Co-Written by Julia Lovell; Romani civil rights activist and co-founder of the Canadian Romani Alliance and Amanda Shorr; Romanichal, activist, researcher, and genetic genealogist
Time and time again, Romani people are the targets of cultural appropriation, with various levels of offenders to tackle. On Etsy, Ebay, and Pinterest combined, one can find over 498,000 objects tagged “Gypsy” which includes items such as dangly jewelry, hippy/Boho skirts, colorful bedsheets, and even pet supplies with tags such as “ Vintage gypsy”, “Bohemian gypsy ”, and “Gypsy Junk” while fashion designers label their companies and collections using comparable terms and are relentless in their use of racially stereotypical themes.There are also appropriators of our music and dance, who name their bands and dance troops using various forms of the term “Gypsy” with not one Romani person to be found among them, such as Toronto, Canada’s “Travelling Gypsy Market” or the Vancouver B.C. based “gypsy performance troupe, Roma Gry” (Gypsy horse). Groups like these escalate their appropriation by not only claiming to be Rom, but are also hired, open to taking educational funds and teaching the public their version of Romani history and culture.
Television shows and Hollywood films are also willing participators in the Gypsy industry with the incessant stereotype of the Gypsy fortune teller, witches, gangsters, and thieves. The food and liquor industry is not immune from the lure of using the term to sell products, such as ‘Zhena gypsy tea’, ‘Zeguiner Hot and Spicy sauce’, and a beer sold in Canada, callously labeled; ‘Gypsy Tears’.
Festivals around the globe crop up, such as “The Original Gypsy Fair” run for many years by non-Roma in New Zealand with every stereotype imaginable incorporated. Using the term Gypsy can be a lucrative enterprise and for that reason, many involved in the practice are reluctant to stop even when asked. Such appropriation is not in any way, out of admiration and respect for our culture as so many often claim, for if it were, they would be able to see what they are perpetuating. Yet, offenders, perpetuators, and those claiming to admire while appropriating completely ignore our explanations and our pleas to stop. Those who strive to make a profit or attempt some form of mystery or exoticism in our name, disregard us entirely in actuality and prefer the fantasy over the reality.
With the progression of cultural sensitivity in our modern era, some are becoming aware of our true history, our current plight, and our struggles with appropriation, yet many are oblivious to the damage done by those who create false Romani identities. It is not unusual for some creators of false cultural identities to reach a crossroads of sorts, and are unable to decide between being a “Native American princess” or a “Gypsy queen” and will attempt to combine them to cover all bases to suit their whimsical mood. Some learn a smidgen more about Romani culture and try to pass themselves off, to appear ‘special’ among their peers in various hobbies; commonly belly dancing and especially in the world of psychic dabblers, who lean heavily on works by authors like Raymond Buckland, a self-described “Gypsy Witch”. As the attention for their newfound ethnicity grows, so do their egos and they seem to become more brazen in their behavior, creating their own clubs and activism circles and recruit like minded people who often learn to take up the craft of appropriating.
Like shape-shifters, they soon change their names, family histories, and befriend those who can aid them in creating their masks. They begin to gather large collections of books (usually written by non-Romani authors), and are often lurking on Romani social media sites fishing for Romani family stories which they can pass off as their own. If they happen upon media exposure; radio, podcast, news outlet interviews, or land a minority grant for a project, publishing deal, or decide to hit the lecture circuit using their false identities, they have now entered the realm of twisting and rewriting our history, taking away the platforms that should be given to actual Romanies.
As these concoctors prey upon our culture, we recognize that many minority groups have similar experiences. One extreme example, is the infamous Rachel Dolezal; an educated white woman in the United States who posed as an African American and retained employment at the NAACP. She wrote hate mail under a fictitious pseudonym and addressed it to herself; a fallacious attempt to portray herself as a victim of racial persecution and was later outed by her parents.
First Nations people in Canada have also experienced such attempts with a high degree of media coverage. Joseph Boyden, a celebrated Canadian author, focusing on First Nations people and culture, was given ample platforms to speak on Native issues, yet was later discovered to have embellished his Aboriginal roots and connection to the very community he wrote about. Not unlike Aboriginal peoples in this respect, Romani can easily verify ancestral ties and cultural association, yet there is one serious difference; Romani people are seldom given media coverage regarding what we face and tackle to combat the same forms of appropriation.
However, lack of support does not stop us from diligently protecting our culture, heritage, and history and does not restrain us from speaking out when it occurs.
One such incident happened recently, when a language video titled ‘Romanichal’ was uploaded to well-known Youtube channel, Wikitongues. Produced and created by Natalie Winter, aka Natalia Ivend, also known as “Julie A” or “Nataliaki” who was born into a wealthy stockbroking family, raised in affluent London, and currently resides in Devon England. Soon after the video began to circulate it became a topic of great concern for many, as it appeared Ms. Winters had taken several elements of our Romani dialects from various sources and presented it to the public via Wikitongues as an “extremely archaic dialect” to which she is the “last known speaker of ”. Her introduction states, “It may be the most ancient still-living Romani dialect “ and a “very pure one”.
In the video, Ms. Winter/Ivend; whom recently decided to use the Romanes word for winter; “ivend” as a surname, can be seen reading her scripted dialect from a monitor set-up outside, whilst seated near a small iron cauldron hanging above a fire. Warning signs increased when she then claimed to be from an “ Irish Romanichal tribe – a tribe within a tribe”, though in reality there is no such separation within the vitsa/clan of Romanichals, nor is it likely that the dialect she claims to be a native speaker of, survived untouched by the predominate host country language. Yet, she denied that her “extremely rare and archaic dialect” had been “polluted” as she put it. For such a language to exist naturally and untouched as she adamantly proclaims, would be impossible.
Her video narration states, “More than five centuries ago, my family came from Carpathia, first to Germany, then to France, England, and finally to Ireland,” while expounding on why her language was intact and far purer than many including the Anglo-Romanichal dialect. Several times, she absurdly stated that the illusive “tribe” she hails from had escaped speaking English for centuries while claiming that English is her third language and she is no way, a native speaker of English, and speaks with a heavy “Romani accent” – a statement in utter contrast to evidence found in an earlier YouTube video on the DawnmistStudio channel posted and narrated by Ms. Winter herself, titled ‘Talking with Ghosts: Cowick Barton INN, Exeter, UK 2016.” There, she can be heard speaking perfect English with a British accent, and as more details were gathered, it was becoming even clearer that Ms. Winters had used various sources to form this conlang (constructed language) and had conjured up an erroneous ancestral history which seems to be constantly morphing.
Ms. Winter, who refers to herself as a “Romani Rani” (Gypsy Queen) in Wikitongues bio…
…also claims to be part Manouche/Sinti; another clan found within the Romani Nation, but couldn’t be sure if the Manouche dialect did or didn’t end up in her language video or grammar list, as she claimed to speak what she referred to as “Maneesh” also. A highly-detailed glossary of her “rare and archaic dialect” words was provided on her personal website, listed under “Romani Vocabulary & Grammer: Old Romanichal Dialect” but was quickly removed by Ms. Winter when questioned regarding this linguistic phenomenon and clan identity.In a forum which included many respected members of the wider Romani community including Romanichals, no one had ever come across the “rare tribe/family” residing in the area where Ms. Winter’s family was to have existed nor could she be identified as Rom.Further suspicion arose when she claimed to be a “hereditary Gypsy witch elder ” from a family who “produced true chovahani witches” passed down through her supposed female Gypsy ancestry, though there is no such thing as “Gypsy witch elders”. She continued to make further ridiculous and unfounded statements, which echoed straight out of the pages of Raymond Buckland’s fiction novels, that she was strictly raised in and retained the ’ true Romani religion” and has now incorporated that religion into her new-age pagan practices.
Ms. Winters had stated on her own website circa 1999 titled “Natalie’s story”.” I decided to abandon the religion in which I had been brought up…” when expounding upon her initial journey into paganism which contradicts her recent statements.Interestingly, Ms. Winter makes no mention of a “ true Romani religion” nor Romani identity in any article or website in which she has been active in since the late 1990’s. With a quick search using Ms. Winter’s actual first, last, and website name through Internet Archive or the Way Back Machine, readers can easily trace her internet presence and see for themselves.
Regarding elder status; Ms. Winter has stated her age as being around 52 years old, which would not give her “elder” status in any clan, nor is it such status self-given. On multiple occasions, Ms. Winter stated that she is the last known survivor of her “tribe” which has us wondering; how then can she claim it? Who indeed calls her Romani elder? It seems there is not one Romanichal vouching for her supposed Irish Romanichal connections; the clan she claims to so closely descend. Due to her age and out of respect if earned, she would be called auntie (bibi) within Romani communities and certainly, would not be referred to as an elder.
As mentioned previously, Ms. Winter was involved in a lengthy social media discussion with numerous Romani people, including linguists, in which she contradicted herself often, was unable to prove any of her claims, and failed to provide family names or information regarding her tribe; only stating that most of her kin died on the “Titanic, in the Irish potato famine, and during the Holocaust”. All info provided by Ms. Winters led to various members of the international Romani community and others to contact Wikitongues to alert them regarding these questionable explanations. Ms. Winter, upon discovering that so many were suspicious of her story and claims, took to social media and stated that the people challenging her story were “half-blood wannabe Gypsies”, who “didn’t look properly Roma” and “who are idiots and evil and can’t speak Romani fluently” and to top it off, were “crossbred, religious, inter-racial fighters” and she would cast a “powerful spell” on them.
Ironically, several of whom Ms. Winter was referring, are top scholars in Romani studies and fluent in Romanes common to their clan, while some speak several dialects. Others on the forums that lacked fluency have extensive knowledge on family/clan genealogy, knowledge of Romani culture, and many involved are activists whom are all recognized within their communities as Roma; far from what Ms. Winters would have her social media followers believe.
Ms. Winter claims to be a highly-educated woman, an amateur linguist, a “perfectionist” who speaks six languages, a counselor, a medical engineer, and an electronic engineer who has created several computer language programs. She is extremely well –read and well-written; contrary to her claims of “growing up in a caravan on the road, without English”.
Unfortunately for her, all of the above led people to believe she has a capable advantage for constructing a language and fabricating a dialect. The consensus was, that the Irish Romanichal “tribe” she claims, has never existed while linguists have concluded that Ms. Winter has undeniably used various traceable sources to form this dialect being passed off as an “old Romanichal dialect”.
Thankfully, Wikitongues has given the Romani people the opportunity to speak and applied fair and logical due diligence when investigating claims from both sides. Wikitongues had invited Ms. Winter to join a group Skype session with several Romani people, yet she declined to do so. Wikitongues has taken Cultural appropriation very seriously and wants also to protect the integrity of their organization which is commendable. Wikitongues has now removed the “Natalia Ivend speaking Romanichal” video from YouTube’s search listings, as this ordeal has inspired them to put systems in place to better verify crowd-sourced submissions, and objectively investigate claims of fraud and abuse.
We consider the actions taken by Wikitongues a victory against Romani cultural appropriation and hope others will follow. Morally bankrupt appropriators who use Romani culture as a form of escapism, erase us; they make us disappear. Cultural appropriators steal the spaces that should be rightfully given to actual Roma voices, in a world that seldom listens.