Opinion

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Treating Native culture as a commodity





Dina Gilio-Whitaker discusses the good, the bad and the ugly of treating Native culture as a commodity:
In her excellent article on pow wow culture, Christina Rose raises concerns about how pow wows have changed in the past few generations, as seen through the eyes of today’s elders. The elders Rose quotes lament almost everything about today’s pow wow culture including the ways pow wows are structured, the dance forms themselves, the glitz of the regalia, even the reasons why people dance. She notes the word most used to describe the changes: commercialism.

Commercialism in this context is about how money influences culture. It describes the process of “commodification” in which elements of traditional culture are turned into commodities to be bought and sold on the open market. We are all too familiar with the ugliest form this takes when spiritual ceremonies are appropriated by phony (and sometimes real) “medicine people.” When a price is placed on the sacred everybody loses; the cultures being exploited, the consumer who is hoodwinked by a charlatan’s claims of authenticity, and even the charlatans themselves when their negligence results in criminal prosecution.

The concept of the sacred raises other questions, however, as the elders in Rose’s article demonstrates. For some of them the act of dancing is sacred and to dance for money is to diminish its sanctity. Do we dance to honor our ancestors and elders (the sacred aspect of dancing) or do we dance for self-aggrandizement and attention? Are pow wows sacred ceremonies or are they just social gatherings, like a high school dance?

Get the Story:
Dina Gilio-Whitaker: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Culture as Commodity (Indian Country Today 4/24)