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Is It Cultural Appropriation? Why Language Matters

Should you really be calling that celebrity your 'spirit animal'? Nope.

by Gretchen Brown
November 22, 2019 | Our Future

Last month, hundreds of protesters marched in front of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, ahead of the Minnesota Vikings game against the Washington Redskins.

At issue was the "Redskins" name, which protesters called racist and degrading. They carried posters, chanting "We are not your mascot."

I was just 10 miles away from the protest as I followed the news on my phone. Then I switched to Instagram, where an image caught my eye: a group of white women, wearing shirts with "bride tribe" written on the front.

Native Americans have been protesting the Redskins and other offensive team names and mascots for decades.

"Indian mascots and stereotypes present a misleading image of Indian people," the National Congress of American Indians states on its website. "And feed the historic myths that have been used to whitewash a history of oppression."

But only in the past decade or so has the term "cultural appropriation" entered the public vernacular — typically targeting things like dreadlocks on white folks, headdresses at music festivals and "tribal" prints.

These things can be hurtful to people in marginalized groups in the same way that racist mascots are. But what about using words like "tribe" and "spirit animal" out of context?

In her 2005 book, "Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law," Susan Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as "taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission."

"If I could remind those encountering the term of one thing, it would be that there's a spectrum of cultural appropriation, from harmful misappropriation to creative and often collaborative inspiration," the author told Vox.

When appropriation is a microaggression

In other words, not everything that's appropriated is "misappropriated." And even things that are "misappropriated" are done so at different levels.

Using a derogatory term for Native Americans as a football mascot is on that spectrum. So is using words and ideas from Native American cultures, like "tribe," out-of-context. But they're at different levels.

"There are phrases in the common vernacular, like 'He's gone off the reservation,' as a way of saying 'He's done something inappropriate,'" said Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and author, trainer and speaker.

"I would put that in the level of a microaggression."

Microaggressions are small racist comments or behaviors delivered at marginalized groups on a daily basis by often well-intentioned folks. And microaggressions don't just make folks feel bad: just like other acts of racism, public health experts say that they can contribute to higher levels of mortality and depression.

Ernie Stevens is a host of "Native Report," a show that focuses on native issues and culture produced at PBS station WDSE in Duluth, Minnesota.

To him, microaggressions are when a teacher pulls on his son's long ponytail, calling him a feminine name. Or when white kids who misbehave in class are diagnosed with ADHD, and kids of color are called "problem children."

He says he's heard non-native people use phrases like "pow wow" and "spirit animal" around him. He's not necessarily offended when it happens. Mostly, he's annoyed at the lack of creativity.

"Let's just call it a meeting," said Stevens, who is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. "You don't have to use 'pow wow' just because it's with me."

A spectrum

Treuer says there are healthy ways to use native words and phrases.

For instance, when a ban on the Hawaiian language was lifted in the state, native Hawaiians advocated for decades that their language be at the center of schooling and government. Today, it's the only state with a native language as an official language.

It worked in Hawaii, Treuer said, because native folks were the ones leading the discussion and having influence over place names and the like.

There are also ways that using native words and phrases are disrespectful, uphold a stereotype or make a mockery of native folks.

Stevens lives in the Green Bay, Wisconsin, area. He said he grew up experiencing racism there, and it hasn't changed.

Last month, a group of non-native boys at a high school pep rally played a pow wow song and danced around wildly.

In a statement, Oneida Nation Vice-Chairman Brandon Yellowbird Stevens called the dance "disrespectful." A video of the dance made it to social media, where it met outrage. The school ended up cancelling homecoming events due to "safety concerns."

Stevens said the situation isn't so black-and-white. While the kids involved shouldn't have been doing that, they also didn't deserve to be threatened.

"Stupidity can get spun out of control big time, and of course it never would have happened if it hadn't been spun out of control on Facebook," he said. "I can only imagine what it's like going there as a tribal child."

'All battles matter'

While offensive mascots might be a bigger deal than someone calling a celebrity their "spirit animal," Treuer said that all battles matter.

"Sometimes it's easier to get some momentum, especially in working with non-native allies, this is a charge that you can lead on and get a win on without being so radically uncomfortable that you disengage from the fight altogether," he said.

For instance, many Native Americans have fought to change several place names, such as lakes, which were using the derogatory word "squaw."

That's something he's also seen non-native folk lean into and participate in productive ways.

"There aren't enough native people to fight all the fights," he said. "I see all the battles as important."

Everyone is learning

Ultimately, Stevens points out that things aren't objectively "racist" or "offensive" to everyone, even within the same tribal nation.

While some folks might believe the "tomahawk chop" at Braves games is offensive, others might not be bothered by it. And since fighting cultural appropriation is about fighting stereotyping, fighting sweeping all folks under the same rug, that's important to remember.

He doesn't think punishing people for misunderstanding works, or is worth it. Because he, like most folks, have used words he didn't know were offensive at some point or another.

Once he found out, he stopped using them.

"It comes down to whether you're a decent human being or not. And if you're open to change or not," he said. "Everyone is constantly learning. No human being on earth knows everything."

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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