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What Role Do Souvenirs Play in Cultural Appropriation?

The ethics of bringing items from around the world into your home can be hazy.

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Souvenirs for sale in South Africa


For the ethical traveler, cultural appropriation can, and should be, a weighing concern. The discussion around it has also been unfolding on social media for years, with a heightening frenzy. We’ve reached a point where most people know and understand that you shouldn’t be wearing a Native American headdress to a music festival, and that a traditional-garment-as-Halloween-costume is never okay. But when it comes to the items we buy while traveling, things tend to get hazier.

Souvenirs, by nature, are meant to represent a sliver of a place not our own. Some argue that this exchange is, in fact, what travel is all about—and how culture and traditions are created in the first place. But navigating the lines of cultural appropriation, and appreciation, can be particularly challenging when you’re standing in a market halfway around the world, with only a days-old familiarity of the local culture. And unfortunately, even with the best intentions, missteps happen, leaving many with one burning question: What is the onus on travelers to ensure their purchases aren’t problematic?

“From a cultural perspective, even from the earliest of contact between Hawaiians and the outside world, there was a desire for gifting and exchanging,” says Noelle Kahanu, a specialist in public humanities and Native Hawaiian programs at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, who also has a background in historic preservation and cultural issues on the mainland. “Hawaiians wanted to project their [mana], or things that mattered, that embodied what Hawaii was, and that desire to manifest [those things] elsewhere is one that has been with us for centuries.”

Knowing that context means asking ourselves how we want to perpetuate that tradition. “The question then is, for what purpose [is the exchange happening]?” says Kahanu. Are souvenirs being purchased, or gifts being sought, she asks, as memory keepers? Is the purchase intended to support the local arts community? Or, is it more about finding something to fill a vague need—an anything-trinket for someone who expects a gift upon your return; or, something “vaguely tropical” just because it might look great in the new guest bathroom. “To what extent are you trying to tap into that desire to travel, but the actual cultural reference points are gobbledygook?” says Kahanu.

Kahanu urges travelers, in Hawaii and elsewhere, to step back and take a look at the intentions of the trip itself—why you’re traveling, where you’re going, and the footprint you want to leave behind. Doing so will ultimately lead to richer, more intentional experiences, and help you discover souvenirs you have a true relationship with

Items from xN Studio

Nasozi Kakembo’s xN Studio sells items made in Africa, like these mudcloth pillows from Mali, to customers in the United States. Courtesy xN Studio.

When it comes to the actual shopping process, however, there are a few things to keep in mind. For Nasozi Kakembo, the owner and founder of fair-trade home decor company xN Studio, the process she uses to select and sell items on her site echoes the way she thinks mindful travelers should approach purchasing items from other cultures—whether in a shop half-way around the world, or online. “When I’m making the description [for a product] on the website, I really prioritize the traditional meaning and the original context of the item, in addition to selling it for its aesthetic virtues, and values,” says Kakembo. “The story is just as valuable to me as the item itself, and I really want to encourage and impose that information on anybody who comes to any of my channels.”

For Kakembo, getting that story right, in a way that helps her feel comfortable selling items made in Uganda, for example, to American customers, requires understanding an item’s cultural context in the place that it is from, in addition to being specific and using the proper names for the item or people who create and use it. Ultimately, she is trying to counter what too often happens to such items. “Pieces from the African continent have been misappropriated just in terms of further removing them and stripping them of their identity,” says Kakembo. “I’ve seen West African textiles in Uganda, I’ve seen Juju hats, which are from Cameroon, in markets in Cape Town, and I wouldn’t expect the average traveler to have any idea. But I hope that, to the extent that a traveler can, they engage that vendor, ask them where the item comes from.” 

Amy Yeung, the Diné founder of New Mexico-based Orenda Tribe, which upcycles clothing from around the world and sells Native-made items, agrees: “If you’re going to be curious, if you want to invite something beautiful into your life, find out some history on it,” says Yeung. “People are used to doing searches before making purchases, so do some research, type in some description of what it is [before you buy].”

When you do have context on an item, pass that on if you gift it to someone else, and be specific about what you know, says Kakembo. “If there’s an item that you’re buying from a member of the Baganda tribe in Uganda, then don’t say, Oh, this is from Africa.” She suggests including these notes on a gift card, so they can be referenced as the item continues to move through the world. “Telling the story is a very critical antidote to appropriation.”

Blanket from Orenda Tribe

Amy Yeung's Orenda Tribe upcycles vintage textiles, and sells Native-made rugs. Courtesy Orenda Tribe.

Kahanu, Kakembo, and Yeung all note the paramount importance of the price you pay—and who you pay it to. Is the item you’re looking at made by someone from the culture it represents; and is the seller from the community? Kahanu hopes that more destinations, including Hawaii, will adopt formalized methods of denoting when a work is Native-made, which has been done in Alaska with the Silver Hand symbol, and in New Zealand, with the Toi Iho mark for items made by Maori artisans.

“If it’s somebody non-Native selling a Native item, I think there’s definitely a capitalistic idea behind that,” says Yeung. “And the sale price is [going to be] so much more than what the maker got paid.” Her team has recently opened up a portal on Orenda Tribe’s site where Diné weavers can sell their items without having to go through markets and antiquated trading posts that further remove artist from buyer, and devalue artists’ time.

Ultimately, the most important part of the discourse, they all believe, is the conversation itself. Anyone looking for clear cut rules on what is okay or not to buy or wear, based on who they are and where they are, won’t find them. (Kahanu and Kakembo, for example, say they aren’t sure any items, even the ceremonial, are wholly off-limits to travelers, if the proper awareness and respect is there.)

Within that grey area, dialogue proves far more productive than shaming. “We can’t yell at people when they don’t know,” says Yeung. Instead, she encourages people to discuss the issues that cause a lack of awareness, or misrepresentation. She also asks herself how she, personally, can play a bigger role in educating others on the cultural norms and customs she’s aware of.

In the long run, it’s not just about how you purchase the items, but how you continue to interact with them. “I think it’s better to invest in something that matters, and maybe it hangs on your wall or sits on a shelf, as opposed to being thrown in a box,” says Kahanu. “The desire to have something [from a destination] can be really meaningful if you make the investment to come home with something that’s worthy of being shown and displayed and seen.”

“If you sourced it properly, and you paid a fair price for it,” says Kakembe, “then you can do with it as you please—just continue to respect the item.” For anyone with a genuine interest in the world, it’s hardly too much to ask.

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This post originally appeared on Condé Nast Traveler and was published January 7, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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