Beware of Ethnic Imposters
...it does seem to go unchallenged and accepted for a White person to impersonate a Native American. New Age “spiritual” Native Americans, shamanism, and cultural appropriation are just a few examples of modern ethnic imposters. There is an obvious monetary gain for those that exploit Native culture in this way.
There is another, more sinister, type of imposter. In many communities ethnic imposters are often mentally ill people who have borderline personality traits that adopt values, habits and attitudes of the Native people that they spend time with. There may or may not be a monetary value in this practice but there is something else to be gained by these ethnic imposters. These individuals have a significant and persistent unstable self-image or sense of self and present as righteous avengers of past mistreatment. Nobody has been more mistreated then Native Americans (in the individuals thinking) and so these individuals take on the persona, often change their name to something Native sounding and reinvent themselves. Soon the individuals are assuming leadership roles in the political or activist realm which takes away from legitimate Native voices which are often ignored or silenced by the media.
Traditionally Native American people don’t challenge others’ claim to be Native as it is thought to be harmless but it is important that ethnic imposters be challenged on cultural appropriation on all levels because culture is the only thing remaining after colonization has stripped everything else away.
by Lou Bendrick http://www.hcn.org/issues/183/5960
I once stayed at an upscale spa that had a Native American theme. We padded around on Navajo rugs, awoke to morning drumming and disrobed in locker rooms referred to as kivas. At night, instead of finding a chocolate on my pillow, there was a woven dream catcher. This failed to soothe my Spirit Self. In fact, I fretted: Was that dream catcher made by an impoverished person on a reservation while my fat ass was at a spa?
I've always been the guilty type. This guilt is why I'm unable to retain an open mind when it comes to my town's latest craze: Native American spirituality, known widely as the Born-Again Navajo movement. (Okay, I just made that term up.)
Although Telluride, Colo., is not approaching Sedona-like sensibilities (as far as I can tell, no one has sent an energy cone up to the mother ship), former dentists here do rename themselves Moonfeather She-Wolf and Blackcloud Dancer. Peruse the local newspaper and you might find Shamanic Healers listed next to Windshield Repair Services in the classified ads. Moonlight drumming is the second-most popular activity after golf.
Amid Born-Again Navajos (most often New Jersey-born Caucasians), spirit animals, or totems, are the latest trendy pets. I thought totems were carved things sold next to the rubber tomahawks. Of course, I also thought a sweat lodge was pretty much the same thing as a Swedish sauna.
This cultural ignorance is why I have chosen the spirit name White Dork. True, I could have picked Rainbow Claw Warrior or Crying Sunshine She-Bear, but White Dork seemed somehow more fitting. Most Born-Again Navajos have spirit animals, charismatic megafauna such as wolves, bears or eagles. I think I've finally found my own spirit animal, too: The weasel. Small and beady-eyed, symbol of irritation.
Like many Americans, I found myself "questing" for life's deeper meaning, attempting to find a less patriarchal, more nature-based spirituality. This is why I recently participated in a ceremony that involved a new moon (that is, no moon), chanting, drumming, singing off-key, rattles, water bowls, feathers and several New Jersey-born women huddled around a lump of charcoal in lieu of a campfire on the deck of a condo. (Let me remind you, I have chosen the name White Dork.) While parts of this ceremony were beautiful and meditative, I felt something was missing. Namely, a Native American.
True to form, I felt guilty, too, like I'd performed a Japanese tea ceremony at a backyard barbecue or received holy communion at Wal-Mart. I felt like a White Dork who was taking the best of another culture's spirituality without earning it, looking for a New Age quick fix instead of doing the long, hard work of self-exploration. I was a hypocrite, conveniently adopting values but not living them - communing with animal spirits and buying shrink-wrapped beef.
While much of this cultural co-opting is at heart very well-meaning, Native Americans are getting weary, if not pissed off. Members of the Lakota tribe have declared war on exploiters of their ancient spirituality. Their declaration states that they have "suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian "wannabes," hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled "New Age" retail stores and ... pseudo religious corporations have been formed to charge people money for admission into phony "sweatlodges' and "vision quest" programs ..."
Born-Again Navajos - if they're devout - must take this declaration of war seriously. After all, among its soldiers are White Dork and her Spirit Weasel, pathfinder of cynicism and King of the Rodent World. Together they will rain on the parade of any Rainbow Spirit Journey - and then go take holy communion at Wal-Mart.
Lou "White Dork" Bendrick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She lives in Telluride, Colorado.
Top Ten Ways to tell if you are from
the Wannabi (want to be) Clan
By Dr. Coyote (borrowed and adapted from an earlier posting)
10. You were born white but just realized that there was a possibility that you are native, you just don't know what tribe, and so you joined AIM or you know you are native because of your cheekbones or feel it in your soul. And dang I just enjoy buffalo burgers or jerky so I must be….
9. You think Russell Means is a god, and he can do no wrong, or support Leonard even though you are not quite sure if he is innocent or guilty or what exactly the particulars are of that case?
8. You think Fry Bread is traditional food and smoking a cigarette or using commercial tobacco outside your tipi/tent counts as a prayer.
7. Protesting for Indian rights (doesn't matter what tribe) means a sit in or holding a sign while trying to wear your new ribbon shirt you bought from the white guy at the local "trading post". Well only if it fits in your schedule and you happen to be in the area (within a 10 minute drive and there is free parking)
6. You go to the local Indian bar and buy the ndns drinks cuz you want to talk about their customs and "culture” and sing pow wow songs like the old times and just hang with the skins, but cant stand the idea of a warm tall bud at 10 AM on the side of the road after sawing up firewood or being up all night hunting or fishing
5. You try to date an ndn girl but you decide she's too round and rugged for your tastes (and her name wasn’t Running Deer) and her hair wasn’t jet black anyway and it was short so you decide to date the hippie wannabes with the hemp jewelry and long hair instead, plus she has a dog that is part wolf and your think you are wolf clan ennit.
4. You get the pre-requisite tribal tattoo placed where everyone can see it, so they can ask you what tribe you are, but no one ever does OR your car is carefully calculated to look “NDN” (i.e. dream catchers or safety pin headdresses on the mirror or bumper stickers bought from a vendor at a pow wow) OR the more tacky beadwork the better and you wear your hair long for no particular reason and braid it because it looks cool, and hey doesn’t the smell of burning sage in your clothes make you smell Indian?
3. You find your beadwork for your regalia in a pawnshop and proudly wear it at every powwow not knowing that everyone who is a serious powwow person knows where you got it from and you've only been to contest powwows and no traditional powwows because they don't run them on time and every one shows up late. (ndn time) Besides going to every Pow Wow in every small town is what it really means to be on the red road right? Traditional ceremony, isn’t that a pow wow?
2. You had a vision or sweat and found out you were Indian all along but just separated from the people and need to reconnect with the blood…What live on a reservation(or urban relocation area) with no electricity and get paid $9 an hour if you can find a job , commodity cheese what is that? Get all my health care from the IHS Clinic????
And the Number 1 way to tell if you are from the Wannabi (want to be) Clan DRUMROLL…
1. You use phrases like ennit and NDN cause you are a true skin and you are easily offended and whine about this post because while some of it is true about others….HEY, who in the hell does that Dr. Coyote thinks he is judging me as a Native if he ain’t walked in my moccasins…
How An Octogenarian Preserved An Endangered Native American Language
It's easy to take translations for granted when Google can swap between Albanian and Zulu with the click of a button, but even that tech has real world limitations. Marie Wilcox is the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni, one of 130 different endangered Native American languages in the United States that don't have any kind of digital—or analog—legacy.
Over the course of seven years in California's San Joaquin Valley, she worked with her daughter and grandson to catalog everything she knows about the language. First, she hand-scrawled memories on scraps of paper; then, she hunt-and-pecked on an old keyboard to complete a dictionary and type out legends like "How We Got Our Hands." Next, she recorded the whole thing on audio for pronunciation—it's very specific!—and posterity.
Cultural appropriation is a term that isn’t often heard in daily
conversation, which means it’s inevitably misunderstood by those who
feel attacked by feminists, sociologically-informed bloggers, and others
who use the term.
Many a white person sporting dreadlocks or a bindi online has taken cultural appropriation to mean the policing of what white people can or can’t wear and enjoy.
Having considered their fashion choices a form of personal expression, some may feel unfairly targeted for simply dressing and acting in a way that feels comfortable for them.
The same can be said for those who find criticisms of the Harlem Shake meme and whatever it is Miley Cyrus did last month to be an obnoxious form of hipsterdom – just because something has origins in black culture, they say, doesn’t mean white artists can’t emulate and enjoy it.
And then there are people who believe that everything is cultural appropriation – from the passing around of gun powder to the worldwide popularity of tea.
They’re tired of certain forms of cultural appropriation – like models in Native American headdresses – being labeled as problematic while many of us are gorging on Chipotle burritos, doing yoga, and popping sushi into our mouths with chopsticks.
They have a point.
Where do we draw the line between “appropriate” forms of cultural exchange and more damaging patterns of cultural appropriation?
To be honest, I don’t know that there is a thin, straight line between them.
But even if the line between exchange and appropriation bends, twists, and loop-de-loops in ways it would take decades of academic thought to unpack, it has a definite starting point: Respect.
What Cultural Exchange Is Not
One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.
We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms.
True cultural exchange is not the process of “Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours” that we sometimes think it is. It’s something that should be mutual.
Just because Indian Americans wear business suits doesn’t mean all Americans own bindis and saris. Just because some black Americans straighten their hair doesn’t mean all Americans own dreadlocks.
The fact is, Western culture invites and, at times, demands assimilation. Not every culture has chosen to open itself up to being adopted by outsiders in the same way.
And there’s good reason for that.
“Ethnic” clothes and hairstyles are still stigmatized as unprofessional, “cultural” foods are treated as exotic past times, and the vernacular of people of color is ridiculed and demeaned.
So there is an unequal exchange between Western culture – an all-consuming mishmash of over-simplified and sellable foreign influences with a dash each of Coke and Pepsi – and marginalized cultures.
People of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.
So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.
Because for those of us who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we look, behave, and speak just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe, our modes of self-expression are still limited.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is consistently treated as lesser than Standard English, but people whitewash black slang and use expressions they barely understand as punch lines, or to make themselves seem cool.
People shirk “ethnic” clothes in corporate culture, but wear bastardized versions of them on Halloween.
There is no exchange, understanding, or respect in such cases – only taking.
What Cultural Exchange Can Look Like
That doesn’t mean that cultural exchange never happens, or that we can never partake in one another’s cultures. But there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange.
I remember that at my sister’s wedding, the groom – who happened to be white – changed midway through the ceremony along with my sister into modern, but fairly traditional, Nigerian clothes.
Even though some family members found it amusing, there was never any undertone of the clothes being treated as a costume or “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a little bit and discard later. He was invited – both as a new family member and a guest – to engage our culture in this way.
If he had been obnoxious about it – treated it as exotic or weird or pretended he now understood what it means to be Nigerian and refused to wear Western clothes ever again – the experience would have been more appropriative.
But instead, he wore them from a place of respect.
That’s what cultural exchange can look like – engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only.
Don’t overstay your welcome. Don’t pretend to be a part of the household. Don’t make yourself out to be an honored guest whom the householders should be grateful to entertain and educate for hours on end.
Don’t ask a bunch of personal questions or make light of something that’s clearly a sore spot. Just act like any polite house guest would by being attentive and knowing your boundaries.
If, instead, you try to approach another culture as a mooch, busybody, or interloper, you will be shown the door. It’s that simple.
Well, maybe not as simple when you move beyond the metaphor and into the real world. If you’re from a so-called melting pot nation, you know what’s it’s like to be a perpetual couch surfer moving through the domains of many cultures.
Where Defining Cultural Appropriation Gets Messy
Is the Asian fusion takeout I order every week culturally appropriative? Even though I’m Black, is wearing dreadlocks appropriating forms of religious expression that really don’t belong to me?
Is meditating cultural appropriation? Is Western yoga appropriation? Is eating a burrito, cosplaying, being truly fascinated by another culture, decorating with Shoji screens, or wearing a headscarf cultural appropriation?
There are so many things that have been chopped up, recolored, and tossed together to make up Western culture that even when we know things are appropriative in some way, we find them hard to let go of.
And then there are the things that have been freely shared by other cultures – Buddhism for example – that have been both respected and bastardized at different turns in the process of exchange.
At times, well-meaning people who struggle with their own appropriative behavior turn to textbooks, online comment boards, Google, and Tumblr ask boxes in search of a clear cut answer to the question, “Is this [insert pop culture thing, hairstyle, tattoo, or personal behavior here] cultural appropriation?”
That’s a question we have to educate ourselves enough to, if not answer, think critically about.
We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.
So if you’re reading this and you’re tired of people giving white women wearing bindis crap for appropriating because “freedom of speech,” recognize that pointing out cultural appropriation is not personal.
This isn’t a matter of telling people what to wear. It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.
It’s also not a matter of ignoring “real” issues in favor of criticizing the missteps of a few hipsters, fashion magazines, or baseball teams.
Cultural appropriation is itself a real issue because it demonstrates the imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been colonized and the ex-colonizers.
Regardless, this is not an article asking you to over-analyze everything you do and wrack yourself with guilt.
Because honestly, no one cares about your guilt, no one cares about your hurt feelings, and no one cares about your clothes or hair when they’re pointing out cultural appropriation.
When someone’s behavior is labeled culturally appropriative, it’s usually not about that specific person being horrible and evil.
It’s about a centuries’ old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures.
The intentions of the inadvertent appropriator are irrelevant in this context.
Therefore, what this article is asking you to do is educate yourself, listen, and be open to reexamining the symbols you use without thinking, the cultures you engage with without understanding, and the historical and social climate we all need to be seeing.