Why Not Talk to Native Peoples: Old and New Dimensions of Cultural Appropriation

Melville Jacobs Interviewing Annie Miner Peterson

In the history of research on Native peoples a good number of interpretations of Native culture, lifeways, symbolism, religion, spirituality, arts and philosophy has not involved consultation with Native peoples. Why does this phenomenon exist? Its a historic problem that has grown over the past few centuries in areas of anthropology, archaeology and like studies.

In the 19th century, when anthropology was arguably invented, there were few notions of consulting with native peoples about their own cultures. Anthropologists simply interpreted all cultural symbols generally without any consultation with native peoples. There are some examples of consultation occurring, but by and large, it did not occur.

That’s amazing when we think about it today. How is it possible to interpret native symbolism without consulting with native peoples? Yes it can happne and even today happens all the time, but the efforts are fraught with errors.

Native peoples created their cultures. Many peoples still are taught about their culture and many live within it. That insider perspective seems invaluable and irreplaceable. With Native peoples, there are some 14,000 years or more of stable culture that existed on this land, and other native cultural lifeways and philosophies embody much of that knowledge.

The phenomenon does not only exist in anthropology, but also folklore, history,  art, and other studies continue with out an insistence and seeming need to consult with native peoples. Clearly today, there is much more consultation that ever before and in some studies native peoples are partners in the projects. But there are a number of studies where there is no thought about including native peoples. In archaeology there still seems a problem with many (no all) archaeologists not consulting with native peoples. The assumption is since archaeology is about interpretations of cultural artifacts from the deep past, contemporary natives would not have anything of value to say.

But has that hypothesis been tested? I think in most situations it has not.

The whole problem strikes me as a form of cultural appropriation. Researchers are appropriating from native peoples their right to offer a perspective about artifacts from their own culture. When this does not happen, incorrect representations of native culture are created and by extension published and taught. For generations such information then exists in our society and misinforms everyone about native culture.

There are many examples of this, from theories about native migrations, to theories about artistic interpretations, to historic writings, to all manner of issues. I spoke with Anthropologist Bea Medicine some years ago, and she mentioned that some of the stories collected from her relatives, ancestors, were created to fool the researchers. That some of these mythologies and folklore are just pure falsehoods and that anyone from the tribe with knowledge would have been able to spot these falsehoods. Yet researchers still teach many of these stories as if they were real.

Then in my own studies, I have noted many instances of wrongly written histories that are simply rewritten into each new generation of history about the tribes. Nowhere in the line of historians was there ever an attempt to confirm was was written with Native peoples. Then, in other research occurring today on environmental restoration, many times native people are not consulted when projects work to restore a traditional landscape. What is created is instead a fictionalized theoretical landscape which is a mono-species representation of the original. For Native peoples, Oak savannahs are only managed for the oaks, not for all of the other species which represented the diversity of the landscape. In most instances today native ways of management, like setting annual fires are not applied. Native people may be brought into a project, at the very end, to certify the validity of what has occurred. Many times the project organizer may have consulted a book about native landscapes, or been influenced by a “nativist” philosophy, such as statements by ancestors like Chief Seattle (which may or may not be true), Barry Lopez (third party representations) or books about Kalapuya peoples (ethnographic accounts with no contemporary consultation with native people). This is not true consultation with native people. What is produced is very much like creating an alien landscape, not unlike Hollywood movies recreating 19th century cowboys and Indians dramas, of events which never occurred, and representing native peoples and cultures which never existed in that iteration.

The appropriation of native knowledge of this type over the past 100 to 200 years has infected American and world societies. Now many people feel like they can just read something in a book and use the knowledge anyway they need to, create new knowledge, and proceed without every talking or consulting with the original native cultural bearers. That is truly amazing. A post-modern phenomenon.

The fact is, unless there is true consultation with native peoples, with well-informed and knowledgeable natives from the culture being interpreted, that the histories and interpretations of native culture and lifeways hold little to no validity. If there are no living peoples that can serve as consultants that is another matter. Such interpretations amount to cultural appropriation, the appropriation of the true interpretation of a tribe’s culture, lifeway, or philosophy, from the people who live within that culture.  This disempowers native society, as Vine Deloria Jr. pointed out on many occasions in his writings (beginning with the chapter Anthropologists and Other Friends).

Ideally, and many researchers are already adopting this methodology, it would be best if researchers took to heart the notion that they need to partner with tribes and tribal peoples. That its tribal people who really know their culture and can inform about that culture in great detail. Such consultation does not have to be a few conversations or an email exchange, but a true partnership with sharing of information. And researchers really need to understand where all this is coming from. For too long Native peoples were taken advantage of and now its time to do the right thing. The resultant projects will be more detailed, more relevant, and in the end better scholarship.

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