Monday, February 19, 2018

Cultural appropriation and destruction, as it show up in textiles

Among the many failings of our European hegemony has been the idea of Empire, both state and religious, in geographic terms in early history and in economic terms now. If your culture is great, then it will be greater when you force it on another population. The belief in manifest destiny has led to the domination of white culture across the globe, with an incredible myopia about the consequences.

Speaking to a good friend at a party back in the 90s, the discussion turned to products beginning to be made in new factories in Africa and SE Asia. This friend is a boomer male, white, well educated, of old established New England heritage. Probably socially liberal and a libertarian in other ways, but not vocal about it. But this was a party. He was telling us about his new plastic home improvement product being made in an unnamed country in Africa. He said how much good it was doing the “African villagers” to have employment.  As a textiles person, I knew that traditional textile crafts in many countries in Africa are being discarded due to the demands of factory jobs. What were originally handmade, culturally symbolic garments of tribal affiliations and histories were being replaced with US used clothing that is shipped over there in bales and sold for pennies. An immense part of their culture is destroyed in the process. I mention this cultural loss to him and he says, smiling, "you can teach it back to them!" 

My jaw dropped. 

How could I possibly know the millennia of meaning that is woven into those fabrics? Every thread is a meditation on their lives - they take their blessings from the earth around them. There is plenty to do, but time to do it. Family and tribe are inseparable from their identity and everyone in the family is involved in the textile process. Their patterns are handed down, from mother to daughter and father to son, for generations untold. They wear their heritage proudly and other communities know and honor them and their history. The rich results are now familiar - sold to the wealthy in the western world, but too dear for the tribal population -  in Ghanian strip weaving, also known as Kente cloth, and Mudcloth dyeing from Mali, just to name a few from the African continent.* 

Textile collectors know the term “trade blankets.”  Those are produced mainly by Pendleton, with Indian motifs interpreted by white mill designers. The mill proudly claims that Native Americans use them at their pow wows and ceremonies and that the blankets represent “a visual statement of Indianness.”** The truth is, trade blankets were once produced by the native population for their own use, but sold outside the trading posts to the white settlers when the colonizers began to dominate the west. A post owner suggested changes to the Native colors and designs - again, traditional designs and colors, handed down through the generations with cultural meaning - that would make them more attractive to European eyes. Needing the money in those desperate times, the Native weavers made the changes and now, those white-approved patterns are the tradition.  The mills reinterpret the patterns and sell them back to their originators, a perfect capitalist success story. The ancient symbols that once were woven into their blankets are all but lost to history. 

This in a nutshell is what has happened over and over again, this genial paternalism that assumes that whites will determine what is valuable to keep and what can be allowed to the 'conquered' indigenous people. For they have been conquered, just as native peoples in every continent have been conquered. These days, we do it economically. The villagers' landscape is being re-shaped to fit global interests and they are being pushed inexorably into an economy and culture that holds no meaning to them. Abruptly changing to a western lifestyle has led to depression, crime, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol abuse. 

The spread of white European empire has been ruinous for indigenous cultures, without exception. With the 21st century dawning, I think we will see many cultures re-blooming, as the white hegemony fails and indigenous cultures reclaim their heritage, without our help, thank you. Those stories are starting to be retold. You can see it in the upsurge in Native tribal political actions and in the huge success of the Black Panther movie. These groups see the world in a radically different way that we can’t hope to understand without stopping and truly seeing its value.  Empire is not the way to the future but a dead-end, meaningless churn of commerce and exploitation. Community and connection to the earth can be a better path. Maybe we should listen to them instead. 


* A delightful compendium of the best known textile traditions of the African continent with lots of images:
and in-depth articles on the specific techniques mentioned:

**For a truly stomach turning read, see this justification of Pendleton’s cultural appropriation:




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