Looking at the medicine wheel to understand misappropriation
By Jamal Al-Bayaa, Staff Writer
Cultural misappropriation is a concern internationally, and although it can affect all, the indigenous peoples of the world take it especially seriously. While associating Vikings with Swedes may classify as a type of misappropriation, you won’t experience very much backlash at all from that reference. More likely, you’ll get a chuckle. What will get you significant backlash, however, would be something like wearing a Native American headdress to a music festival.
It’s not because Aboriginal people are “more sensitive” or anything. Not directly, anyways. More accurately, the intense response that Aboriginal people give to misappropriation is a defence against a long history of mistreatment and manipulation in society, especially culturally. Aboriginal people would like to see their culture regain its dignity, and cultural misappropriation counters that goal. They would like to see it end, preferably in this lifetime.
The biggest problem is that misappropriations introduce negative stereotypes against an already discriminated against population, which does nothing to help their already elevated unemployment, poverty, and prison population numbers. Misappropriation may hinder the process of re-educating the public on what daily life really was for the original Aboriginal peoples, which would also hinder the long and arduous healing process between Canada and these groups. Finally, misappropriation can decrease the value of the symbol being used. It wouldn’t be impossible to imagine something sacred and holy for one culture denigrated by another. It’s still happening today, and there’s no greater example of that than the medicine wheel.
Commonly represented in pop culture as a self-help or healing tool used by Native Americans, the medicine wheel is one of the most contentious symbols. While non-indigenous peoples have interpreted the wheel therapeutically, focusing on the human experience aspect of it, Aboriginal culture places great stock in it, and their understanding of it goes far beyond its healing properties. For the majority of indigenous people, the medicine wheel is a complete spiritual philosophy, and represents everything in every universe (as one author put it). The human experiences of physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual well-being are just one small part of that larger understanding, so considering that the main purpose of the medicine wheel is reductionism taken to an extreme.
When you think of cultural misappropriation as “a one-sided process where one entity benefits from another group’s culture without permission and without giving something in return,” you’ll see that that’s exactly what’s taking place today.
I, however, like to think of labels of “misappropriation” as an indicator of opportunity. If someone has accidentally misappropriated a part of Indigenous culture (and it’s usually accidental), then that means that there is a person who is uneducated on the specifics of the symbol that they’re incorporating into their work or life. Individually, they could be educated, but when a large number of people all misappropriate the same thing, that shows a genuine, if misguided, interest in the culture. When they pursue something like that, it means they want to see and appreciate more of that symbol’s value, not decrease it over time.
If Indigenous social leaders saw things similarly, there would be opportunities for the two cultures to share, explore, and grow, while Aboriginal peoples specifically would have an opportunity to promote their own culture and create positive change in their communities. Fully educating people on topics such as the medicine wheel creates opportunities for everybody to use and properly apply original Native principles in their day to day life, and as a result, both cultures benefit. Aboriginal people would see an increased presence and influence in Canadian society, and both parties would be able to actively take part in a healing, educating, and sharing opportunity. That, to me, sounds like another step towards reconciliation.