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Teach-in on Native American appropriation brings oft-ignored campus issues to light

Students packed into a standing-room-only Beam Classroom in the Visual Arts Center on Wednesday to hear a presentation from their peers and professors on the appropriation of Native American culture. 

According to Dean of Multicultural Affairs Leana Amaez, at least one instance of cultural appropriation occurs each year, often by students who dress in “native” costumes for Halloween or a themed party. These instances are not always limited to Native American attire; she noted that earlier in the fall semester students wearing sombreros were brought to her attention.

When these instances of appropriation occur, Amaez often begins a dialogue with students that focuses not on their intentions, but on the impact their actions had on fellow students. “If the problem is ignorance, then the solution is education,” said Amaez, noting that repercussions rarely take the form of punishment.

The event was facilitated by Zohran Mamdani ’14.

Bowdoin Student Government president Sarah Nelson ’14 opened the discussion by recounting an experience last fall where she attended a costume party dressed as a Native American woman.“When I met with the Dean’s office later that week and heard how hurtful my actions had been to some of my peers, I was embarrassed, horrified and surprised,” she said. “That I had owned a costume for six years and was so ignorant to the fact that it was a misappropriation of someone else’s culture—someone else’s identity—terrified me.” 

She went on to explain that she believes awareness education can help other students to think about these issues in a new way.  

“I hope that, in listening to my story about a time when I made a serious error, everyone here will be more willing to talk to their peers, especially their peers of different races and ethnicities, about where the holes in our understandings of each other’s identities lie,” she said. 

First year Dylan Goodwill introduced herself to the crowd and identified herself a member of the Navajo, Lakota and Dakota tribes; she grew up on the Window Rock Navajo Reservation in St. Michaels, Arizona. 

“I’ve grown up with a sense of following my traditional ways—going to ceremonies and living in a hogan, which is the traditional Navajo home,” said Goodwill. “I’ve grown up dancing pow wow since I was two years old.”

She explained that some stereotypically native symbols often used by non-natives in costumes hold deep importance within the Native American community. 

“We grew up knowing that the way we dress, the way our hair was, our moccasins, our turquoise, our feathers were all sacred and that everything had a meaning,” she said.

For instance, for Goodwill, eagle feathers symbolize “protection and harmony,” among other things, and she currently has eagle feathers hanging in her dorm room to remind her of this. She explained that seeing these symbols being used by people who had no connection to them was hurtful. 

“They’re not costumes. We call them regalia,” said Goodwill. “It’s not something that we’re trying to hide from ourselves—it’s something that we are.”

Assistant Professor of Sociology Ingrid Nelson and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kelly Fayard brought an academic lens to the talk. Professor Nelson explained that the work the teach-in was doing was not about “blame or shame or guilt,” but bringing an awareness of each person’s  privilege, which shapes experiences and grants advantages that often go unseen. She encouraged students to “use the privilege that you have to dismantle systems that perpetuate that privilege.” Fayard, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, detailed the long history of cultural appropriation of Native American images in America. She showed images from the Boston Tea Party, secret societies at Yale and the University of Michigan, professional sports teams logos and fashion that all took symbols from Native American culture. 

These stereotypes, in Fayard’s view, are damaging to Native American groups on many levels. She noted that they consistently grouped all Native cultures together without an appreciation for the varied practices of the more than 500 federally recognized Native American tribes. “[Stereotypes] constantly put natives as part of the past,” she added. “It basically erases the existence of modern Native American peoples.”

She encouraged students to buy from Native American designers if they are interested in Native American patterns or traditional jewelry, instead of mass marketed products that proport themselves to be native.  

After the presentations, students posed questions to the panelists on how to discuss issues of appropriation with peers who may not understand the issue. One topic that was repeated was the use of Native American figures as mascots in professional sports. 

Ben Woo Ching, a sophomore who identifies as American Samoan, noted that these issues can often exist in a gray area.

“The University of Hawaii is the Hawaiian Warriors and that’s okay for them because they’re in Hawaii but it is not okay [when] a white man owns the Atlanta Braves,” he said.

Woo Ching thought the discussion reflected W. E. B. DuBois’ double consciousness, in that “White only perceives as white perceives but the minority perceives from both directions.” 

Amaez hopes that more discussions of race and identity can continue in a student-led platform. Next fall, she will begin a training program for students interested in facilitating discussions about race for peers. Plans for this program will be finalized over the summer. 

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