The Fifth World presents a vision of a neotribal future, but Western culture has a long, ugly, racist, colonialist history with the trope of native people dying off, replaced by settlers who become better natives than them. On the other hand, every settler ultimately descends from indigenous ancestors. As Daniel Quinn wrote, “The tribal life and no other is the gift of natural selection to humanity. It is to humanity what pack life is to wolves, pod life is to whales, and hive life is to bees. After three or four million years of human evolution, it alone emerged as the social organization that works for people.”
Many indigenous people say that their traditions, customs, and stories come from the land. The land has a story to tell, and we hope to hear it by paying close attention to the life on the land, human and otherwise. Learning from indigenous people plays a big part in that, and that can make it all too easy to tip into cultural appropriation.
Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and author of Who Owns Culture?, defines cultural appropriation as, “[t]aking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” She emphasizes “three S’s”:
- Significance or sacredness: Most cultures include both profane elements intended for sharing with others, as well as sacred elements meant for the people of a culture and them alone.
- Source: Did the community that created this piece of culture invite you to use it in some way, for instance by selling it voluntarily?
- Similarity: How much separates this item from the original? Do you have an exact replica, or does it only make an allusion, reference, or nod to it?
All three present subjective questions, as the question of cultural appropriation itself remains, in many instances, subjective. All cultures exchange with one another, but in cultural appropriation differences in power, privilege, and resources may force one culture to give up things it would never give up willingly, either by outright theft or more subtle methods, like poverty so crushing that they turn to selling sacred things to try to get by.
The Fifth World stands opposed to cultural appropriation, and we ask all of our members to remain on guard against it. In terms of developing our vision of a neotribal future, we see the solution to cultural appropriation in our project in working harder, digging deeper, and asking more questions.
The Fifth World does not belong to settlers who’ve replaced native people. It belongs to all of our descendants, from decolonized native people and rewilded settlers finding a way forward in each other, long after the modern mythologies of race have broken down. In such a future, items that we simply appropriate from existing cultures would not only cause offense, but even strictly in terms of the project itself represents a failure of imagination. How has four centuries of change transformed this piece of culture? What other influences does it show now? If we ask these questions, then we’ll move towards something less similar to anything in the world today, and as it drifts further away, something less sacred.
We ask members of the site to take time working with contributions that seem like cultural appropriation. Most of the time, we expect we will find a solution by working with the idea and asking more questions. If that approach does not work, we may need to remove the contribution altogether.