Borrowed Power – Ziff and Rao (editors)

Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation
Ziff, Bruce and P.V. Rao (editors)
Rutgers University Press, 1997
338 pages

Every so often I get into the mood to sink my teeth into a nice, meaty chunk of….

…academic writing.

(What did you think I was going to say?)

So when the craving hit this time, it just so happened to be on the same day as the arrival of my copy of Borrowed Power. It took me almost a week to work my way through it (amid editing manuscripts and other such things) but I finished it, and I can definitely say it was a great read.

Borrowed Power is an anthology addressing cultural appropriation, the use/borrowing/theft of elements by one (usually dominant) culture from another (usually not dominant) culture. A common example in the pagan community is white pagans raised in Suburbia drawing on Native American religious practices and taking them out of context while not actually participating in the culture they draw from. While cultural appropriation isn’t always considered a neopagan topic, it’s one that’s crucial to the evolution of our community. (I deemed it important enough that I’m compiling an anthology specifically on cultural appropriation in the pagan community inspired by Borrowed Powerclick here for details.)

The topics are varied; while one essay addresses “white Indians”, hippies and New Agers who try to be more Indian than the Indians, most either don’t mention the phenomenon or only do so in passing. Instead, the essays cover the legalities of property rights and copyright in the face of cultural theft; financial restitution for cultures that have been taken from; returning historical and cultural religious items to the cultures they were taken from; the impact of non-Native artists using traditional Native American patterns; ethnomusicology; and post-colonialism, among others. While some of the essays focus on Native America, other cultures are addressed. There is an excellent essay addressing the appropriation of African-American culture through music, from jazz to rap.

Most of the essays are readable even to those without an academic background. A few do get tough to chew through, particularly those dealing with legalities, and postcolonialism. But for the most part the writing is accessible, and the tougher writing styles aren’t entirely impossible. There’s an excellent variety of viewpoints and topics presented here, and much food for thought. And, as is expected, the research is impeccable, and is joined by a sensitivity to the cultures being explored that’s often missing from academic writing.

Overall, this is a wonderful read for those who want an introduction to the problem of cultural appropriation. While the specifically neopagan content is almost nil, the concepts herein are worth looking into. (I also recommend this as a source for those writing essays for the anthology I’m compiling, just FYI, along with the cultural appropriation chapter in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Pike.)

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?



  1. Natalie said,

    August 7, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    *nod* Yes, I was thinking of Pike’s “blood that matters” concept when wondering what I could potentially use to compile an essay/submission for your call (I don’t have much personal experience with such things, but have come accross some academic material that could be made relevant). It’s a bloody fascinating idea which, I think, holds a lot of validity.

    Looks like that book is worth checking out, although I must admit the “legalites” subjects seem a lot less intruiging for me, personally.

  2. lupabitch said,

    August 8, 2007 at 8:23 am

    There’s a lot besides the legalities, and in most of the essays in which they’re discussed they’re a sideline to another topic.

  3. Li Vickson said,

    August 13, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    I tried to post a trackback to my most recent post on foxtail dot wordpress d*t com. I’m not sure why it’s not showing up, unless the trackback has to be approved. ??

  4. lupabitch said,

    August 13, 2007 at 7:04 pm

    I don’t believe they have to be approved–maybe an internal error?

  5. August 14, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    “Appropriation”, or: I actually took Ethnic Studies classes

    I wasn’t going to post this – at least not ’till later – but it happens to tie into Lupa’s post…
    August 11, 2007
    Edited Transcription of hard copy
    So it’s a Saturday and I find myself having come from a Budd…

  6. Li Vickson said,

    August 14, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    Hi Lupa,

    I just wanted to drop you a line saying that if what you’re going through is a consequence of what you read on my blog, I wasn’t intending it as an attack on you. Particularly the title; I did not mean to imply that you had not taken Ethnic Studies classes.

    It’s just a little annoying to live in a world where you have to deal with racism from everywhere, including within sociology (ethnically centered in Germany), English (ethnically centered in England and among Western-European-Americans), *and* Ethnic Studies classes — which is where the thought comes from that people of color lack the ability to be racist, because even if their actions are exactly the same as those of one of European heritage, they supposedly lack the power to have as much influence (which I think is a racist and disempowering assumption, itself).

    Personally, I think that Ethnic Studies needs to shift away from identity politics, and I do heavily question a lot of what I learned in those classes. One of those things which I heavily question is the concept of “appropriation,” as it seems to me to be the concept of intellectual property rights gone runaway.

    Although I don’t want people copying others or myself, I also doubt that the concept of “intellectual property” is the answer.

    People tend to have this idea that they have “ownership” of everything, and that this “ownership” can then be transferred, which I severely disagree with. For example, the ownership of land. Or water. Another example being a concept I run across fairly often, that people “own” their bodies, and then can transfer “ownership” to someone else (like the government); which appears to me to be a sickness of the society (and being mentally ill, I don’t use the term “sick” lightly or often).

    And I have experienced racism from quite a few non-POC (not all of them Asian, as I spoke about in the post I linked to). And sexism from women.

    I have a feeling that you may be focused on the plight of American Natives, and while I do feel that American Natives as a group of societies have been royally taken advantage of by the government (i.e. invader-conquerors), the people living under that government, and religious institutions…I somehow don’t think that the answer is to remain ignorant of all aspects of their cultures because some people are exploitative, don’t care who they hurt (or misrepresent), and will do anything to make a buck, even if it’s unethical.

    From my time in “American Indian Studies” classes, I understand that some people are legitimately angry. I also understand, from having had a large amount of anger myself, that holding onto that anger is self-destructive. I have watched a number of womens’ studies personalities die of breast cancer for what, anecdotally, appears to be much the same reason. I have also come across certain transgendered people who don’t resolve or come to peace with the idea that life has screwed them over, and appear to be insane as a result. I can name three (but I won’t, as I don’t want them coming after me).

    I also have had conversations with someone who comes from an American Native community, who says he was disowned when he “came out” about being transgendered. Because, IIRC, apparently being transgendered is a “white thing” (which concept could only have been arrived at through ignorance of, and governmental training against, older American Native ways of being — at least for certain tribes). I could go on about “two-hearts,” but I don’t want to anger you. My point here being that it is not as though all American Natives are innocent. The picture is more complex than that.

    No, life is not fair. But nor is life simple. There are times when there is no clear “right” or “wrong.” Yes, I would be upset at Mike Harmon too — but information writ large is not — or at least should not be — _owned_. It would have been great if I had been able to get my education without paying the state for it, but that’s not the way this exploitative society is set up — and it *is* exploitative. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be outsourcing our work and goods.

    I’m going to try and avoid further commentary on that. 🙂

    You know me from elsewhere on the Internet; I said on one of your blogs that if you wanted to know which account I was under, here or elsewhere, to email me. I would, however, request that you not tell others here my old identity/journal, or who I am.

    I’m posting this because I don’t want you to be upset, if it’s me you’re upset at.

  7. Amanda said,

    January 17, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Li Vickson- I really would like to know more about your line of thought here!
    I don’t know if you’ll ever find this comment, but if so please email me.
    I’m intrigued by a number of things that you said in your comment and would like you to point me to some sources if you would. is me.

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