photo credit Cameron Lane-Flehinger

MMSD curbs cultural appropriation, dress code bans Native American stereotypes

You’re celebrating the Chicago Blackhawks win at the Sett, wearing the jersey of your favorite player. The crowd is great, glasses are full and the food is delicious. But the win is not as sweet for Madison’s Native American students, according to Tim Fish, Title VII Indian Education Coordinator for the Madison Metropolitan School District and a tribal citizen of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma.

In an effort to stop negative racial stereotyping of Native Americans, this year the MMSD school board ratified an amendment prohibiting students from wearing clothing portraying Native American team names, logos and stereotypical mascots.

“First and foremost, [this policy] created a safe space for Native students,” Fish said in an email. “Secondly, the policy works to eliminate racial bias and discrimination in the educational setting. Finally, it empowered students by raising critical consciousness, critical awareness and critical action and promoted civic and political engagement by youth.”

This decision is important for indigenous groups around the world and lays the stepping stones for greater societal recognition and awareness, according to Fish and the many students who took action to support the new policy.

“We’re here to destroy an aspect of our oppression. People can say whatever they want, but I don’t want representations of how [white people] see us and how you want us to act, because that’s going to destroy self-esteem and make school less safe for Native students,” said Gabriel Saiz, a MMSD student, in a statement.

The initiative was led by a collection of Native American, white and multiethnic students. Fish aided them by supplying research and provided the platform for them to work on.

Advocates have warned against cultural appropriation for years, which is when members of a dominant culture take components of a culture they have continuously oppressed, ranging from clothing to dances to traditions, and adopt it as their own.

The main difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation boils down to the use and respect of the culture, according to Fish.

“Cultural appreciation is when different cultures mutually exchange aspects of their culture as a learning tool, whereas both parties mutually respect one another that creates positive relationships,” Fish said.

However, cultural appropriation does not only occur on the local level but expands worldwide.

Activists argued the Victoria’s Secret fashion show in Shanghai, called “Nomadic Adventures,” tacitly undercut Native American culture when models sported feathered headdresses and beaded lingerie this past November.

“Cultural Appropriation oversexualizes and exploits Indigenous women. It is demeaning and humiliating for Native women to be objectified as a sexually, romanticized stereotype. This depiction dehumanizes Indigenous women,” said Fish.

Victoria’s Secret is not the only major label to be called out for cultural appropriation. In 2014, Katy Perry was scorned for appropriating Japanese and African American cultures in her performances. The next year, designer Claudio Cutugno sent his models down the runway at the Milan Fashion Show donning glittery blackface.

“Stereotyping of Native Americans often times creates strained relationships within the social environment, creates feelings of superiority by those doing the stereotyping, creates fear, hatred, negative attitudes and beliefs and lack of empathy for and towards ‘others,’” said Fish.

At UW-Madison, three out of four students said it was important the university continues to pursue a strong commitment to diversity. However, 19 percent of students of color “reported experiencing incidents of hostile, harassing, or intimidating behavior directed at them personally,” according to the fall 2016 Campus Climate Survey.

Members of Wunk Sheek, UW-Madison’s primary Native organization, seek to alleviate this by celebrating indigenous culture with their annual Pow Wow, which educates non-Native students and commemorates Native culture.

Currently, there is no policy against cultural appropriation at UW-Madison. However, Grace Armstrong, a student at UW-Madison and member of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is concerned about the cultural appropriation seen on campus.

“The mascots, that’s a really big one, seeing it on peoples clothing. The use of language, too, I’ve gotten asked some pretty insensitive questions, especially as a freshman living in the dorms,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong expressed the lack of elementary education taught about indigenous individuals.

“It’s frustrating to see that now in modern day that this is an issue, it shouldn’t be,” said Armstrong. “If the education system growing up taught people that [cultural appropriation] wouldn’t be okay, we wouldn’t be having this issue. It goes along with the topic of historical trauma and how everything that’s happened in the past is still relevant today.”

The rise of cultural appropriation results in concern for unjust global multiculturalism. Fish warned against the notion that American society should become a diverse “melting pot” of shared cultures and traditions.

“The melting pot idea represents the notion that we all must assimilate to a single American identity. But what is a single American Identity? If it is [a light] skin color, then we all do not fit in that idea. If it is our ideas, values, beliefs, etc … then we do not fit in that idea either,” Fish said.

Fish said he is apprehensive that the melting pot is not a social construct to be idealized, but one to be disparaged.

“The melting pot idea just isn’t realistic because it does not account for the immense differences we have from one another nor does it create a space for everyone; rather this idea works to maintain the status quo,” Fish said. “Therefore, the idea of the ‘melting pot’ does not support cultural appreciation.”

Student awareness surrounding issues of cultural appropriation starts with something as simple as asking a question and taking a couple minutes to research before heading out the door with a Blackhawks jersey on — even if that jersey is for the greatest player in the league — according to Fish.

“[Students can] work to increase cultural awareness and cultural appreciation. Promote respect both inside and outside your culture. In times of uncertainty, always consult with your peers, community and advisor and ask questions,” Fish said. “Remember … strength comes in numbers.”

Robyn Cawley Box