Seeing wetiko: A little note about cultural appropriation

When The Rules collective first agreed on creating a campaign about the concept of Wetiko we knew there were many potential landmines. The first and potentially most dangerous is the idea that we are appropriating aspects of First Nations culture.

There are four parts to our response.

1) We recognize that cultural appropriation is a symptom of unequal power dynamics and can be traumatic when members of a dominant culture ‘borrow’ elements from a culture of people who have been systemically oppressed by that dominant group. This is especially true when members of the dominant culture benefit (whether financially, reputationally, etc.) from the cultural appropriation. Although some of us may have been born into and/or socialized by the dominant Western culture, we do not identify as members of this culture and have dedicated our lives to dismantling the dominator culture of Western modernity.

2) Given that Wetiko is an idea, a thought-form if you will, and the original purpose for giving the idea a name was to help people identify and protect themselves from this mind-virus, we believe that we are acting consistently with original aim of the idea. In fact, when the great Native philosopher Jack D. Forbes wrote Columbus and Other Cannibals, the book that brought the Wetiko concept to a more mainstream audience, his aim was also to help spread the anti-virus to Wetiko behavior by showing us how we have all been infected with it through exposure to Western culture and Western ideals (e.g. extreme ‘rationalism, the Invisible Hand and other pernicious forms of neoliberal moral ideology).

As with Jack D. Forbes, we believe that no one ‘owns’ ideas, and that if we are in service of the original intention of an idea, we have the ability to positively contribute to the though-form and its effect on human culture.

3) Although we have consulted various First Nations elders and activists, we understand that no one speaks for everyone. As such, there will be people who will not be happy about a non-Native organization using a First Nations term. Given our belief that ‘ideas want to be free’ and intentions are critical in the realm of though-forms (and in creation in general), we believe that we have the responsibility to make it clear that we do not speak for First Nations communities or any Indigenous Peoples. We are simply borrowing an idea from a particular set of cultures (there were and are dozens of First Nations communities that use have a version of Wetiko in their nomenclature) the way one would talk about Islamic or Ancient Greek philosophical concepts. We do no claim any heritage or ownership of the idea.

As such, we have been careful not to use any visual iconography from First Nations cultures or to suggest our ideas represent current (or even historic) Native beliefs. We are simply adding to the Wetiko concept through the lens of modern meme theory. And we are also learning from the Original Wisdom of First Nations, and many other cultures, to find ways to transcend the dominant/dominator culture.

4) We are also not trying to romanticize Indigenous cultures. Although we do believe that many aspects of Indigenous cultures, especially philosophies around the human relationship to Nature and notions of communality, are far superior to the Western, individualistic, commodification culture, we do not believe the aim of ‘civilization’ should necessarily be a return to traditional ways of living. This is partly because we do not believe there is one way of being that civilization should embody. We believe one of the solutions to the monoculture of capitalism is polyculture. These various ways of being may be informed by shared values that are embodied in many Indigenous cultures, but that’s not the same as saying that all of humanity should live in any particular way.

That being said, we are insistent that there are a plethora of alternatives to the totalizing force of the global capitalist system and many would benefit from better understanding the Original Wisdom of our Indigenous Elders. We can also synthesize and re-purpose some of the more useful aspects of modernity, especially when removed from the life-destructive tendencies of the economic operating system.

We are so used to the modern, Western paradigm that inserting an non-Western concept like Wetiko may feel like we are giving it undue privilege or even romanticizing it. In truth, we are merely attempting to place it in the conversation alongside the Western worldview that has all the privilege, cultural hegemony and means-of-communication (i.e. the corporate media machinery) at its service. We are suggesting that the idea of Wetiko has an important contribution to make in our understanding of how to live and how to free ourselves from the mental viruses associated with late-stage capitalism.