Cultural Sensitivity or Human Dynamism?

A constant debate runs through my thoughts on a regular basis… are we human or are we tribal beings… Let me explain.  So many conversations, art and communications are loaded with terms which are from all over the place.  For instance, everyone knows the yin and yang.  It is a recognizable symbol and is pretty much accepted all over the globe for its meaning.  When we say it, we know what this means.  Yet we don’t think automatically about China, the origination of the term or if we are offending the Chinese by using this term.  It is a human idea. 

English and western cultures are very good at adopting terms and using them in the manner they were intended and then moving terms to new levels or layers of understanding.  This has come with some stress, but pretty much this process has occurred throughout history as cultures intermingle and intermix.  Good, we are a global culture called the human race.  This becomes more and more evident with the internet and sharing ideas globally.

Yet there are many who decry a sense of violence done to diversity and scream that terms are for their tribe alone… to say nothing of the actions and intentions behind them.  We use the term shaman all the time.  But how many of us are from Mongolia, or from a Mongol tradition.  It seems we could care less about this roots term and we add all sorts of endings to it to make it more understandable.  Shamanism, shamanry, shamans, shamanizing and shamanness… I have seen these used in numerous places… yet the original term itself is just shaman…  We communicate well when we use these terms.  And I love the term. 

But it gets dicey when we have tribal cultures and conquered cultures who lay claim to certain terms or symbols that are in essence human in origin or worse been adopted to the point that the originators are offended.  A term that comes to mind for me is sweat lodge.  For anyone who knows this ceremony and term well, you know it rose from a global context and has a long history (35,000+) of service and connection to the human race.  Yet certain tribes are outraged by the appropriation of the term let alone the ceremony and lay claim to it as the only ones who can practice it correctly or appropriately.  Yes there is not a soul alive these days who does not understand that these tribes were conquered some century ago.  It also is hard for some to understand that the appropriation can be construed as another form of conquest, cultural conquest.  The fear of these tribes is that they will lose something in the process of allowing the term to go on being used by others.  Yet, the term really is the best reference to a host of ceremonial rites that surround that term.  No one tribe nor leader nor person does this in the exact same way so there is really no appropriation. 

Political correctness goes hand in hand with this.  When we are attempting to be politically (culturally) correct or sensitive often we shut down the conversation.  Conversations and language are organic and constantly adapting to the times and the context in which they occur.  Yet this idea of being sensitive to others breaks us down into tribal factions.  When someone is hurt by another often the description includes the cultural or racial description along side of the harms to or from.  Like “a white man hurt a black woman” or a Hispanic male terrorized a gay Native American.”  These are accurate, but misleading too.  What occurred is a human hurt a human.  When we carry these identities fully into the media we polarize the issue and we become something less than whole.  Often it gives permission to many people to dismiss this person or that person as “other” and thus not connected to our human family. 

We need to be sensitive to cultural diversity… But we also need to be aware that to copy, to understand, to walk a 1000 miles in someone’s moccasins is to honor and respect and to bring us into a greater circle of awareness of what it means to be human.

In art, I think of this all the time.  I love bears.  I draw bears, and lines within lines with outlines of bears.  Often these incorporate mountains and scenery that I have explored.  People will look at the work and say, “wow what a great native American piece of art this is.”  Yet there is nothing really Native American about the work.  It is my work.  And the themes in the work may have similarities but it is not tribal, it is not even symbolically framed in that context.  Yet it was easy to dismiss and push the work into that tribal context… This is scary on two fronts.  Yes, I am a native American mixed blood ancestry… aka a mut like many who live in this country, but this does not mean that I am Indigenous… and exactly when does one become indigenous?  200 years, 500, 1000, 15000?  And how pure is pure?  It is my experience and my images that are being brought forth with beauty and style in my art, not someone’s culturally controlled dominant paradigm.    

The Post Modern critique of Art has come down to the problematic issue of appropriation of ideas and symbols and learning to walk one’s own path and way.  So how do we do this?  Separate with clear boundaries between symbols, experiences and ideas?  Or do we share our experiences and share the energy of these experiences through our art etc.  There is a fantastic artist who paints from her experiences with ayahuasca.  The paintings look similar to the art found in Peru.  The visions cross informed from her experiences.  Ayahuasca visions are very similar… the spiritual experience drove the work, not the culture.   Do we tell this artist that this art is not culturally sensitive because the visions are pretty common with what has been occurring in the jungles for 100s of years?  I think not.  They are beautiful and they are within her experience and from her experience that makes them amazing.  Pictures of the sweat lodge are favorites of mine… but they are mine, not a Native American tribe’s… 

We are entering a phase when the greatest sensitivity we can foster is towards all humans no matter how they self define and how they individuate as beings on this planet.  We need to be sensitive to human experiences… not tribal ones.  To stay connected to the tribal distinctions with all the criticism and inherited harm is not a healing and whole human for our planet.  We need to accept that our language is organic based on our beautiful wandering across the globe… not stuck in a space and place and incapable of growth and exchange of energy.


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