When members of a majority group adopt a cultural element of a minority group in a disrespectful, stereotypical or exploitative way, that’s cultural appropriation.
In the last several years, many people have opened their eyes to this practice. They’ve taken notice and made changes to show respect and spread inclusivity.
Dr. Kayla Lewis, associate professor of literacy at Missouri State University, is a member of the Chickasaw Nation out of Oklahoma. One of her goals is to offer more accurate depictions of native people in classrooms.
Facts destroy stereotypes
“A lot of books published pre-2010 reinforce stereotypes of Native American people. They don’t show history as it actually was. They sugarcoat and gloss over the atrocities,” Lewis said.
“They show Native Americans wearing feather head dresses, roaming the plains and hunting buffalo. In fact, only 3% of Native American people actually were in that population.”
With over 500 tribes currently, no one piece of literature will represent the diversity in native cultures, she noted.
That’s one more reason that Native American literature should be made widely available and should not just be highlighted each November (in Native American Heritage Month).
“Teaching Native Americans around Thanksgiving tends to reinforce the stereotype,” Lewis said. “I encourage the use of multicultural literature throughout the school year. This gives students a broader perspective.”
Mascots aren’t honoring the heritage
Lewis works to spread awareness about cultural appropriation of native people at diversity conferences, in classrooms and during trainings worldwide.
One hot topic is the use of native people or symbols in athletics or as mascots.
“A lot of people say, ‘We’re just honoring the heritage.’ But when you think about other races or other cultures, we don’t have them as mascots. It would be seen as very offensive,” Lewis said. “Yet, for some reason, it’s okay if we do that with Native people.”
She noted that there has been movement on this issue recently.
“At the national level, we’re starting to see some sports teams change their mascots because they have come to realize that it’s not appropriate,” she said. “Hopefully, that trickle down will happen into other parts of the United States.”