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WASPs in Kelp Headdresses

An American joins the Peace Corps and spends two years in Mali. There he observes the annual seed-sowing ceremony. He returns to the US and reports his observations to a Unitarian church in San Diego.

Based on the man's descriptions and photos, the church decides to reenact the ceremony for Black Heritage Month. The churchgoers feel it will be a valuable lesson in multicultural awareness. They fashion the traditional kelp headdresses and wear them as they sow seeds. The adults make sure the children understand it's a solemn ceremony, and chastise anyone who acts disrespectfully.



Here's how one of the ceremony's organizers responded:

>> Is it ok to verbally describe the ceremony? Is it ok to see pictures of the ceremony? Look at slides of the ceremony? How about a video? Is it ok to make the costumes worn in the ceremony (or a 4th grade facsimile)? Is it ok to translate the exact words of the ceremony? <<

Many of these things would not be okay for a typical indigenous ceremony. Everyone has heard of the classic cases where indigenous people didn't want their pictures taken. This point is an extension of that. From long experience, indigenous people have learned that people with tape recorders and cameras inevitably will fail to understand a ceremony, will capture only its surface nuances.

More important, they've learned people will exploit the ceremonies for purposes unrelated to its sacred nature. Such as imparting a multicultural lesson to little white kids, to give just one example. They don't want to be on display anymore than a priest and his parishioners would.

Did your Peace Corps volunteer get permission to display his photographs publicly? Did he get permission for others to emulate the ceremony? All rather doubtful, I'd guess.

Or as another respondent put it:

If the man was given the right to do this ceremony, then it is ok.

If he was not, and it is a "controlled ceremony" (hmm, is that like "controlled substance?") then no.

>> So how are all (any) of those things different, fundamentally, from reenacting the ceremony? It seems to me each is a way of understanding the culture. <<

To me it seems a way to impart an extremely superficial, if not wrongheaded and false, message without having to do an ounce of real work. If your goal was truly understanding the ceremony, you'd seek to understand it, not just to play-act it. That would require actual study, not watching a slide show for half an hour and then mimicking what you saw.

Or as yet another respondent, a "working-class white man," put it:

At first glance, this sounds nice. But, knowing liberals like I do, IMHO, all this is, is some trendy liberal ass kissing. It is a "dog and pony show."

Substitute "conservative" for "liberal" in this sentence—since everyone (except this fellow) knows San Diego is a bastion of conservatism—and I can almost agree. I think you were putting on a show to make yourselves feel good more than you were genuinely trying to learn about another culture.

>> If it is ok for an outsider to talk about a sacred ceremony <<

I'd say that's not okay far more often than it is okay. At least, that's what I'd say based on my studies of Native American cultures. I suspect the same applies to indigenous cultures everywhere.

>> your position that we should never reenact a sacred ceremony because it is per se sacrilegious to do so is analogous to the position that we should dispense with zoos because they dishonor the animals. <<

Since animals don't have complex feelings such as an appreciation of the sacred, I don't quite see the analogy. But if you replaced animals with people, the situations might be analogous. Yes, it would be wrong for you to put people on display so you could study and "understand" them for your benefit.

>> I disagree with both positions. <<

I'm sure you do. As with your consistent "forgetting" to mention me in your messages, you aren't exactly sensitive to other people's feelings. That seems to be the crux of the matter.

Here are a few comments from a book review of African Ceremonies, a two-volume, coffee-table tome of photographs by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. This book was published by Harry Abrams, a major publisher that presumably had the resources to ensure the photographs' accurate presentation and interpretation.

Yet reviewer John Reader notes several problems. He calls one photo

...an image the artist may be proud of: a great picture, but gratuitous and superficial without the further information that honest reportage requires.

Reader concludes:

To venerate tradition and ritual belief for its spectacle alone, as "African Ceremonies" invites us to do, is like trying to catch a flowing stream; and though it reflects, still water does not sparkle. Of course, a photograph can catch the sparkling moment, as Beckwith and Fisher repeatedly demonstrate, but their extraordinary piece of work remains firmly committed to the popular image of Africa as wildlife park and anthropological museum.

Apply these statements to the seed-sowing ceremony reenacted after one slide show and I think you'll have the idea.

Related links
Teacher does face-painting to "teach" kids about Indians
Indian wannabes and imitators
More examples of stereotypical thinking

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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