Cargo Cult, Native Appropriations, and Voodoo Programming

The campaign slogan was “Traditional Goes Digital,” and it included three images: Squaw, Brave and Chief. These were created for Australian printing company ColorChiefs in 2006, and recently resurfaced on the How to Be a Retronaut blog, to such wry comments as “Native American steampunk use ALL the parts of the 8088.” The images have also garnered some critique, both for their cultural appropriation and sexism. As blogger Ikwe recently wrote on Tumblr, “it’s not very creative to sexualize a native woman in this way but it’s packaged with a new futuristic sexy theme so it’s sooooo groundbreaking and chic. Oh yes, the ad also reminds us that we are moving forward from our primitive and savage ways. Meh.” Paging Dr. Adrienne!

Looking at this somewhat clueless ad campaign did lead me through an interesting Wikipedia tunnel. Come with me on a magical journey:

Cargo Cult on Wikipedia:

With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldierssailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles.[5] The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses.[citation needed] In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.

Which led to Cargo Cult Programming on Wikipedia:

A style of computer programming that is characterized by the ritual inclusion of code or program structures that serve no real purpose. Cargo cult programming is typically symptomatic of a programmer not understanding either a bug he or she was attempting to solve or the apparent solution (compare shotgun debuggingvoodoo programming).[1] The term cargo cult programmer may also apply when an unskilled or novice computer programmer (or one not experienced with the problem at hand) copies some program code from one place and pastes it into another place, with little or no understanding of how the code works, or if it is required in its new position.

Voodoo Programming on Wikipedia:

In computer programmingdeep magic refers to techniques that are not widely known, and may be deliberately kept secret. The number of such techniques has arguably decreased in recent years, especially in the field of cryptography, many aspects of which are now open to public scrutiny. The Jargon File makes a distinction between deep magic, which refers to (code based on) esoteric theoretical knowledge; black magic, which refers to (code based on) techniques that appear to work but which lack a theoretical explanation; and heavy wizardry, which refers to (code based on) obscure or undocumented intricacies of particular hardware or software. All three terms can appear in source code comments of the form:

Deep magic begins here…

In fiction, the term comes from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, an early book from C. S. Lewis‘s The Chronicles of Narnia, which describes ancient laws and codes as “deep magic from the dawn of time.”

[via m1k3y]

21 Responses to “Cargo Cult, Native Appropriations, and Voodoo Programming”

  1. Ashiikankwe Says:

    This kind of thing is not what I expected to see on this blog. You clearly posted this because it looks cool, not because it represented issues you’re invested in. And though you start to break down some of those issues in the post (oh, those clueless harmless Australians, lol), you interrupt yourself to go on a ramble about what this image really means to you: the sexiness of the exotic primitive + exotic technology pairing. Blah, thanks. Indians and voodoo and programming. All very exotic.

    But yeah, I get the idea. Old-world tradition and modern technology are a pretty interesting mix in art. So why don’t you write about artists who address these themes with thoughtfulness and integrity? Like you usually do?

    You could have written about KC Adams’ “Cyborg Hybrids” series: portraits of native artists/curators/creative forces in Canada, which challenge the traditional/modern dichotomy in by playing off of Donna Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg.

    Or you could write about Wally Dion’s “Thunderbird.” The Thunderbird is the protector of the Anishinaabe; it brings rain and has the power of lightning. Dion’s piece interprets that thunderbird power in modern terms, using circuit boards to create a massive fossil-like image of the ancient spirit. In this way, the thunderbird power is an intrinsic part of the electronics and technology we use today.

    Do some research, is all.

  2. Nadya Says:

    Ashiikankwe, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    There are some assumptions in your comment that I have to respectfully disagree with. You assume that I posted this because it looks “cool.” In fact, I posted these images because I think they’re interesting. I find a lot of advertising that makes implicit and often unfair statements about race, class and gender compelling enough to discuss. The topic of media critique has appeared on Coilhouse plenty of times before in various contexts (for example), and I view this post as part of those ongoing discussions on our blog. I did fall into the Wikipedia rabbit hole at some point in the post, but that happens sometimes when I write a blog post. And it’s wonderful.

    I’ve titled the part of my blog post that directly pertains to these images “Native Appropriation,” linked to Adrienne K’s great blog on the subject, and the the quote about the images’ “sexiness” by blogger Ikwe is actually a critique of the ad’s exoticization/sexualization that I entirely agree with. I go on to call the campaign “clueless,” but perhaps I should’ve been more clear: I don’t think that these images are even well-done. They lack passion, compassion, understanding, personality and creativity. I think that the ad agency derived this type of imagery from more original work (a topic I’ve discussed in the past here), and I can see how even more original works that draw on tribal traditions can be problematic.

    As far as the artists you’ve cited, I am always grateful for new links and artists to discover, so I’ll delve deeper into their work. Thank you. So far, Wally Dion’s work looks wonderfully intricate, and KC Adams’ portraits are great. And since you mention Donna Haraway, you might enjoy this post, if you haven’t already seen it.

    Thank you again for the discussion!

  3. Ashiikankwe Says:

    Yes, you linked to some great discussions, you touched on the sexism and the appropriation. But look, this image (along with one other video of a cute stereotypical Indian) comprises the entirety of this blog’s representations native culture, arts…anything (correct me if I’m wrong). If you’re even going to go there, what I’m saying is that self-representations should figure at least as prominently. ‘Why *this* piece,’ I was asking myself? ‘Cuz it looks good,’ was what I came up with. Apparently I’m wrong, but I urge you to consider my point anyway.

    The Cargo Cults and the rest after the discussion confused me. If you say it’s part of an extended train of (wiki-)thought, I’ll accept that. It just seemed a strange leap from ‘native imagery,’ and the connection looked like ‘the novelty of primitive/future’ in both. Natives != primitive.

  4. Nadya Says:

    Ashiikankwe, I completely understand where you’re coming from, and I thank you for the critique. I did at one point attempt to write a giant blog post about Adrienne’s blog, but never finished it: it’s still languishing among the 200 drafts we have up in WordPress. It just seemed like such a huge topic, and I wanted to be in the right mindset to tackle it. Here’s a screenshot; this is as far as I got:

    I think it might be time to finish that post… it’ll probably look really different when I’m done! But yeah, I can see how, without many other posts talking about more genuine Native American art/culture, this particular post could look a little weird. FYI, we’ve talked about including something you might find very relevant in Issue 07. We’ll see how that works out.

    Thanks again for the solid points you made and for the artists you linked to. I really do appreciate it, Ashiikankwe.

  5. Ashiikankwe Says:

    I’d adore seeing that post up one day.

  6. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    I appreciated this post, Nadya! My first reaction to these photos was a HUGELY cranky eye-roll. Knowing you, I’m pretty sure you had a similarly irritable reaction, and I think that’s made quite clear by your presentation.

    But… Ashiikankwe, you’ve also driven a hugely important and undeniable point for me, personally. You’re very, very right: Coilhouse could do a far better and more comprehensive job of covering self-represented Native American culture and arts on this blog, and in our magazine.

    I’m really grateful to you for taking the time to point it out. Seriously, thank you. We needed that. We will definitely work on it.

  7. Jamie Says:

    This is a strange choice for an advertising campaign and I’m not sure it set out to accomplish what they’d planned. But from a design perspective, I think the costumes are really interesting. Not so much the “Brave” outfit, as he’s not really wearing enough to comment on. Cultural misappropriation aside, I think the other two are pretty neat (though the headdress could definitely lose the CDs tacked on top).

  8. SA Says:

    I think there was also a missed opportunity in the previous post about “why you’re wearing feathers” to interrogate the possibility of a link between the fad for feathers, and “ironic” hipster headdresses such as the ones often critiqued at Native Appropriations.

  9. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    @SA Good point… that quickie was more aggregation for Jenka’s original post than anything else.

  10. alumiere Says:

    I second SA’s comment – regardless of the intent, the images in the feather post scream cultural appropriation. It also really bothered me to see the prices of feathers for such works being set so high that Native Americans who do use them probably won’t be able to purchase them.

    Here’s a link to a short piece that points some of the problems with this:

    As someone who wears their hair in a non-traditional Mohawk style, I understand that too can be appropriation. However, I am part Native American, and have spoken with and read work by other Native Americans who were raised in the culture – unlike feathered headdresses and appropriated clothing styles, the haircut itself isn’t as offensive because it has been worn by other groups in various modifications throughout history. That said, many Natives still find it problematic, especially when it’s on someone who is pasty white or when worn in conjunction with other appropriative styles.

  11. Glossolalia Black Says:

    I won’t lie; the imagery drew my eye, and then ultimately, I read the article. I am not ashamed of my reaction. I have Coilhouse in my feed for a reason, and my eye is drawn to what it is drawn to, and then my attention span is drawn to the issues and subject matter within the article itself.

    I have Native American ancestry. However, it is greatly mixed in with my African American ancestry, and our family has become so fractured over time, I could never hope to know or claim my lineage. Therefore, I have and have no claim. All I can do is tell you the reactions it brought within me.

    Wearing feathers is political whether you mean it to be or not. You’re wearing pieces of an animal, it has cultural significance for you, or it doesn’t. Or, you’re just an apolitical artsy type that “likes the way it looks”. To be honest, I might be closest to type #3… however, I’m aware of what messages I could be sending if I chose to wear feathers.

    And then you have to think of feather boas, which are politicized in a completely different fashion than, say, a warbonnet. Is it still a warbonnet if it’s made out of computer parts? These are all interesting questions, and ones I prefer to contemplate in my own head. I’m chickenshit; I could never make art like the kind depicted in the photographs. I don’t know what I would be saying. And I’m entirely too afraid of pissing people off.

  12. Vicissitude Says:

    Hmmm I ll play a little devils advocate here. My question is when does someone cross the line to actually be crossing the cultural appropriation line. Why can’t I incorporate a different culture into my style (used here in the broadest sense of the word) as long as I do not defame it. Here Ashiikankwe is arguing the images defamed their culture because they acquitted native with primitive.

    Would Ashiikankwe have a problem if the images were of European Serfs, Romans or Egyptians all cyper/steamed punked up? The question of what primitive is a very hard to answer.

    In support of Ashiikankwe point of view Western humanism seems to automatically point to native Americans as primitive. I believe this has to do with how the age of Exploration, Renaissance, Reformation and Restoration all occurred concurrently. So when Europe hit “America” what they saw was what these movements were trying to bring Europe away from.

    Indeed by the Age of Enlightenment (around 1648) anything that existed before the Renaissance maybe considered primitive. Put simply “Enlightened people are not primitive” This argument continues to this day as “liberals” attack “rednecks”. Therefore you can make the argument primitive can be defined as a culture that is not Enlightened as opposed to a geographical culture.

    I ll let the rest of you go argue what Enlightenment actually is.

    As for feathers well they have existed in Western culture for millenniums. Feathers and animal skins are universal to human culture.

  13. Meredith Yayanos Says:


    Bear with me, because this is next question/elaboration is slightly off track (and I promise I’m not trying to derail or deflect– this is a deeply informative discussion thread, and I’m soaking it all up), but there’s some stuff I’m specifically interested in learning more/talking more about:

    The mohawk hair style gets its name from the Mahican tribe, of course, but haven’t there been similar –if not identical– hairstyles in several other cultures over the centuries? Including “pasty white” cultures? ;)

    Lumiere, you touched on that briefly while justifying your own cultural inheritance of the mohawk hairstyle, but I’d love to learn more about those other groups if anyone knows. I’ll also do some research of my own when I get a chance and report back.

    Again, I won’t deny or argue that the California circus feather/leather crew hasn’t appropriated Native American tribal signifiers for their own fusion aesthetic. At the same time, for the sake of widening the context beam a bit, might it not be good to research/acknowledge if there have been many different cultures throughout history, from various parts of the world, who have shaved various patterns into their heads, who might have inspired them? (Or worn elaborate braids, developed dreadlocks, and worn natural fibers and objects as adornment, for that matter.) Ear stretching, for example, has been a prevalent practice across multiple continents (and involving several different cultures, races and classes) from ancient times onward.

    Lumiere, I won’t disagree at ALL: that bowing El Circo performer in the image by Siouxzen Kang on that aggregation post I put up conveys a lot of straight-up NA cultural appropriation in his style of dress and adornment. I just don’t know that I agree that some of the other images “scream” nothing but NA cultural appropriation quite as loudly as you say, and I think that’s a pattern worth examining further.

    SA, putting the matter of later mainstreaming/commodifying of the style into a trend aside, what the performers and artists who first developed the look were doing, to me, seems like a far cry from Billyburg children in Minnetonka booties ironically plopping Made-in-Taiwan warbonnets on their heads and tooting out Coco Rosie songs on plastic recorders.

    I also see a marked difference, contextually and culturally, between the content of the ad campaign Nadya’s posted about, and the mid-aughts El Circo/Novoa style. (Again, I’m not talking about later, more mainstreamed trends.) All kinds of different cultural reference material comes to mind when I look at a lot of the 2004 thru 2006 Erté/Novoa headdresses and bespoke clothing [edited to add] and later Skin Graft stuff: Euro-Victorian, Indonesian, Wild West cowboy, mid 20th Century combat/military, vintage and Vegas burlesque, Tolly/Bollywood, Scottish tribal, Irish faery folklore, Art Nouveau… and yes, both Southern and Northern American tribal styles. I don’t know if that makes the those designers infinitely MORE guilty of arbitrarily ganking whatever ethnic tropes caught their eyes, or just makes that group of people a stellar example of how the ramping up of internet age information exchange has affected cross-pollination. Probably a bit of both?

    Again, my apologies for veering a wee bit off topic… but these questions/lines of discussion figure pretty deeply into the Coilhouse mission statement, and it’s where my mind goes immediately whenever we start talking about issues of cultural ownership, appropriation, cross-pollination, and mainstream vs. minority/underground/fringe cultural presentation.

    Very eager to hear your thoughts!

  14. Stylze Davis Says:

    just a short bit:

    I think cultural appropriation is not inherently negative as its something integral to the growth of nations, peoples and cultures around the world. The most obvious example being cooking. Think of how ingrained the tomato is in the public consciousness when thinking about Italian food, when it actually came from Peru, and was introduced by the Spanish. While this is not as deliberate an example of appropriation as this, it nevertheless is relevant in principle.

    On the other hand, the kiffiyeh obsession from a few years ago would be an example of how appropriation can have a sort of nulling effect on aspects of a culture. Its interesting to note that there is a subconcious understanding over here as to what Native American headdresses mean what (roughly based on size) yet we’re ignorant of the meaning of the kiffiyeh.

    I had a bit in between there but I think I’ll summarize by saying that appropriation of any symbology should be done in regards to it’s use and history rather than your own relative purposes which may contradict or even mock (hipster headdresses for one) the original culture.

    And a closing little factoid while we’re on the subject of symbolism, owls are actually really really dumb. They’re only viewed as intelligent because they look like us, therefore MUST be smart.

  15. Spencer Thomas Says:

    The very mechanisms of cultural transmission, adaptation, and cross-pollination/fusion is the essence of what culture is. How do we communicate ideas across time? With culture. What happens (and has happened) throughout time as different tribes, peoples, nations, etc. met each other? Mixing, appropriation, re-mixing, and new cultures coming out of these interactions.

    There are of course those who would like to freeze time or some “pure” versions of culture; it’s a kind of Conservatism. No culture has been “pure” for thousands of years, and there’s nothing inherently good or bad about that. It just is what it is.

    On top of all that, plenty have argued that the act of melding ideas this way is an inherently beautiful process (and that “purity” is tightly tied in with the Fetishizat­ion of Identity and the new Tribalism) . Some people have mentioned food, which is one clear example, but it goes from end to end and all the way through (in terms of values, customs, fashion, whatever.) Just see the many pieces written on the beauty of emergent orders and things like Catallaxy (Hayek was wrong about a lot, but that part was quite good.)

    If you don’t like the style, that’s one thing (I’m personally pretty nonplussed by these images, though I do like the overall idea), but the purism and negative way that CA is being painted is just plain regressive. If it’s human created/by choice, it’s open to criticism, mockery, re-use in art, anything. Humans made it, humans can appropriate it, mix it, then remix it again.

    Coilhouse, you really do not need to defend yourselves here. You haven’t done anything wrong.

  16. Vicissitude Says:

    Yes cultural appropriation is how human evolve more than any other way. Without it we would be well primitive. We can only hope that the appropriation is a positive input for our evolution.

    And yes Mer I would love to learn more about traditional pasty white culture. I think you see that when you see ren festivals and the circus culture. Those highlight Northern European culture to about 1300 with the belly dancing going back even further to Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern? Not so sure there.

    However, I think there is a reluctance to go back further; because you start treading into religion/mythology which many want reject all together. Though I love it and indulge in Joesph Campbell when I can

  17. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    Spencer, I appreciate what you’re saying very much. For whatever it’s worth, I personally don’t feel defensive right now, or “wrong”. (Which hopefully just means I have a pretty well-reinforced “don’t get defensive, get curious” attitude when it comes to exploring complex and charged subject matter like this… not that I have my head up my ass! Hehe.) Over the past few hours, turning various facets of the discussion over in my own mind hasn’t made me feel crappy. It’s exciting; a helpful kind of mental/emotional/contextual “Rubix Cubing”!

    What you’re talking about is certainly true on a macro level, and in the same vein as many thoughts I was batting around… albeit less coherently than you! Then again, viewing the same topic from a more finite and immediate micro level, I can’t deny how important it is to acknowledge the concerns raised by Ashiikankwe and others, or to strive to be mindful of the ways in which one can oppress or “diminutize” a cultural group by casually, unthinkingly appropriating their voice.

    So I see merit in what all of the previous commenters have stated, both concerning this post by Nadya, and my post on Jenka’s “Why You’re Wearing Feathers Right Now” essay. I feel very glad that even with a marked drop-off in conversation in Coilhouse’s comments section in recent years (thanks partially to Twitter, FB, and aggregation, and partially to an increase in “filler” posts here as we scramble to keep everything going with the Coilhouse print venture), we’ve retained an intelligent, engaged readership that’s still invested enough to voice valid concerns about our presentation of complicated subject matter that’s important to them.

    I gotta pack for my imminent trip back to the States and get on a plane soon, and I’ll be AFK for quite a while, unfortunately…. but I want to say (not for the first or last time) that one of the most important questions/self-crits I keep in my heart while working on Coilhouse is always going to be: how can this platform be improved, be made more inclusive? This space is here, first and foremost, to provide all of us a forum to cover, examine, explore, discuss, and debate points of entry into various aspects of alternative culture, as well as the countless ways in alt/DIY creativity and expression interact with mainstream and monocultural trends.

    I think it’s safe to say that our entire staff’s mindful of that. If we’re not open to fielding suggestions on how to facilitate a more comprehensive/expansive/respectful space, then we might as well sell the farm.

    There’s always room to improve. That is not an apology; that’s a fact. :)

  18. Filipe Russo Says:

    I think a lot of topics made guest appearances in this post/comments section and most of them deserve development. I will outline some:

    1) Nadya´s adventures in HyperlinkedLand and through the Wiki-glass.
    2) In Brazil, where I lived: Amazonas, we have this kind of corrupted natives who live in natural reserves where only they may walk freely, those natives sell gold and precious stones to brazillians, americans and/or anybody who pays in cash. Also there were in Amazonia some illegal american cientists who were pretending to do tourism but in truth were collecting our DNA samples. Also makes me think of Castanha do Para, which is a kind of native brazillian nut that a japanese industry had got an international patent, after million of dollars and tribunal audiencies we got back our rights over the nut and its name.
    3) The lightness; most hipsters are just like lady gaga: a walking mockery of themselves with more “stylish” value than any seriousness of statement. They wanna do and be cool, just like coilhousers, the difference is their idea of cool. So kids, watch the origin of your feathers!
    4) Appropriation can go two ways, this ways are more defined by intent and interpretation than anything else. Excuse me if I don´t see mockery and sexualization as such evils. Mockery as long as there is no pointed fingers or some formal humilliation/bullying and is just between friends in a some silly meme through youtube, aggregates no evil in my eyes. The expression sexualization makes me laugh, it looks just so silly to me. Sexualization = to make sexual. I haven´t seen any cientist make the assexual beings become sexual beings. We live in such a silly culture that if a woman is naked she´s seen as sexualized, we are all sexual, with or without clothes, men or women. I can see how all this sexualization topic is paired with over-exposed, sexually charged appearances of women in comercials and mass media as much as categories for porn. But even then I wouldn´t call it sexualization since sexualization makes me think of glueing plastic dicks to frigdes to make of them sexualized entities. I would call this sexually charged appearances as explicit erotic capital in conventionally accepted circunstances. Now there is also the real bad appropriation: rip-offs. The good appropriations are the common way the every-day person puts a feather in her hair before going out to party and the intelectual artistic way a person tries to integrate distinct themes.
    5) About being more inclusive, I´ve never been much of a comment person while voyeuring coilhouse blog and guess I´ve been pretty affect by the “filler” posts as they don´t have enough substance to make me even read most of them. At least when I get my hands in the next coil mag I will devour a more condensed and tasteful version of what I´ve been missing here.

    And keep the good work, gals! *:

  19. Io Says:

    Coming from my backgrounds in women’s studies and cultural anthropology, much of what I would bring to the table has already been stated. That said, I think that when people see mohawks, leathers, feathers, and ear plugs, many are all too quick to jump onto the “cultural appropriation” bandwagon. Guess what? The Celts wore mohawks, feathers, and had stretched lobes (don’t believe me? they’re in the archeological record), Look at the Sami of Norway and you might mistakenly think they’re just a bunch of Norwegians who have watched too many Westerns, but you would be wrong. To me, those things should be uncontroversial fair game unless they are deliberately mimicking a unique cultural signifier like a war bonnet or Maori Moko. This is because these types of decoration are universal to all cultures, we all tattoo, pierce ourselves, and decorate w/plumage and leathers, and we’ve done it since time immemorial.

  20. hyrcan Says:

    I guess it’s ok as long as it’s done by an artist that Coilhouse likes:

    or at a Coilhouse event:

  21. Nadya Says:

    In response Ashiikankwe and others’ totally valid criticism of Coilhouse not covering enough contemporary native culture, I would like to note that since this post, we’ve published several posts delving into modern indigenous culture, including a fascinating three-part series by Io Waters:

    I never got to do my “Native Appropriations” blog post before Coilhouse went on hiatus, but I hope to revisit this topic again in the future. I wish we could’ve published more on the subject before Coilhouse went dark. I know I’m going to continue thinking and writing about it as time goes by.