In Defense of the Burning Man 2013 Theme: Cargo Cult

There’s a petition floating around on asking that the Burning Man Organization change this year’s theme from “Cargo Cult” to something… well, more culturally sensitive.

I wanted to share my own reaction to this petition, and why I think their objection to the theme is flawed, and frankly, intellectually dishonest. Here’s an excerpt from the BMOrg’s theme announcement:

“Our story begins in Melanesia during World War II.  Thousands of American GIs suddenly descended on this South Sea island chain, bearing with them unimaginable riches: magical foodstuffs that never spoiled, inconceivable power sources. Just as abruptly the troops departed, leaving only broken, rusted Jeeps, crumpled beer cans, and the memory of Spam. To the astonished eyes of the natives, this was a miraculous occurrence, and they yearned for the return of abundance.”

Over the next few years, a religion of sorts arose on the islands, as the natives built totems and developed rituals intended to lure back the sailors and their cargo.  Some of these “Cargo Cults” are still active today — the most famous being the John Frum cult on the island of Tanna.
Celebrations for John Frum day on Tanna Island.

“Movements like these were a way for traditional people to come to terms with colonialism and Christianity,” says one anthropologist.  “Vanuatu’s culture would have been entirely squashed if it wasn’t for cults like John Frum.”

The BMOrg writes:

“Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the Cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don’t know how it’s made, where it’s made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing.”

What’s the first thing that came into your mind when you read that sentence? I thought of Apple.  I bet some of you did too.  Let’s face it — there’s a certain religious dimension to the company:


Ceremonial cross on Tanna Island.
Ceremonial cross on Tanna Island.

The massive, church-like interiors of the retail stores.  The throngs of people waiting to speak to the the all-knowing technicians at the Genius Bar. Steve Jobs announcing the release date of the next iPad — posthumously, via hologram — like some kind of modern-day Hari Seldon. (OK, maybe that last one hasn’t happened yet.  But I wouldn’t put it past him.)

According to the petition,

“The theme announcement encourages event-goers to appropriate and misinterpret Indigenous culture from that region….  It reinforces myths, which justify colonialism….  Our community protests the use of a theme that encourages mockery, misinterpretation and appropriation of Indigenous culture.”

But is this truly the case?  Does the theme encourage mockery of Indigenous culture?  Or does it ask us to look in the mirror at the “astonished eyes” we all have when faced with circumstances beyond our understanding? It seems to me that the petitioners see the phrase “astonished eyes” and feel embarrassed for the natives.  They think, “We would never believe such a silly thing as they did.” They want to draw a fine line between that kind of wonder and incredulity and our own civilized lives.

When I see the words “astonished eyes,” I see my own eyes when I walk into that Apple store. I see the eyes of awe-struck Americans at Barack Obama’s inauguration. I see the eyes of my friends gazing up at the Man for the very first time.

Is it fair to say that natives dancing around a “totemic sky-craft” is one thing, and yet our actions at the Burn are something else altogether?  Why?  Because we bring a level of self awareness and, even, perhaps irony to our ceremony? Hell, this year I marched dressed up as a Carrot protesting thousands of folks dressed as Bunnies who were themselves protesting against Humanity. And we’re worried about them getting made fun of?


2011 Man
2011 Man

Was it “silly” for the Melanesians to build up a religion around American merchant ships?  Perhaps.  But no less silly than many of the “cargo cults” that spring up among “civilized”, “educated” people.  (Need I mention Joseph Smith?)

How do we know that these natives don’t have the same in-depth conversations about their Cargo Cults that we have about our own practices? Perhaps some are openly skeptical.  Perhaps others never believed that their actions would bring the cargo ships back any faster, but participated anyway because it feels good to do something while you wait. Just like pressing that elevator button or cross-walk symbol for a second or third time, even though we know it won’t make the light change any faster.

“In the past we believed in John Frum, but now we believe in Jesus,” says one native. Which faith is more reasonable than the other?  Does it matter?

Recently, violence broke out on Tanna between the followers of Christian leader “Prophet Fred” and members of the John Frum cult.  Prophet Fred, writes one blogger, “preaches Christ’s return, which is two millennium overdo, while mocking the hopes of John Frum’s return.”  Sound familiar?

When confronted with the question, “How could someone believe that?” it is difficult to admit, “I might have believed that too if I had been there.” It is easier to keep a safe distance, to approach the question academically, than to embrace the fact that human beings (ourselves included) have the capacity to believe things that aren’t true.

In my opinion, the Cargo Cults were a perfectly rational attempt to understand the situation at hand.  They don’t require the same leaps of faiths — more like mental gymnastics — that today’s modern religions entail.  These folks simply took the information at hand and incorporated it into the worldview that existed around them. We can look at Cargo Cults in one of two ways.  Either this is what primitive people do when confronted with “civilized” society, or this is how human beings react when confronted with circumstances beyond our understanding. It is our innate desire to understand, to reason, to explain.

The petition claims, “The theme announcement, with its un-nuanced summation of the ‘cargo cults’ frames American people as the technologically-superior benevolent savior-gods and native people as naive, wide-eyed primitives.” Sometimes, it’s good to be wide-eyed.  We’re all “primitives” when it comes down to it.  We all want to burn things and dance around the fire.  To assume that some of us are intelligent enough to do it ironically and others aren’t is the height of cultural superiority.

The Trojan Horse right before it's burn in 2011.
The Trojan Horse right before it’s burn in 2011.

The only reason to be afraid of this year’s Burning Man theme is to be afraid of the capacity in all of us to get carried away by something we don’t understand — be it culture, computers, or some other cargo…

10 Responses to “In Defense of the Burning Man 2013 Theme: Cargo Cult”
  1. Richard H

    “Does the theme encourage mockery of Indigenous culture?”

    Answer: yes.

    Burning Man is already becoming yet another festival notorious for “hipster headdresses” and other careless acts of cultural misappropriation – why would we expect Pacific Islanders to be exempt from the same treatment?

    I don’t buy the argument that people will really put much study into the “Cargo Cult” theme. Even for every one who does, you can expect ten more who heard the theme from a friend in the form of something like “I don’t know, I guess it’s like when modern humans dropped technology on some remote island and the natives formed a cult around it.”

    I give a fuck not as a hater, but because I love Black Rock City with mouth. I also believe that we have to point the finger inwards and examine our own culture with critical honesty because it’s more positive than pointing the finger at others and creating reactionary responses. The 2010 BRC census revealed that three-fourths of BRC is white people. Festival culture is already getting stereotyped as unintentionally racist. So as a Burner, I was linked to this article by a friend, read it, read the original petition, then signed it. Not acting like a bunch of assholes, not even by accident if it can be avoided, is definitely a Leave No Trace principle.

  2. Richard H. gets it.

    It’s really disappointing to see so many burners scoffing at the idea of cultural appropriation, though not surprising given that the burner community is largely white and privileged.

    I give a fuck for the same reason. I really care about burner culture, and I hate to see it rabidly defending something that encourages mockery and exclusion of other cultures. We can do better.

  3. To me, it comes down to encouragement. Is the theme, is this story, and are these comments going to encourage something ‘Good’. People will respect your opinion when they see you acting on it… so sometime I think “why even criticize”, just work to affect the change you wish to see in yourself and in the world. If people agree with you that it’s important, they will start to learn more about it and become agents for change in their own right. Simply acknowledging burning man is 3/4 white is not enough, but why even focus on race? Isn’t that kinda a cop-out in this day and age of sharing, learning, and cheap travel? Isn’t technology allowing us to skip reparations and reconciliations and simply offer real equality? Now we have to get out of our own way. Does race dictate how you respond to my comment, or the content of it? If so, why? Would you demand to listen to my life story before accepting or denying what I say? Before you decide to judge my opinion as right or wrong? Of course not…. I like the fact that anybody, Melanesian, Caucasian, first time burner or old time hippie can be ignorant, or act wrongly, or selfishly, and they can also do the exact opposite. Sit in a group of people having a discussion, most places you go, mostly richer / well educated people and people who felt supported in their childhood will speak up more, and certainly more men… so is it up to these people to fix the inequality or thinking of others, or is that just more privileged thinking and judgement? I say, shut up and follow your dream. It will lead you to peace, kindness and love for all, including yourself. :) MAKE A COOL HAT FOR ME TO TOUCH ON THE PLAYA PLZ & THANK YOU. -Fearless

  4. Eleonora Walczak

    This article is well written and I admire it’s position on Cargo Cult. The thing I fear however is this themes ability to open a door to various “advertisements”. My favorite part of the burn is feeling lost in another world. Escaping default life and entering into free thought. A place where you thoughts are not trapped between Nike & McDonald’s. Last year a Bank of “Un-America” showed up and even some kind of play on Walmart. This to me was very disturbing. I hoped we would move away from that this year but I am afraid the playa will be flooded with campbell soup and coke cans:(

  5. Rainbow Explosion

    I feel if you over analyzed what is happening you will always find a way to find fault in anything. Why are we focusing on race? Does this theme really have anything to do with it? I have read and understand the history but when my creative mind started to flood with ideas for art and self expression I thought of advanced technology that other beings possessed that boggles my mind. why not just see it for what it is and not bring drama to the situation. Fact, Cargo Cultures are real and so are other cultures. if we celebrated (which I know other themes in the past have) a western culture would we be worrying about racism? I seriously doubt it. Can we just be civil and embrace what it is to be human or do we always have to pick it apart and criticize others?

  6. Katicus

    The BM organizers are not making fun of indigenous people w this theme. They are respecting those people – They are questioning the rather ingrained Colonial assumption re “Western” culture and its supposed superiority vs those less “sophisticated” island cultures. The burning question is : just how sophisticated are we in reality? Or are we just another version of a cargo cult? If you watch the documentary “Waiting For Superman”, the “Cargo Cult mentality” is certainly very evident in our culture here in the US in how we are waiting for some magic cure to the problems that plague our educational system.

    Also worth noting: from the Burning Man perspective, which is global, we are ALL “indigenous”.

  7. maggie

    Burning man is about letting go and moving on, no matter race creed color financial situation.why have a theme thats about an event in time not about an emotion that all humans experience?I disagree that we are all waiting for an educational miracle,or that burning man should address that issue.Burning man is about supporting everyone in their moment of need,loss without judgement !Thats why it works !Themes should be inspiring and insightful,not political,racial or biased in any way,themes should be generic like “fertility” “green man” themes that benefit everyone everywhere.I’m surprised that race has been brought up, it never occurred to me?


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