Cultural Appropriation: When to Borrow from the Indigenous, and When Might It Offend?

Cultural Appropriation: When to Borrow from the Indigenous, and When Might It Offend?

By Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP

In certain circles, there is a great deal of discussion about actions of “cultural appropriation,” the sociological concept which views the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture as negative and unsavory.

According to proponents of this concept, these cultural borrowings are problematic for a variety of reasons, not only for questions of cultural oppression and group identity but also claims of intellectual property rights. Because Bert Hellinger was inspired to create constellations after learning about the Zulus’ traditions of ancestor reverence, this question naturally arises from time to time.

It is not unknown for constellation facilitators to receive criticism for cultural appropriation, particularly when they are integrating various indigenous traditions into their presentations. Perhaps they are calling in the Four Directions at the beginning of the session, or using a talking stick to structure group sharing, employing an African djembe to drum out a rhythm during meditation or employing a Tibetan chant or prayer.

I asked Francesca Mason Boring, who is an author, international facilitator, teacher and lecturer, working with universal indigenous fields in family constellations for years, to share her thoughts and experiences on this topic.

She has supported development of constellation as ceremony, community constellations, and nature constellations and is a keynote speaker at the 2015 North American Systemic Constellations Conference Nov. 12-15 in San Diego and the author of Connecting to Our Ancestral Past: Healing Through Family Constellations, Ceremony and Ritual as well as Feather Medicine: Walking in Shoshone Dreamtime: A Family System Constellation and Coyote Dance. Her newest book, pending publication, is “Family Systems Constellation: A Straightforward Way, and Other Adventures in Human Systems.” She is also a bicultural person with Native American and European ancestry. 

Karen: What are your thoughts about cultural appropriation?

Francesca: I know there is a time and place when we will all just support each other in growth, however that happens. Until that time, there will be places of challenge.

Over time I have learned that ceremony and ritual are universal and are essential for human beings.

It has also been something I noticed that for some, there is not the capacity for the depth of the indigenous fields from which ritual springs.  This is just a limit of acculturation, not a limit of the heart. In my workshops and training the presence of ritual and indigenous fields are clearly stated.

I don’t think many would be shocked if a constellation evolves into a community ritual, but perhaps I am also careful. For instance, I have often solicited others, particularly if there are clergy, or elders present; I honor the direction and inclusion of others who have a spiritual path that can support the participants. Not every group is the right place for ritual.

What might make it easier for a facilitator to introduce ritual into a group?

Give a very serious time and introduction in your opening.  Share that ceremony and ritual are universal.  Refer to my book or other resources you may know that acknowledge the presence of ceremony in all cultures.

That being said, it is a journey that many begin when they are called to ritual, to find what their own cultural ceremonial roots are.  To honor the origin of every tradition and ritual is important, because that is the place where “cultural appropriation” comes in. If I do not credit the roots of the ritual, I am stealing- I am not appropriating the respect of the roots of origin to the ritual.

How do we determine when the use of other cultural traditions may be painful, offensive or triggering?

When people use ritual and claim it as their own without honoring the roots or the history and culture from which they come, that is actually painful and inappropriate.  It is also good to educate people – for folks to understand that there is no place in the world in which human beings did not use these healing supports.  I think we have suffered without them.

In “Connecting to Our Ancestral Past” I write:

“Regarding the many ancestral healers who walked in Europe and other parts of the globe who intuited herbal cures and understood the healing power of simple human touch, I think they smile when they see the healthy grounded interest in ritual, ceremony and the use of the knowing field in Constellation Work and many other disciplines.”

How might we respond if we, as constellation facilitators, are criticized for our use of cultural symbols that are not part of our personal ancestry, for instance, the passing of a talking stick or a feather fan?

As with all teaching of the field, if there was an experience that had you question the effect, it may be that there is something in the presentation and holding of these gifts that you could reframe or be more articulate about.

These rituals and icons are what kept human beings alive when there was no other source of life force, when colonization and mechanistic Western paradigms would happily have seen those civilizations and beliefs extinguished.

If you really sit with the elements you are introducing, I am sure they will teach you. They are not toys, so a good question to ask is, “Do I have permission?”

I have also spent a great deal of time in exchange with people, when something has been uncomfortable for a participant I want to know what was uncomfortable, and why. I think it is important not to have an agenda, or a defense, but rather to feel into, what is in service?

Thank you. Let’s say that it is good for us to have this kind of conversation, right?

I just speak from my heart and my place, so for sure you could find so many other perspectives. As we know, who knows which is right?


Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is a psychodrama trainer, psychotherapist and constellations facilitator. She is a member of the steering committee for the 2015 North American Systemic Constellations Conference. She is the author of Integrating Psychodrama and Systemic Constellation Work: New Directions for Action Methods, Mind-Body Therapies and Energy Healing with Ronald Anderson, Healing Eating Disorders with Psychodrama and Other Action Methods: Beyond the Silence and the Fury with Linda Ciotola and Show and Tell Psychodrama: Skills for Therapists, Coaches, Teachers, Leaders. Learn more about her books, programs and services at