By Cathy Burton
As the former Director of Education at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana, I am mindful of issues related to cultural appropriation especially when developing or reviewing lesson plans on Indigenous arts, history and cultures.
Image, at left: Red willow dream catcher with black arrow head, red coral and turquoise bundle, made by Patricia Pacheco (Laguna-Ojibwa) - photo by Native Eye (own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
The Education Department organizes an annual educators’ symposium to advise teachers from around the region on various topics. We also often answer questions from citizens, school representatives, and staff from different organizations. Once, when Indiana suffered an extended period of drought, a television weathercaster even asked if the museum could recommend an “Indian in costume” to perform a rain dance on the air.
Most questions are not so off-the-wall, however. The inquiries are often related to genealogy, Native mascots, and school curriculum materials and research requests.
Many of the questions we receive relate to cultural appropriation. This short email exchange was one such query—in this case, involving dream catchers— that ended happily for both the museum and the community organization seeking assistance. All names have been removed.
Sent: Thursday, December 12, 2013 2:26 PM
Subject: Community Engagement Event
I work to enhance alumni engagement within a professional development program based on the belief that everyone leads. Since alumni are all commonly passionate about servant hood, I am looking to engage our alumni base through service-based activities in Indianapolis.
We have received a grant for a project with a mission to encourage civic engagement among Indianapolis residents by motivating them to serve year-round. We are launching this project series on Martin Luther King Day by hosting "dream-related" activities throughout the weekend leading to up to MLK Day.
We will be setting up booths on Monday, Jan. 20th at numerous venues around the city. These booths will hold dream-catcher kits as well as paper slips and writing utensils. We will encourage families to make a dream catcher together and to write a dream-related quote on the paper and attach it to their catcher. Participants will be reminded of what MLK's dream was, how he worked to attain it, and how they can do the same with whatever their dreams are.
We are looking for organizations who would like to participate in this exciting movement with us by allowing us to set up a booth at their location and help spread the word to the public. This is a free resource to the community and we are hoping to make it accessible to as many people as possible.
We hope this is something that would be of interest to the Eiteljorg Museum. Please let me know at your earliest convenience if we can look forward to collaborating with you. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Sent: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 3:46 PM
Subject: Community Engagement Event
Unfortunately, we can't assist or offer a location for your Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Engagement event. We will be open and have free admission that day in celebration of Dr. King's work.
We, too, work with, and rely on, a number of volunteers who commit and serve the community through our museum. Our volunteers are trained by subject experts, including time for cultural competency sessions. We also contract with Native American artists in residence and culture-bearers who share their personal contemporary and traditional experiences with volunteers, museum visitors and community and school audiences off-site. The dream catcher activity suggested would not fit the continuing mission-related educational programs offered here at the museum and by the museum in the community.
Because our staff is very careful about the authentic cultural representation of diverse American Indian activities we cannot make up or participate in programs that could engender stereotypes. Dream catchers have become misappropriated from the Anishinaabek Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region. Anishinaabek [also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa] live and work here in Indianapolis. We work to keep children from participating in activities that could be seen as "playing Indian." Making a real dream catcher for a beloved infant is an act that goes beyond gathering the correct materials and knowing when and how to assemble them. The oral traditions are also passed on. A real dream catcher is used to catch any bad dreams and allow good dreams to pass freely to a sleeping infant or child. I'm sure the plan is well-intentioned. However, you have the added activity of writing a positive dream that is then connected to the dream catcher -- caught and held in the dream catcher. Negative dreams and thoughts are caught in the web of Native American-made dream catchers.
I know a dream we all have is one for universal acceptance and understanding. The use of a dream catcher with the idea of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech can be likened to a mixed metaphor. The museum has also worked with non-Native peoples’ stories of the American West. We would not want to dilute or disengage from the power of Dr. King's speech or good work on any day, especially the national holiday set aside to remember him. Yes -- use and encourage the idea of writing down dreams and following through on those. Share those dreams between generations in a family. Those actions have great value. But, no, please do not take an Anishinaabek tradition like dream catchers for your city-wide project and try to blend or confuse it with another dream-related action like Dr. King's speech.
Out of respect for the Native (Indigenous) peoples who we work with and whose cultures we are trusted to interpret, we must decline the opportunity to participate in your program.
Thank you for your honest and enlightening response. That is something we had not considered. Our goal is to be inclusive to all populations and to engage the community in activities with a clear purpose. If we were to send a mixed message rooted in an activity like this, we would take away from the original purpose of uniting all people. We will strongly consider changing our activity to better accommodate all populations of our Indianapolis residents.
What a relief, to have a response that was so positive. I was grateful that my correspondent was willing to read my concerns and understood quickly the gravity of the mixed message they were creating. The dream catcher element was dropped from the event, and the focus was shifted to celebrate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What I’ve learned from similar exchanges is that many people don’t really understand what cultural appropriation is, let alone why it might be wrong. And while sometimes it is very easy to discern when something might be considered cultural appropriation, often it can be more difficult. This is why IPinCH's Appropriation (?) of the Month series has a question mark in the title.
The good news is that there are excellent resources out there that can help educators critically assess the impact of certain school activities (i.e. the “Thanksgiving Pageant”) or resources (such as scout handbooks or patterns for creating costumes). Indigenous scholars and museum librarians are incredibly knowledgeable. Online resources are often used to help our museum’s public programs and education staff consider whether any stereotypes are being spread through the museum’s work.
I learned a long time ago, when my son was offered his first feathered headband to wear in preschool, that some adults do not appreciate hearing their treasured activity is “wrong.” The frustration of having to deal with inappropriate actions almost every day in my job sometimes tempts me to respond curtly. But a courteous, reasoned response has the potential to be much more impactful. A gentle conversation is more apt to promote change. This is the consensus of my Indigenous friends, too. We share a concern for cultural appropriation, but also a desire to encourage positive change.
I have a dream, too, and it is that we can all learn to celebrate and respect the differences in our cultures and worldviews. Together, we can work towards positive change by preparing our youth for a multicultural society where all are respected for who they are and how they wish to be recognized.
Cathy Burton is an independent educator and consultant, and an IPinCH Associate.