Appropriation vs Appreciation of Native culture

Dr. Adrienne Keenes reply to Spirit Halloweens highly racist Indian costume description.

Dr. Adrienne Keene’s reply to Spirit Halloweens highly racist Indian costume description.

Lilia Torchia-Stately, Staff Writer

Native culture, since the beginning of early colonization, has been continuously appropriated and disrespected in everyday life. Native people are treated as mascots and costumes. Cultural appropriation is something that South as a school is aware of, and some South teachers are talking about in their classrooms.

For those who don’t know or don’t see why cultural appropriation is bad and harmful, here’s something to think about. Cultural appropriation is when a dominating or colonizing people take over the cultural and religious ceremonies and articles of a people experiencing domination or colonization.

Cultural appropriation is a result of assimilation, dating back to the early invasion of Native peoples, to Indian boarding schools, to now.

In Indian boarding schools, young Native children were stolen away from their families and forced to attend boarding schools. These schools were designed to essentially “take the Indian out” of the kids and assimilate them into white culture. Their heads were shaved and any traditional clothing they might have been wearing was replaced with plastic boots and white clothing. They were forbidden to speak their language and were taught that Indians are “savages”.

This is one form of assimilation, where marginalized cultures are stripped of their cultural markers and appropriated by dominant cultures.

“Cultural appropriation is profitable. Objects and traditions (but not the people) of marginalized cultures are seen by the dominant culture as exotic, edgy, and desirable, which translates to profits. Capitalism works best when people are not individual people with celebrated differences, but identical workers, cogs in the machine. Once diverse cultural identities are stripped away, the only culture left to identify with is capitalist culture.” this quote is from an anonymous writer on Unsettling America. If you go to any costume store, sure enough, you are bound to find a “Western” section filled with highly offensive portrayals/stereotypes of Native people. First of all, Native people are people, and the items that these stores sell are completely inaccurate to how real Native garments actually are. For example, headdresses. There is deep significance and honor behind them and they are not just something that every Native person can wear. \

When you wear these costumes you are supporting a system that continues to marginalize Native people. The public sees these images and stereotypes being perpetuated, and it erases an entire nation’s existence.  When these inaccurate stereotypes are perpetuated, they create a mold that white people demand People of Color fit into. When they don’t fit into these boxes, they are often attacked, dismissed, and marginalized for not fitting into a white person’s inaccurate idea of what it means to be a Person of Color.

Recently, South student Jenesis Fonder went to a local Party City and took pictures and videos of the Indian costumes being sold there. She was disgusted with the disrespect that these costumes held. “They had feathers, which totally defeats the purpose because every feather on an actual pow wow dress or any native regalia is symbolic and you have to earn that. – It’s bull****, it completely dishonors the whole meaning and ceremonial value that they hold.”  said Fonder.

She described how the costumes for women had names like “Reservation Royalty” and “Sexy Squaw”. “Squaw is a derogatory term used by white colonizers for Native women,”  Fonder explained.

There is also the side of cultural appropriation where “appreciation” comes into play. It is very common to see non-Natives claiming a certain relation to what it means to them to be Native. Saying that they are living the “Native experience” because they have had their own spiritual awakening. Or in some cases, just because they think it’s cool.

“For too long we have suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian “wannabes,” hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled “New Age shamans” and their followers; . . . with horror and outrage we see this disgraceful expropriation of our sacred Lakota traditions has reached epidemic proportions in urban areas throughout the country; . . . our precious Sacred Pipe is being desecrated through the sale of pipestone pipes at flea markets, powwows, and “New Age” retail stores; … pseudo-religious corporations have been formed to charge people money for admission into phony “sweatlodges” and “vision quest” programs; . . . and the television and film industry continues to saturate the entertainment media with vulgar, sensationalist and grossly distorted representations of Lakota spirituality and culture which reinforce the public’s negative stereotyping of Indian people and which gravely impair the self-esteem of our children….”

This is a statement made in 1993 at the Lakota Summit V, an international gathering of various Dakota/Lakota and Nakota nations. It speaks perfectly to the “New Age-wannabes” misuse of Native spirituality, and how there is a difference between appreciating the entirety of Native spirituality, and disrespecting it for the profit of non-Natives.  

How can white people respect and love the beauty of Native culture/spirituality?  Educate yourself on the culture that you adopting from. Be an ally. Learn about Native-led movements and how you can help. Do not try to “be Native”, because you can’t.