On “Wanting to Be Indian,” Halloween, and Cultural Appropriation

Last spring break, before ever enrolling in this class, I talked to a friend who was graduating who had never taken this course. I told her that I was considering Indigenous Religious Traditions as a class to take next year and we had a long talk about cultural appropriation and whether it was even appropriate to enroll in this class. Speaking with former members of the class, they said that we do address cultural appropriation in a mindful way and Myke Johnson’s article confirms this statement.

With Halloween coming up tomorrow (!!!), the concept of cultural appropriation has been weighing heavily on my mind. There are always the “slutty indians,” the stereotyped blondes with a few feathers in their doubly-braided hair, a brown dress with fringe reminiscent of Disney’s rendition of Pocahontas, maybe warpaint, and always cleavage (see Figure 1). I know I’m going off tangentially away from the concept of the appropriation of American Indian spirituality, but bear with me [Also, while Johnson mentions two stereotypes of Native Americans, one as “holy” and the other as “savage,” these costumes also perpetuate the image of the savage woman being an explicitly sexual body which is an image that has been struggled with for centuries]. I think that these costumes emphasize Johnson’s point of “borrowing.” They perpetuate long-standing stereotypes of natives, but also take without asking, without engaging in a community that has consistently been oppressed and continues to do so.

In “Wanting To Be Indian,” Johnson’s insistence that being an ally and forging one’s own spiritual path really resonated with me. It also assuaged my doubts about whether my presence in this class and my intentions in taking it were appropriate. When we go to South Dakota, our class has been designed so that we actively are participating in the community. We are not coming in as tourists, to experience sweats and then leave, but rather coming to start the informed “dialogue” that Oren Lyons from the Onondaga Nation is quoted as mentioning (p. 11). I also think that the term “ally” is appropriate for the role that we will be taking on because it denotes our separation from the tribe we will be visiting, while simultaneously emphasizing the communal ties we hope to forge.

When I was in high school, I took a class on the ineffability of the spiritual experience and for a final project participated in a handful of sweats with one of my art teachers. Looking back, I realize that at times I did culturally appropriate this experience as a sort of badge of my own spirituality. That while it was a learning experience and I did participate in the community to some degree, I did so more as a spiritual tourist with the knowledge that it was a “really cool thing to be able to check off the bucket list” rather than a holistic understanding that to the people who did it every weekend, it was part of their lifestyle. As I’ve come to understand and study more about privilege (and the structural racism Johnson mentions throughout her essay), I’ve kind of guiltily pushed that experience to the back of my mind. However, this class and Johnson’s essay are helping me to grapple with how I should address my own experiences in the past and the ones on the horizon, both in relation to engaging with the community and being mindful of my own ego and my past experiences of  appropriating spiritual practices as a “borrowed” tool to aid me in my own spiritual journey.

(Figure 1)
She fine, no doubt, but probably not a native.

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