White Hippies as Consummate Cultural Appropriators

Grace Lapointe
3 min readNov 11, 2019

This might be stating the obvious:

(White) hippies loved cultural appropriation. They considered it a good thing.

As others have said, white hippies were cultural appropriators: of Indigenous people in the US, of Eastern meditation…And so, when contemporary singers like Lana Del Rey emulate the ’60s, they repeat the cultural appropriation that we should have learned to avoid by now.

My Baby Boomer Mom and I have discussed this, and she agrees. Although Mom agrees with me, in general, there’s a huge generation gap regarding this issue. This is why my eyes twitch whenever other non-Native and non-Black people describe their cliquey friend groups as “my tribe.” Why, when there are infinite synonyms for group to choose from? When white people dominated media and cultural criticism almost exclusively, we could get away with this. We have a long way to go, but media is more diverse now, largely thanks to the Internet. People of color tell us why we’re wrong about appropriation.

This explains why you’ll see pictures of young, white women at music festivals like Woodstock, wearing feathers, beads, or even headdresses that only Native, male warriors and chiefs wore. Most non-Native people should know better today. Because contemporary music festivals like Coachella imitate Woodstock, the issue still crops up. Lana Del Rey, who aims for a retro, ’50s and ’60s aesthetic in her image and music, also recently wore a war bonnet.

Hippies often emulated what they saw as Native values. Thomas Builds-the-Fire says something to this effect in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Alexie’s movie adaptation, Smoke Signals. He says that Victor’s dad, Arnold Joseph, made the ideal hippie “because hippies were just trying to be Indian anyway.”

Another example is the 1965 Beatles movie Help! It has an outlandish plot about the human-sacrificing cult of Kali (Thugis), which seems racist today. I’ve always thought that it seems like a parody of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — which is impossible, as Indiana Jones came about 20 years later.

Ironically, George Harrison was introduced to the sitar and other Indian musical instruments on the set of the movie. This eventually led to his obsession with Indian music, studying transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and ultimately, his conversion to Hinduism. My point here is NOT “Cultural appropriation is good, actually!” It’s that the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation is often blurrier than some people think and varies across cultures and generations. Ironically, a comedy movie with an offensive premise led George to his chosen spiritual path for the rest of his life.

Other aspects of 1960s counterculture, including the use of hallucinogenic drugs, were also examples of cultural appropriation. I thought of this while watching The Mind Explained on Netflix. American scientists synthesized LSD in labs, but researchers also took natural hallucinogens out of their cultural context. María Sabina, the influential Mazatec curandera, is quoted in the episode on LSD as saying something like, “The kids didn’t need me anymore. They took mushrooms whenever and wherever they wanted.” Many users of LSD were also seeking enlightenment, but outside of the cultural context and community of a religious ritual, in which Indigenous people originally used it.

When we white people speculate on what is and isn’t racist, we often get it wrong. When our workplaces, friend groups, and online spaces are more diverse, we should pay attention to what people of color tell us is racist or harmful. Also, racism is a lot more than overt bigotry and hatred. If we define racism only as its extremes, we miss the nuances. Appropriating fashions, traditions, and speech that don’t belong to us, and removing them from their original context, is harmful. Also, an obsession with a particular culture can cross the line into fetishization. People and cultures are equally fascinating, but not everything belongs to everyone.