A recent discussion concerning cultural appropriation has identified an interesting question that needs pondering. Should it be considered an honor to have something attributed to a group, even if the thing in question is not a traditional piece of the group’s culture? Why, therefore, would a group of people be irritated or offended by such an honor, such a tribute? Upon pondering this, another question is arises. Who does the tribute actually benefit – the recipient or the one bestowing the tribute?
The tribute that generated these questions concerns the technique of chain-plying, a yarn spinning technique believed to have existed throughout the world prior to modern history. In the United States, this technique gained the name of “Navajo plying” because the indigenous people, the Diné (or commonly known as the Navajo), were known to use this technique in their weaving. It was not necessarily a traditional spinning technique for them, but rather a way of finishing a woven product. Therefore, it begs the question that wouldn’t referring to the spinning technique as Navajo-plying be incorrect or an empty tribute?
A tribute that is empty, not directly associated with any reason to honor or give acclaim, has inherent problems. Primarily, paying tribute without there being any real justification is often the result of a desire to feel better about how one has treated another. In simple terms, a tribute of this kind is made from a desire to make amends for past and/or present actions ill in nature. Therefore an empty tribute benefits the one bestowing rather than the recipient. Does this tendency derive from racism? Is it merely a byproduct of colonialism? Can it simply be attributed to the notion that another culture is exotic and desirable? Or is the tendency simply paternalistic in nature – the notion that an honor is being bestowed on a lesser society who should be grateful for the tribute?
Throughout history, society has experienced the clash of cultures. It has also experienced the blending of cultures. Scholars now consider how the cultural blending of the past affects the people of the present. In particular, the question is raised as to whether the cultural blending of the past provides equanimity or discrimination for current members of the society. These considerations, and subsequent calls for change, have caused their own clashes of culture. In recent times tributes, particularly in the form of statues and monuments, have become the catalyst for heated debates and deadly violence. While these tributes may have originated out of differing intent than the empty tribute describe above, when they are challenged the reaction is quite the same. While is surprises few that challenges to statues and monuments associated with historical identity generate conflict, it may surprise many that something as seemingly simple as what people call a spinning technique, generates similar conflict. The heated debate over, and attempt to correct the name of a spinning technique highlights issue: change often causes someone to feel a sense of loss or inconvenience. One would think that by changing to a more universally understood name, one which is of greater descriptive nature and is already in general use, no one would feel a loss. At most, only a small inconvenience might be felt as an individual becomes accustomed to a different name. However, even when change benefits another individual or group, and where the change is of minor inconvenience, the change can generate a sense of loss for some. It can even generate a fear of greater loss. Therefore avoiding change, particularly when it means holding onto empty tributes, seems reasonable to many.
The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of and American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of the Dominated Cultures in the United States by Joel Spring
Video blog on terms used in fiber arts by Abby Franquemont