A friend emailed me a meme that I posted on my Facebook page:
HALLOWEEN IS COMING UP.
So Here’s a Reminder:
— Don’t be an “Indian”
— Don’t be a “Native Princess”
— Don’t wear a headdress.
— Don’t use Native culture as a costume.
With the growing social awareness of the inappropriateness of (mis)appropriating people’s cultures for sport or profit, for example, the long overdue name change of the offensive and blatantly racist Washington, DC football franchise, I imagined that posting this meme on Facebook would garner near universal appeal.
Well, I miscalculated. While the vast majority of Facebook “friends” responded positively, a few, and one in particular, expressed what is probably more common in the larger society than I would want to imagine.
One participant, whom I will call “RS,” swiftly and firmly countered:
RS: When Tribal children can’t “appropriate” European culture either right? Come on people it’s Halloween a pagan holiday in the first place but a kid who wants to be Pocahontas can’t be? Grow the F*#k Up!
I actually did not know that “Tribal children” appropriating European culture was a thing. Nevertheless, I responded:
Warren J. Blumenfeld: RS: Do you not understand the concept of cultural misappropriation? Please see the documentary film, “In Whose Honor” if you are open to learning and not merely reacting.
I often show this excellent film in my university social justice education courses. It profiles the amazing story of Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian and mother of two, and her passionate transformation from a graduate student at the University of Illinois into a national leader to preserve and protect Tribal cultures. The film critically analyzes the racist and hurtful practice of “honoring” indigenous peoples as mascots and nicknames in sports.
RS answered by calling attention to the misuse of his culture in a long and disconnected diatribe:
RS: Warren J. Blumenfeld: I fully understand cultural “appropriation” as my people’s culture was appropriated centuries ago and are all over the world as golf courses and bridges that have spans that can lift for river traffic, plaid patterns in clothing that are the markings of my people’s clans, etc. Also appropriation of our knowledge from James Clerk Maxwell’s equations that make electrical grid systems function properly, among so many other Engineering accomplishments invented solely by my people the best Engineers in the world. Do you understand how ridiculous it is to complain about international customs being traded for over 2000 years along the Silk Road between Asia and Europe and the Inca Roads across South America up to the Maya in Central America and further North into South Western USA along the Aztec roads going as far north as Montana? Trade has always spread customs and traditions between people’s and it has always been a healthy thing to do, not destructive in intent or result. But hey it’s terrible that children in Asian nations like to play dress up as Cowboys and Indians or African children like to play dress up as Vikings, Mongols, Cossacks. You might actually try living and working in more than 35 countries as I have (not merely playing a tourist) as an Engineer for [name of company] (my employer from 1984 to 1998) or my latter career teaching College to many foreign Nationals on student visas. You learn a lot more about how people around the world actually live, work, believe when you go there and/or work with them here, than you’ll ever get from an individual’s documentary made for their own reasons. Try traveling and observing, it’s a lot more realistic than a documentary.
So, RS’s argument comes down to his assertion that “Trade has always spread customs and traditions between people’s and it has always been a healthy thing to do, not destructive in intent or result.”
Is “Trade” actually the appropriate concept to highlight in this discussion? Unfortunately, RS fails to take into consideration the horrific and genocidal issues of “colonialism” on indigenous bodies and cultures.
Colonialism has been defined as:
“A form of government in which a nation extends its sovereignty over other territories. It involves the expansion of a nation’s rule beyond its borders. Colonialism often leads to ruling over indigenous populations and exploiting resources. The colonizer typically installs its economy, culture, religious order, and government form to strengthen its authority.”
A definition of “settler” is “a person who settles in an area, typically one with no or few previous inhabitants.” I would add an essential condition that for this person to settle, the area must not have had prior claim by others who call it their home.
In the case of the Americas and other regions of the globe, we must acknowledge the issue of “settler colonialism” defined as:
“A form of colonialism, which seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers. As with all forms of colonialism, it is based on exogenous domination, typically organized or supported by an imperial authority.”
So, no Mr. DS! This is not about “Trade.”
To equate the use of the Scottish kilt or tartan with the insulting and demeaning caricatures of First Nations people is not only constituting a false equivalency, but more importantly, it engages in historical revisionism deployed to justify and condone a form of ruthless forced assimilation into the so-called “melting pot” (which I refer to as a patriarchal Christian Anglo-European white supremacist mandate).
It also skews power differentials within the hierarchy that places “western” culture at the very peak of “civilization” with all others as lesser developed cultures.
In response to DS’s assertion that “Tribal children…appropriate European culture,” for the sake of discussion, let us use for example, a First Nation child dressing up as Snow White for some reason, like on Halloween.
When I posed this question to my university undergraduate students, a female student made the very insightful comment differentiating between dressing up as a “character” (for example, Snow White) versus dressing up as a demeaning and racist “caricature” of someone from a marginalized community (for example, Disney’s historically falsified commodification of Pocahontas).
I concluded my comments to RS:
So, I ask, where do you draw the line, or more importantly, do you, in fact, draw a line?
Is it alright in your estimation for white people to walk down the street in blackface? What about someone wearing a Nazi uniform in a predominately Jewish neighborhood? Or what about someone impersonating Michael J. Fox with obvious Parkinson’s tremors, like Rush Limbaugh did?
Unlike you, I take it to heart when native peoples, or any ethnic group, tells us not to appropriate and attempt to cheapen their culture by wearing their sacred symbols in fun or for profit.
I take it to heart when native peoples tell us that it is insulting to use native names and caricatures in sports.
I don’t abide by the so-called “Golden Rule” in which one treats others how one would like to be treated. Maybe you don’t feel offended if and when others appropriate your cultural heritage, so you seem not to be concerned with appropriating others’ cultures.
I, however, attempt, whenever I can, to practice the “Platinum Rule” in which one treats others how those others would like to be treated — HOW THEY WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED.
Until and unless we as a society can develop empathy, to be able to walk in the shoes of others, then we are doomed as a society.
While literally millions of First Nations people inhabit what is today known as the United States, they as a group remain largely invisible to most other U.S.-Americans.
The image of so-called noble “Redskins” in football and “Braves” in baseball, and countless other sports teams were constructed through a historically capitalist revisionist and romanticized lens, back to some fairy-tale time and place when the European “settlers” (a.k.a. “invaders,” “land thieves,” “murderers”) broke bread in some mythical first Thanksgiving with “the natives,” where all was charming forevermore.
Historian Joel Spring refers to “cultural genocide” defined as “the attempt to destroy other cultures” through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of “deculturalization,” which Spring describes as “the educational process of destroying a people’s culture and replacing it with a new culture.”
Examples of “cultural genocide” and “deculturalization” are evident in the case of Christian European American domination over First Nations people, whom European Americans viewed as “uncivilized,” “godless heathens,” “barbarians,” and “devil worshipers.”
White Christian European Americans deculturalized indigenous peoples through many means: confiscation of land, forced relocation, undermining of their languages, cultures, and identities, forced conversion to Christianity, and the establishment of Christian day schools and off-reservation boarding schools far away from their people.
The expansion of the republic and movement west, in part, they justified by overriding philosophical underpinnings since the American Revolution. Called “manifest destiny,” it was based on the belief that God [Providence] intended the United States to extend its holdings and its power across the wide continent of North America over indigenous peoples from east coast to west. The doctrine of “manifest destiny” embraced a belief in American Christian Anglo-Saxon superiority.
How could Columbus have discovered what would later be called “the Americas” when people lived on this land for an estimated 12,000 years after coming over the Bering Isthmus during a glacial age when sea levels dropped? How can one “discover” people who have been here so long? Actually, First Nations people discovered Columbus on their land!
While entire social movements have developed to redress the misdirected “honoring” of historic names, statues, flags, and other symbols on the national level, much work and organizing still needs to occur to redress grievances on the local level as well.
Within this current era of communities and institutions reexamining their mascots, mottos, and nicknames, and the ways in which they represent themselves to the larger society, we must continue to raise concerns and questions to a higher level of public inquiry.
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This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock