The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Culture as Commodity

In her excellent article on pow wow culture, Christina Rose raises concerns about how pow wows have changed in the past few generations, as seen through the eyes of today’s elders. The elders Rose quotes lament almost everything about today’s pow wow culture including the ways pow wows are structured, the dance forms themselves, the glitz of the regalia, even the reasons why people dance. She notes the word most used to describe the changes: commercialism.

Commercialism in this context is about how money influences culture. It describes the process of “commodification” in which elements of traditional culture are turned into commodities to be bought and sold on the open market. We are all too familiar with the ugliest form this takes when spiritual ceremonies are appropriated by phony (and sometimes real) “medicine people.” When a price is placed on the sacred everybody loses; the cultures being exploited, the consumer who is hoodwinked by a charlatan’s claims of authenticity, and even the charlatans themselves when their negligence results in criminal prosecution.

The concept of the sacred raises other questions, however, as the elders in Rose’s article demonstrates. For some of them the act of dancing is sacred and to dance for money is to diminish its sanctity. Do we dance to honor our ancestors and elders (the sacred aspect of dancing) or do we dance for self-aggrandizement and attention? Are pow wows sacred ceremonies or are they just social gatherings, like a high school dance?

And what about art? What we think of today as Native art was once not so reducible or compartmentalized as a separate aspect of life. The creation of what is now called art used to be a part of life’s cycles of ceremony and ritual. Symbols were used to convey spiritual meanings meant for a specific person, family or clan on items that had a sacred or ceremonial purpose within the cultural milieu of the nation. Often they corresponded to rites of passage, or the gaining of new spiritual power, or the importance of an historical event in the tribe. Today Native art is reduced to tribal representation in contests of authenticity, or culture as a performance, like the elders in Rose’s article seem to say about dancing.

Yet we all know how important the art world (and even professional pow wow dancing) has come to be for many Native people (including myself in the many years I earned my living as a beadwork artist). It can be the difference between living in poverty, unable to feed your kids, and being able to afford a modestly comfortable lifestyle. The commodification of culture through the values of competition even has positive aspects in that it raises the bar for ever-higher quality in artistic expression, as well as encouraging the perpetuation of culture.

Whether in its good, bad or ugly forms, make no mistake that culture commodification is a tool of the homogenizing capitalist state in its service to the colonial project. In other words, if colonialism was (is) about disappearing Native people through absorbing them into the dominant society, capitalism serves that by eroding the philosophical foundation of Native cultures in its goal to integrate them into a market economy. Native cultures are undermined when the values of competition and profit supersede values rooted in cooperation and reciprocity.

The economic agenda of the United States sought the integration of Indians into the free market economy at least as early as the 1870s. For instance, Col. Richard Pratt (founder of the Carlisle Indian School) immediately began to instill the values of entrepreneurship in prisoners of war at the Fort Marion prison camp. There, warriors like Howling Wolf and Zotom were transformed into commercial artists to commission their ledger drawings for wealthy white patrons in the U.S.’s project to assimilate them.

The entire education system during the half century of the Dawes years (1887-1934) was designed to turn Indian children into economic producers and consumers, coded in the language of civilization and assimilation. Transforming Indians as citizens of their original nations into American citizens accomplished the goal as well, by implanting a sense of loyalty to the country as patriots (not to mention as taxpayers). Patriotic citizens are less likely to question the inherent inequity of the capitalist system with its characteristic narratives of individual responsibility.

Nowadays, we are all raised to believe that if we are poor we only have ourselves to blame because America as the land of opportunity accords everyone the same possibility for economic success. If you’re Indian it is incumbent upon you to do this by exploiting everything you hold dear: your lands, your resources, even your culture.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.