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UPDATE (1 August 2013): Jonah Haas has published a reply on the Lucidity blog

Santa Barbara-based Lucidity Festival has a problem with cultural appropriation. Unfortunately, the organizers don’t seem to have a firm grasp on what ‘cultural appropriation’ means, and so they don’t see what the big deal is or why they should make changes to their festival.

Who did what now?

Lucidity Festival takes place in the Live Oak campground in Santa Ynez and is described as an “open-source transformational arts and music festival” (I for one want to see the source code). Lucidity Festival LLC was founded in 2012 and the first festival was held from April 13–15 of that year. The theme of the 2012 event was “Awake in Your Dreams”, which involved your standard New Age nonsense:

We, the Dreamers of the New Dawn, have stirred in our slumber. As the eye of consciousness opened, we recognized the dream as a dream while we were still within the dream! The experience of lucidity unfolds into the understanding that each of us has infinite potential, that we are able to let go of fear and are free to create that which we want to see in the world. This sunrise of awareness marks an ever-present-now moment of self-discovery—the birth of something beautiful. This inception is a time to explore the many archetypes that exist within each of us—healers, warriors, renegades, lovers, tricksters—and as part of a grand human family.

(We could spend some time worrying about these “archetypes” and what sort of appropriation might be going on there, but that’s pretty minor compared to what’s next.)

The 2013 festival took place from the 12th to the 14th of this month. The theme this year was “The Totems’ Return”:

Eyes, heart, and spirit are wide open as we begin to examine the world anew. We are lucid and loving it! We recognize that all that can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, and heard upon this great ocean of infinity is a beautiful reflection of that which exists within us. In this next chapter, you embark on a deep and joyful dive into the heart of who and what you are. The animal totem spirits of our world are here to guide you. We call forth The Totems’ Return, ushered in by wise Owl, humble Tiger, courageous Dragon, wild Monkey, loving Dove, and playful Coyote. This next chapter is simultaneously an invitation to reconnect with the animal within and an opportunity to learn from each totem’s strengths and weaknesses.

The header image for the 2013 Lucidity Festival places great emphasis on these “totems”:


Why is this a problem?

This is cultural appropriation of the worst sort. Lucidity Festival is taking traditions of Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest out of their historical context, trivializing them, and using them as costumes for white hippies to wear while play-acting in the mountains for a weekend.

In what follows I’ll be using the definition of ‘cultural appropriation’ given by Claire Light:

Cultural Appropriation
The unhealthy aspect of [multiculturalism], where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture … and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the “home culture” or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring.

(Katie Baker cites a more terse definition given by Susan Scafidi: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.“)

Light contrasts cultural appropriation with cultural syncretism, which is the inevitable mixing that occurs when cultures “come into contact with one another, either through geographical proximity, migration, conquest, trade and exploration, or in other ways”. There is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of cultural exchange. What makes cultural appropriation a problem is that “cultural appropriation is about an exploitative power dynamic”. Robin Gray puts this well in an essay specifically about the appropriation of totem poles:

Appropriation is not just the process by which people borrow from other cultures; it is also about controlling knowledge about “Other” cultures. Indeed, the appropriation of Indigenous cultural heritage has been a strategy for controlling the knowledge produced about Indigenous cultures and peoples, the power to control the means of knowledge production and the power to set the terms of its use-value within society. Simply put, the appropriation of the totem pole has served to further trivialize northwest coast First Nations cultures.

The behavior Lucidity is engaging in involves representing the complex traditions of Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Northwest as little more than a set of inspirations around which anyone is free to develop their own “Totem Tribe” as part of some bullshit exercise in personal expression. The “Community Totems” created by attendees and listed on the Lucidity website are a perfect example of culturally ignorant individuals callously mashing together random aspects of different minority cultures while exoticizing and demeaning them.

What Lucidity is doing here is lumping Indigenous tribes together with mythological, fantastical, and imaginative “creatures”. And, in the words of Jennifer Weston, “to pretend that we’re fictional characters vs. real people from real cultures is not only offensive, and racist, it’s a vicious act suppressing our lived realities as Native peoples, and an appropriation of our very identities.”

You might not see why the totem poles are a big deal. In fact, if this were an isolated act it might not be a very big deal. But it’s part of a larger pattern of marginalizing minority groups by treating their culture as an accessory for members of the dominant group.

Consider the wearing of headdresses. This is obviously problematic because, as Jennifer Weston points out in an article by Katie Baker,

the plains Indian war bonnets that the ubiquitous hipster/Victoria’s Secret & other fashionista “feather headdresses” are modeled on are actual historical sacred ceremonial pieces, sometimes called regalia (but not costumes). While ceremonies varied among the diverse plains tribes who produced these headdresses, most involved specific prayers and actions, often relating to EACH single feather. Honor songs and ceremonies, for men and women warriors, come from our languages and represent ancient spiritual practices deeply tied to tribal homelands and their biodiversity.

Casually wearing a headdress involves not only trivializing a sacred object but also, says Adrienne K., “collapsing distinct cultures, and in doing so … asserting your power over them” by treating the various Indigenous societies as a single, static, dead culture that can be raided freely. (Someone did post the Adrienne K. article just quoted on Lucidity’s Facebook page, but unfortunately nobody liked it.) Headdresses were worn last year, and it looks like they were worn this year as well. (Lucidity attendees are not the only ones at fault here, of course.)

Hipsters in headdresses by Jen Mussari. Used with permission.
Hipsters in headdresses by Jen Mussari. Used with permission.

Seen in this light, Lucidity’s use of totem poles is part of a system of cultural appropriation that is actively harmful to Indigenous communities.

What does Lucidity have to say about all this?

Given that the organizers of Lucidity Festival engage in and promote unacceptable acts of cultural appropriation, it’s not surprising that they’ve heard this criticism before. It’s also not surprising that their response, written by Lucidity co-founder and Marketing Director Jonah Haas, makes everything so much worse:

We are sensitive to the cultural appropriation discussion, and our choice to celebrate totems was certainly not ignorant to those concerns. We are a tribe. This is our totem. We are influenced by many traditions and many animal energies.

This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous. Let me put this as clearly as I can: No, you’re not.

Now you might say that I’m sticking my neck out here. Human intelligence is notoriously limited, and it’s very hard to be sure that we ever know anything. Fine. I’m almost certain Lucidity Festival is not a tribe. It’s long, but I don’t see them anywhere on the list of Indian Entities Recognized and Eligible To Receive Services From the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This is far from conclusive, of course. There are probably many tribes who have been refused federal recognition, and so do not appear on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ list. It’s possible that Lucidity is one of these erased tribes. But they’re not on this list of unrecognized tribes, and I can’t find any evidence supporting Jonah Haas’ claim to tribe-hood. (If he can provide documentation I would happily update this post to reflect it.)

My educated guess is that the members of Lucidity do not constitute an indigenous society with historical ties to the region and a unique cultural identity. But maybe that’s not what Haas meant. Maybe he meant something like “a group of privileged Californians who get together once a year and do drugs at Live Oak”. OK. There’s nothing wrong with that. From the testimonia on Lucidity’s Facebook page, it sounds like people had fun. Good for them! If that’s all that was meant by “tribe”, then this wouldn’t be such a problem.

But it’s obvious that Haas means more than that. Lucidity’s promotional materials are rife with references to the traditions and imagery of Indigenous peoples, especially those of the Pacific Northwest. The poster for 2013 prominently featured—of course—a totem pole, and the Facebook page makes references to specific tribes like the Chumash as well as posts of generic (and Othering) pieces of “art” that serve as a blank canvas on which commenters might project themselves:

Caption: You provide the caption.
Caption: “You provide the caption.”
Caption: Who can recall Lucidity’s Totem Animals? Should we keep these same animals as the embodiment of each villages’ energy or should we choose a new set? Which animals would u like to see represented on Lucidity’s Totem pole?
Caption: “Who can recall Lucidity’s Totem Animals? Should we keep these same animals as the embodiment of each villages’ energy or should we choose a new set? Which animals would u like to see represented on Lucidity’s Totem pole?”

We’ve gone off the rails a bit, haven’t we? Let’s get back to our close reading of Jonah Haas:

Rest assured, this IS our own original digital imagery, with multi-cultural influence. Each totem image was crafted by our community’s creative, Mark Goerner, they were each chosen for the type of energy they imbue, they are a symbolic representation of our community’s life force, they were informed by MANY traditions, notice the inclusion of the dragon, the tiger, the coyote, the monkey, the dove, the owl. The totem pole itself was not ripped off either, while it was inspired, in part, by Pacific NorthWest aesthetic, it is our collective representation of the archetypal energy of our tribe. This design was created by Matt Rodriguez, another one of our skilled artists.

Two things:

  1. You’re not a fucking tribe. (See above.)

  2. You’re guilty of cultural appropriation, not intellectual property theft. While theft of tribal IP is a huge problem, there are other kinds of cultural appropriation. Nobody is accusing you of “ripping off” the designs of real totem poles. In fact, the problem is exactly that you failed to treat the original pole designs with sufficient respect. Jessica Metcalfe’s point about a horrendous fashion collection applies here as well:

    He produced this … with little to no knowledge of the complex stylistic conventions of Northwest Coast. Designs such as his actively work to reduce public respect for the deep cultural knowledge and artistic skill needed to design, create, and carve a pole.

    The fact that Mark Goerner’s designs were superficially “informed by MANY traditions” is precisely the problem.

Moving on:

Our use of the totem imagery and the totem concept incorporates and celebrates a way of life that is inspiring to us. Exploring the aspects of self that are represented by the various spirit animals is the second chapter of our six year story … if you haven’t read, we invite you to see the deeper intention of what is going on here

Appropriating aspects of Indigenous culture because they are “inspiring” to you is not an excuse. But let’s follow that link, shall we?

It’s the same “Six Year Story Arc” that provides explanations of each year’s “theme”. I quoted from Years One (“Awake in Your Dreams”) and Two (“The Totems’ Return”) above. Year Three is some boilerplate New Age scrawlings, but Year Four (“Tribe Quest”) is Bad News. My emphasis in what follows:

While your individual consciousness has tasted the sweetness of One Love, our immediate three-dimensional, carbon-based reality presents a tangible set of vital questions and challenges. How do we live in the world in right relationship with each other and the planet? How do we transform our cultures and societies to make space for a brighter future for our children’s children? For the answers to these questions, we spin back in time to learn from our ancestors. In this Tribe Quest, we look to our indigenous knowledge systems, ancient secrets, and native wisdom traditions and stand them alongside that which is gleaned from scientific rigor and careful, prolonged observation. Ever looking, ever learning, ever loving, ever lucid, we are coming together as one community with one voice.

Again, Indigenous cultures are treated as exotic, “ancient” curiosities to be rifled through, rather than as living traditions that still exist today.

Haas ends his blog post with an invitation to further dialogue (“And as always, we are open to your thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and criticisms.“) and three paragraphs copied and pasted from Wikipedia. (What was that about not ripping things off?) At no point is there any admission of guilt or even admission of the possibility that Lucidity is perpetuating racism against Indigenous peoples. Because they’re a tribe too.

Oh, if only it was.