I’m an Art Therapist. Am I Guilty of Cultural Appropriation?


The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on who should be allowed to find their “spirit animals.”

Your dissenting patient assumed — as you did — that what you were up to closely resembled the practices of specific Native groups. I wonder about that. When the pedigree of a practice is prized, we overplay claims to ancestral resemblances. Yet change is a cultural constant. “Chutney,” to take a homely example, was a word long used in South Asia for certain kinds of pickled foods. Then the British arrived, with their sweet tooths and their orchard-fruit confitures, and an interesting, world-spanning syncretism arose. I’m not saying that New Age notions of “spirit animals” are a sacralized version of sweet pear chutney. But such practices often conceal what’s modern about them with spurious claims to represent some timelessly “authentic” tradition. You may be borrowing far less than you imagine.