A Lakota woman explores cultural appropriation of Native people in a personal essay.
WORD AND GRAPHIC DESIGNS BY SARAH COMEAU
Iwas 16 years old when the creator gave me my first dream. I’m riding in the back of a truck bed zig zagging down a gravel road on the ranch where I was born; the land where I rode my bike, ponied alongside my parents as they moved cows, played in the tree house by the creek, and swam with my cousins in the muddy Grand River.
The truck parks at the edge of what used to be our hayfield. I jump out and see rows of white folding chairs with a single aisle bisecting them, as if in a theater. Beyond the chairs is an old road, recognizable only by the still existing mound covered with prairie grass. Suddenly, I’m standing in the aisle. The chairs to my left are filled with Native people, and all the chairs to the right are filled with white people. I wonder why I’m the only person standing in the middle until a voice speaks to me: “You must choose what side you belong to,” it says.
As I contemplate what this means, a long line of wanagis (spirits) walk single-file toward me on the old road. At first, it’s all women dressed in buckskins and elk tooth robes; then come the warriors; then chiefs wearing full regalia and headdresses.
They’re followed by a single-file line of buffalo stretching as far as the eye can see. The last man in line speaks aloud, urging us to never forget our people and to always honor the land. A white boy walks up to the old man, mocks him, and then pushes him. Upon this affront, the wanagis turn to leave, walking away from me until they’re gone forever. I’m left with a broken heart and I begin to cry.
In another moment of angst, the voice returns. “What side are you going to choose?” it asks again. “Whatever side you choose now is how you will believe.”
I wipe the tears from my face and sit in an empty chair on the left side of the aisle. It is done, and I wake from my dream.
I’m 45 now, and though I am of mixed blood, both white and Native American, I identify with my Native side, Hunkpapa Lakota from Standing Rock, the place where I grew up. My Lakota name is Wanbli Wiyaka Waste Mani Win (Walks With A Pretty Eagle Feather Woman), given to me in ceremony by Sundance leader, Felix Kidder.
This is my story, a small effort to rehumanize Native Americans to the world. We are what is left after generational attempts to eradicate and suppress us. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had to survive, and now it is my work to heal my ancestors. It is my work to raise my children to thrive in a society that has historically displaced their people as human beings.
I am from South Dakota, but today I live with my family in Livingston. One day last winter, I was on my way to a small mountain town in Montana when I passed by a fenced-in lot of tipis. One tipi donned a symbol of a sun associated with the Pueblo people of the Southwest who do not use tipis for their lodges or ceremonies. I could tell these tipis were probably not painted by Natives. Sure, tipis are used all over the world, but this is not about the tipis. It is not about the dreamcatchers people hang from their car mirrors, or the pipes people buy off the internet. It is not only about the actual things; it’s about something bigger that these things represent. It’s about something called cultural appropriation.
I kept driving and forgot about the tipis, but I’m reminded again the next time I drive by. I pass them again and again and again, each time feeling something inside of me move, each time feeling more unsettled. I thought about this place without drawing any conclusions until I have another experience.
Not long after I first saw those tipis, an acquaintance of mine from a local tribe told me she was also bothered by them and had wanted to say something to the business owner of the tipi lot but didn’t know how or what to say. That is when I knew I had to write to the boutique tipi owner. “Boutique tipi hotel” is the description the business has pasted to its website. My intent in writing to the business was not to scold them, or to get them in trouble, but rather to gather information and offer recommendations on how they could employ clear ethical actions. The owner of the business immediately responded. I can only hope my suggestions will be acted on with gracious intent for our people.
Appropriation is when individuals of a dominant culture take elements from an oppressed culture for profit or power. Those actively appropriating are only taking a portion of the specific element, leaving behind the whole meaning of what is being shared. This creates misrepresentation and minimization of the oppressed culture. The damaging effect of cultural appropriation is impeding us in holding our rightful place in this world as whole and complete beings.
CRYING FOR MY PEOPLE
Cultural appropriation can present in many different ways. It can take the form of tipis and other Native symbols and objects, but it can also take the form of people. I attended a local community event where there were several informational booths. I hadn’t yet made it to many booths when I came upon a woman presenting a flier advertising Lakota sweat lodges and Lakota ceremony song lessons. I asked the woman who was running the ceremonies and teaching ceremony songs. It was her husband, she replied, and continued to tell me about her non-Native husband running inipi (sweat lodge) and scheduling people to partake in hanbleceya (vision quests) here in the local area. How did he come about this work, I asked. She told me elders from South Dakota, whom he has known for years, granted him permission. I wondered exactly which elders. Maybe I knew them, or maybe they were relatives from South Dakota.
I tried to turn a blind eye and pay no mind. I attempted to keep strolling but I could not move. I convinced myself to tell this white woman that I am not okay with this. She responded with a shooing hand motion and said, “That’s ok.” I felt completely disregarded and invisible. Quite frankly, I was angry and my body was trembling. I started to doubt my feelings. What gives me the right to have these feelings? Are they justified? Why am I angry? I started to doubt myself.
Having a hard time settling my feelings in that space, I left the event. I went home and cried. I wiped the tears from my face and thought of my close friend, a Lakota holy man. He tells me of his dreams, what he sees and hears, how the spirits are always around him. Not many know of the sacrifice he gives in order to help the people. Not many know how he cures people of their sickness, or of the medicine he carries. He lives extremely humbly because of his focus on prayer. He gave flesh for me, and if my love for him had any monetary value he would be a rich man. I told him about my experience at the event.
“Probably best not to go around anything like that,” he responded. “This way is really hard for me and I will always sacrifice. I always think if guys like that really knew what it is like, they would run the other way.”
These sacred ways were given to us by the Creator. We become medicine people through birth, and it is a path shown to us in our dreams. What others think they know of this work is like a grain of sand to what true Lakota medicine people know and experience on the daily.
Just then, I received a text message from a Pueblo friend asking me how my day was. I couldn’t help but message him back what I was experiencing, telling him I just wanted to cry. He immediately called and told me to let it out because I was crying for my people. Native Americans were beaten for speaking their language, killed for practicing their ceremonies, their sacred ceremony objects raided and their identities taken only to be replaced with foreign ones.
I mentioned my experience to my 17-year-old daughter. Her mouth dropped and eyebrows lifted, an indication this behavior was wrong in her eyes. I want my daughter to have the confidence to address similar situations in a compassionate and educational manner. Not only that, but I want her to know our ways are not negotiable.
LET MY PEOPLE HEAL
With a good heart, I offer some recommendations. First, please acknowledge the human being standing in front of you when they say they are not okay with what you are doing. Hear my voice and ask me why I am not okay with non-Natives who do not carry true Lakota medicine teaching our ways to other non-Natives. Ask me why it is not okay to create a boutique tipi hotel with an obvious Native American theme as currency for your own gain.
Second, be an ally. Our traditional ways can connect so many people together in a meaningful way, and our ways are meant to be shared—but we are the ones who should dictate how this is done. When we as Natives start negotiating to accommodate you, then we no longer belong to ourselves. We as Native people must set boundaries.
Finally, let my people heal. It is inevitable that appropriation, appreciation and exchange will happen with globalization, but I caution against misrepresenting traditional or sacred elements of a culture that have profound meaning for its members. The contract of exchange should not be negotiable at this time. Our people have been made to feel powerless and helpless for centuries and appropriation is another form of oppression. It is not simply a social issue; it is an injustice and it continues to string along the ugliness of oppression. We are taking back what our ancestors died trying so hard to keep close to them. We must have this time to take our culture back and determine what should be shared to the masses—and how. We are deep in the healing process and we cannot fully heal when non-Natives are teaching our sacred Lakota ceremonies, and our art is being misrepresented in the name of self-profit.
In my first dream from the Creator, I saw my people and the buffalo walking away with heavy hearts, as if to never return. I felt their pain deep inside me. I felt their heartache. It felt like my own heart was being ripped from my chest.
Cultural appropriation feels like this, like our hearts are being ripped from our chests. Over the last century and a half, Natives all over this land have struggled to live in a society that is not their own. We are now discovering how to be whole again. We are recognizing our power once again and are in a time of healing. When people and organizations continue to partake in cultural appropriation or deter us from fully taking back our ways, then our healing is being blocked. Let my people heal.
Sarah Comeau was born and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas and comes from a long line of horsemen and cattle ranchers. She is very active with her traditional Lakota ceremonies. Comeau now makes her home in Livingston, Montana working as a nurse and healthcare consultant and is a mother of three awesome kids.