Indigenous Cultural Mimicry: Past and Present

By Frederick White
News From Indian Country 6-08

Historically, imitation used to be the sincerest form of flattery whether it was an individual or cultural incident. Cultural mimicry has been extant from creation to the present.

What is different now is the impact or result on Indigenous culture that has its features mimicked. In the end, mainstream culture benefits most while Indigenous cultures suffer their greatest loss.

Let’s ponder just three historical reasons, perhaps the most significant ones though not necessarily in order of importance, that one culture or a person from a culture would incorporate, borrow, or assimilate some aspect of another culture.

The first reason is that the particular element, whether it is artistic, linguistic, architectural, or technological, has appeal. Its attractiveness is strong enough that the receiving culture sees it as worthy of emulation and then borrows the element.

Another reason concerns the element’s utility. The two cultures have similar environments and someone who has seen this element in the other community recognizes its usefulness and then incorporates in his or her own community because it functions well.                          It’s a utilitarian assimilation that benefits the culture that borrowed the element.  That this element makes life easier, faster, or simpler, is reason enough to borrow and integrate it into the new culture.

The last reason for cultural mimicry has to do with prestige. The copied element has a reputation for excellence and quality, and as such, it is valuable materially to the culture that created it as well as to the culture that emulates it.                       

This element brings greater visible status to the borrowing culture, its members, and their influence on other cultures. As a result, this element is arguably the greatest impetus of assimilation among cultures that have well defined social roles.

In summary then, the three reasons for assuming elements from another culture has been its appeal to the borrowing culture, its utilitarian functionality, and its prestige.

How about now?

Does cultural mimicry have similar motive for its occurrence? Do these three reasons stay consistent with current mimicry? The answer is largely yes for each reason.

Cultural mimicry happens now because mainstream people find elements appealing from other cultures, useful to their current situation, and it affords levels of prestige that they would not otherwise have.

What has been missing, so far, from this discussion is acknowledgement of the borrowed or mimicked element.  Historically, prevailing worldviews did not necessitate finding or questioning its ownership or origin. It certainly would have been easy for each culture to recognize when they did such things, but the need to admit doing so was yet to come.

Now it is imperative both to the Indigenous culture and to the mainstream to acknowledge borrowed origins and innovations. A problem currently exists, though, that thwarts mainstream acknowledgement of their mimicry, and a little more history provides context to understand this quandary.


Starting with Columbus, life in North America was never the same. As settlers expanded westward, contact and conflict was inevitable, and so was devastation for many tribes. The process of assimilation, assumption into a foreign political system, and survival for many tribes meant tremendous cultural losses of language, history, social, technological, and artistic practices.                                       

While all this was happening, the mainstream western culture, fearing or hoping annihilation, took upon itself to memorialize Indigenous cultures by buying, trading, or taking Indigenous homes, art, tools, canoes, clothes, and any other things that would serve as artifacts, including their bones.

Then they put them on display in their museums and galleries throughout the world. For some tribes, documenting the grammar and narratives of the language also occurred. The ensuing artifact collections of cultural items were vast, especially of human remains.

One very important factor occurs with these collections housed in universities, museums, galleries, and private collections, and that is access to the artifacts by the mainstreamers, especially scholars.

Conversely, for various reasons, in Indigenous communities, especially reserves or reservations, cultural practices went into hiatus or had simply ceased. Making canoes, totem poles, and even original homes succumbed to mainstream laws and norms and thus ceased producing these items.

But artifacts of those elements – art, technology, and language – were now the focus of study for many mainstream individuals. Eventually, some members of Indigenous communities ventured back into their cultural practices but what was once a part of Indigenous community life is now labeled art, and its practitioners are artists.

A very difficult situation now arises concerning the skills and knowledge base of the artists because of the lengthy gap (in some cases three or four generations) in these practices. They don’t have the older canoes, houses, or totem poles near, but they do have oral traditions and instructions of how the practice occurred.

The mainstream, surprised at the cultural renewal, balks at renewed expressions of Indigenous practices and even argues that their expertise concerning the canoes, totem poles, houses, and even language is greater than the Indigenous community’s knowledge because they have studied, own, or at least have access to the original artifacts. Their argument is that since the museums, libraries, and galleries now hold most of the artifacts, and they have studied them, they are now the experts.

When we ponder the definition of mimicry, its etymology contains elements of copying or imitating, but also includes the quality of a sham, a trick, hoax, or imposture.

Mainstream culture, with its ethnocentric view of ownership and access, insists expertise, and ownership cannot come from within the culture, but from outside. Mainstreamers, as is their claim, can be objective about their own culture, but Indigenous peoples do not have this capacity. Thus, mainstream designation of expertise excludes Indigenous peoples as experts and holds that Indigenous knowledge is inferior to mainstream.

This is where we are now.

Mainstreamers have usurped ownership and expertise of Indigenous cultures and their practices based on access, possession, and formal education of the artifacts. Mainstream scholars and others assert that such evidence is validation of ownership and proof of expertise. As a result, the Indigenous community now suffers one final loss – the ownership of their own culture.

To the mainstream, Indigenous cultural mimicry, including artistic, linguistic, architectural, and technological cultural practices is not mimicry because the Indigenous community no longer owns its culture or history anymore. So, if imitation does occur, whether for appeal, usefulness, or prestige, it benefits the mainstream since they have presumed ownership.

This is mainstream’s ultimate sham, impostureship, and mimicry.

Frederick White, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University