Cultural Appropriation and Indigenous Peoples

In multicultural societies, different cultural groups are bound to share their respective norms, exchange traditional values and learn from one another. Present-day technology has helped make our global society smaller. Not only do people migrate at faster rates, in larger numbers and with varying levels of privilege. Additionally, information technology expedites cultural interchange and movement of financial capital across global platforms, often times in a matter of seconds. If cultural interchange is an inevitable by-product of globalization, how should we interpret use of culture for capital gain? In this post, David Mayeda offers analysis of a recent commercial, which presents rugby icon Richie McCaw and Māori culture as symbols to sell products for Beats by Dre, and asks if this representation of Māori culture is cultural appropriation.

With expected victories and massive upsets, the 2015 Rugby World Cup (RWC) is now in full swing. Back in 2011, New Zealand’s All Blacks were winners of the RWC, led by team captain and rugby legend, Richie McCaw. Though aging, McCaw is still an impact player and continues his role as captain. An icon in the sport, it’s probably no coincidence that Dr. Dre’s “Beats by Dre” company released the following YouTube video featuring McCaw at the start of this year’s RWC. While watching, note inclusion of New Zealand’s indigenous Māori practicing haka that adds to the commercial’s ambiance.

Haka is a Māori war dance, used historically in times of conflict and coming together. In contemporary New Zealand, haka are still used to signify an occurrence’s importance, and in popular culture it is not uncommon to see haka performed at sporting events by Māori and non-Māori alike (to learn more on the connection between the haka and NZ rugby, watch the video, below; to see the All Blacks perform at this year’s RWC, click here). According to the New Zealand Herald, the haka in the above commercial was written specifically for the Beats by Dre ad.

This provokes the question, is the Beats by Dre commercial an example of cultural appropriation within a settler society, where indigenous Māori culture is used by non-Māori for economic gain? Focused on exploitation of indigenous peoples within a North American context, Shanley (1997) defines cultural appropriation in the following manner:

“…we can identify neocolonial cultural appropriations, thefts of ‘cultural property,’ that expedite a people’s being left ‘without’ a specific history or language, and that such cultural appropriations inextricably belong to overall totalization efforts – the political and ideological domination of indigenous American peoples by the mainstream culture” (p.676).

At a surface level, when I watched the Beats by Dre commercial, I felt Māori culture and Māori themselves were included as part of the commercial in a respectful manner. Presumably, Māori played a significant role in writing this haka. As such, many could argue, perhaps convincingly, that the commercial portrays Māori culture transcending through McCaw in an honorable way. Perhaps one might go further and argue that the commercial presents a cultural authenticity that was established in tandem with Māori.

On the other hand, one might ask if Māori culture is used (i.e., appropriated) for the economic profit of a non-indigenous and foreign entity (Beats by Dre), and if so, is this appropriate? From this perspective, a critical sociologist would ask how much each party benefits, financially and otherwise – Māori as a community, McCaw as an individual, and Beats by Dre as a company? And how much does this matter, knowing that among all ethnic groups in New Zealand Māori show the greatest deprivation on virtually every economic, health and social indicator. Considering these factors, is there harm in a capitalist company profiting disproportionately through use of indigenous culture, whether that culture is presented authentically or not?

Being a sharp sociologist does not always mean having the right answers. In many cases, it means being able to ask critical, sociologically informed questions, and having the discernment to ask how power inequalities shape our social interactions. In this particular example, it is important to ask if elements of cultural appropriation shape this commercial artefact in ways that take advantage of Māori communities. What say you?

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you view the Beats by Dre commercial featuring Richie McCaw and Māori culture as an example of cultural appropriation? Why or why not?
  2. Focusing on a different part of the Pacific, check out the images at this post, and identify how Hawaiian culture is appropriated for the tourist industry.
  3. Looking at other sporting examples, how have professional/collegiate sports teams in the United States arguably appropriated indigenous peoples’ cultures?
  4. Can culture be presented through commercial enterprise in ways that do not appropriate it, and if so, how?