Learn More about Susanne Wenger
This is Part II that describes how to successfully engage with cultures that are foreign to us.
There will be additional parts to this subject of Cultural Appropriation. Stay tuned.
I grew up very familiar with the name of the Yoruba Ifa Priestess, Chief Susanne Wenger who became Adunni Olorisha. She was a white woman, an Austrian artist who came to Nigeria in 1950 and stayed until her death in 2009 at age 94. She founded the art school “New Sacred Art,” a branch of the wider Oshogbo school, and became the guardian of the Sacred Grove of the Osun goddess in Oshogbo in Yoruba land in Nigeria. Osun is the goddess of fertility and is one of the pantheon of Yoruba gods.
Susanne Wenger partnered with local artists in to redevelop and redecorate the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove (do click on the link later and read more) with sculptures and carvings depicting the various activities of the Orishas. She was a leading advocate for the preservation of the grove which, due to her efforts, was made a national monument in 1965, and later became a UNESCO world heritage site. Financial support for the building of the sculptures came mostly from the sale of her artwork. She was married to a popular Nigerian drummer and adopted several Nigerian children.
I never met her, but I grew up with reverence for Susanne Wenger because she did it “right.” No one told me she did it “right.” I just knew. My mother respected her. But more importantly, Yoruba people en masse respected her. My understanding of “right” is that it is perfectly acceptable, and even honorable, to become part of a culture that you were NOT born into, but with great care to ensure that it is not cultural appropriation.
“Right” refers to a way to integrate a foreign culture in your life without complete assimilation and loss of your core identity, and without colonizing the culture with which you are engaging.
Many people study figures like Susanne Wenger and romanticize “explorer’s and heroes” like her and often think that is what makes scholarship. However, that is using an oppressive lens to evaluate a person like her. I seriously doubt someone like Susanne Wenger would want to be called “an explorer and a hero.” And there is nothing to romanticize. Her primary identity was as an artist and her entry point into Yoruba culture was through her art and living in Nigeria. She rooted her art in Yoruba land and contributed to the preservation of the groves.
For a person like Susanne Wenger, by living among people of a different culture, integration takes place over time. That person’s core identity changes from the western culture of individualism to becoming more communal. As they honor the communal aspect, they naturally begin to express through art, speech and writings about their experiences within the culture and not as an observer and an outsider. This could be on a personal level (like my mother) or even to a broader audience (like Susanne Wenger). If a Susanne Wenger wrote about her experiences, that is a valid and worthwhile investment. Her “story” does not shape the larger narrative of the culture as it is only one story among many of people of that culture. And her story is in line with the stories of the those within the culture that she lives in.
As I reflect over the gift that Susanne Wenger was to Yoruba people, I also think of my mother, who lived in Lagos for over 30 years, as well as other European or American women that I knew growing up. Their daily lives were deeply integrated into their spouse’s culture. They were comfortable being equals with the people around them. They were models of possibility as they lived among people once foreign to them and they did it in a way that honored themselves, honored the people around them and did not appropriate a culture that was not originally theirs.
These women were different from expatriates, transients, most oil company workers, and people who come with the “observation” (scientific) approach to “discover,” “study,” “invest,” “make money from,” and “document,” the global thirst for reductionist consumption by people who consider themselves superior. Now, note, you might start out as a scholar (observer) and then become a “native.” That can happen over time. Also note that skin color is not a factor with this. For instance, an African American can work in Nigeria and behave like an expatriate, and never adopt local cultural aspects into their lives.
When discussing cultural appropriation, context matters.
In the US, it is fairly easy to get into a car and drive to a Native American reservation or find Indigenous jewelry at a state fair. With the internet, you can easily research and discover all you think you did not know about Native American religious practices. You can befriend a tribal person and go to sweat lodges, smoke peyote and decide you are an Indigenous Shaman. And every ounce of that would be cultural appropriation.
What is the difference?
The choice and ability to flow in and out of a chosen culture and pick and choose which parts one finds fascinating and attractive, but rejects other parts of it, makes it exploitative. The fact that a person from the dominant culture enters the world of the minority culture by choice and extracts only what they want is called colonialism. There is a power dynamic that must be understood.
This is worse when you add the spiritual element to it. These days, Native American spirituality and yoga seem trendy. Many middle- and upper-class white (women especially), are drawn to these practices and are deeply invested in them. Is this cultural appropriation?
It could be. It requires looking at the context on a case-by-case basis. In fact, honestly, it probably is mostly cultural appropriation. But…
Using the Indigenous American example, note that Native Americans may not object to white Americans coming on the reservations and engaging with sweat lodges or purchasing their dreamcatchers. They may have bought into the myth that to survive (notice – “survive” not “thrive”), they must “sell” their culture to the dominant culture. And for many, it is not a myth.
Also, not everyone is concerned about cultural appropriation. They may not care. Yet, that is not an invitation to appropriate the culture.
India with a population of 1.38 billion people, has done an excellent job of raising 270 million people out of extreme poverty over a 10-year period (2005 to 2015). India has enjoyed economic growth rates and a strong GDP, but most of the population are still living in abject poverty. In the meantime, there are an uncountable number of American yoga teachers and yoga studios throughout the US.
“The yoga industry is worth over $88bn worldwide and expected to reach $215bn by 2025. That’s a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.7%! And that’s just studios, once you account for retreats, clothing, mats, blocks, and other accessories, the global yoga market is worth well over $130bn.”
I wonder how much of that $130bn is actually in the hands of Indigenous yogis who have introduced the practice to the world. I love yoga. I know many yoga teachers, many of whom have trained in India under experts and lineages, and thus invested their resources in that country. Also, many if not all, of these teachers that I know, were and are, deeply thoughtful about the desire to create a sustainable living out of teaching yoga without exploiting it. They are gentle kind souls that are evangelical about sharing the healing properties of the modalities. Many even practice the 8 limbs of yoga while most of us just think of yoga as the postures or body movements, the asanas. They are aware and respectful.
Yet, we all must have multiple serious conversations about how the sacredness of the tradition is being exploited. It is probably too far gone to stuff it back into the box of what it once was. But what right does anyone have to take an aspect of another’s culture and exploit it financially and change it so much, it is barely recognizable?
We cannot allow capitalism to blind us to the realities of exploitation.
Let me talk about my pet peeve: What in the world is “goat yoga?” Do they have that in India? Is it part of the tradition? Is it a careless and disrespectful way to engage in yoga? And it is monetized as well? Now, it might even be a trend?
Stinky, smelly, cute goats. Along with yoga. Hmmmm…..
I have never heard anyone talk about it. I just see it online. If you like it, to each its own. However, I cringe slightly whenever I hear someone talk about it. Something in me aches and hurts as I feel certain that it is a bastardization of what is a valuable sacred tradition with a rich history.
I feel the same way about “Trap Yoga.” Disrespectful, I say, disrespectful.
Ultimately, there are two issues with cultural appropriation.
The first is extracting a cultural element from a culture that is not yours and capitalizing on it and forcing it to conform to your dominant culture for exploitation and personal financial gain.
The second is when people in that culture are ridiculed and shamed for what you, from the dominant culture, consider valuable and a way to make money and you do not take any responsibility for that issue.
For example, with Indigenous Americans, we know that they are oppressed and treated unfairly by the US government as it relates to land, but we are fascinated with their culture. And we exploit it. During Covid, Indigenous folks were dying and had no access to treatment and infrastructure that would allow them to thrive. There is another epidemic they face: Indigenous women are disappearing in droves but we are all fascinated by the war in Ukraine and want to spend money on protecting the Ukrainians who are being bullied to death – “over there.” And rightfully so. But I do wonder why we do not have the bandwidth and capacity for both.
I share the following suggestions on how one might successfully engage with a culture, or an aspect of culture such as yoga, that you were not born into.
1. You do not experience the culture through a lens of superiority and judgement.
2. You do not exploit the culture for financial gain. This does not mean “do not make any money” with your knowledge and experience of the culture. It speaks to when you singularly take something out of the culture for money only and no relational reciprocity exists with the people of that culture.
3. You are a participant in multiple dimensions of the culture and not just a spectator.
4. You are not a transient, an expatriate, or assigned to the place of that culture for work by a multinational company, an embassy or as a missionary.
5. You have familial relationships within the culture.
6. The culture and the land have become part of your identity.
7. The “keepers of the culture” accept you, respect you and call you their own. Priests, leaders, Kings, Chiefs, and authority figures who speak on behalf of the culture accept you and promote you to their community. They don’t just embrace you, take your money and send you back to where you came from. You actually have a relationship with them.
8. You are immersed in the culture, and you spend significant amount of time in that immersive experience, and it becomes part of your identity. You embrace the culture and build your life around the culture.
9. You are aware of the oppressions and injustices within the culture, and you educate others about it.
10. You respect, not just admire, the whole of the culture, not just one part. You know about the warts of the culture and respect it.
Be aware and when in doubt, err on the side of respect, and don’t do it.
As always, let me know your thoughts. What made you say, “ouch” and what made you say, “oops?”