Cultural appropriation generally refers to the adoption of traditional practices, objects, or images by a person or group that is not part of the originating culture. Cultural appropriation can become problematic when it is done without permission, serves to benefit the dominant group, and erases or further marginalizes the oppressed group. In this way, cultural appropriation can recreate larger structures of inequality.

On a recent stroll through a duty-free shop, I was introduced to one of these problematic examples in the form of a new Canadian product named “Totem Vodka,” packaged in a bottle resembling a totem pole. Totem Vodka is not a product of Indigenous entrepreneurship. Instead it is a form of problematic cultural appropriation. Here’s why:

First Nations Erasure

Totem poles are important symbolic creations of some First Nations families in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. They are symbols of family lineage that serve to document stories or histories of people, communities or clans. The Totem Vodka bottle and marketing images erases these families, while appropriating their symbols.


The bottle stopper is shaped like a Thunderbird, a supernatural bird who causes thunder and lightning according to First Nations mythology. The Thunderbird crest is traditionally carved on the totem poles of people from the Thunderbird clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations (on Vancouver Island). The origin of the Thunderbird (and totem poles) within Pacific Northwest First Nations communities is absent from the company’s description of the bottle’s design and construction. Instead, the bottle is superficially connected to a wide-array of global references; the bottle was “designed on the West Coast of Canada, moulded by French glassmakers and topped with an Italian-made custom stopper.”

Significantly, the individuals featured in pictures on the company’s Twitter account include few or no indigenous people.

First Nations Exploitation

The owner of Totem Distilleries is a wealthy white entrepreneur and proceeds from the vodka help support a wildlife rescue association without any First Nations connection.

Settler societies have, paradoxically, both outlawed the sacred work of totem pole carving by indigenous peoples and exploited it for their own profit. In this case, the totem pole is used as an aesthetic tool to distinguish the vodka as authentically “Canadian,” while reproducing an abstracted, exotified, and ultimately false vision of indigeneity. First Nations people in Canada have rarely been either credited or compensated for the use of their cultural symbol.

The example of Totem vodka fits within a larger pattern of racism and colonial exploitation of indigenous people. We can look to the historical effects of colonization in Canada to see how attempts to erase Indigenous culture, while simultaneously exploiting it for the benefit of colonizers, has led to systemic discrimination, exclusionary policies and neglect that continue into the present day. Using a totem pole as a vodka bottle symbolizes this larger, patterned systems of inequality.

Alexandra Rodney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She teaches Cultural Sociology and researches in the areas of food, gender and health. You can read more of Alexandra’s work on her website or follow her on Twitter

A special thank-you to Josée Johnston and Samantha Maskwa for their feedback on this post. Samantha is of Cree, Ojibway and Celtic ancestry. Her family is from the Rice Lake area and the southern part of Turtle Island and she is Bear clan. In addition to her midwifery degree, she is also completing a minor in Sociology and an Aboriginal Knowledges and Experiences certificate at Ryerson University in Toronto.

4One of the first things other academics ask me is “why are you interested in toilets?”

For the vast majority of people, the biological function of waste excretion is an after thought, an activity that nobody wants to talk about, and often times, the mere thought of talking about shit grosses them out. I, however, am fascinated by the human and political dimensions of human waste and the challenges that solving the global sanitation crisis presents. More than excrement itself, I’m interested in a holistic view of sanitation (waste disposal, transportation, removal, treatment and reuse). This interest stems primarily from my training as a chemical engineer, my work experience as a sanitation engineer and researcher, and my interest from my doctoral studies in understanding the politics of policy intervention.

Contrary to what one might think, toilets are political. Owning a toilet will become a necessary prerequisite for politicians to run for office in Gujarat, India. The new Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, has made ending open defecation and increasing access to toilets one of his campaign promises and a crucial component of his political and public policy agenda. Modi’s “toilets first, temples later” has been seen as a strong statement in favor of increasing toilet and latrine access in India.

In my own work I have emphasized that even if we have the technical capabilities to increase access to toilets, latrines and sanitation infrastructure, often times we see lack of progress because institutional, cultural, behavioral and societal barriers have been erected through time. I have shown that the behavioral determinants of sanitation governance are complex and multicausal, and also have multiple effects. Not having a toilet in your own home or easily accessible can lead to violence and physical/sexual assault. Lack of toilets affects women disproportionately and leaves them vulnerable to physical violence. Earlier this year I wrote about the complex linkages between menstrual hygiene management, access to toilets, and violence against women.

To end open defecation and increase sanitation access, we need a set of policy strategies that aren’t solely focused (individually) on cultural practices, or access to latrines, or poverty alleviation. All these factors must be tackled simultaneously.

World Toilet Day takes place on November 19th. This year finally the United Nations named World Toilet Day an official UN day, although for all the noise it has been making, we are WAY behind the target for the Millennium Development Goals. If we really want to end open defecation by 2025, as the UN indicates, we are definitely going to need a better approach. In my own research, I have found that institution- and routine-based strategies help increase access to sanitation. I have also argued that access to toilets can be used as a political manipulation strategy. We should be interested in the global politics of sanitation because the crisis is far-reaching and widespread.

Today, I encourage you to reflect on the fact that over 1 billion people defecate in the open because they lack the dignity of a toilet, and that 2.6 billion people don’t have access to improved water and sanitation sources.

Think about it. It IS political. Because we can’t wait to solve the global sanitation crisis.

Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD is a professor of Resource Management and Environmental Studies with a specialty in the global politics of sanitation. You can follow him at raulpacheco.org, where this post originally appeared, and on Twitter and Facebook.

According to Vox, the U.S. has 4.43% of the world’s population and almost 42% of the world’s population of civilian-owned guns.

This is your image of the week:

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It’s hard to say exactly, but there may be as many guns as there are people in the U.S., or even more guns than people. Since not everyone is a gun owner, that means that the typical gun owner owns more than one. In fact, they own, on average, 6.6 guns each. Two-thirds of the guns in the U.S. are in the hands of 20% of the population. Gun manufacturers know this and market accordingly.

Gun ownership is correlated with both gun homicide and suicide. Accordingly, we also have the highest rate of gun violence of any developed country. In 2013, there were 21,175 gun suicides and 11,208 gun homicides.

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This data was collected by the UNODC and compiled by the Guardian.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The U.S. once led the world in middle class affluence, but thanks to a recovery from the Great Recession that involves giving all the money to the already-rich, we’re losing that distinction.

“In 1960,” said Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, “we were massively richer than anyone else. In 1980, we were richer. In the 1990s, we were still richer.”

Not so much anymore. This chart shows that many countries have been closing the gap.

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Good for them, of course, but the American middle class is struggling, too. Pew Research Center demographer Conrad Hackett summed it up:

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Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

On average, U.S. workers with jobs put in more hours per year  than workers in most OECD countries. In 2012, only Greece, Hungary, Israel, Korea, and Turkey recorded a longer work year per employed person.

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A long work year is nothing to celebrate. The following chart, from the same Economist article, shows there is a strong negative correlation between yearly hours worked and hourly productivity.

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More importantly, the greater the number of hours worked per year, the greater the likelihood of premature death and poor quality of life.  This reality is highlighted in the following two charts taken from an article by Angus Chen titled “8 Charts to Show Your Boss to Prove That You Can Do More By Working Less.”

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In sum, we need to pay far more attention to the organization and distribution of work, not to mention its remuneration and purpose, than we currently do.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

1Last year a drug store chain in Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart, started playing Christmas music more than a month before the holiday.  Customers complained, perhaps, Tom Megginson suggested, because it is customary in Canada to wait until after  Remembrance Day on November 11 (a holiday honoring those who’ve died in wars) to start celebrating Christmas.

In response to complaints, Shoppers pulled the Christmas music and announced their decision on Facebook:

How might people interpret this decision?   Here’s a sampling of one type of response, collected by Megginson:

Notice that not wanting to hear Christmas in early November is conflated with not celebrating Christmas and that is conflated with a whole host of identities: not being a “real” Canadian and being non-Christian, non-white, an immigrant, and of a different “culture.”

For these commenters, the so-called War on Christmas is about much more than a competition between religious and secular forces, it’s also about the centrality of whiteness and a defense of “true” Canadianness against an influx of foreign cultures.  It is worth considering whether, in general, this debate is really code for racism and anti-immigrant sentiment more generally.

Photo by Petr Kratochvil. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Posted last year, but I love it, so here it is again!

In this fun four minute history of Santa Claus, CGP Gray explains how the character evolved, the role of Coca Cola, his conquest of the globe (i.e., Santa’s cultural imperialism), and the ongoing debates about where, exactly, he lives.

Also from CGP Gray:

Via Blame It On The Voices.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat.  Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight.  Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:

Screenshot_1In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals.  I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Electric lights
  • Air conditioning
  • Famine in previous generations

If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.