The claim of Maasai cultural appropriation like any claim of cultural appropriation of minority cultures by the West has been widely scoffed at by many individuals, especially those who are profiting from the iconic cultural image.
The Maasai people of East Africa have always been heavily included in any discussion of prominent African cultures. The tribe may be most known for their history of hunting wildlife but their colorful manner of dressing has often stood them out as having one of the greatest images of traditional Africa.
Cultural appropriation is defined as one culture’s use or adoption of elements and characteristics of another culture. With this definition, the claim of Maasai cultural appropriation can be easily argued. In recent times, more and more companies around the world have included elements of the Maasai’s culture to add an air of otherness to their products.
In 2012, for instance, Louis Vuitton introduced their 2012 spring/summer men’s collection which saw the Maasai Shuka inspiring items of clothing from hats and shirts to scarves. The Maasai shuka is a traditional African blanket cast in colorful shades of red and blue.
A Washington DC nonprofit that works on public interest intellectual property issues internationally, named Light Years IP, pointed out that these companies or luxury brands are raking in billions of dollars worldwide by selling goods that are a product of Maasai cultural appropriation. They point out that the key issue, however, is that the Maasai people are not compensated for the act.
Following the footsteps of the Light Years IP, a group known as the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI) was created to challenge any luxury brand that has or that will copy the signature Maasai style without a licensing agreement.
The MIPI is hoping to force these luxury brands accused of Maasai cultural appropriation to work with the community. They want the companies to obtain licenses from the Maasai and in that way, to generate reasonable funds can then be distributed to the people.
The group argues that since Burberry has the right to copyright and trademark its signature check, the Maasai people should also have a right to protect their traditional designs.
A portion of the group’s website explains why the move to commercialize the ongoing Maasai cultural appropriation is necessary;
“Nearly 80 per cent of the Maasai population in Kenya and Tanzania are living below the poverty line,”
“Yet their distinctive and iconic cultural brand and intellectual property concepts have been used commercially around the globe.”
The MIPI is currently working with the Maasai people through community boards and gatherings to place the control of the trend of Maasai cultural appropriation back in the people’s hands.
The group has actually quantified how much they consider the Maasai people are owed from as many as 80 companies that they allege to be infringing on the Maasai people’s brand. According to them, the Maasai people should be collecting $10m in licensing fees every year.