One of our most frequently asked questions is this:
“I’m Pākēhā, but love your products. Is it ok for me to purchase this for myself or as a gift, or is this cultural appropriation?”
I’ve thought many times over about trying to answer it, and always stumble with the idea that whatever I write may be somehow construed as the definitive definition of Appropriation vs appreciation.
But finally, after many scrapped drafts, I thought I’d offer you my own thought process. This is no definitive guide, merely my own experience, learnings over many years and perspective.
The cultural appropriation conversation is vast, complex, multifaceted, nuanced and although many would wish it black and white, I would contend, there are many, many shades of grey to consider.
In a nutshell (and by no means the best or definitive definition)
Appropriation takes on many forms and in many contexts. Often, it is the uplifting of cultural imagery, language, art or knowledge by someone outside of that culture, who then applies it to something (often a product, business or identity) for commercial gain.
One of the key issues with this is that it is a power play and a power imbalance (albeit often without cognisance). The person uplifting the cultural knowledge is most often in a cultural grouping that has not suffered the social, cultural and economic injustice dealt to the minority culture that is being appropriated, has not experienced and does not carry the pain, injustice, discrimination, intergenerational mamae (hurt) and weight experienced by the original (appropriated) culture.
For Māori design, art, products, businesses, (and business with a Māori name), questions I personally ask are:
- Is this business Māori owned? Are the majority beneficiaries Māori? (Whakapapa is the key part of this puzzle)
(The reason I ask this is manifold. One of the reasons is that if I am seeking to engage with a business because I intend to support te ao Māori, then I want to know who is behind the brand. A new wave of companies have adopted Māori names- perhaps as an act that could be conceived idealistically of as being an ally for Māori and a celebration of our national language. Sometimes however, the Māori branding and naming of a business is an act of culture-washing (a phrase I just made up- like green washing where brands make inflated and unsubstantiated sustainability claims to get you to spend your $, culture washing adds a superficial cultural flavour to sell a product without carrying any relationships, responsibility or reciprocity that is inherent in te ao Māori.) If your/ the business has a Māori name- why?
- Does this product/kaupapa/business benefit Māori?
- How? (Is it a small business sustaining a whānau economically? Does it feed into community initiatives/kaupapa? Is it a ‘social good’ for Māori?
- If this product has a ‘Māori aesthetic*’ as in, it is drawing from identifiable Māori customary design- was this done by a Māori practitioner? Was it done knowledgeably?
(The reason I ask this is because it is not uncommon for many people to ‘be inspired’ and uplift Māori design without knowledge of its tikanga etc, in order to sell a product. A ‘pick and choose’ approach to ‘celebrating’ Māori, while inadvertently perpetuating the power imbalance, cultural hegemony and privilege afforded the coloniser- it’s so complex even a thesis would barely scrape the surface of this discussion!)
- Is this product made in a way that is sustainable, ethical, environmentally friendly (papatūānuku friendly?), kaupapa Māori?
- As Māori (actually, as humanity seeing as this is my own perspective not a rulebook), my belief is that it is our responsibility to act as kaitiaki (guardians) of Papatūānuku (our lands and natural environments) for us and future generations, and ensure mana ki te tangata (ensuring the inherent dignity of all people in all stages of production). This means asking hard questions about ethics, work conditions, fair wages, labour conditions. As consumers, we must demand answers and learn to ask the right questions. Resisting the lie of capitalism and the race to the bottom, and demanding instead that we respect human dignity and shared humanity in our production and consumption. (one of my personal grudges/challenges is the question of ‘is it really a Māori business if it is about profit at the cost of people and environment?)
- Does this product resonate for me? If you’ve checked all of the earlier boxes, that's wonderful but also, if you’re buying something (using your hard earned cash to cast a vote for the sort of world you’d like to live in), does it resonate for you? Is this the sort of idea, kaupapa, whakaaro, value set, cultural currency you’d like to invest in? Do you actually need it, see yourself using it longterm, believe it will enhance your life (because we all know the endorphin buzz of buying, but it does our world no good to buy stuff needlessly)
And if you’ve managed to check ‘yes’ to all of the above, then heck yes, 100%, please purchase!
That is not appropriation. That is appreciation
And if you cannot not answer definitively ‘yes’, I’d encourage you to pause and reflect on it.
I do encourage you to ask the difficult questions of the brands you purchase from. It is imperative, for us, and our children after us, that we make better, more informed choices and that we hold the decision makers accountable.
It is imperative that we continue to converse, to chat, to hold each other accountable. Or there is nothing surer than the reality that as businesses, we operate in an environment built on rules that we MUST question. Built by Men. Built by colonisers. Build by greed and the power hungry. Built by an exploitative model of economics which glorifies profit over people. People over environment. Dominion over rather than partnership with. A model of More More More, rather than take just as you need and live in reciprocity with te ao.
So a word on us. On Aho.
When your purchuse from Aho you are supporting the dreams of a Whānau Māori. He uri mātou o Ngāi Tahu iwi.
When you purchase, you are purchasing fabrics that are made sustainably. We pay a fair trade premium that allows the growers, weavers, dyers, printers and sewers of our fabrics to live a life of dignity. These premiums also contribute to schooling, enterprise schemes and healthcare. Our workers are paid a fair wage and work reasonable hours. Our partners in India are fair trade accredited, have workers unions and are passionately without child-labour or bonded labour (these are questions we don’t even know the need to ask in Aotearoa, but are rife and exploited within the textile and fashion industry globally as manufacturers seek business with businesses who demand the bottom dollar (lowest cost)). We know this because we cared to ask, we cared to visit, we cared to build relationships.
When you purchase from Aho, your purchase supports environmentally sustainable practices. All of our cotton is grown organically. We pay a premium for this which allows our farmers to plan for the future. All our dyes are processed within a closed loop factory so all water is cleaned and recycled to be suitable for drinking. (Again, questions we didn’t realize were essential until we learned of the poisoning of surrounding waterways and communities by conventional fashion and textile industry operations).
When you purchase from Aho, we are able to subsidize the purchasing of our products by kaupapa organizations who serve communities and whānau who would not otherwise be able to afford our products.
When our products go out into the world, it is our vision and aspiration that they are normalising Māori design in our day to day. That they are, in their own inherent qualities, an expression of the mana of our whakapapa. And expression of excellence- in process, in quality- a trait passed on through whakapapa. It’s our dream that in wrapping our bodies and our pēpi in these beautiful threads, that we may step more boldly, more bravely, more surely and more fully as Māori into the world. We won’t need to leave this element of our identity at the door.
And it is our dream, that as they become normalised in our day to day spaces, that our tamariki will grow up without doubting or diminishing or learning to suppress what it is to be Māori.
When you are not Māori, but celebrate and cherish these products, it’s a statement of value. That there is beauty and value in te ao Māori that transcends language and culture and is a shared value set that transcends culture.
In our product design, we’ve sought to provide a pathway and access or all. For those who are proficient in these cultural customs and visual language, for those who are returning, learning and growing, and for those for whom this is foreign.
This is our checklist.
It’s aspirational and we’ll inevitably stumble around and get it wrong on occasion.
But we're here for it Learning, growing, striving for better.