I recently went to a powwow and I got to see a lot of amazing artists, dancers, and members of the indigenous community. The typical powwow experience was in full effect. The grand entry was lead by our Veterans carrying the different flags. Seeing all the dancers come out behind them was a marvelous site. The young and the old came out to express themselves through their culture. But what about when it’s not your culture?
It was brought to my attention that one of the dancers in full regalia wasn’t Indigenous. Not even a little bit. I learned this person has been inserting themselves in different board meetings with the city that affects the Indigenous community. When you ask them about it they respond with a few lines about appreciating the culture and adopting the practices in their own life because they “grew up around Native Americans”. I must admit this upset me. While I would never tell someone what religion they could or couldn’t practice, is this the same? It feels different. There’s a long history of settlers coming over and telling us the things we did were wrong. Generations being killed to practice any kind of ceremony. Now seeing someone from the same background as our oppressors just take that culture as their own and feel entitled to it left a bad taste in my mouth. When I danced, it was to connect with my ancestors. This behavior is something I don’t understand.
I had seen other people at the powwow that weren’t Indigenous. That was great. They were there to be supportive of the Indigenous community. That felt a lot different than what this other person had done. It came from a more respectful place. At the end of the day, that is really what it’s all about. Being respectful of each other. To give more than you take. While this one experience brought up a lot of these questions, it reminded of similar things I see day to day. I have to ask myself if what I see is cultural appropriation or appreciation? What’s the difference?
I work in a place were I see a lot of beaded lanyards. When I first started to work here, I thought this was a way for Indigenous people to show off a little bit out their culture. I quickly found out this wasn’t the case. I asked a few people if they were Native after noticing their lanyard. I was hoping to connect with other Natives in the community. Everyone of them told me they weren’t. I was even in someones office that had a dream catcher on the wall, a star-quilt on a chair, sporting a beaded lanyard, and had other miscellaneous Indigenous items on their walls. I asked them the same question: “Are you Native?”. They responded “No”. Apparently their dad used to work for the BIA. So, they feel connected to the culture. This seemed different than appreciation. My Indigenous culture was being expressed by everyone but Indigenous people. That made me think of things I noticed from when I was younger. The Caucasian woman who would have a dream catcher hanging from the mirror in her car but tuck her purse in tight when she would see a Native American male. At what point do we say it’s no longer okay?
If you are not Indigenous, let me give you a little bit of advice. If an Indigenous person gives you something as a gift. It is 100% okay to wear or display it. They might have made it or at least got you something that means something to them. Someone offering you a small piece of their culture is a beautiful gift. Plus, gifting is a big part of a lot of our culture. Even with items we use in our ceremonies can’t just be bought, it must be gifted. When it comes to buying things, it’s okay to support a Native business or artist. Just be respectful and be authentic. Someone who doesn’t represent their own cultural background but solely advertises someone else’s doesn’t seem authentic. While it may seem like flattery, it’s actually harmful.
What are your thoughts on this? Leave a comment. These thoughts reflect my own. I do not speak for every Indigenous person. So feel free to share what you think. Open discussions are encouraged.