Multicultural Student Services tackles cultural appropriation

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Photo by Cody Glassett

Dustin Jansen, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at UVU, examined cultural appropriation of Native American traditions at the Multicultural Student Council’s Diversity Lecture Sept. 20 in the Sorenson Building.

Cultural appropriation means to take an element from one culture by members of another culture.

Jansen, a member of the Navajo Tribe from Coyote Canyon, New Mexico, discussed the increased attention and adoption of Native American culture. Jansen opened the lecture by asking the students to contemplate critical questions that have to do with the ideas and definitions of the terms “tribe” and “Indian.”

He defined the term “tribe” in two ways: the ethno, or racial definition, versus the legal definition, as it pertains to a group recognized by the federal government.

“To appropriate is to take, or adopt, elements from another culture. To misappropriate is to take it out of context,” Jansen said.

Jansen showed images of stereotypes and misrepresentations of the Native American culture. The headdress for instance, is misused and taken out of context. Too often, it’s portrayed in the media as mere decoration. The headdress is a sacred and honorable tradition that is highly symbolic and takes a long time to earn, Jansen said.

“There are so many arguments for and against what cultural misappropriation is, but for me it comes down to the intent,” said Darah Snow, assistant director of the Multicultural Student Services. “Let’s talk about Disney for example. Disney has appropriated a lot of cultures, and the way that they’ve carried it out is a huge misappropriation of what the actual culture or ethnicity is.”

One of Jansen’s main explanations as to why students need to think critically about cultural appropriation is for the sake of history. Another point Jansen made was that misrepresentation functions by distorting or even erasing history. For example, the true story of Pocahontas has been obscured in the mainstream and contributes to spreading mass lies about Native American cultures.

The Redskin controversy is another example. While the history of the slur is not well known, it originated from historical documents that called for the scalping and mutilation of Native Americans in exchange for bounty; this was the settler’s proof of killing.

“It stems from a serious lack of representation, just in general. Like overall media, and things that you see, even within the school there’s not a lot of representation of our Native American culture,” said Sean Snyder, UVU student and former president of the Native Wolverine Association.

In regards to the ongoing misappropriation during Halloween, “It’s that colonial mentality. If you’re not exposed to racial injustice that’s probably not something you’re thinking about. A lot of it is an innocent ignorance,” Jansen said. “At the end of the day, they can take the costume off and continue on with their lives. Lots of people show love for a culture, but remain prejudiced against its people.”

The Diversity Lecture is a program that facilitates topics that students feel need to be addressed. The lecture proceeds the Diversity Dialogues and is complementary to organizing a safe, open space for discourse.