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28 October 2017

What's the Opposite of Appropriation?

Indigenous Peoples’ Day just passed and Halloween is almost here, and I just suggested learning a new way from Native peoples, while making the grand, controversial suggestion that there exist both negative and positive versions of “appropriation.” I apologize for using a semantics trick to get your attention: there’s no such thing as “positive appropriation.” But, there is something else. Something better.

So, let’s clarify exactly what I mean.
Groundwork first: the word appropriation comes from appropriare ‘make one's own’.

“Make one’s own.” It’s a haunting phrase. A terrifying phrase that suggests power over… possession of. It’s painful for me to write now only two weeks after admitting publicly that: “me, too.” I, too, was treated as an object by a man. He had power over me and he used it to hurt me—he took something physical from me, while shitting all over my heart, my spirit, my mind. When he took that physical thing he had no right to take, he also took a piece of my trust, a piece of my sense of safety and some of my dignity.

Activist Tarana Burke started the "Me Too" movement in 2007.
“Making one’s own” is a very specific problem in the United States (and elsewhere) because White [and male and hetero, etc.] people and systems decided they could make anything and anyone their own—to do with as they chose. Land, rivers, trees, coal, women, Black/brown People, Native People, and essentially all of what is known as Turtle Island. Culture’s trappings, too, when it pleased them (see Victoria’s Secret models prancing down catwalks in headdresses and Native-like “regalia”), even while telling the people that created those trappings that the underpinnings of their cultures were worthless or even the Devil’s work. White supremacy ideology has been telling white folks that they have a right to take anything they want and use it anyway they want for centuries—without regard for anyone else. Taking pieces of a culture for profit, for “fun,” for image, and stomping the pieces they don’t want (don't value) to death in the bloody earth—after telling people they and their cultures are worthless.

Part of how this operates now, at Halloween and in the capitalist marketplace, is that the physical trappings of culture are bought and sold, making companies and white folks money, while the philosophies, values, histories, belief systems, and experiences of those cultures are trampled, devalued, annihilated and worse. So, yeah, Victoria’s Secret models strut in beads and feathers, but Native women are beaten and raped by off-reservation tourists who cannot—by law—be held accountable or prosecuted once they strut back off tribal land.

Feathers and beads are meaningful, Ankara and Kente are meaningful, but the meat of a culture that gives those material manifestations their power is in the stories, the experiences, the teachings, the values, the beliefs, the philosophies, the histories. These intangibles are what make beautiful Black people and cultures beautiful, glowing Native people and cultures iridescent. And yet these intangibles are what White supremacist and Capitalist culture (can they be separated? let’s be honest) have tried to destroy by demeaning, ignoring, excluding, devaluing, and committing all-out genocide through slavery, incarceration, denying sovereignty and all the other bullshit for at least five centuries. This is wrong and is has to be stopped. Now. So let’s be abundantly clear: appropriation is abominable and has to be abolished.

In order to abolish what we now know as appropriation, we have to abolish white supremacy itself— defined as a notion that white culture is more valuable, right and good than any other—an idea that pervades assumptions, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, policies, etc. in the United States (and elsewhere). I can think of no other way to abolish it than to dismantle the false notion that white culture is better than other cultures. The opposite of this, then, is to recognize the power and beauty and value and guidance in other cultures, hold them up, appreciate them, and let what is good in them lead us and teach us.

Learning is defined almost as the opposite of appropriation. In learning, we do not possess, but rather change. In education circles and pedagogy, we define learning as change in thought, feeling or behavior/action. We do not take, put on, co-opt, sell or profit from another culture or people (all colonialist, materialistic, capitalist terms in themselves). Instead, we let the cultures change us. We do not appropriate, “make our own.” We don’t own at all, and there is in fact nothing physical or material to possess. We let cultures that have ways of beauty and truth and meaning guide us. We make ourselves available to them—to be changed by them. We change. We submit ourselves to something that has the power to change us because we want to be changed, we want to grow, we want to love, we want to be better, we want to do better. Not only are we not appropriating, we are submitting.

artist, Vince Ballentine, @ ig: vballentine99

This is not a new idea. The Zen Buddhists, the Yogis, the practitioners of mindfulness the world over from St. Augustine to the Sufis were well-versed in the art of giving themselves over, submitting, to a new idea, letting themselves become immersed in a practice to be changed by it. And we can do it now, again. So, before we take one step down this path, let me be clear about where we are going. We are not going to take power over another culture to do with it as we please. We are not divorcing prayers from eagle feathers and strutting around in medicine wheels, we are not making onesies out of keffiyehs. We are not borrowing beautiful metaphors while siphoning off their power. We are walking into new ideas, immersing ourselves in them, to be overtaken by them, to submit ourselves to a new way of seeing, and emerge changed.

White supremacist and Capitalist culture have demoralized and destroyed too many and too much. There are good things in white/Euro cultures. But there are EQUALLY good things in other cultures, also, and if we want to change what’s destructive and wrong about white supremacist culture and its dominance, what I’m saying to you is, we NEED to learn from and value other cultures, and we need to change the dominant culture—no matter how you describe it. We need to find a new way. So, what this blog will do is bring you along for my explorations and meditations on what I have learned and can learn from other cultures that we must wholeheartedly come to learn from and value. This is not appropriation; this is submission. Submission to a new way, a balanced way, a cooperative and complementary way, a healthy way forward where we value the good and power in every voice: the mitakuye oyasin way.

01 October 2017

A Return to Love

The Mother’s Nature has always been about love. Love for our families, our children, the world that teaches us so much, moments of insight and experiences of inspiration. Love for my lovers, love for art, love for the creative spirit, for the nutritive wealth that is love and creation and acts of creativity in service of nurturing our children; creating things tangible and intangible that we call “art”—painting, music, afronauts, street art, poetry, hip hop; and seeing the world in another way—seeing one another in new ways.

Despite Cornel West's disappointing critiques of late, he has made strong observations that I have found valuable. He once said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public” (in private, this is tenderness). And his words have resonated deeply in me for decades. Even when I write about art or romantic, even intimate, love I see them as revolutionary acts. When I talk with my 6 year old son about our world and some of its deepest violences—injustice, hate, anger, racism, bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia—I think what I most want him to hear is that love, tenderness and justice are doing right by one another. I teach him that we all come from Creator, because that is what I believe; we all come from Source and so we are all of and by Creator and we share in Source. Source binds us and therefore we are one another. If we do not know this spiritually, perhaps science and nature can teach us.

The Mother’s Nature, like all my writing, is about love: tenderness for my child and lover, justice for my sisters and brothers. Love and justice are revolutionary because in and through them, we manifest our best, most Source selves in the world. Giving what we are on Earth, here and now, to give is revolutionary—transformative; being exactly what Source has made us to be is revolutionary—we re-create ourselves and the world. Real love, real justice, real creation are all of these. They are the mother’s (and father’s) nature: to make, to give, to nurture, to encourage from soil and flesh the very best in us, in all living things.

It is in this spirit that I rebirth the Mother’s Nature now, at harvest time when we look back to all we have created and reap what we have sown and nurtured. A time when we bring from our gardens squash and apples where they deliver their gifts to our bodies, and we are re-created.

I have in many posts talked about love, art, and culture, and diversity and justice—tangentially and transparently. Whether either or both, this was always intentional. The time has come to step out from my own shadow, the fear being misunderstood, and bring into the world a gift I believe I have been given. Because, if I don’t, my own life loses meaning: I am not delivering what Source gave me to give.

It’s time to talk about love-justice in a new way.

Michael Harriot recently wrote, perfectly, "White supremacy is the structural mechanism built into American society that values whiteness over everything by default." This is what I want to talk about. Many of us know we must #endwhitesupremacy, what we may not know is exactly how. As I learned real quick when my son was about 2 years old: if you want to course correct, you will need something “right” (healthy, harmonious, balanced) to focus on in order to move away from “wrong” (toxic, imbalanced, supremacist). No, he cannot throw metal toy trains across the living room. Yes, we can go outside and shoot baskets. Move the energy, in earnest and with intent, in the direction we want to go.

Righting balance means there are things we—especially white people—must stop doing, and other things we must start doing. I’m here to suggest a new direction. Stop white supremacy, and start #mitakuyeoyasin.

I’m a privileged white woman. One way I was allowed to thrive due to that privilege was to have been told repeatedly I could go anywhere. And they were right: I could go nearly anywhere. White supremacist bullshit, however, also tells white folks they can go anywhere and behave any way they want. I was at least distrustful of the system enough to know that was bullshit—because in a white supremacist system, only your own [white, male, hetero, etc, etc.] feelings and values matter. That never made sense to me. Of course others' feelings and values matter. Therefore I was often welcomed into black and brown spaces because I at the very least valued what they had to say, who they were, what they had to teach me. I’m not perfect, I made mistakes, but I also went to those places—black and brown spaces—and learned more than I could possibly have imagined—because I wanted to learn. Primarily because I recognized very early on in life that the culture I was living in not only wasn’t nutritive or healthy, it was toxic in a million ways. I sought other cultures not only because they were beautiful, because something in them resonated in my own chest, but because I knew I needed to learn from them if I wanted to thrive and if I wanted humanity to survive at all. Humanity, mind you, not human beings.

So, when I suggest we turn our energies in a new direction—mitakuye oyasin, “all my relations” or “we are all related”—know that right here and now I am doing exactly what I recommend: that we, white people, white supremacist systems and institutions, and everyone begin to value and learn from cultures that have been resolutely put down, devalued and attacked from every side in white supremacy’s effort to annihilate them.

2010, Standing Rock, pregnant and gathering sage from downwind, because plants have the sense of smell
Learning other cultures, and coming to places where we can adopt their practices in mind, body, heart
Unci Rita Long Visitor Holy Dance
and spirit—without engaging in negative appropriation (yes, there is positive appropriation)—is hard work. I’ve made mistakes in this realm, hopefully learned from them, and expect to make many more—but only because the desire to learn more, to learn better, to be better and to right these wrongs we are surrounded by is more important than pride, than appearing perfect. It requires, in every way, being humble, attempting empathy, and being willing to face our own shit. But it’s worth it. I’m better, my life is better, my child’s world is better because I have been willing to fuck up and learn and change. Because I want better for everyone, for you, for children, for wingeds and four-leggeds and all living and growing things.

I invite you to come with me down this new road in coming posts. I invite you to join me in learning more about mitakuye oyasin from the grandmothers and others, so that we can learn to create a new harmony together, in society and between one another: as brothers and sisters. You can start here by listening to the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.