Students take part in a Haudenosaunee round dance together during Indigenous Week studies at the RSCT
Notes and report by Joaquin Munoz
Adrienne Keene, professor of education at Brown University, and the author of the critically acclaimed blog “Native Appropriations” (http://nativeappropriations.com/) wrote a critique of the famous Coachella, a multi-day music, art and lifestyle festival held yearly in California.
Coachella has been under close scrutiny by Indigenous people, and people of color in general, for many years. This critique comes largely from the observation that many concert attendees, largely white, will often utilize pieces of regalia, religious material culture, and essential pieces of traditional clothing as parts of costumes or festival wear, with little no knowledge or respect for the origin or significance of the item they are using.
Culturally Appropriate or Cultural Appropriation?
Keene writes specifically of seeing young white men and women attending the festival in feathered headdresses, and the pain and distress this causes. She reminds us that “eagle feathers are presented as symbols of honor and respect and have to be earned” and are not used as simple “festival wear.”
The danger of using other culture’s sacred symbols, artifacts and material culture is a dehumanizing act. “When you can’t see the humanity in people who are different from you, you find no fault in treating their sacred cultural symbols as something to be worn and discarded” Jessica Andrews writes.
Herein lies another important question to ask as we engage in discussions, interactions and connections in the Indigenous Waldorf Week here in Toronto: a question of what, if anything, can non-Native folks incorporate into their classrooms. It is here that we enter the territory of cultural appropriation.
Like many terms, this one has come to be used in so many situations, and by so many different groups, that it is difficult to pin down exactly what it is, and, for the purposes of work as Waldorf educators, knowledge of when one is perpetrating it.
A simple definition of cultural appropriation would be the one Maisha Z. Johnson uses, where she notes that cultural appropriation looks like “taking from a marginalized group without permission, and usually without respect for or knowledge about their culture.” This definition is useful, in that it points out the problem of a lack of permission, the lack of respect, and the lack of knowledge.
If we add to this the problem of intending to honor, support or appreciate a culture, but in actuality, the impact hurts them, we are coming closer to the heart of cultural appropriation. With too little knowledge, respect, or permission, we can be hurting people way more than helping them. And it is important to remember that members of the culture get to make that call.
When cultural appreciation actually enacts an erasing or dehumaninizing of people, we must listen to them when they tell us so. Cultural appropriation is a problem of a lack of permission, the lack of respect, and the lack of knowledge. It is here that we can begin to question ourselves and our learning at the Indigenous Waldorf Week.
We have learned that parts of what we have been taught by our amazing instructors might be used at various times, and with various groups of children, not just Native youth. Bringing parts of Haudenosaunee culture to non-Native children can help to raise their awareness of history, culture and contributions of peoples different from them.
What Can We Bring to Non-Indigenous Children?
Issues of cultural appropriation may arise when we consider introducing, sharing and teaching about the experiences of other cultures, which can include bringing stories, songs, dances or other parts of culture to youth, especially for non-Native teachers. The question has arisen multiple times in our class discussion as to what can be brought to children, but does not become an act of cultural appropriation.
There are few things we can ask ourselves to think about whether or not our actions are cultural appropriation.
1) Am I doing sufficient research about the culture I am examining? This includes, to the best of your ability, talking to folks from the culture and not just relying on books about them, since these are often not written by the people themselves
2) Am I possibly using a sacred symbol? Do I know enough about the culture to know if I am using a sacred symbol in an inappropriate way? And if I don’t know, how can I figure this out?
3) Am I robbing from a culture? Put another way, am I gaining some benefit out of what I am doing that does not benefit the culture itself? When I use material culture from another group, am I making sure that the culture I am working with benefits in some way?
4) Am I mocking a culture? Is what I am doing a legitimate practice, that I am allowed to use, or am I using a caricature or stereotype of the culture as a representation? Many songs, thought to be written by Indigenous people, for example, are in fact, not. And if you are in doubt, it is best to leave it out.
5) Am I listening when someone from the culture gives me feedback about what I am doing?
Sense of Gratitude
All of this leads us back to key points given to us by our Haudenosaunee teachers: the significance of acting with gratitude towards our relationships. If we have a relationship with folks and truly wish to honor it with gratitude, we will not dehumanize people.
We will be thoughtful, respectful and careful with our actions. Do we have permission to use things, are we using them in the way we they were given to us? And are using them with a proper sense of gratitude for who gave them? Are we honoring our relationships? Are we seeking to learn and understand? Are we seeking to live in a “good way?” All of these questions help us to know and see the way forward as we think about our work with children.