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Hear the stories

Appreciate Native American culture

By Jayne Reinhiller | Contributor

Photograph provided by Pax Ahimsa

Photograph provided by Pax Ahimsa

Growing up in the Dakotas, I consider Native American history and culture a point of pride. From drum circles and dances at powwows to beaded regalia, the diverse cultures of North America’s first inhabitants hold a special place in my heart. However, coming to Indiana, a place with a rich but largely forgotten Native American past, I realized most Taylor students’ understanding of Native Americans comes from school books and movies like “Pocahontas.” These sources are incomplete at best and inaccurate at worst.

Now issues of tribal sovereignty and rights like the Dakota Access Pipeline are on the national stage, and we are faced with a profound question: how can we as students of Taylor University learn about the diverse Native American communities around us and treat them with honor and dignity? We can engage in intentional dialogue with members of Native American communities, ask questions and treat traditional cultures with respect.

This is a difficult topic for me to discuss. Although I grew up near the Rosebud Lakota (Sioux) Reservation in South Dakota, I am not Native American. Most of my friends were Lakota, and my family worked in Native American ministry. In many ways, I grew up as a third culture kid between the white community of my birth and the Native American community of my friends and experience. Although I do not belong to the Native American community, I am an ally and advocate for them.

The best way to learn about Native American cultures and issues is to talk with Native Americans. They are not confined to the past or fiction. They are our neighbors and friends. There are hundreds of tribes with unique cultures, and each person has their own experiences. Listen to their stories and ask questions. You may find you have more in common with your Native American brothers and sisters than you expect.

In addition to listening to the stories of our Native American neighbors, it is important to treat their culture with respect. There is considerable debate about the appropriate use of Native American art and cultural elements. Where is the line between appreciating art and disrespectful cultural appropriation? There are many different perspectives on this division and no conclusive answer. However, there are two factors to consider: origin and intent.

The origin of artworks, stories or other cultural expressions helps determine the line between honoring the culture and parody. Native Americans appreciate people who study their culture to understand the significance of religious and cultural symbols like eagle feathers or beading patterns. However, mass-produced items like “Indian” Halloween costumes or mass-produced jewelry made to look like Native American art lack this reverence. These items are often inaccurate and sometimes racist. Examine the origin of Native American art and seek out reputable sources. The beauty and cultural significance is well worth it.

Your intention while enjoying the art is also important. If you seek out Native American culture to learn, enjoy and understand it, you will find complexity and beauty. Each tribe has different stories, religions and art styles. On the other hand, if you see Native American culture as “exotic” and come with preconceived ideas of Native American culture as idyllic or barbaric, two extremes perpetuated by Westerns and other popular media, it is easy to conform your experience to these preconceptions and perpetuate stereotypes about Native Americans. As with all interactions, treating Native American culture with respect and dignity creates greater understanding and appreciation.

Examine where your opinions about Native Americans came from and ask yourself, “If someone thought this way about my culture, how would I respond?” Think critically about your views. Engage the culture with love and care. When you look beyond stereotypes and popular perceptions, you will find beautiful and complex cultures with lessons and stories all their own. So the next time you go to Gas City, home of the Mississinewa Indians, or hear about the Dakota Access Pipeline, think about your Native American neighbors and get to know their stories.

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