Eesti Elu
Cultural appropriation, ethnic robbery or an indirect compliment to the original culture? Eesti Elu
Kultuur 13 Dec 2015 EL (Estonian Life)Eesti Elu
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Laas Leivat

In November the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa cancelled the free yoga classes at their Centre for Students with Disabilities The explanation touched on issues of colonialism, oppression, cultural insensitivity, capitalism, religious authenticity, accessibility etc.

Western yoga practice is a multi million dollar industry in North America and questioning the $100 million mass production of yoga pants and the appropriation of Hindu symbolism in boosting the corporate bottom line is justifiable.

However warranted investigations into the above issues seem to be, the suspended free class at the University of Ottawa should not be tagged with accusations of cultural appropriation and insensitivity. Those questioning who owns yoga and who has the right to practice yoga have forgotten that Indian Gurus deliberately promoted yoga to the West and some Westerners have also capitalized on yoga’s spiritual component.

In helping others with disabilities to manage stress and feel better in their bodies the Ottawa yoga instructor had her classes cancelled due to misguided charges of cultural insensitivity. She isn’t exploiting another culture for her own personal gain and hasn’t been teaching spirituality.

Elements of a minority culture used by a cultural majority have been often seen as oppressing or robbing the minority culture of its unique identity or intellectual property. This is often referred to as ‘cultural misappropriation’. As an example elements are copied from a minority culture by a dominant one and are used outside of their original context, sometimes even against the will of members of the originating culture. Members of the originating culture can take this to be a desecration of their culture, having their cultural elements that may have a deeper meaning reduced to an ‘exotic’ level by the dominant culture.

Oskar Metsavaht, an Estonian living in Brazil fully understands the implications of the brazen adoption of the unique characteristics of another cultural. The well known founder and creative director of the popular Brazilian sportswear brand Osklen, Metsavaht has come to a mutually beneficial agreement with the Ashaninka tribe for Osklen’s spring 2016 collection.

Metsavaht’s agreement with the Ashaninka was a “co-branded collaboration”. The Ashaninka explained that they will get royalties from Osklen’s spring collection as well as a heightened public awareness of their ongoing struggle to protect land against illegal loggers and environmental degradation. Metsavaht commented that sharing values, visions and finances is the easiest way to work.

In instances different from the example of Oskar Metsavaht’s accommodation with the indigenous culture, the situation sometimes verges on the interference of a ‘cultural-appropriation’ police with artists and other creative professionals pilloried and called racist. There are proponents of the notion of globalization of culture, saying it’s not just inevitable, it’s potentially positive. They say that one must stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. Protecting cultures is naïve, paternalistic and counterproductive they say. They insist that a freer use of other cultures means the exchange of ideas, styles and traditions.

Then using the same argument, why do Estonians stubbornly guard against the incursion of much larger cultures, choking the vitality and uniqueness from Estonia’s cultural independence? Shouldn’t Estonians be flattered that their cultural components are sought after, prized by foreign societies.

The Estonian situation does not fit into a cultural appropriation model. Estonian culture, especially language was the target of Soviet-Russian dominance and deliberate neglect. It was obvious that one culture and language, namely Russian, received nurturing and the attention needed to flourish and dominate. Smaller cultures were relegated to a secondary status. Thus, Estonians are still vigilant about the overwhelming impact of a ‘European’ culture, something perhaps not manipulated from abroad but increasingly invasive because of size and absence of any ‘protection’. In this instance, not insensitive cultural appropriation but just as insidious.
Laas Leivat
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