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Letter from Stephanie on Cultural Appropriation

Coral & Tusk Founder, Stephanie HousleyThe first seed was planted back in 2013. Coral & Tusk was featured on a blog, and one of the comments on the post alluded to cultural appropriation in our work. At the time, I not only dismissed it, but it angered me. I indignantly thought, “But I drew these images. These are MY designs and original artwork and creations.” It was a time when many designers and artists were incorporating “ethnically inspired” elements into their work. It felt unfair that given the current artistic landscape and vibe at that time, that we would be singled out for this offense.
 
Years went by and we’d phased out most of the designs in question, either by natural evolution or by our own inner reflections ignited by the general awareness awakened on a broad level in this country in 2020.
 
Several months ago, we received a very objective question from a customer observing that Native American art and culture has clearly served as inspiration for some of our designs, and they wanted to know what we were doing to support Native American causes. Once again I found myself with the same knee jerk reaction, bristling at this comment. After taking a little time, and having some team dialogue about our response, we all felt that a deeper study was not only needed, but wanted by all of us at Coral & Tusk.
 
What ensued were hours of difficult conversations internally. Where we landed was knowing that we wanted to acknowledge culturally appropriated designs, structure a donation based on those products and make an effort towards reconciliation. We’d gone through our own discovery process of identifying what we did wrong, had ideas of what to do in response, but felt fearful and without guidance on how to proceed. My initial preference was to make quiet donations, without public and clear acknowledgment, so that in the future, we could allude to this as a way that we support Native American causes. The last thing I wanted to do was publicly call ourselves out, exposing vulnerabilities, opening ourselves to attacks by people upset by our efforts, placing ourselves under the microscope for criticism. I didn’t feel like wearing that target.
 
However, the dialogue continued internally within our team and a suggestion was made that since none of us feel equipped with the language to use surrounding this topic, to look for a consultant to help guide us through this effort. This resulted in hours of personal research to find such a consultant. I naively thought this person should be relatively simple to source. I learned an enormous amount through this research, specifically about philanthropic efforts contributed to Native Americans (hovering only around 0.5% of total foundation funding) and the importance of donating to Native American led organizations. The wall I kept hitting was even after days of research, finding a consultant was not coming to fruition. There is an upsetting lack of information available on these topics generally. I recalled a story I had heard on WPR (Wyoming public radio) featuring a reconciliation consultant working with Minnetonka. The story had struck a chord with me at the time, which was prior to our search. Her voice was so honest and confident, and I remember thinking it must be incredibly challenging to be her- one person being looked to, to have the answers to questions associated with hundreds of years of wrongdoing, and serving as an entire population’s representative. She acknowledged the challenge during the interview, but was unwavering in her clarity and conviction to move through it.
 
Just when I was about to give up, I decided to try to find this person. I read about her, Adrienne Benjamin, on the Minnetonka website and then found her on Instagram. As an absolute Hail Mary I DMed her, assuming she’d never respond, but at least I could say I tried. To my surprise and delight, she agreed to work with us on this effort. For the last few months, we’ve been collaborating on our reconciliation efforts, which we look forward to sharing with you all now. I’ve noted many times through this process that there needs to be a how-to on reconciling cultural appropriation for dummies. It’s a scary, daunting, shame filled and guilt ridden process. But the moment I was truly honest with myself, after learning the countless horrific facts and crimes committed against Native Americans for hundreds of years, I understood the necessary role that acknowledgment plays and what we each can, and should do. Acknowledging our offense of cultural appropriation is one minuscule effort we are making here as a company. In each of our lives, we are finding how imperative education is as part of the process of reconciliation.
 
We are sorry. We acknowledge that cultural appropriation causes harm, contributes to ongoing oppression and exploitation of other cultures, preventing true understanding and exchange. We used motifs in a group of products that did not recognize or honor the true meaning or origin of these particular design elements. We did not ask permission to use them, nor did we provide adequate credit. We benefited financially from these products as we were able to capitalize on the opportunity granted to us to sell and profit from them. We acknowledge that consequences of cultural appropriation are that white people continue to benefit from others' ingenuity and contribute to the further marginalization of an already marginalized group.
 
If you’ve read through this and find yourself feeling defensive and angry- I don’t blame you. I had that same reaction for many years and without actively pursuing educating myself on why this matters, I would continue to have the same reaction. And so, instead of firing off a critical comment, I invite you to welcome this as an opportunity to sit with that reaction in discomfort and look inwardly to what’s sparking it. Then research your narrative and vet its accuracy. My guess is that in doing so you’ll discover something that will give you pause. 
 
Here is what we are currently doing to hold ourselves accountable:
  • We also made a donation of $5,000 as the base of a scholarship at the Wyoming Arts council. This scholarship will be awarded annually to a Native individual. Because we are keeping one appropriated item in the line, our Quill design, we are acknowledging the source of inspiration by committing a donation of $1,000 a year to the Native Art Fellowship through 2027, or until Quill is retired and no longer available for sale. Read more about our Quill design here.

  • We are committed to educating ourselves as individuals and collectively as a team
  • We will continue to consult with Adrienne Benjamin on upcoming efforts
  • We are giving our employees paid days of service annually as part of our company policy
  • We will match employee donations to Native led organizations annually up to $10,000
  • We will explore collaborations with Native artists
  • We ensure that part of our annual giving will always be allocated to Native led organizations moving forward.
 
An enormous, deep and full being THANK YOU to Adrienne Benjamin for graciously accepting the challenge of consulting with us. We appreciate your honesty and candor, and your openness as you guide and educate us, while subjecting yourself to harsh critique. You are a true inspiration, always keeping your eye on the greater good. And another thank you to the group of wonderful women that comprise our Coral & Tusk team. I appreciate the vulnerability you all allowed and the extra push and conviction to help us arrive at this place.



Read Adrienne Benjamin's statement on why reconciliation matters and more about her work:

Read Coral & Tusk's full statement on cultural appropriation and open apology: