There is no faster way to ruffle feathers than to accuse someone of cultural appropriation. Whether their kids are wearing insensitive “Native princess” costumes (whatever that is—my people certainly had no monarchy) or performing careless Japanese tea ceremonies, anger is almost always the first and most powerful response that people have when you ask them to respect other cultures. And it’s an odd reaction. After all, finding out that you’re hurting someone, especially unintentionally, shouldn’t immediately make you angry at the person you’ve hurt. It should make you reflective and, hopefully, remorseful.
Now, of course no one wants to hear that they’re letting their kids do something wrong, culturally insensitive or harmful. After all, your kids like something and they’re too young to have bad intentions, so who is it harming? Can’t kids just have fun?
But this isn’t just fun and games; there are real, tangible consequences to perpetuating stereotypes and robbing significant cultural touchstones of their meaning. I’ve had to witness the appropriation of my culture my whole life, and it’s far from harmless. When I was a child, I was shamed for both having a Native father and wearing moccasins by kids whose parents hung Made in China dreamcatchers on their rear-view mirrors. How could these parents hang Indigenous symbols in their cars while their kids made fun of me for trying to celebrate my own Haudenosaunee culture? It didn’t make sense.
But now that I’m older, I’m starting to understand. The problem with conversations on cultural appropriation is that those who get accused of it usually haven’t experienced having their own culture stolen, misrepresented and used in disrespectful ways. Those whose cultures are appropriated often have the added trauma of being treated poorly by society at large.
Not having any experience with this rather complicated situation undoubtedly makes it harder to empathize, particularly when it comes to parenting. Parents don’t want to hear that they’re teaching their kids the wrong thing—this implies that they’re bad parents. I’d never say that someone who has never had the misfortune of experiencing something awful like racism is a bad parent. But as parents, we have to recognize that there are topics we aren’t knowledgeable about and then do our best to make sure that our children are knowledgeable about them.
Overcoming centuries of cultural appropriation may seem scary, but when you reframe your thinking to focus on respect and consent instead of immediate outrage, it all becomes much easier. Is someone from this culture choosing to share their culture with me? Or is an unrelated group or corporation selling this culture to me? If we really appreciate these cultures, we need to respect the actual people who have upheld and nurtured them for centuries. We need to respect their right to say no and share their culture on their own, more meaningful terms.
So how do we explain something this complicated to our kids? It may seem hard, but I assure you that kids are able to understand these things.
I recently volunteered to accompany my daughter’s fifth-grade class on a field trip to a conservatory. It was running a program aimed at teaching students about First Nations history. There were a few things that made me particularly interested to see how this would go: My daughter, Eva, is Haudenosaunee and has no problem voicing her opinion, and there are no other Indigenous kids in her class. This could either be very good or very bad.
One of the planned activities was an art project. The person leading the project was non-Native. In fact, everyone involved in this program was non-Native, which means that there was already a barrier to these kids getting accurate information about Indigenous cultures. Where did they get their information from? Who did they consult?
Judging by the art project, I couldn’t really tell. The woman in charge spoke a little bit about Norval Morrisseau and told the class he used symbols from his culture in his art. Then she passed out a paper with a number of symbols on it, from lizards to fish to different symbols that looked like people. Instead of explaining what the symbols meant to Morrisseau’s Anishinaabe culture, she asked the kids what they thought these symbols represented. She agreed with every interpretation, offered no clarification on the importance of these symbols to the Anishinaabe and invited the kids to pick symbols from the paper that they related to and draw them to represent themselves.
I said nothing because I didn’t want to ruin the kids’ fun, but I could tell that Eva was upset. When I asked her if she was OK, she complained that the project was stupid. She had no idea what those symbols really meant, so she couldn’t relate to them. Those symbols meant nothing to her because they weren’t from our Haudenosaunee culture. Why were we using another culture’s symbols for whatever we wanted?
She was right. As much as I appreciate those teachers wanting to include Indigenous culture in their curriculum, we need to consider how we’re teaching our kids about other cultures and what exactly we’re teaching them. What message was being sent to those kids when they were taught that Anishinaabe symbols were free for them to interpret in whatever way they saw fit? How did that teach them anything about the Anishinaabe or their culture? It felt as though Indigenous cultures were free for the picking—a pretty quaint grab bag that you could reach into and steal from whenever you wished. You don’t need to ask for permission; after all, you think it’s pretty, and that’s appreciation, right?
Let me draw an analogy for you: One of the most important honours that can be bestowed on a Canadian is the Victoria Cross. It’s awarded to a member of the Canadian Forces who shows “conspicuous bravery, daring or pre-eminent acts of valour, self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.” Imagine if a bunch of American teenagers decide that they like the look of the Canadian Victoria Cross and buy replica medals and pin them on their shirts while they party at Coachella. They didn’t earn those medals, and they don’t care what they mean to Canadians—they just think they look cool.
Now imagine asking these kids not to wear those replica Victoria Cross medals like that, painstakingly explaining to them what they mean to Canada and how that use is disrespectful. Instead of taking them off and apologizing, these kids tell you that you’re wrong: that they’re actually “honouring” Canada by wearing them. And imagine that their parents and politicians back them up. Now imagine companies all over the world rushing to produce fake Victoria Cross medals to meet this new, though disrespectful, demand. People everywhere start wearing this symbol without any knowledge or concern for the specific cultural meaning it holds, the honour it’s meant to bestow upon its wearer or the pride it represents. Wouldn’t that upset you? But what could you do to stop it, other than ask them to stop appropriating your culture?
It’s very easy to dismiss cries of cultural appropriation and claim that it’s harmless. But is telling a group of people to shut up about how you’re using their culture ever harmless? Everything we teach our children has implicit messages. If people from a particular culture are asking you not to use a symbol you don't understand and your response is to ignore this simple request—all while claiming that misusing their symbol is actually “honouring” them—are you honouring them? Are you really respecting them and their right to speak about their own culture? Or are you just offended that they finally stood up and told you “no”?
Everyone makes mistakes. That’s OK. In fact, I’d encourage you to admit to your children that you don’t know everything about other cultures and are still learning as well. There is no shame in that—that’s honesty, and that’s admirable.
That’s what I did with my daughter. I told her that the Anishinaabe were not our people and their symbols weren’t ours, but they were our friends. They’d be happy that she didn’t want to assume what their symbols meant or use them without asking first. This was being a good friend. This was being respectful and honest.
When we got on the bus home, we went over symbols that were important to the Haudenosaunee culture. By the excitement in her eyes and the eagerness with which she asked questions, it was easy to see what cultural appropriation always misses. When we don’t have the meaning of the symbols we see and use, we can’t see and appreciate a culture’s full beauty. Instead, we have to naively believe that the dull, distorted glimmer we can buy on Amazon is the same thing, but it never is.