Reconciliation can be a touchy subject. It’s a relatively new practice, and one that can take some education, understanding, and an open heart. Gone are the days of being able to push this issue aside or allowing it to blindly continue. This country has been forced awake to the many social and racial injustices that are still in daily practice. The murder of George Floyd was a wakeup call for many, but a cold blatant reminder for others who have continued to fight against all forms of oppression and most definitely for those that experience it every day. For it is the small things that we don’t learn about, the hidden and shameful histories that we glaze over in elementary school that allow these kinds of horrible incidents to continue to happen. The popular saying goes, “If we don’t learn about our history, we will be doomed to repeat it.” We have not learned.
My work has specifically focused on equity for Indigenous Native American people. In my own local community, I have worked to educate on our shared local histories, about Indigenous lifeways, and about the trauma that occurred during the colonization process which others only know as the building of this country. There were so many heinous government policies, forced removals from homelands, food source slaughters, and unprovoked wars that Indigenous people endured during the “founding of the United States.” In our education systems, we are lucky if we learned about “The Trail of Tears.” There is so much more to know and so much more to understand about why we are where we are in this country in terms of racial and social justice.
In talks about equity and reconciliation, I have heard so many times the adage, “Everyone has an equal opportunity in this country, and you have to pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” While that may have been true for some, it was indeed not true for all. For one, my people wore makizinan (Anglicization: moccasins), not boots. I hold hope that someday, we collectively in this country can even come to that deep understanding. It will be a healing moment for many when we can at least admit that much.
Much was taken away from the Indigenous people of this land that is now called the United States. Boarding schools were a real thing, our great-grandparents were forced to forget their families, beaten if they spoke their languages, taken out of their traditional clothing, and forbidden from praying in their cultural ways. These policies were enacted under the guise of a saying by General Richard Pratt that was, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” The United States governments’ policies towards Indigenous Native Americans were created with this specific focus. Not to mention, outside of that, Indigenous Native Americans held no rights in this country until 1924 when they were “granted citizenship” and until 1962 when all 50 states allowed them to vote. It was not until 1978 when their religions could be practiced openly and freely. There were definitely no bootstraps to pull from when your rights are not the same as others.
This now brings us to cultural appropriation. In a world where you had no rights and you were being taught to forget everything you knew to be true, to forget your language, to be told that those things were unholy even. The little things that were able to be saved and reclaimed by our people, that were forced into hiding, that remained after the beatings; after all the death are the things that we as Native people hold so dear. Our designs, our art, our language, our stories, our names, and our dignity. We see them fetishized, used as inspiration, stolen ideas, and even naming companies using our languages. When all these things about our people were dirty, taboo, unholy, and wrong. How does that feel? When we couldn’t wear our makizinan (moccasins) but a company creates their family wealth from the idea of them in our own homelands. When “Redskin” or “Brave” or “Indian” becomes some sick kind of “way of honoring" our people after all that we have endured in this country. We must understand that this is wrong and deserves apologies and it deserves our understanding, and it deserves some form of recourse.
Inspiration is something that we as artists all build from every day. We have even in school been taught to cite our sources, we should try to do the same in art. Even in music, if someone samples a track, they are sometimes forced (if permission was not already given) to pay royalties from their song. This is one way that we can grow to understand cultural appropriation better.
In some instances, the appropriation occurs from a fantasized idea of Native American culture. The ideas that were placed in our heads as children from our brief learnings about “Thanksgiving” or about the Disney version of “Pocahontas." Others may come from more detailed histories of Indigenous people and Native tribes within the United States. This appropriation is harmful in many ways for many reasons. As I stated above, our many Indigenous Native heritages were never celebrated in history, and they were nearly outlawed. Our own people could not be themselves nor celebrate these designs. Many designs that survived were for use in clan systems, for spiritual reasons, and for tribal recognition from other tribes. They were beautiful and had purpose. To see headdresses at Coachella or tipis with Indigenous style markings used for picnics can generate some deep seeded anger for Native people. Headdresses were reserved for and earned by warriors or leaders and tipis were built with the unrecognized structural ingenuity of Indigenous people for survival and as a home. To never have any of that acknowledged, yet it come onto the market as “cute and edgy” really shows how little we know of our own history.
We as Indigenous people have come to understand that little understanding of the atrocities that we have faced as Native people exists in this country and so therefore it becomes even harder to understand why apologies and reconciliation work must be done, but the need for it still exists and at the end of the day, it is still the right thing to do.
As a business, you can call out your own appropriation. You can stop production of products that appropriate from Indigenous cultures without permission. You can hire and pay Indigenous artists for this type of art. You can buy already created art from Indigenous artists to support local communities and their families. If you’ve appropriated in the past, you can apologize and work to reconcile that wrong by supporting Indigenous led efforts and organizations that work to repair the harm still suffered by Native tribes in the United States as they still heal from colonization and removal. Many tribes are still in heavy phases of reclamation of their cultures and their native languages. Aside from that, many tribes work to support the economic, social, and physical well-being of their people after being placed on reservations and having their traditional food sources uprooted.
Through appropriation, many companies with no Indigenous Native roots have profited and built incredible generational wealth from cultures that this country set out to destroy without any repercussions and in some cases, without any direct intention or knowing of doing so. Today, we can work together to right these wrongs and do our parts to be better allies and people. These appropriations deserve to be reconciled and the healing that it will create will only bring us further as neighbors and as a country. It all starts with education and understanding.
Our reconciliation work would not have been possible without Adrienne Benjamin who guided us through this process as our Reconciliation Consultant. We are so lucky to have the opportunity to work with Adrienne and thank her for her time, knowledge and generosity.
Adrienne M. Benjamin (She/Her/Hers) is an Anishinaabe multi-faceted artist practicing in multiple disciplines, an accomplished arts administrator, and reconciliation consultant. She is passionate about and vibrantly advocates for social justice and equity initiatives in the arts and education systems.
You can find more of Adrienne's work at yoadrienneb.net and on Instagram @yoadrienneb1983.