re-thinking ritual: costumes, creativity and cultural appropriation

A few days ago, a friend of mine casually asked if I’d be going to Northbound Leather’s big annual Halloween fashion show and play party. Apparently it’s the event of the year. This year, the party’s called TRIBE. So I went to the Northbound site to check it out. The image on the party ad features someone with mock facial tattoos and a metal “bone” in their septum, along with mock-primitive lettering indicating the name of the event. It elicited much the same sort of discomfort I felt a year or two ago when they held another fashion show and party entitled Bento, which featured models with faces painted stark white and little red bow-like lips, wearing leather or latex kimonos and mock Japanese warrior outfits, and spinning paper parasols.

A couple of days later, another friend posted a link on Facebook to a piece of writing entitled “Top 10 Reasons Not To Wear A Culturally Appropriating Halloween Costume.” I contacted the author, Freddie Fagula, and received permission to re-post it here in its entirety (scroll down to the bottom of this post to read it). The essence of it, I feel, is best encapsulated in Freddie’s point #8 asking people not to endorse “a history of domination, colonization, and genocide through your flippant, cartoonish, or stereotypical portrayal of cultures other than your own” in their Halloween costumes, and point #1, in which Freddie encourages people to understand “the importance of respecting the life, experiences, culture and ethnicity of people different from yourself.”

For me, these two incidences intersected, and at their point of convergence they poked right at a place where I feel really uncomfortable. Now, the Northbound party is a leather event, and Freddie’s post has no link to leatherfolk either explicitly or implicitly. But nonetheless, they both got me thinking about some of the reasons I’m really uncomfortable with some of the imagery and practices take up by the leather community.

A good example of this is encapsulated in an essay from the classic leather anthology Leatherfolk, edited by Mark Thompson – an interview by Joseph W. Bean with Fakir Musafar, the father of the Modern Primitive movement. In it, Bean reveals that Musafar is actually a successful California advertising executive by day who dresses in conservative suits and has a Western name (Roland Loomis, a name that’s in keeping with his Scottish and German parentage) that he chooses not to disclose in the interview itself. In his decades of work within the BDSM/leather world, Musafar – who, in the interview, refers to himself in the third person, as though Fakir Musafar were a separate entity from the man being interviewed – has built an impressive reputation for himself as a deep masochist, a spiritual man who invests time and energy in physically painful rituals and body modification as spiritual pursuits and who spreads his knowledge to other kinksters who seek the same.

I want to make it clear that I take no issue with this in principle; body modification, ritual, and spirituality in leather are all elements of BDSM that are incredibly valuable and fully valid pursuits for many, and in some cases I include myself here. I also don’t have any desire to trash Fakir Musafar per se – I’ve never met the man personally, and the interview is, after all, many years old (the book was first published in 1991). I have no idea what his politics look like today.

Still, when I read about the ways that he, and many others following in his footsteps, have lifted rituals directly from Native cultures, such as “the O-Kee-Pa [flesh-hook hanging ceremony]” or the ancient Hindu “Kavandi [bearing a frame of up to a hundred swords with their points inserted in the celebrant’s flesh]” or a Sun Dance ritual, I can’t help but feel there’s something not quite right.

I understand that as human beings, we are creatures who imitate. And imitation is not always and forever a bad thing. Really, culture progresses in an eternal loop of inspiration, imitation, re-interpretation, re-contextualization, lifting, re-shaping… every kind of creativity out there is inspired by something else, and there’s not really much that counts as “purely” original work. Copyright law has a helluva time keeping up with the very real ways in which new cultural production depends on the old, a point made eloquently in the recent NFB documentary entitled Rip! A Remix Manifesto (which can be watched in pieces here). Remixed or re-made music, mash-ups, hybrid forms of cooking, collage art, satire, mimicry, scholarship and historical inquiry, drag, scientific research that builds on and improves past work, screenplays that adapt books and books that adapt screenplays, tributes of all sorts – really, our culture simply wouldn’t exist as such if it weren’t for the use of one another’s ideas.

So in this sense, I can totally understand how a kinky person on a quest for intense and transcendental physical and spiritual experience might look to existing rituals which seem to celebrate exactly that.

At the same time, it makes me deeply uncomfortable to think of a bunch of (mostly) white people taking up a Native ritual, divorcing it from all the cultural and spiritual contexts in which it was originally conceived and using it, all symbols and details intact, for purposes that may only marginally resemble those that inspired its original intent. Oddly enough, it also makes me feel weird when all of that is done with the symbols and details gotten wrong, when the imitation is sloppy, when the ritual creators simply don’t bother to even learn what the ritual’s intent or symbolism might have been in the first place. This isn’t to say that a “perfect” imitation is better than an “inaccurate” one – they’re just two ways of appropriating and disrespecting a culture, one in full knowledge and the one in at least partial ignorance. I kinda don’t know which is worse.

A few months ago, I attended a public flesh hook ritual as part of a kink event. I chose to observe, rather than to participate, for a long list of reasons, not the least of which was this very discomfort. But I attended specifically because I wanted to see if, indeed, people could do a ritual not of their own culture in a way that felt okay to me. The ritual started with a smudge ceremony – a short pre-ritual ceremony also common to many First Nations cultures – but the ritual leaders only said a brief few words about what that meant and why they were doing it. Then, the leaders went about putting flesh hooks in dozens of people. They seemed very competent and grounded, no worries there; but again there was very little said about the history of the ritual, what it meant to the people who originally conceived it, what it might mean to those taking part in a contemporary leather/BDSM context, or what it might mean to respect that ritual or its origins.

In the ensuing couple of hours, I witnessed people crying, opening up, going to deep wordless places of release and connection with others around them. It was an honour to be part of that energy, even if I was not a direct participant. But I also witnessed people making a schoolyard game of the ritual – in some cases literally, competing to see who could swing the heaviest object from the lines attached between the hooks on two people’s chests, yelling and laughing in ways that rattled the container that was holding the spiritual experiences of others in the room, chatting loudly about mundane topics.

All in all, the experience was incredibly mixed. Did the ritual take people to good places? Yes – some of them, at least. Was it led in a way that was safe? Yes, from what I could tell. Was it respectful of the culture it was taken from? On that point, I’m not so sure. I’m not finger-pointing at anyone in particular. It’s just that some things that took place in that room made me cringe, made me feel as though we were doing something that was terribly disrespectful of the Native cultures that birthed this ritual.

The problem, for me, wasn’t the act of piercing flesh, or even that of hooking two people together to share a spiritual experience. In and of themselves, those aren’t particular to a given culture. Rather, it was the act of dressing up that experience in Native terms and nodding to its Native origins with a touch of sweetgrass without clarifying that this ritual, at this time, in this place, and with these people, was not the least bit Native.

And why should it be? What is it about “other” cultures that gets Western people so excited, that makes us reach out to grasp onto their symbols as though we could somehow be more authentic or real or “of the earth,” or for that matter exotic and enticing, by appropriating them? Are we so spiritually void, so bleached-white and sterilized and drained of meaning, that we can’t come up with our own ways of reaching spiritual places? Why do we need to visit, and borrow or steal from, people who came up with their own ways of expressing spirituality and transcendance in their own contexts? If we want to honour a connection with our ancestors or with tradition or with the past, what’s wrong with looking to our own ancestors and traditions and pasts? And if we don’t feel a strong connection to a cultural tradition of our own – and I include myself in that – can’t we exercise our creativity and make traditions that are meaningful to us, here and now, with the materials and symbols that surround us, and that are reflective of who we are today, rather than what other people were elsewhere at some other time?

The acts of bleeding, of opening the skin or marking it with symbols; the acts of dancing, of listening to and feeling music move through the body; the acts of preparing food and eating, of speaking in ritualized ways, of meditating, of reading or reciting text; the acts of burning things or bathing them in water or burying them in the earth or watching the water or wind carry them away; acts of dressing, marking and adorning the body, of taking on a face or a costume we don’t wear every day to express or symbolize some piece of ourselves to which we don’t always have access; acts of sexual celebration, of honouring relationships, of inducing pain and ecstasy to transcend the body, of marking change in our lives, of acknowledging forces beyond our understanding; acts of mourning, of letting go, of birth and starting anew… all of these are simply human experiences. These happen across all cultures, in a brilliant kaleidoscope of incredible colour and diversity.

The thing is, a BDSM or leather ritual doesn’t have to be Native in order to be “real.” Just like a tattoo doesn’t have to be “tribal” to have meaning, and a body piercing doesn’t have to look like a bone in order to have powerful symbolism. An item of clothing or a costume doesn’t need to fetishize Japanese people to be beautiful or even “exotic.” We can be inspired by the truth or meaning that we feel or see underneath First Nations or African or Japanese (or Hindu, or Sufi, or…) customs, ceremonies, traditions and garb without simply photocopying them and adding them into our repertoire. We can appreciate and learn from histories and cultures not our own while respecting them as exactly that – not ours – and using the considerable resources and skills at our disposal to make new history of our own.

I already see lots of creativity and originality in BDSM and leather rituals – from piercing to collaring to branding and fire play to plain old intense play scenes, not to mention in the incredible creative work that people do to construct dungeon furniture, make sex-positive art, take photographs and make toys. I would love to see more of that, and I would love to see the people who have considerable expertise in areas such as flesh hook rituals use that expertise in contexts that mark a clear and respectful delineation between First Nations practices and the decidedly different thing that happens in contemporary Western (and mainly Caucasian) leather space. Likewise, I would love to see Northbound come up with a party theme that doesn’t capitalize on and fetishize non-Western cultures. Their leather clothing design is fucking fantastic, some of the most unique and beautiful that’s available today; I know they’ve got plenty of creativity at hand. And I would love to see people everywhere, leatherfolk or otherwise, opt out of disrespectful imitation when they pick a Halloween costume, and instead explore new ground. As Freddie Fagula says, “you can be anything.” Well, if we can be anything, let’s first try being ourselves, and seeing all the wild places that can take us.

***

Top 10 Reasons Not To Wear A Culturally Appropriating Halloween Costume

10. That shit is tired and you’re more creative than that. You can be anything.

9. You don’t wanna be “that guy” at the party.

8. You won’t be endorsing a history of domination, colonization, and genocide through your flippant, cartoonish, or stereotypical portrayal of cultures other than your own.

7. People of color won’t have their night ruined by your costume.

6. No one will have their night ruined by your costume, (well… unless you’re like me in fourth grade and your home made zombie make-up gets all over some girls princess dress. Sorry Christy Godwin!)

5. People who you’ve never met won’t take one look at you and decide to avoid the ignorant person who would wear THAT.

4. Your odds of getting laid will be dramatically increased because you won’t have offended half of the people at the party.

3. You aren’t an unfeeling jerk who likes to insult and hurt people.

2. You won’t be asked to leave Fruitcake’s All Homo’s Eve party because you are a white person dressed in black face or as a “native,” a Nazi*, Indian, gypsy, geisha, sheik, or hula dancer, etc.

1. You are an awesome, deep, conscientious individual who understands the importance of respecting the life, experiences, culture and ethnicity of people different from yourself.

*Yeah, I know it’s not technically “appropriating” but please, not okay.

Here is how wikipedia defines cultural appropriation: Cultural Appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

Obviously, there are many ways to create an offensive costume that may not be pointed out above or fall into the cultural appropriating category. If you’re wondering whether your costume will offend someone than it probably will. If you’re still thinking about wearing it, ask your more thoughtful friends to weigh in on it. I realize this is a multi-faceted topic deserving more attention than once a year on Halloween, but this is as good a time as any to bring it up.

I believe it’s healthy for people to want to transform themselves, and Halloween encourages that. It gives people a sense of possibility. It’s a creative outlet in a culture of full rules about who can make legitimate “art.” It’s the extra nudge one may need to let go and be someone else. Even if it’s just for a laugh. It’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t want to deny anyone. What I do want is a Halloween where one persons liberating costume is not another persons insult to their life, experiences, culture, or race.

Please give it some thought and don’t be “that guy” on Halloween.

Thanks,

Freddie Fagula

***

10 Responses

  1. Great post. It didn’t go the way I thought it might though. I wondered what you make of all the people who dress up as kinksters for Halloween? My personal fave is the whip wielding collar wearing dominatrix. Is that also cultural appropriation in addition to stupidity?

  2. [...] To Wear A Culturally Appropriating Halloween Costume list that got its start on facebook. (Thanks sex geek for the pointer.) So given that the skanky tribal theme is off, what’s on? What would be a [...]

  3. Great post. Thank you so much for writing about this.

  4. Excellent post! I’m planning on covering the Tribe event for our campus paper (York’s Excalibur) and thank you for the critical angle that, at the least, I’ll be sure to consider in my article. (Would you mind if I cited you/your blog if I indeed include a reference to this angle?)

    From what I understand, though, while the imagery on the poster definitely looks “tribal” in the sense you’ve talked about above, the show won’t go down that route. NBL owner George Giaouris explained to me that its supposed to be about the inititation rituals associated with modern (generally North American) subcultures (tattoo culture, the BDSM scene, etc.). Of course, these subcultures may fall into the trap you write about, of cultural appropriation. Ah, well, I guess I’ll see when I get there.

  5. Zanin. Thank you.

  6. PS: As for the Sun Dance( piercing/hook pull). It seems cliche but truly a friend of mine is Lakota and runs a community sun dance in his traditional territory where the ritual originates. It is not one where a whole ton of tourists show up and pay to get in. I mean a sweat and blood one that they (his community) struggle to put together every year. He follows the old way…very quietly because that’s the only way such traditions were able to survive. You’ll never see his name in lights. Ever.

    There’s a native term “He who takes the fat” usually attributed to the name for white folks.

    I see much taking of the fat, meaning the best part, the most developed parts without a sense of the context where it’s from. I don’t think anyone doing these rituals and I tell you now some of them are people I like… .

    Will those who borrow these traditions be out there helping my friend build the arbour and feed the people? I don’t think so.
    If invited to be there will they do it and leave it there not farm it out and share it? I don’t think so.

    Running it for free doesn’t quite cut it for me either. Because it’s not free. You build a reputation and you get rewarded for it.

    I don’t think any of these folks are talking to people like my friend who are traditionalist keeping close to old ways and struggling with community to survive. The level of abject/dire/deep poverty they live in is nothing folks in leatherlife would want to see.

    No, I see folks taking what they observe or learn and want for themselves and then sharing it without context and I would say without the specific permission of the original people who do piercing as a very very old tradition in their community. No one is policing intellectual or cultural property rights of Indigenous people except the people who are white and who have helped themselves to it.

    The shitty thing about it all is settlers arrived… tried to destroy the culture and take the land back in early colonization. Now, we have leatherfolks who are descendants of settlers taking what people hung on to through death, killing, theft, beatings and starvation and making it our pleasure place. We call it modern… which is to pretend its not connected to someone else’s old ways.

    I’ll never be popular in community for saying these things.
    I don’t care.

    I appreciate you speaking to these things.

    FF

  7. YOU, darling, made my night. This is the most sensitive, non-academic, pitch-perfect piece I’ve read about appropriation (and please believe me when I say I’ve read a lot. I’m trying to both understand this topic and figure out how to translate it for others). And while I’m specifically thinking about cultural appropriation and drag, what you’ve written about cultural appropriation and BDSM is accessible and useful in any context.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Always listening.

    FF : \

  9. Thanks for all the supportive comments, folks. I always have to take a deep breath and brace myself when I hit “post” with something like this. It’s so easy for people to read this sort of thing as though I were targeting and criticizing people in a nasty way, and just as easy for people to think I’m on my high horse and that I think I don’t unconsciously do these things myself. But I really do feel this stuff needs to be said, and I don’t want to slag people for their practices per se – I just want to encourage my community/ies, myself included therein, to move toward greater sensitivity. Anyway. Thanks. You reassure me that these words can be heard as they are intended, in a spirit of constructive idea-sharing and support.

  10. Hey, thank you for writing this. I found this post by googling “fakir musafar cultural appropriation”, hoping that someone on the internet had had the same reaction to reading “Leatherfolk” and the interview with Fakir. As a person of Native American descent and a practitioner of both BDSM and radical politics, I’ve found cultural appropriation in the BDSM community to be a pretty normal thing, though less so than in the past, and more often than not I find myself shutting the fuck up instead of attempting to educate people.

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