Lodging a complaint about cultural appropriation

According to some Indigenous observers, sweat lodges are the latest example of wellness trends and fitness fads veering into cultural appropriation
By Nadia Khamsi - Published on July 4, 2017
sweat lodge
An authentic Indigenous sweat lodge on the roof of the Native Family and Child Services building in downtown Toronto. (Kelly Hashemi)

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What if the latest health trend started popping up in every church in the city? As traditional sweat lodge rituals become a Western health and wellness fad, Indigenous Ontarians are making that comparison.

“People are so interested for the wrong reasons and we don’t like that,” says Maria Montejo, manager of the Dodem Kanonhsa’ Indigenous cultural centre in Toronto. “We have our own people to talk about wellness, and it’s not okay for other people to encroach on that.”

The line between trend and tradition has blurred: traditional Indigenous spirituality practices have started showing up on wellness fanatics’ itinerary, between cross-fit sessions and massages. Yoga,  meditation, and so-called cupping therapy are just a few ancient practices increasingly features in wellness blogs and magazines.

Canada has a long and dark history of trying to strip Indigenous people of their traditional practices. Many are trying to regain their culture, even as businesses appropriate their traditions. American chain Shape House refers to their centres as urban sweat lodges, based on traditional sweat lodges, but markets such purported benefits as weight loss, better skin, and improved overall wellness. Patrons are invited to meditate for an hour to “sweat and cleanse.” Celebrities like the Kardashians and Selena Gomez rave about it in interviews.

Pat Green, a Haudenosaunee, Mohawk, Six Nations elder, says, “With the onslaught of residential schools and churches, we’ve all gone off our own Indigenous track, onto something very unhealthy. So having these trends could get in the way of our recovery.”

“Although,” he adds, “you can’t really compare the traditional Indigenous sweat lodge ceremony and these new trends.”

He stresses that the sweat lodge is meant to be a place for participants to take the time to connect with their spirituality and emotions. He says there are four key aspects to Indigenous spirituality:  physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental. The sweat lodge serves only two of these, yet all four must work in harmony, Green says, in order to achieve a “cleanse.”

“To be blunt, there is a lot of racism in Canada — a lot of cultural insensitivity,” says Karina Vernon, professor of multiculturalism, colonization, and cultural representation at the University of Toronto. “Canadians are also very self-congratulatory; they do not realize the racism. People do not recognize appropriation when they see it or do it.”

Vernon says there’s a difference between appreciation and appropriation: “People thinking that they have the power to just take from other cultures is fundamentally being disrespectful, showing both a lack of appreciation and respect.”

She adds: “There is a way of appreciating a culture that respects that it’s off limits. I understand the appeal of Indigenous spirituality, but you can’t just go and participate. You have to be involved with the community and have relationships with the people.”

“In intellectual property laws, cultural property and folklore are very much seen as part of the public domain,” says Vanessa Udy, a lawyer and former member of the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage project at Simon Fraser University, “and because of that, it makes it easy to use a sacred design or to use an Indigenous person’s tradition to sell products that may be inappropriate.”

This article is adapted from a version that appeared in “Indigenous Land, Urban Stories,” a project by master’s students at the Ryerson School of Journalism, with support from Journalists for Human Rights.

Nadia Khamsi is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University.

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