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On Cultural Appropriation And Transformation At Burning Man

Humans have never lived in a time like now. Never before have so many people from so many cultures had so much interaction, shared space, shared dialogue.

09/05/2017 17:39 EDT | Updated 09/07/2017 20:59 EDT
Photo Credit: Teena Pugliese
Global Drum Prayer at Burning Man

Since the beginning of time humans have traded ideas and innovations because culture is dynamic and not static. The struggle between keeping or honoring the “old ways” and evolving new paths moving forward is visible in all forms of art and culture. Creativity and destruction go hand in hand, the sacred and profane dance like shadows and light. Art, culture, and religion are filled with passion and often our diverse opinions about them collide. Whether destructive, creative, or both this collision allows new ways to emerge as our evolving cultural journey continues. This is why it is no surprise that a fire has been raging on social media regarding this year’s Burning Man Festival and the theme of Radical Ritual.

I came to pray. It’s that simple. I didn’t bring out my chanupa (sacred pipe), there was no sweat-lodge. I came to pray. I don’t see anything wrong with praying along with my brothers and sisters around the world. I look forward to more of this. It is time now for this, people need to understand this. I look forward to the time when all people will come together to heal our Earth. Red Lightning has provided a bridge between many cultures. -Robert White Mountain, Present at Power of Prayer

Humans have never lived in a time like now. Never before have so many people from so many cultures had so much interaction, shared space, shared dialogue. Never before have we had the technology to communicate globally via internet, share pictures, videos, and ideas across vast distances. Never before have we faced global ecological collapse and never before have we been called to respond as one people globally to shared threats to our planet. The call to unify, to act and think with one heart, to live with respect and find peace between humans and our environment has now become a matter of life and death for our species.

Mending our relationship within the hoop is everybody’s business. It’s not just an Indian thing. My hope is to share with people how to get back into a right relationship with Mother Earth and the rhythm of the cosmos. Your cosmic identity has no bearing on the color of your eyes, your hair, or your skin. No more enemies, we must become allies. -Mazatzin, Elder Present at Power of Prayer

No single person or culture will lead the way, it will take a collaboration unlike anything we have ever seen before. We have generations of wounds between cultures because war and domination have been the ways that we have dealt with the collision between cultures in the past. There are issues between different religions, between indigenous and non-indigenous, between nations, between the different colors of skin. No culture can say that they have not been oppressed, none can say that they were never the oppressor. So we are faced with a challenge to heal, to create unity, to evolve cultural expressions that honor the diversity that we are as a people.

Everyone is Indigenous. All descend from the sacred waters, the land, the cosmos. Everyone has been subjected to the same forces of separation, abstraction, division. Spirit separated from mind, heart from intellect, being separated from relationships with food source, from relations with the waters, the star nations, from covenants with the sacred sites. All anyone has to do is go back far enough and there is a time when you were connected to the sacred. -Chase Iron Eyes, Present at Power of Prayer

Burning Man and Radical Ritual, the theme for this year’s event, is an opportunity for all cultures and people to come together to innovate an inspired expression of diverse human culture. However, it is far from perfect and is no escape from the issues humanity struggles with around the world. It’s ALL there... Some of the world’s most brilliant minds, beautiful art, creativity, generosity, community, dancing, celebration, honoring of diversity and more are on the playa. Yet the human shadow is also there. The illness of disconnection, privilege, substance abuse, objectification of women or indigenous culture, over indulgence, and over consumption are also present. For those who are willing to seek balance, Burning Man is an exceptional place for transformation, revelation, and healing. Medicine can be poison, poison can be medicine while the difference has to do with awareness and intention.

To liberate the spirit, to transcend the limits of body, language and perceived differences of race, religion is to take part in a great awakening, one which is evolving, which will compel us to civilize ourselves with divine order, to unite ourselves with the universe. Then our institutions of law, economy, energy, media, education and so forth can reflect humanity’s pursuit of liberation and that of Mother Earth’s, more importantly because we will be morally and spiritually authorized to create that reality. We won’t let vampires destroy our planet. -Chase Iron Eyes, Present at Power of Prayer

The Power of Prayer was an initiative by Red Lightning to bring this much needed intention, awareness, and healing to Burning Man. It is rooted in the deep relationships that developed when Red Lightning went to Standing Rock last fall to support in the fight to protect sacred waters. The vision, shared by numerous individuals from multiple tribes has inevitably brought up critique regarding cultural appropriation. If you are interested in listening to the Paiute Grandmother and Lakota Grandfather who stewarded the vision of Standing Rock to Black Rock (in their own words), you can click here. For the many allies who are angry about this, we welcome the much-needed dialogue but it is well worth informing one’s self before judging. You can listen directly to the audio Global Drum Prayer here.

Cultural appropriation is wrong, yes. Original Nations have survived genocide, slavery, holocaust, and an ongoing genocide, an ongoing deliberate attempt to undermine our dignity, liberation & self determination. For foreigners to prance around in a headdress is wrong. I have lived my life confronting objectification when I first learned of it at 19 years old from the Association of American Indian Psychology. I will continue to confront it and I thank those who fight that fight. Natives confronted people at Burning Man in teachable moments. -Chase Iron Eyes, Present at Power of Prayer

Many Lessons Learned. As a child skins their knees learning to walk, the organizers of Power of Prayer are in a constant state of learning from the experience. How to embrace the radical self-expression in a place like Burning Man while also respecting traditional protocol can be very difficult. The event was never billed as a Lakota, or Native American event, it was billed as a Global Drum Prayer for unity and healing. With the site of Burning Man on Paiute Land it was important to have a Paiute Grandmother welcome everyone to the ceremony. Since the Lakota hosted Red Lightning at Standing Rock, they were invited to bring their message about Water is Life to Burning Man. Chase Iron Eyes came from Lakota Country with petitions to drop charges on Water Protectors who are still caught in the courts for their actions. You can support this initiative by signing the online petition here. There were people from many nations present, many drums, many prayers, and much beautiful healing.

Photo from Global Drum Prayer at Burning Man

Upon leaving the playa where there is no cell service, we arrived back in civilization to see social media on fire with the conversation about cultural appropriation. There was much ugliness and ridicule, as is common on social media, but for those genuinely interested in understanding what happened the information is available. Yes the issue of cultural appropriation was with us at Burning Man as it is with us outside of Burning Man. It is being addressed and all the conversations are part of that healing when people conduct themselves with respect.

Many have entitled themselves to say what is a “real Indian”, what is a “real ceremony”, what is a “real prayer”, what is a “real culture”, and each is welcome to their opinions. We all have a choice to be guided by a desire for healing and come from a place of love, or allow ourselves to fall into the division, anger, and hatred that is also part of humanity’s cultural heritage. Burning Man is a microcosm of humanity. It is important to remember that there is a deep wound and the anger about cultural appropriation needs to be heard if it is to be healed. Any path forward to unity will have to account for and include letting go of the wounds of the past. How do we reconcile?

Before leaving the playa I had the opportunity to speak with Myron Dewey of Digital Smoke Signals about his experience. I encourage all that are passionate about cultural appropriation to listen to Myron’s wisdom. He discusses with eloquence and compassion what he observed.

I offer my deepest respect to Myron and others who are working to bridge worlds at this time. Many people, indigenous and non-indigenous, put themselves on the line to make a statement of unity and are receiving heat from their own communities for their efforts. This is to be expected but let us carry ourselves forward with mutual respect knowing that we are living in exceptional times. For us all now facing global ecological collapse, pollution of our waters, war, violent storms, forest fires etc. coming together in unity with one heart as one people is not just a lofty ideal... It may very well be a matter of survival for our species on the planet. May love and compassion lead the way!

FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Teena Pugliese

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