I was focusing upon the performers who supported the opening. Some seemed to assume that I was accusing our own of appropriation. Editorials like this one missed the point entirely and were unhelpfully misleading.
By far and away – the issue is the park, itself. That’s not to say that having our own perform at the park is not problematic – but in order to determine that, you first need to consider whether there was any appropriation going on in the first place. So let’s unpack.
What is cultural appropriation?
Well as even the experts note, it’s not easily summed up in one sentence – it’s much more than simply using someone else’s cultural property, and definitely involves a relative power relationship. Usually it involves one group, who exerts dominance over another, taking from that culture and using as they see fit. More often than not it is a one-sided (or at least severely imbalanced) transaction. It is often defended as being “a homage”; “honoring”; “paying tribute” and “a cultural exchange”. It is, of course none of these things. It is a colonial exercise in entitlement and privilege. It is an act of colonial violence, an extension of the theft of land, brutalizing of bodies, and generations of legislation and policies of cultural erasure and replacement. Appropriation sometimes occurs when people are trying to look like a specific culture, and sometimes occurs when people blend cultures for a particular exotic look. Probably the most comprehensive collection of essays, blogposts and research on cultural appropriation can be found at http://nativeappropriations.com/
Is it a problem?
Short answer: Yes.
Which is why indigenous leaders all over the world are gathered right now searching for ways to halt cultural appropriation.
More often than not, appropriation is borne out of one of two drivers (sometimes both): Fetish or Profit. This is largely because non-white culture is seen as exotic – by virtue of its other-ness. In being the “other”, the non-white culture is conceptualised as edgy, unusual and different. This is what makes it marketable, and desirable. The two, together, is what leads to hypersexualised, eroticised depictions of indigenous women that contributes, in no small part, to the sad statistics about the frighteningly high rates of abuse, abduction and murder for indigenous women around the world.
As a part of the “packaging” process, it’s not uncommon for the colonizing culture to take bits and pieces from one, or a number, of indigenous cultures, and meld them together. Cultural distinctiveness doesn’t really matter, what matters is achieving the right amount of otherness, in order to achieve peak exoticism. The removing, and displacing, of cultural markers is a problem because it forms a part of a larger process of assimilation – and because the very act of one group defining another, reaffirms who is the alpha, and bolsters the power relationship.
Is Volcano Bay appropriative?
What we see for sale in Orlando is classic “tiki lounge” culture.
Tiki lounge was borne out of the post-war era, where US servicemen returned from their time in the Pacific wanting to recreate some of what they experienced during wartime. Tiki lounge is a deliberate blend of real cultural markers to create a false culture – it looks something like Hawai’i, something like Tahiti, something like Rapa Nui, but isn’t quite. It even blends in Caribbean, African and Asian culture – ‘cause hell all non-whites are the same right? In tiki lounge you may find yourself drinking out of a mō’ai (mōkai in Māori – let’s all think for a moment on what that references). Or you may find yourself drinking out of a Tiki head. Poor old Tiki – one of the most important cultural symbols of our ocean and at the same time one of the most belittled. From plastic pendants to boozy vessels, Tiki has been dragged through the mud and back again by western capitalism.
Importantly – Tiki lounge culture was borne directly out of militarised settler colonialism in the Pacific. It was an example of white men, taking what they wanted from our region, and using it how they saw fit – in this case it was to create an exotic drinking culture, which eventually became a pop-culture subset.
It is not just appropriation, it is an entire genre borne out of appropriation by military settler colonialism in the Pacific.
What impacts does that have?
There’s a word for when one culture imposes itself upon another, occupying its space and taking what it wants, in a onesided transaction. It’s called Colonization. I think we can all agree it has impacts.
In particular, appropriation feeds a mentality that is not helpful. Not when you have daughters who will eventually have to untangle who loves them, and who loves the idea of an exotic brown girl. Not when you’re too embarrassed by your “otherness” to maintain your own cultural practices. It’s not helpful with the young boy with fetishized ideas of brown girls grows up to be the policeman across the desk when your niece has to report a sexual assault.
So what about our own supporting it?
So having established what cultural appropriation is, that it does do damage, and that YES this theme park is appropriative, we’re in a much better position to consider the worth of involvement. Like they say – context is everything. Do I think the performers deliberately set out to support appropriative industry? No, I don’t. This is a group of people who dedicate their lives to celebrating indigenous culture and peoples. Either they don’t agree that it’s appropriative, or they are unaware of the appropriation. Perhaps they haven’t even seen the park in its entirety. This doesn’t change the value of the discussion.
At one point in the ceremony, there was the gifting of a mauri stone. I have seen it mentioned a number of times that the indigenous community from Orlando were invited to receive it – although the only reference to this that I’ve found is a Māori Television interview where Puerto Ricans were invited as an indigenous people to receive the stone (Puerto Rico is 2000 km away in the Dominican Republic, and the indigenous people there are the Taino).
This is nearly a whole nother article. My head filled with questions about this. Mauri wai in an area with so many water burdens (both in terms of chemical additives and allocation), mauri whenua when it is placed in a context of thieved lands and culture, alongside appropriative plastic merchandise, and when that land is built on the bones of indigenous slaughter and oppression. Anyway – all of that to the side – yet still many, many others have asked – where are the indigenous people that were supposed to receive it?
And this last part needs to be said because it is a formative part of First Nations history. In 1830 Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act – and it resulted in the mass displacement of thousands upon thousands of First Nations peoples from the South East of Turtle Island, across toward Oklahoma. In Orlando – they resisted, and were hunted down and slaughtered.
Survivors were force marched for over 1000 miles – nearly 4000 of them died. It became known as the Trail of Tears – and it is one of the most well known genocidal acts in the world. This is important so I’m going to paste a screengrab for those that don’t like to follow article links (from website History.com).
The Seminole today are resilient, awe inspiring, and still, (like many of our indigenous brothers and sisters of Turtle Island) marginalized in their own lands. And while much has happened between 1830 and now, you know what hasn’t happened? They haven’t been given their land back. It’s still occupied. In this case, by Universal.
Now to place this in the context of appropriation – all of our cousins in Turtle Island face huge challenges with appropriation. After being forced off their own lands, stripped of their own culture, denied their language, their cultural practices criminalized – they are consistently mocked, mimicked and belittled, by the very people who stole, and continue to occupy their land.
To expect a people to participate in a ceremony that positions Universal Studios as culturally sensitive – when they are clearly so given to rampant appropriative behaviour – is, probably, a bit much.
So there you have some of the reasons the opening ceremony were concerning. Was it beautiful? Without a doubt. Breathtakingly so. As always, our stunning culture, in the hands of the very best, captured the hearts of multitudes around the world. But what was missed (for whatever reason) was an opportunity for solidarity, and to confront and address one of the key challenges that face all indigenous peoples. One thing’s for sure – appropriation isn’t going away. It won’t fade into yesterday. The only question left is how will we choose to respond to it.