Appropriation of Indigenous Cultural Property
The woman performing in this video is Olena Uutai (Facebook n.d.; Note 1, Note 2). She is a member of the Yakut ethnic group, a Turkic people that live in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Russia. They engage in animal husbandry around cattle and horses. Around half the population of Sakha Republic are Jakuts, with the second largest group, at around 40 percent, being Russians. Given the Yakut's racial, cultural, and linguistic background, they differ, together with the Russian ethnic group, fundamentally from other ethnic groups in Sakha Republic.
Apart from Russians and Yakut, a number of very small ethnic groups live in Sakha Republic. The most important are Chukchi, Evenks, Evens, and Tatars. They are the original inhabitants of Sibir, belong to very different racial groups than Jakut and Russians, and speak very different languages. Prior to the occupation by Russia most of them had a nomadic subsistence pattern based mostly around reindeer. They practiced various forms of shamanism (Note 3).
Olena Uutai refers to her music as "Neo Shaman". Her performances and musical form of expression, including clothing and instruments (in this video she uses mouth harp and the flat drum which traditionally were used by shamans in ethnic groups and indigenous peoples that live in the circumpolar area of the Arctic) are not based in Yakut culture. Instead it seems to be based in cultural forms of expression found among the very small ethnic groups that live in Sakha Republic and elsewhere in the Sibir. Or, maybe more correctly, she uses the cultural and musical forms of expression that formerly existed among these ethnic groups, prior to the acculturation process as a result of mainly Russian influence. It follows that Olena Uutai in this video presents a hodge-podge of traits from various cultures. She is very good. I am particularly impressed with her performance on the mouth harp.
The quality of the performance not withstanding, this appears to be a good example of cultural appropriation. The term "cultural appropriation" is commonly understood as adoption of elements of a minority culture by a dominant culture (Wikipedia n.d.a.).
I do not know what she thinks about this. Does she understand herself as presenting or communicating these for her foreign forms of cultural expressions, even though she does not belong to these ethnic minority cultures? Or is this a straightforward appropriation of cultural forms for the express purpose of making a living? If so, I guess she is trying to make us believe that this form of musical expression is her own, that it is authentic. This would not be very hard to do – nobody knows anything about the Sakha Republic and the ethnic groups who live there. And we, the audience in far away countries and cultures, are easily duped. From her Youtube channel (YouTube n.d.) it appears that she lives in USA, and that she makes a living through producing videos and CDs. As for the videos there is an obvious sensous touch to at least some of them (check them out on YouTube). References to "Mother Earth and its healing love" are likewise not comforting.
Posing as a member of another ethnic group for the purpose of benefitting from this is of course common. Here are three examples:
- In the USA I have met Caucasians who present themselves as Indians and sell own-made Indian look-alike jewelry.
- Ethnic Norwegians organize weekend courses for burned-out mid-level and top-level private sector executives, where the shamanic flat drum plays a key role in getting participants involved in activities that supposedly will give them new energy back in the office come Monday morning. The course organizers do not bother to hide the fact that they are not Sámi, one of the circumpolar peoples that use the flat drum in shamanistic rituals.
- Musicians from the Andean mountains that tour Western Europe used to be known through their music, played on quena (flute) and siku (panpipe), and their traditional cloths (chullo and poncho). At one point they realized that there was less appeal in presenting themselves as South American Indians than as North American Indians – especially from the Plains region – who are much better known. Accordingly many shifted to wearing Native North American clothing, especially as worn by the Interior Plains Native Americans, including the traditional war bonnet or headdress.
One could, perhaps, try to understand the phenomena of cultural appropriation as an unavoidable consequence of globalization. That is, as a positive case of cultural syncretism. However, even so, the owners of the intellectual property that has been appropriated should in all cases have the last say (Wikipedia n.d.d.). I have an idea what their response would be ...
As for the case of Olena UutaI, in spite of the seemingly overwhelming evidene to the contrary, I will postpone judgement until such time as I receive proof, one way or another.
Lars T. Soeftestad
(1) Information about when and where this performance took place is not available. Given the large map on the wall of Sakha Republic, together with the text in Russian, chances are it took place in Sakha Republic.
(2) The word "shaman" probably originates from the languagea of the Evenki. It was introduced to the West after Russian forces conquered a shamanistic people in Sibir in the 16th century. The term "shamanism" was first applied by Western anthropologists as they observed the religions of Turks and Mongols, and Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples (Evenki speaks a Tungusic language). In more recent years the term has come to be used to characterize much broader religious phenomena found around the world.
(3) Image credit: Facebook (n.d.)
(4) Relevant Devblog articles: "Norway imagined" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/norway-imagined | "To travel or not to travel ..." at: https://devblog.no/en/article/travel-or-not-travel | "Mass tourism: Experience and alienation" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/mass-tourism-experience-and-alienation
(5) Other Devblog articles: "Indigenous peoples and the environment" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/indigenous-peoples-and-environment | "Languages land tenure, and land degradation" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/languages-land-tenure-and-land-degradation | "Living languages - and dead ones" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/living-languages-and-dead-ones
(6) Further Devblog articles: "Traveling through cultures" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/traveling-through-cultures
(7) "Traveling through cultures" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/traveling-through-cultures
(8) Permalink. URL: https://devblog.no/en/article/appropriation-indigenous-cultural-property
(9) This article was published 31 March 2018. It was revised 13 March 2021.
Facebook. n.d. "Woman performs 'Blessing of the nature'". URL: https://web.facebook.com/uniladmag/videos/2911181965571510/
Wikipedia. n.d.a "Cultural appropriation". URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation (accessed 7 September 2018.)
Wikipedia. n.d.b. "Sakha Republic". URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakha_Republic
Wikipedia. n.d.c. "Shamanism". URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism
Wikipedia. n.d.d. "Intellectual property". URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_property
YouTube. n.d. "Olena". URL: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCASX7Zr6-lm5ZUywcSxAdDQ