When Tatiana Toro first launched OLT Embera, a website that sells artisanal design pieces made by Indigenous groups from her home country of Colombia, she encountered an unanticipated challenge: People said they wanted to buy her jewellery, but were scared to. “[A friend] came up to me, and she said, ‘I showed your necklaces to my co-worker, and she said, ‘Wait, but isn't that cultural appropriation?’” Toro recounted to Refinery29. The necklaces in question were Okamas, beaded pieces common among the Embera Chami Indigenous group of Colombia. The necklaces Toro sold were made by Embera Chami artisans who she commissioned to create custom jewellery for the shop.
“These are their designs, and we are employing them. It’s not appropriation,” she recalled telling her friend.
The phrase “cultural appropriation” has become a siren alarm within discussions of identity and privilege on the internet. It explains the controversy surrounding Kendall Jenner marketing her new tequila brand, or why Mexico accused brands like Zara and Anthropologie for selling products with ancestral symbols that come from Mixteca communities of San Juan Colorado. Typically levied against people and brands who sell products that are inspired by (if not stolen from) aesthetic traditions of non-white communities, cultural appropriation is a criticism that is intended to protect vulnerable communities.
But Toro, who emigrated from Risaralda, Colombia to New York City when she was 10 years old, began to sense a more complex issue within the controversy around cultural appropriation. While it was clear-cut that giant corporations and fast-fashion chains did not have the same rights as the Indigenous people whose cultures and stories were emerging in the global marketplace, where did people like Toro fall on the spectrum? Businesses such as Toro’s represent an opportunity to support the work of Indigenous groups, and also educate consumers about their lives and histories. Unlike companies charged with cultural theft, Toro was also given permission to sell such pieces. Growing up in Colombia, Toro never came across Okamas in her day-to-day, nor did she learn about the Embera Chami people until after graduating from The Fashion Institute of Technology with a major in interior design. It wasn’t until four years ago, after a friend gave her an Okama as a gift, that she started to learn about Indigenous peoples of Colombia. She asked herself how she could continue to raise awareness and help the people of her native country.
Throughout the traumatic history of exploitation, colonisation, and the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous people and culture, art and crafts have always been an act of resistance. For Toro, the entire premise of her business was to create the opportunity for people to profit from their own work. But potential customers were nervous that they themselves would be accused of cultural appropriation if they bought and wore OLT Embera pieces.
Established fashion brands have long stolen from independent designers, emerging artists, and Indigenous design traditions. From Loewe’s spring '18 collection of textile prints and patterns originally made by Indigenous craftspeople of Ecuador to Carolina Herrera’s resort 2020 collection filled with embroidery similar to those made by the Tenango de Doria community of Mexico, this kind of aesthetic theft relies on mainstream businesses helping themselves to the ingenuity of marginalised creators, cutting them out from the profits. “That’s where my problem lies,” Toro says. “At least employ the people [from countries like] Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Panama and give them your business.”
As a Huichola business-owner from Mexico, Lydia Morales Ruiz of Biulu Artisan Boutique points out that despite the historical harm and exploitation that Indigenous people have faced because of settler colonialism, the fact that they’ve prevailed is powerful. “It's important to acknowledge both ends of this,” she said. By supporting Indigenous businesses, in other words, retailers have the opportunity to help these families survive by recognising their artistry and providing financial compensation for their labour. “Cultural appropriation is real but that should not inhibit our ability to share our art and knowledge, nor should it drive people away from wanting to support our businesses if done respectfully and correctly."
To that end, it's important that consumers ask Who is actually selling the product? “If it says 'Native American' but comes from Ukraine, it's likely not authentic,” points out Morales Ruiz. “Authenticate your purchases!” But labels of origin or marketing language can be misleading. According to Morales Ruiz, some resellers pose as Indigenous people to sell Indigenous-made products in ignorant ways, whether it's misidentifying sacred items as fashion pieces, which any legitimate Indigenous business owner would understand to be hugely disrespectful.
“Resellers hurt our economies and appropriate our cultures,” she says. “Real Indigenous people design culturally neutral products to share with the world to keep our traditions alive.” The way Morales Ruiz sees it, customers should feel encouraged to own and use something that’s authentic and special.
What’s more, resellers often mark up products above industry standards, which means many Indigenous creators are paid tiny amounts compared to what the reseller pockets. Most recently, as businesses the world over struggled to survive because of dramatic shifts in purchasing behaviour due to Covid-19, some Indigenous entrepreneurs failed to receive financial aid on offer from their governments because of a lack of internet services to access government websites and bank accounts.
It’s a never-ending pattern where Indigenous groups remain exploited. Trying to find the context of these communities being directly impacted is even more difficult due to a history of silencing through colonialism and lack of resources. It’s a story of multiplying exploitation, where a lack of resources begets fewer resources. “There are also people around the world that make contacts with Indigenous communities, pay them a pittance for their crafts, then up sell while undercutting the real artists that are trying to make an honest and dignified living,” Morales Ruiz explains. “Unfortunately, this kind of exploitation is not uncommon.”