Appropriation and Repatriation

As America appears headed into an era of political oversimplification, stereotyping, and resentment, now seems like a good time to reflect on one potential casualty in the current war against the so-called “politically correct”—cultural patrimony.

That concept, which appears as a legal category in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), is in danger because of its close association with the hot button phrase of 2016: cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation—the unsanctioned use of another person’s cultural practices—is currently under debate in the media, but federal Indian policy often draws very bright lines between fair use and cultural/intellectual property. Certain objects and activities are set aside and protected as part of the cultural legacy of the many indigenous nations of the present day United States.

Yet many Americans only know what they read in popular news outlets, and these sources—even some of the most respected—have often merely sensationalized the concept. In recent issues of the Huffington Post and The Atlantic, for example, cultural appropriation is treated as something of a fad, focused  on hairstyles and the inevitable “Indian” costume that a celebrity (in this case, Chris Hemsworth) has to apologize for wearing when caught by paparazzi while “playing Indian.”

In the Atlantic, Jenni Avins imagines cultural appropriation as a category of social faux pas: “Sometime during the early 2000s, big, gold, “door-knocker” hoop earrings started to appeal to me, . . . It didn’t faze me that most of the girls who wore these earrings at my high school in St. Louis were black, unlike me. And while it certainly may have occurred to me that I—a semi-preppy dresser—couldn’t pull them off, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t.”

Still, her admission of guilt is followed by a robust attack on the notion of cultural appropriation:

“cultural appropriation” jumped from academia into the realm of Internet outrage and oversensitivity. Self-appointed guardians of culture have proclaimed that Miley Cyrus shouldn’t twerk, white girls shouldn’t wear cornrows, and Selena Gomez should take off that bindi. Personally, I could happily live without ever seeing Cyrus twerk again, but I still find many of these accusations alarming.”

While one can certainly debate whether or not things like cornrows and bindis rightfully “belong” to everyone who wants to wear them, we shouldn’t let the trivialization of cultural property creep into critical debates about public policy surrounding Native American regalia, artifacts, and language.

Indigenous peoples’ struggle to maintain cultural sovereignty in the face of mounting globalization—whose economic models encourage social homogenization and the kind of knowledge concentration the speakers at the recent Dartmouth symposium warned against—is no mere academic issue.

Moreover, like repatriation, appropriation has a very specific etymology, one which reveals the real issues as stake when Native community members take issue with outsiders’ neglect of proper protocols. At its root, appropriation refers to “taking (something) as private property,” and  “making [it] one’s own.”

As with repatriation, there are laws on the books that define the limits of making certain indigenous things one’s own. Take, for example, the The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644). The Department of Interior website calls it  “a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States.” Thus, “it is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States.”

Some might ask, how can a work of art be “Indian.” What right does the government have to prohibit me from creating my own “Indian-inspired” fetishes, jewelry, and paintings? The answer lies, as it does in NAGPRA, in the simple fact that Native American peoples, while citizens of the United States, have special standing under the law. Regulations like the Indian Arts and Crafts Act represent the retroactive attempt of the U.S. government to reverse centuries of encroachment on Native cultural practices (including the outlawing of ceremonials and other religious practices) and to support the efforts of indigenous communities to keep open one of the most important sources of wages on reservations since their founding—crafts. Major corporations like Disney and Ralph Lauren have been engaged in what some arts activists feel is cultural appropriation that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of this law (see Danielle Miller, “Pull Ralph Lauren Clothing,” and Vicente Diaz, “Don’t Swallow (or be Swallowed by) Disney’s ‘Culturally Authenticated Moana.'”)

It is important to have discussions about cultural appropriation. No conversation about these important issues should be preemptively cut off before many points of view have been aired. Calling these conversations “political correctness” only stifles genuine debate, and for every sensational or “silly” example cited by politicians and the media, there are hundreds of others that demand serious thought.

Take the issue of Native sports mascots. They have been roundly criticized by members of Native communities around the country. Native and non-Native people have written and spoken against them for the better part of 40 years. Yet the major NFL franchise in the Nation’s capitol still bears a name offensive to just about anyone who knows American history. In the debates about mascots, one hears the specious language of cultural appropriation and political correction being extended to apply to many other “Indian” things—costumes, jewelry, ceremonials (especially sweats), casinos, and yes, oil pipelines.

Arguments like these are simply not about political correctness—they are about historical accuracy.

There are still facts in this world, even if its seems like some Americans have turned their back on them. The dead still lie beneath the grass at San Creek, a reminder that, as the Acoma poet Simon Ortiz once wrote,

This America
has been a burden
of steel and mad
but, look now,
there are flowers
and new grass
and a spring wind
from Sand Creek.

Facing the facts is the only way we will find peace.



Vicente Diaz’s essay:

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