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Cultural Appropriation: A Different Perspective

A column by Britt Reed about cultural appropriation.

My perspective on cultural appropriation will always be different than most of the outspoken folks in Indian country. I did not grow up on a reservation, nor experience the “classic” urban native experience. I am a Native woman who was adopted out when I was a baby. Some call people like me “lost birds” or “split feathers.” People that have gone through the assimilation process that has taken over what the boarding and residential schools have done to our grandparents and ancestors.

Today the problem persists, despite the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 designed to stop 25 percent of all native children in the United States from being adopted out to non-native families. In 1987, nine years after the passage of the Act, a study was conducted by CSR Incorporated, and it’s subcontractor, Three Feathers Associates; they found that 35 percent of all native children were being placed in substitute care and that 85 percent of that number were being placed in non-Native homes. In the summer of 2012, we were reminded of this epidemic with NPR’s report that 700 native children are being removed from their homes and adopted out each year in South Dakota alone.

Native children who live on reservations or grow up with their families around urban centers, like the American Indian Center in Chicago, have access to family, community members and resources to learn about and engage in their cultures. As a native child adopted out to non-native parents, I did not have this same access. Regardless of my disconnection to any sort of native community, it did not stop me from having a very strong pull to my roots and a drive to learn about my cultures as a Choctaw and Lakota woman.

Interestingly enough, I found as I grew older, this connection and pull that I felt, even as a young child, to learn about my cultures and engage in them, wasn’t a unique thing that only I experienced. That pull is felt by many native people who’ve been adopted out. Some call it the Split Feather Syndrome. Others say that it occurs due to the prayers for the children who’ve been removed, so that they may return to their communities. Whatever it is, it is real, and it happens.

From my experience, sometimes that pull can be a heavy weight to carry. I have reached out as a young child and throughout the course of my life to learn about my cultures. However, when you are removed, the media reduces your perception of the 500+ individual tribes and cultures to five tribes: Cherokee, Sioux, Navajo, Apache, and Mohawk. These five complex cultures get even further reduced down to the appearance of what I would now call the dominate-society’s-tacky-rendition-of-plains-culture.

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Removed, I had little access to legitimate representations of Lakota culture and Choctaw culture. Being ignorant, while fiercely proud of being native, I took every representation of Native Americans in the media and let them become me. After all, in my mind, costumes, like the ones sold in Halloween stores and portrayed in the old western films, told me that this is how my ancestors dressed. If I wanted to be Native, then I need to dress that way, talk that way, act that way, and (dear god) I better also be sure my hair was straight, just like those Natives on TV and the rest of the media. When you are removed, and there is no one there to tell you what is legitimate and what is a stereotype. How are you to know? I can tell you that the American public schools definitely will not tell you. Popular media, as we know it right now, will not tell you. Dr. Phil cannot tell you.

I am now nearly 24 years old and have been able to reconnect with native communities. I have been told by a native social worker, that it is impressive that I have been able to do so at all—given that many children adopted out never are able to reconnect to Native communities. I know the toll that Native American costumes and the cultural appropriation of native cultures being sold in stores do. I know how the stereotypes that those costumes perpetuate can screw up someone that has been removed physiologically and stunt their growth. Too many times have I had to attempt to weed through what was real and what was a stereotype in my quest to reconnect as a Lakota and as a Choctaw Woman. These images make it harder.

As Kimberly Roppolo has said in her story “Breeds and Outlaws”, “You’d think, knowing the stories about the times we’re in, that folks would stop fighting about who’s more Indian. That for things to change, we all got to be resurrected, that this Ghost Dance is one of the living. Besides, if we’re going to “repatriate” artifacts, we ought to "rematriate" people.”

While it can never be reiterated enough that we need to make sure that ICWA is followed and interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court and social welfare agencies the way it was intended, it should also be said that as native people, we should make sure that the way we are portrayed in the dominate media is correct. Degrading representations of Natives in the dominate culture have negative effects on Native youth. Thus, stereotypes in the media have negative effects on the future of Native people. It is imperative that we continue to fight the stereotypes and educate native and non-native people alike about these issues.

She the Bear (Britt Reed) is a Lakota and student. She can be contacted on ICTMN here and via Tumblr here.