Appropriation obscures history

Erika Heck and Erika Heck

Culture: the behaviors, beliefs, values and symbols a group of people accept that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generating to the next.

Appropriate: to take or use (a thing) specifically in a way that is illegal or unfair.

Cultural appropriation: a power dynamic where members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people that has been systematically oppressed by said dominant group.

This is a concept you will hear a lot online for the rest of September and until the end of October now that Halloween stores are popping up all over Northwest Ohio and Starbucks has brought back their pumpkin spice latte.

But on the topic of cultural appropriation, I don’t want to discuss Halloween costumes—not this time at least.

Recently, I expressed my dislike of non-indigenous people having dream catcher tattoos. And to say the least, I was met with a lot of upset.

Before I got into what the upsets were about my claim, allow me to give you some background on the dream catcher.

The dream catcher is a small hoop containing a horsehair mesh, or a similar construction of string or yarn, decorated with feathers and beads.

The dream catcher was first made by the Chippewas. According to legend, the “Spider Woman” took care of the children and the people on land. But when the Chippewa Nation stated spreading, it became harder for the Spider Woman to reel all of the people. So mothers and grandmothers began weaving magical webs for the kids.

Dream catchers are meant to trap your bad dreams in the “web” at the center of the dream catcher circle. Then good dreams are supposed to filter down from the beads and feathers. When morning light hits, the bad dream in the web is supposed to disappear.

Dream catchers were adopted from intermarriage and trading with other tribes. Then tribes who were involved with the Pan-Indian Movement of the 60s and 70s started using the dream catcher.

The dream catcher is seen as three things: First, it is seen as a symbol of unity between the different Native Nations, second, it is seen as a general, identifiable symbol of Native American cultures and thirdly, it is seen as overly commercialized and offensively misappropriated.

Which brings us full circle back to the concept of cultural appropriation.

As I said earlier, I verbalized how I felt non-native people were misappropriating the dream catcher, saying that I was tired of seeing symbols important to other cultures being used by people who didn’t belong to those cultures. I verbalized that I didn’t believe something of a different culture should be taken from it only on the basis that it is cool or beautiful.

And this seemed to bother people.

I was told one didn’t have to be part of the culture to appreciate how beautiful something is. A non-Native who decides to have a symbol such as a dream catcher put on them so permanently as in the form of a tattoo must have some sort of personal connotation attached to it, therefore making it valid of them to have the tattoo in the first place. To them, one does not have to be Native American to enjoy something. A lot of people believed the melding of cultures is important for a culture to survive.

I could feel myself growing increasingly frustrated with my friends. I just couldn’t understand why they would think it would be okay to take something that doesn’t belong to their people and put it on themselves as if they owned it.

And then I realized that my peers were actively using cultural appropriation in our discussion.

By saying they felt valid to have a tattoo such as a dream catcher because it meant something to them as an individual, they were putting their feelings as the ones in the dominant culture above the necessary justices of the marginalized Native Americans.

In the Native American Studies classes I’ve taken here at the University, I’ve learned about what America as a country and as a society does and has done to the Natives. Do we really need to continue this brutal history with them by using symbols that do not belong to us?

But do not take my opinion on the matter as a solid truth. Cultural appropriation is an extensive topic and I doubt it will be going away in discussions any time soon.

You should have the right to express yourself however you want to—and as an American citizen, you do. Nobody can force you to stop taking things from other cultures.

And this is in no way saying that you, the individual of the dominant culture, are a bad person if you appropriate someone else’s culture.

But claiming you, as an individual of the dominant culture, have a right to take freely from groups because it holds a personal meaning to you is unfair.