From Our Archive: Judith Berman on Cultural Appropriation

Bears, Bombs and Popcorn

Some considerations when mining other cultures for source materials, by Judith Berman

Bear_Daughter[The cover] painting is a made-up decoration merely done in Pacific Northwest style … meant to say to a reader “This novel is based on the mythology of the Pacific Northwest,” just as covers for other kinds of fantasy use images from Celtic, Norse, or Japanese mythologies to signal “pick me up” to the right kind of reader. ([Name withheld], p.c. Feb. 9, 2005)

In the background of the cover for my novel Bear Daughter sits an object that resembles a piece of Native American art. It looks, in fact, quite a bit like a painted wooden screen made by a Tlingit Indian artist in the early 19th century to represent the hereditary Bear crest of the Tlingit Naanyaa.aayí clan. That screen, now in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, formerly embellished the Ground Shark House in what is today Wrangell, Alaska.

Having worked for a number of years with traditional Tlingit art, I immediately recognized the resemblance of the cover image to the Naanyaa.aayí Bear screen. It also resembles, to a lesser degree, two other screens. The first of these, likely a copy of the Naanyaa.aayí screen, was made for the Killer Whale House of the Kaagwaantaan clan of Klukwan, probably in commemoration of the genealogical links between that house and Ground Shark House. The second, which the Naanyaa.aayí screen likely copied, is known only from a fragment preserved at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Upon seeing the cover, my first concern was that the background object might be another related Bear screen, one I didn’t know about. Tlingit clan heirlooms like these screens are the focus, today as formerly, of deep emotions about one’s connections to past and future generations. The right to display such heraldic designs is a hereditary prerogative often acquired–“paid for,” as it is sometimes said–through the blood of one’s ancestors. In earlier times wars were fought over misuse of crest objects. A validated Tlingit crest object, as I wrote to my publisher, is

like a national flag, a trademarked product logo, a memorial to dead relatives and ancestors, and a family heirloom with strong emotional associations, all rolled into one. There is variation across the [northwest coast] region in what these objects mean and how they are used, but the notion that they are in some fashion property and “copyrighted” is near-universal.

Some crest heirlooms remain in Native custody, like the Klukwan Bear screen. Many others, however, have found their way into museums and private collections. The means by which they have done so are frequently not pretty, and the objects have been the subject of repatriation claims and other legal actions. Given that the cover artist had likely used photographs as the source for the cover image, US copyright law, which extends to so-called “derivative” images of copyright materials, might also have been called into play. In short, using an image of genuine crest art on my book cover could have been problematic.

The publisher, agreeing with many of these concerns, queried the cover artist. As it turned out, the artist had worked from photos of several objects. The resulting design differed sufficiently from the originals that, the publisher was satisfied, no copyright would be violated.

Part of my concern with the cover image arose from the fine line I felt I was walking with the novel itself. Bear Daughter is based on Native oral traditions–myths and clan histories–from the North American northwest coast. These stories, so rich in drama and invention, have occupied a central place in my imagination since I first encountered them via my academic specialisation in oral literature. They played a crucial role in opening my eyes to just how limited our ideas about myth are, in Western culture generally and specifically in genre fiction. The Native literatures differ not just in their story lines and the attributes of their supernatural actors, but in underlying notions of self, society, spirit, body, virtue, fulfillment, life, death, the place of humanity in the world, and the moral nature of the cosmos itself. Once I had begun to understand them, I found it impossible to conceive of writing mythic fantasy using only the much-recycled European and Near Eastern materials.

The northwest coast stories are, however, the very subjects that crest art like the Bear screen illustrates, and everything that can be said about crest objects, including indigenous notions of ownership and “copyright,” can apply to the stories as well. In writing the novel, I tried to go further than the cover artist had, and to render the specific sources unrecognizable. But my unease remained, and does so to this day. The alterations did not erase all the ethical issues that arise from using these stories–or source materials from other indigenous or colonised cultures.

At one point in our correspondence over Bear Daughter‘s cover, the publisher equated the cover design to fantasy-novel covers using images drawn from Celtic, Norse, or Japanese mythologies. The comparison seems to me to encapsulate a viewpoint common not just in mainstream US society, but quite widely outside the US as well. This viewpoint–which for lack of a better term I’ll call the mainstream viewpoint–forms the framework within which Bear Daughter was published and marketed, in which most readers will experience the novel, and even in which, to some extent, the book was written. As uncontroversial as the viewpoint may seem, the assumptions underlying it go straight to the heart of my unease.

First of all, the mainstream viewpoint assumes there is no difference, for the purposes of commercial publishing, between stories belonging to cultures far-off in time (the ancient Celts or Norse, or medieval Japan) and those belonging to contemporary cultures (for example, many Native American ones). Or it fails to recognize that any Native American cultures are still alive.

Second, the viewpoint assumes that no distinctions need be made, for these purposes, between cultures ancestral to the dominant North American cultures; cultures ancestral to other developed nations (which, however, have minorities living, sometimes uneasily, in North America); and stories from colonised, often endangered cultures, whose people were the object of intended or accidental genocide, and whose colonisation is the sine qua non for the existence of the US and Canada.

A third assumption embedded in the mainstream perspective would have mythologies–those of our own as well as of other societies–as a type of source material no different from any other domain of culture. I am using the term “mythology” here in the anthropological sense: a body of stories about the non-human, superhuman, or idealized human, set in an earlier era, in which the world as we know it is established, and which are often deeply felt as sacred. Such stories lie at the roots not just of religions and worldviews, but often of social and political institutions as well.

Cultures can vary widely in how such charter stories are conceived of, and the degree to which prohibitions limit their use. Some groups may have few concerns about what other people do with their myths. Often, however, mining the myths of living religions for source material can pose what Laguna Indian poet Paula Gunn Allen delicately refers to as “special problems.” Fatwas and burning embassies make the news internationally, but the consequences of other profound conflicts over the meanings of stories may never break the surface of mainstream cultural consciousness. Traditional Laguna Pueblo Indians, for example, attributed years of devastating drought, the radioactive tailings of a uranium mine, the nearby development of nuclear weapons, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons’ publications on Keresan (Laguna and related pueblos) myth and ceremony.

We may not all subscribe to a world view in which misuse of sacred stories causes nuclear holocausts, but we can acknowledge potential effects on the psychological health of individuals and communities. Even when a group’s charter myths do not form part of a religion in the usual senses of that term (as is true on the North American northwest coast), misuse of them can trigger a powerful sense of violation. And value conflicts over the meaning and proper function of stories are particularly fraught in the case of colonized and minority cultures, because generally their members have fewer avenues of recourse, and their voices and concerns are often drowned out. Laguna author Leslie Marmon Silko’s widely praised Ceremony has accreted a secondary literature authored by white academics referencing Parson’s publications. But the short article by Allen is to my knowledge the only publication to discuss the dismay traditional Laguna feel when sacred stories are exposed to the wrong people.

Another assumption of the mainstream viewpoint is that the expressive products of other cultures–traditional art styles, specific designs, stories, music and the like–are, in the absence of patents, trademarks, or copyright, free for the taking. But consider some examples outside the arts. A Mexican doctor patents the traditional method of processing tepezcohuite bark, a medicine used by Mayan Indians in Chiapas for centuries to treat skin lesions. The industrialist to whom the patent is licensed acquires not only a government monopoly over production, but control over part of the limited territory where pharmacologically active bark can be found. As time passes, tepezcohuite is used ever more widely in cosmetics and skin creams marketed internationally, but for Chiapas Indians, access to the wild tree is limited, its stocks are depleted, bark prices have soared, and meanwhile they receive no compensation.

Or a non-Native company called “Kokopelli’s Kitchen” markets “Hopi Blue” popcorn–Hopi Blue Corn being a group of maize varieties selected and propagated over centuries by the Hopi Indians. This company is profiting from the labor, the name and whole-earth, mystical cachet of the Hopi, and from the name and distinctive image of a mythic character also of indigenous origin, and again the Hopi receive nothing (they may have to compete to sell their own product).

These instances of cultural appropriation–where members of a dominant culture appropriate and profit from a part of the cultural “capital” of a colonized minority–deal with the material realm. Such cases have received some media attention, especially in regard to patent issues. There is less awareness of the arguments many indigenous peoples have put forth for intellectual property protections for their traditional art and literature. This position is spelled out in article 29 of the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the most recent version of which was submitted to the UN Human Rights Commission in March of 2006:

Indigenous peoples are entitled to the recognition of the full ownership, control and protection of their cultural and intellectual property. They have the right to special measures to control, develop and protect their sciences, technologies and cultural manifestations, including … oral traditions, literatures, designs and visual and performing arts.

Within the dominant cultures of Western nations, narratives are usually viewed as different from pharmaceuticals. This is especially true for oral traditions that might have no fixed form on a word-by-word basis. Both the mainstream viewpoint and copyright laws recognize authorship (and stemming from that, various degrees of ownership) of the specific form in which, say, a version of Cinderella is written down, but not the Cinderella story itself. (Although one US firm, Knight and Associates, is currently seeking patents for “storylines.”)

Writing fiction is one way in which we in the West exercise one of our foundational values, freedom of expression. At the same time, in our economic systems, fiction is also a commodified product to be packaged, marketed and, hopefully, profited from just as are snack foods and skin cream. To the extent that bodies of folk literature are repositories of centuries of accumulated cultural invention and wisdom, we would have to see them as not all that different from bodies of traditional medicinal or agronomic knowledge. In this view, fiction based on other cultures could be a theft of someone else’s intellectual capital. Many Native Americans feel that when a member of the dominant culture uses any piece of their culture as the basis of an academic career, a novel, or other venture leading to personal gain, without corresponding benefit to Native people, it’s just another form of exploitation. Sentiment on this topic runs particularly strong in cultures like those on the northwest coast, where traditional notions of proprietary rights are well-developed.

Publishers who deal frequently with Native issues are increasingly recognizing indigenous concepts of ownership; the University of British Columbia Press, for example, now asks authors wishing to use contemporary images of Native crest objects to obtain written permission from the current holders of the heraldic prerogatives. Requiring permission for the use of clan-owned stories would be a logical next step.

At least one further mainstream assumption about using indigenous source materials is relevant here: that distinctions need not be too finely drawn as to the precise claims being made regarding the authenticity or accuracy of a book. An analogy with food labeling might clarify this point. In some parts of Africa, images on food packaging are expected to be literal representations of the contents (and thus smiling children or beautiful women are avoided). In the West, on the other hand, we might find images of, say, cherries not just on crates of fresh cherries, or on bottles of cherry juice, but also on products like Cherry Coke. A Western consumer will not necessarily expect that either the name or the image of cherries on a food label indicates any genuine fruit content. The cherries on a Cherry Coke label are essentially metaphoric, linking what’s there–the liquid in the can–with what’s not–actual cherries. (Cherry Coke does claim unspecified “natural flavors,” which, according to US food and drug regulations, are any “flavoring constituents” derived from plant or animal materials.)

A similar range of meanings can be signified by markers of “Indianness” on a book or in its content–markers which might include not just cover art and copy but indigenous names, terms, images, mythic characters, and more. Such markers might, at one end of the range, be literal signifiers, a claim to a completely authentic Native viewpoint and accurate Native cultural, historical or biographical content. Farther along, the markers might be a claim that the book contains–with processing and additives possible–some degree of accurate information, of an authentic viewpoint, or are otherwise the product of what might be considered authoritative knowledge. At the purely metaphoric end, the markers might be like the cherries on a Cherry Coke can, claiming only a flavor or frisson of Indianness, or what of a mainstream consumer imagines Indianness to be.

This semiotic catholicism is deep-rooted in Western conventions of packaging, and it extends far beyond food and books. One could argue that as long as a given interpretive frame is well understood by the viewer, no misrepresentation is taking place. Most genre readers are likely to read markers of Celtic, Japanese, or Native American mythology on a book cover as a combination of literal and metaphorical, and will understand that they represent a mix of historical or ethnographic detail and the purely fantastic.

But the fineness of the line between metaphorical description and false advertising provides a constant temptation for abuse. Even with food-labelling laws, the boundary between the two is continually pushed, and US regulations are continually rewritten. Publishing, on the other hand, has only voluntary standards, and a percentage of purported non-fiction about Native Americans, from The Education of Little Tree to the recent memoirs of the “Navahoax” Nasdijj, inevitably turns out to be fraudulent.

Fiction, though, is made-up stuff, and fantasy is made-up stuff contrary to what we think is real; their content is by definition metaphorical and false. In that respect the analogy with food-packaging breaks down. Still, to the degree that even fantasy contains real-world referents, and particularly to the degree that a book makes implicit or explicit claims to authoritativeness, the potential remains for false advertising. I would class my author bio in Bear Daughter as such a claim to an authoritative voice. As rewritten by my publisher, it consists almost entirely of my qualifications as an anthropologist. The book does have ethnographic and historic accuracy in some realms of detail. But it is written by a non-Indian about imaginary people in a fantastic universe. There may be some genuine cherry juice, but it’s much-processed with many additives.

The history of colonisation suggests particular caution in using metaphorical cultural markers, and claiming authority, in such a context. We would read the cherries on the Cherry Coke label quite differently if Coca-Cola had, in the not too distant past, led a campaign to eradicate genuine cherry trees–especially if we were the cherry farmers.

All of the foregoing may seem like a catalogue of reasons why I shouldn’t have written Bear Daughter, and more generally why speculative fiction writers should avoid mining indigenous, colonised, and minority cultures.

But I wouldn’t myself place all indigenous source materials off limits. For writers of the dominant society to avoid responding artistically to indigenous arts and literatures, even for the best of ethical reasons, for mainstream writers to designate minority writers as the only ones who are to write on freighted topics like race, colonialism, or the very existence of minority cultures (and making it the only employment they can get), merely repaints a corner of the colonial picture with the colors of guilt instead of greed and racism. Fictional Others may far too often be no more than a reflection of the writer’s stereotypes, or a pornography of the exotic, but only through contemplation of difference and the history of difference is there opportunity for genuine transformation of colonial relationships. Freedom of expression is a necessary condition for real conversation; the point isn’t to stop one person talking but to make sure others get heard.

But as important as decolonisation might be, the evolution of literatures, mainstream and otherwise, is also a worthy goal. The history of art and literature before, during, and after colonisation by the West has been a story not just of suppression and attempted eradication, but also, on both sides of the divide, of cross-fertilisation. This cross-fertilisation has brought about not only Native artistic and literary renaissances; it has also contributed to great transformations of Western art. I myself want to see what it will give birth to next–on both sides of the divide.

In a very personal way, that ground is where Bear Daughter originated. The issue of decolonisation did in fact shape the writing of it. By creating a fantastic version of pre-contact coastal peoples, imagining them as comparable in ways to valorised ancestral cultures of the West like the Homeric Greeks or the Anglo-Saxons of Beowulf, I hoped to strip away the stereotypes and preconceptions–some even held by academics–and communicate something true about indigenous cultures and histories.

But the primary impulses motivating the book arose, among other things, from my lifelong attachment to the northwestern forest and ocean, and the twenty-five years in which I have been immersed in the Native literatures of the region, attempting to understand the worldviews in which they were created. That still on-going process has given me new ways to think about many aspects of the human condition, including relations between humans and the natural world, and the problem of the self-as-body. These in turn resonated with issues of even more idiosyncratic interest, such as the profound sense of disempowerment some girls acquire at puberty.

Ultimately, whether my book and its packaging succeeds in negotiating the difficult ethical terrain is a judgement that isn’t mine to make. I hope in the not-too-distant future to post comment from some Native American readers on my website or blog. What I am sure of is that my personal debt to Native thought is impossible to measure.

I have no outright prescription for other writers wanting to use materials from colonised or minority cultures, beyond self-education and thoughtfulness, and the short list of cautions that could be extracted from this essay. The challenge of how to approach the imaginative wealth of non-Western traditions is one each writer will have to take up on his or her own.


Steve Brown very kindly supplied me the information on the current locations of the Naanyaa.aayí and Kaagwaantaan Bear screens, and told me about the fragmentary third screen; Jean Wilson filled me in on UBC Press permissions policies. Thanks also to all those, Native and not, who over many years have educated me on these issues through word and deed. Since the issues are implied in nearly every conversation about traditional northwest cultures, you are literally too many to mention.

Works cited

Allen, Paula Gunn (2002) “Special problems in teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.” In Allan Chavkin, ed., Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony: A Casebook, pp. 85-90. New York: Oxford.

Bear Daughter is published by Ace. Judith Berman won the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pioneer Award for her 2001 essay “Science Fiction Without The Future,” and is a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

This article first appeared in Vector 247 and has been made available previously on a website for Vector, now archived.

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