Native American Culture is Not Up For Grabs

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A.P. Scheiderer

Senior Contributor, Associate Editor
Feminism and Snack Eating Enthusiast

Relocating your life is hard. And at the beginning, very boring. With this sudden abundance of time I’ve had to myself, I’ve been noticing how often and loosely people use offensive, hurtful, or misinterpreted language (because that’s what you do when you’re bored, right?). There are many ways to offend someone using language that could be associated with the queer community, to Latina/Chicanas, to people with disabilities or different body technologies; but lately I’ve noticed a specific trend in (mostly white) people’s every day speech. Words and phrases with roots in Native American cultures are strewn about our conversations like it’s no big deal. We see headlines and articles about the controversial sports teams’ names and the paraphernalia that goes with them. People are starting to pick up on what the problem is with dressing children up in Thanksgiving plays and the associated decorations. But language is pervasive. It spreads and is easily unquestioned.

When I was in college, I was totally immersed in student and academic affairs. I was on commissions, committees, and task forces; especially those geared toward developing policy change that worked for, instead of against, women’s rights and health, the queer community, and other typically marginalized groups in our society. Fighting for policy change consumed me. Some of it was successful. Some of it wasn’t. One of the sectors of higher education I never really got into, however, was Housing and Residential Life. Many of my peers and mentors who were involved often, and still do, refer to it as “res life.”

During one on-campus diversity training, we were asked to find common ground with those in the room who were different than ourselves. Our “homework” was to think about what we perceived our “spirit animals” to be in a not-so-subtle attempt to find a more insightful reason behind our tense/petty/positive interpersonal relationships with colleagues.

Now in a post-college abyss, I am employed in a place that I never thought I would be. In the short time I have been there, I have become very tuned-in to the language my co-workers and employers use (and I’m not talking about curse words because who doesn’t love a good f-bomb or twelve). Every morning I make bread. It took me weeks to get it just right. WEEKS. Now, when some of my co-workers try to make it, it is inevitably as imperfect as mine once was (and understandably so – that shit is hard). One of my bosses refers to their lack of knowing how to do it as not being aware of the “tribal knowledge” that comes with the practice of doing it seven days a week.

My partner works in a progressive company that prides itself on recognizing and valuing a life-work balance. With flexible hours, understanding supervisors, and a “Fun Committee,” you could say she enjoys waking up every morning. As with most organizations these days, email invites are sent out to request meeting times and event attendance (thanks, Google-Cal). She has come home several times announcing that, yet again, the title of an invite included some version of the phrase “Quick Team Pow-Wow for Some Day at Some Time”.

All of these encounters have two things in common:

  1. Native peoples have repeatedly expressed their opposition to the use of these phrases by:
  2. white people who are interpreting them incorrectly and culturally appropriating them, usually, in ignorance

Now. We all know what we know. Not everyone has an education in the humanities or social sciences (a privilege in itself, and also does not make anyone an expert on cultural appropriation). Not everyone grew up in communities that had a vibrant and visible Native presence. Not everyone has heard the personal narratives of marginalized populations. There are a bajillion reasons why we misuse terms and phrases. However, recognizing that the aforementioned phrases have significant, and almost more importantly, spiritual meaning to First Nation peoples is vital in understanding that Housing and Residential Life on a college campus is not the same thing as living on a reservation. Spirit animals are deep spiritual connections to the Creator and the Beings on the earth, not the reason behind why you don’t get along with someone in your department. Tribal knowledge is passed down from elder to youth throughout an entire lifetime, not being able to remember how long to put the bread in the oven for. Pow-wows are sacred rituals that are as varied and diverse as there are bands, not a quick meeting for white young professionals.

I am not Native and have never claimed to be so. I’m an educated white cisgender chick from Wisconsin in a relationship with another educated white cisgender chick from Minnesota. However, I am a firm believer that the oppressed should never have to explain to the oppressor why they are being oppressed. Starting the conversation about the importance of language is the first step in changing it. The responsibility to speak up shouldn’t lie upon those whose identities depend on the sustainability of their culture’s language, but rather on those who hear it being appropriated.