Cultural Appropriation

Our guide to cultural appropriation and wellness

From yoga to “smudge kits,” wellness is on trend right now. While wellness practices can help us to unwind and de-stress, they also raise major questions about cultural appropriation and theft from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities.

This online guide explores how cultural appropriation negatively impacts wellness spaces, what to do if you spot cultural appropriation, and how to practice wellness responsibly. Native Governance Center hosted a virtual event on this topic in fall 2020. You can view the recording from our event here and listen to our themed Spotify playlist here

To understand how cultural appropriation impacts wellness, let’s first start with the basics. 

What is cultural appropriation, and why should I care?

We love author Maisha Johnson’s definition of cultural appropriation: “a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Cultural appropriation involves profit, too. Members of the dominant culture almost always have the ability to profit off of what they’ve stolen, providing no compensation to those from oppressed cultures. 

Cultural appropriation is a form of modern-day colonization and oppression that directly harms BIPOC. It causes confusion for BIPOC seeking to learn about their culture and identities. And, it causes biological harm because BIPOC can no longer connect with traditional practices that help them regulate their nervous systems, reduce inflammation, and maintain holistic health.

Examples of cultural appropriation in wellness spaces and why it’s harmful

Cultural appropriation runs rampant within the $4.2 trillion global wellness industry. Examples of how cultural appropriation takes place in wellness spaces include: 

  • “Smudge kits” sold by non-Indigenous individuals  
  • Pricey yoga classes that emphasize fitness (rather than yoga’s roots as a free, devotional practice)
  • Using words and phrases like “tribe” or “spirit animal” when they’re not part of your culture 
  • Designer gym clothing featuring the Hindu Om symbol 
  • Misusing spiritual objects such as scriptures, crystals, and statues of Buddha
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Cultural appropriation denies BIPOC communities access to wellness practices (due to high prices and toxic power dynamics, among other elements). In addition, it strips wellness practices of their authenticity and sacredness. When a practice is appropriated, we no longer understand its origins and true intent. Without the sacred, we feel displaced from our ancestors and othered in spaces that are supposed to bring us healing. 

Tips for practicing wellness responsibly

Seek out teachers who are part of the community from which your specific wellness practice originates. Try out different instructors from within that community. Look beyond what’s most popular or readily available.

Normalize asking questions and having difficult conversations. Practicing wellness with integrity means speaking honestly with your teachers and yourself. Here are a few questions to ask your teachers:

  • Where did these practices come from? 
  • Who did you learn from? 
  • Is this part of your ancestry?
  • Did you get permission to do this outside of your ancestry from your teacher? 
  • How would you feel about me passing this on to others?
  • [If you come from privilege, or if you’re able to help]: How can I support the community from which this practice originates?

Learn more about your own culture and ancestry. We all have different stories and traditions. By healing through our ancestors, we heal our ancestors and can begin to address the trauma that we see today. 

Step outside of your comfort zone. Go somewhere where you’re out of place, and you’ll better realize the hard questions you need to ask yourself.

Practice mindfulness. Be present, and be intentional with everything you do. Hold the question of “What is sacred here?” and ask yourself if you’re doing the sacred justice or distorting it in some way. Consumption and consumerism have removed the sacred from so many aspects of our lives. 

What should I do if I see cultural appropriation happening?

The answer is simple: call out cultural appropriation when you see it. Approach the person or group with good intentions, knowing that they may have a lack of understanding. Tell them how and why their actions are hurtful.

Tips for white allies:

BIPOC are repeatedly asked to educate others about cultural appropriation. Do not further this pattern. Take on the work to educate yourself, and call out cultural appropriation when you see it.

Sample language: “Hey, using the phrase ‘spirit animal’ harms Native people because it appropriates their culture. Next time, can you try something like ‘inner avatar’ or ‘secret twin’ instead?”

Avoid retraumatizing BIPOC communities when calling out cultural appropriation. If, after doing your own research, you’re not sure if something is cultural appropriation, have a conversation with a friend who’s from that culture. (But, do not ask them to do the work for you!)

Tips for BIPOC:

Check in with yourself first before taking action. Repeatedly calling out cultural appropriation is draining emotional labor. 

Trust your intuition when approaching those who are appropriating.

How can BIPOC who weren’t raised with their ancestral practices access them without feeling like outsiders?

Accessing your ancestral practices when you weren’t raised with them can feel daunting. Before you get started, set your intentions and begin calling in the teachers that you’re seeking. Do your research, and let your community know about your goal to reclaim your ancestral practices. When you’re able to connect with someone who feels authentic to you, start learning. 

While you’re on your journey, seek out others who are taking similar paths. Lean on each other to feel grounded.

Don’t assume there’s a right way to connect: discover what this means for you. Be open to finding teachers in unexpected places.

We are grateful to Deanna StandingCloud, Victoria Marie, Samsoche Sampson, Gabrielle Roberts, Kou Thao, and Daniela Montoya-Barthelemy for sharing and inspiring many of the ideas presented in this guide.

Resources for further learning

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Cultural Appropriation Resources:

Twin Cities-Specific Wellness Resources: