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What does Cultural Appropriation Mean for Pacific People?

What is cultural appropriation? How does it affect me? Is there anything we can do about it? Understanding cultural appropriation and misappropriation can be difficult. But these questions are important and it’s a conversation worth having. Why? Because we could be practicing and encouraging cultural misappropriation without realising. Many cultures around the world face the same threat of misappropriation, so it’s important we as Pacific people know what it means for us, and what we can do about it.

First thing’s first

In the most basic sense, “cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” –  Maisha Z. Johnson.

Sharing aspects of our culture is great. It allows people to be inspired by the Pacific and the vast array of cultures that exist within it. These cultures are vibrantly diverse and primarily belong to Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian islands. Within these islands, different subcultures come together to share different characteristics in a huge melting pot of diversity. Each culture is different, and they all contribute to the collective Pacific culture that binds all of them together. Sharing promotes an inclusive community, creativity and opportunities for people to exchange resources, knowledge and appreciation for diversity.

But here is where it gets dark, confusing and wrong. Cultural misappropriation is unauthorised use of a culture. When we use aspects of a culture (that is not ours) without permission and for our benefit – it’s stealing. There is no grey area or question about it.

At this point of my research, I began to think, “okay, okay, I get it. It’s wrong.” But that wasn’t all. Crack open the coconut of cultural misappropriation and you too will find what makes it so controversial. Cultural misappropriation also refers to when people from a dominant culture assume ownership of a marginalised culture that they’ve oppressed.

Think of the Captain Cook era. Imagine a group of seemingly more powerful people arriving on our land, invading our home and taking over our independence. They infiltrate our culture and present it to the world, taking credit for the discovery of who we are, and where and how we live. They trivialise our sacred motifs, meaningful hairstyles and war ornaments for the sake of exotic fashion – without having to face prejudice, oppression or extinction. That is cultural misappropriation. And sadly, for people from the Pacific, that was – and sometimes still is – our reality.

What does it mean for us today? 

Do you know the difference between the Pe’a and a modern Samoan tattoo around the arm? Can you wear a ta’ovala if you’re not Tongan? Or a sari and bindi if you’re not Indo-Fijian? Is it wrong to perform the Hula if you’re not Hawaiian? Can Pacific people assume collective ownership over everything that’s Pacific?

Overlooking these kinds of questions will lead to cultural misappropriation, for both Pacific and non-Pacific people. You don’t have to be a cultural genius to avoid it. All you need is awareness. Each time you’re presented with an opportunity to appreciate any culture, especially your own, ask yourself – am I doing this right? Is this in context? Am I being respectful and mindful about it? If the answers are yes, you’re on the right track.

What can we do about it? 

As Pacific people, we set the standard. We hold the key to educating our community and society. But before we do that, it’s important that we know the truth of our culture for ourselves. That type of awareness gives us the depth we need to educate people who are open to learning more about it.

Is there someone you’d like to talk to about cultural appropriation? What would you say? Are you open to learning more about different Pacific cultures? Hopefully the answers to these questions will spark meaningful talanoa about culture, appropriation and what it means to represent and appreciate the beautiful diversity that exists within the Pacific.

Photo credit: Rae Photography

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