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.


Romanticizing Native Americans in Oregon

I have been a presenter on Native history for the past 15 years in all manner of settings. I have spoken with students of all ages, teachers, professionals, federal and state employees and elderly folks. I estimate I have conducted about 250 presentations during this time, sometimes three or four a week. In my experience most people are still romanticizing Native peoples. People still believe that Indians only live on reservations, that we all hunted bison, and the tipi is our only housing, that we cannot handle our alcohol, that we are stoic, that we speak in stilted speaking patterns, and that we all know each other. To many we are the people of the forest and commune with nature on a daily basis.

Its not an isolated situation. Nearly everyone does it. In every group there are perhaps one or two who are already well informed, but the numbers of other people who are not informed, is staggering. There is a number of common issues that arise. I have learned to accept the fact that I will have to address these questions on nearly every occasion.

Do Indian live in tipis? This question arises quite frequently, and yes many of the plains Indians and their neighbors did use tipis and live in them, But tipis depend on having large animal skins, and bison were that for the tribes. Other tribes lived in plankhouses, mat houses, longhouses, or pit houses, or even adobe type houses depending on the region.

Do Indians only live on reservations? No, more than half the tribal peoples of the US live in urban cities. Many people do live on or near reservations, but most reservations are tough places to find work and housing for everyone in the tribe. These is a scattering of problems on reservations, poverty being the most prominent. Some reservation have problems with political corruption, some have casino cultures, some have drug problems. This is not unlike most cities or neighborhoods in some cities. Federal neglect of and control of reservation resources for more than 150 years for many reservations have lead to many problems.

Do we call all Indians, “Indians” or what do we call you? Most Tribal peoples are fine with being called Indians in my experience. Its so much better to address people by their names and their specific tribe if known. Its also better to use words like Native peoples, First Nations, Indigenous peoples, Native Americans, and American Indians in the right situations.

Doesn’t “Redskins” honor Native peoples? No, not at all. Its a term that was born in the 1900s around the bounties given to settlers, ranchers, volunteer militia and gold miners for a Redskin or scalp of the people they killed. Various states allowed for a repayment of the expenses of these White Americans for the scalps they turned into the state government for the bounty. Its very interesting that the name is now used in conjunction  with a football team, a game of sport, who reside in the nation’s capital. What better symbol of the oppression and dispossession and wars of extermination of the native population of the Americans than the word Redskins associated with the nation’s capital? So for the majority of Native peoples, this word does not honor us. There is another use of a version of the word on reservations by some Native peoples. Natives use the word “Skins” at times to refer to one another and many wear Redskin attire, hats, coats, etc. I think the way this has come about is native people chose to take ownership of the word, modify it slightly and use it as a tongue-in-cheek expression to ironically represent our solidarity of our situation and status. This then reverses the meaning. This has occurred with similar words in history “bad” equaling good etc.

Did all native people grow corn? No. this is a fallacy. A recent book, an “Indigenous People’s history of the United States”, suggests that all native peoples, from the Arctic to the tip of South America grew corn. This is not at all correct. Native peoples in the Northwest and Plateau did not grow crops or corn at all. I know it was grown in the Southwest of the United States, in central and even South America. I have not heard of Amazonian peoples growing corn. nor people of the Plains. Yes for eastern Woodlands, and perhaps yes for much of the southeast, although I have doubts about the Native peoples of what is now Louisiana, and Florida. Historically yes for many of these people because corn was introduced nearly everywhere except the Arctic. The First Corn in the Northwest Coast was brought here by The Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1820s. They set up large agricultural fields on the Columbia River near Fort Vancouver. All corn weaving products from the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast region are after settlements when corn was introduced and the dried husks were noted as being strong enough to weave with to make bags and dolls and such.

Did Oregon natives have bison? Yes and No. There were no bison in recorded memory in Oregon. There is fossil evidence of bison being in Oregon thousands of years previously. As well, tribes like the Nez Perce (Niimipu) would travel into the Plains, from their Wallowa homelands, each year to hunt Bison. Then the skins and horns would enter into the native trade networks in the region that followed the Columbia River. So Bison products would be known and highly valued, but no actual living bison.

Do native peoples speak their languages? Many do, most do not. The United States spent a lot of effort to eradicate Native languages through boarding schools. There native children were not allowed to speak their native language. Then generations of our ancestors chose not to teach it to their kids so that they would not be labeled as Indians, or less than the White people. Today many tribes are working to save and restore their languages. Its very expensive and time consuming, and many people do not have time to devote to learning their language. English operates as a colonizing language and the worldwide spread of English is literally causing hundreds of languages to go extinct each year. There are lots of complicated issues here, but the most successful programs are those who close themselves off from much of the world and immerse their students and peoples in restoration work. The most advanced are the programs in New Zealand and in Hawaii.

What was the population of native peoples in this area? Each area is unique. For the Willamette Valley estimates vary widely from 10,000 to 25,000 pre-contact. There was likely 20,000 people at the time of Lewis and Clark Expedition. Yet the expedition noted people with pock-marked faces. So they had already been through smallpox. Smallpox, malaria, influenza, and herpes were the most common killers of the tribes. They were not dependent on the actual contact between native people and non-natives to be effective, and they likely crossed the continent or an unrecorded trading ship contacted native peoples in the northwest and passed the diseases. So the population was likely much larger, perhaps 50% larger than what Lewis and Clark recorded. By 1856, there were about 600 Kalapuya people remaining, and in 1900 there were about 300 remaining. This population rebounded and today there are several thousand Kalapuya descendants at two reservations.

Why can’t Natives handle their alcohol? This is complex. There are many people who truly believe we have some sort of gene which disallows native people from processing alcohol. This is a very common understanding. Yes it is true that many Native people drink and have problems with all manner of drugs. But the same is the case for every type of ethnic culture. There are folks in every city of all ethnicities that have drinking problems. Native people for whatever reason get the lions share of attention. Perhaps it is a misplaced romanticized view of Native, because drinking goes against their “nature”. Drinking and other drug abuses are really one way of handling stresses in peoples lives, addiction, yes, but also a stress reliever. Native peoples have now centuries of stress built up from so much loss, so much abuse, so much dysfunction in many communities. Its very understandable. But no not all natives have this problem and no we do not have a genetic problem with alcohol.

Do all native people know each other? Face it native people live all around you. A few choose to self-identify as native. There are some 500+ nations of natives, and we generally do not know everyone in the larger native community. Although I do know a few elders who do appear to know everyone!

Why do Natives use a stilted speech pattern? Some do and some do not. I have no idea why. I think its a regional accent from some reservations. Then I think some others choose to emulate that same speech pattern. The same with the stoic attitude. There is much emulation of these “Indian” characteristics throughout the communities. Many of these characteristics relate to what society expects from us. Society wants to see that speech pattern, and that stoic attitude, its sort of an entertainment for non-natives. Its an interesting phenomenon, but we don’t all do that.

Can anyone go to a Pow wow?  This is a common question. Yes anyone can normally attend. Don’t expect everyone to greet you with open arms, or allow you to get on a drum and play a song. There are some dances for everyone, that there are some activities for everyone. But we do not appreciate you bringing your own hand drum and joining the song when you have not been trained. Don’t take photos of people in regalia without asking first, obey the rules of the dance floor as laid out by the MC and the other officials, and be respectful always. Don’t come to the pow wow in your own handmade regalia and be critical of everyone else.

Can I help you get your native name? no, just no! Find out who you are, where your own people came from and work that direction. Don’t try to appropriate native culture.

Can my native philosophy help save the world? Maybe. They might be some relevancy in a philosophy that tries to live with the world and not destroy it for the benefit of humanity. Unfortunately this normally turns into an attempt to steal the philosophy from native people, a form of cultural theft. Native people created the philosophy, its a part of those who grew up within it, and who better to be a part of the discussion than native people. Some people feel we have a genetic relationship with that culture and philosophy. I am not sure about that, but I am aware that over 14,000 years of my people are buried in this Willamette Valley (about 50,000 generations), and every particle of soil in the valley has a relationship so some ancestor I am related to. That understanding means I have a very close relationship to this land. I care about how we treat this place. We know where we come from and honor the earth for the life it allows us to live.

I hope some of this is helpful. Remember, native people are just people like everyone else, not better or worse that anyone else.

Privilege of the Malheur Militants

On this past week’s Friday news round-up on Think Outloud there was a discussion about the issues brought up up by the militia in eastern Oregon, on the Malheur refuge. It was a good debate from people on the periphery of the event.

The guests essentially were saying that the militia have some valid points and there needs to be more discussion about these points, about land tenure in the west and the rights of farmers and ranchers. The host continued to delve deeply into the points, and one guest said that the discussion should not occur while there were armed militants at the refuge. Another said yes that that was not the best way to have the discussion but that they were sparking the debate about the land issues.

The discussion was amazing. When has the like ever occurred when minority peoples undertake similar actions? Native peoples have been recently in huge political discussions about the sale of the Black hills and about the LNG pipelines going across their lands. They have staged protests, marches, and sit in like demonstrations. There is right now a huge debate occurring, with the local tribes involved, about shipping coal down the Columbia Gorge. Yet none of their issues, or rarely do they, make it into the national media, and we do not hear discussions of their issues in regional media! I think Think Outloud have dealt a bit with the LNG and Coal issue but rest of the area media are rarely reporting on this looming environmental disaster.

I have to ask again, is it the privilege of these militants in eastern Oregon to have people actually listen to and respond to the political issues they raise, and have reasoned discussions in the public sphere. It seems to me it is! If Native peoples or Blacks or Latinos or any other ethnic minority were to do a similar thing would such a discussion even occur? This is yet another symptom of their privilege.

There are today huge demonstrations in Indian country against the taking over of lands, against pollution, against development of cultural sites. This has been going on sporadically for the past 30 years. The media has ignored these political issues and its been really the role of specialized academics, activists and ethnic minority media sources to bring these events to the fore.  The state of our country is such that we have a dual set of rules and laws. If minorities think something is important, they are ignored, while if white people are involved, it is suddenly important. Minority and even poor people can be ignored because they have no power to make people pay attention to their legitimate issues.

I have been watching the polluted water debate in various eastern cities. Nothing appears to be being done to help restore their water by the federal government or by their state politicians. The populations of these cities , like Flint, Michigan, are mainly black and poor, and so no one cares about these people. They are not important; they do not vote in great numbers; they are not a factor in the next political debate. On the news in just the past week, we now see white people of that community talking, now they are getting attention. The problem is not just with the politicians who are ruled by the pocketbooks, but with the national and local media who are not pursuing this and other similar issues unless white people get involved. The media is just as corrupt as the politicians.

Desicratin’ the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge


Photo Courtesy of Anna King
Photo Courtesy of, Anna King of the Northwest News Network.

There is a noted light-handed treatment of the militants on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, by local and federal law enforcement. As mentioned in innumerable articles on the Internet and in national media, they are breaking innumerable federal laws. Ironically, if ANY OTHER ETHNIC OR CULTURAL GROUP were to undertake a similar action, we all know that the minority groups would be dealt with rather harshly. Picture SWAT style forced-entry, or a line a tanks and Oregon Air National Guard deployed to “take them out” and you are in the right ball park, for ANY OTHER GROUP! Minority kids are being shot by police in inner cities for “suspicion” and walking around while being “people of color”, native people are shot and murdered in western towns for walking down the road, and native women in Canada are simply disappearing in one of the longest running gaps in effective law enforcement in recent memory. Yet a group of about 20 white men who have faked their military background, and appear to be playing the part of a home militia, are left alone, allowed to take over a federal reserve, access federal computers and databases, tear down federal property, and run their ATVs all over supposed “protected” refuge lands impacting sensitive environments and cultural resources.

Their sole consequences thus far is to have some of the services at the refuge turned off, possibly limit their access to the internet, and make them beg for snacks and the most recent consequence is to disallow them from using a county hall for a meeting.

This is simply an amazing event, pointing out forever the fact that WHITE PRIVILEGE EXISTS! The notion that there are people who do not see the irony is just mind boggling.

Lets reiterate some of the history of eastern Oregon,

In the 19th century, when Capt. Jack (Modocs) and his people chose not to live at the Klamath reservation and left, they holed up in lava caves in eastern Oregon. The Oregon militia of army volunteers could not extricate them from their fortress. So the Militia devised a trick, they lured Capt. Jack out of the fortress to hold a meeting. Once capt Jack arrived, he and his men were arrested. They were all eventually hung. The present Militia when they met the local law enforcement at a crossroads, rather than being arrested were given a photo op with the local sheriff, who shook his hand!

The Paiute people were made lots of promises to get a permanent reservation. Many signed treaties, and some of these treaties were not ratified. yet the people still moved onto the Malheur Reservation. They were tricked out of their land by the federal government. Then they were badly treated, they left and the Bannock war caused many people to die. They were moved on the trail of tears to other reservations and lost their original homelands. Even today their reservation lands are quite small. Yet our present Militants only obviously care about their people, white farmers and ranchers, and not about the reasons these farmers had their lands in the past, stolen from native peoples! Their big issue is the “leases” that are said to be too expensive, or handled illegally by the BLM. Interestingly enough the land they occupy is a wildlife refuge, not the BLM lands that are their original lands in question. Apparently, they just wanted the warm clubhouse to hole up in, as camping through the winter in the BLM land, they were not up to, them being fake military anyway.

Then we have the Wounded Knee II event from the early 1970s. Where when native people occupied this historic site, the government threw the whole book at them including military, tanks, and the FBI.  Several Natives were killed by rifle fire until they surrendered. Many were imprisoned.

Wow the difference is stark!

Then we have another developing issue, the fact that the refuge offices house thousands of artifacts which are sensitive in nature. The refuge is serving as a repository for the archaeology of the region. These cultural resources are supposed to be protected by a number of federal laws, yet they state they will leave all of these resources alone. They lied about using the computers, about their military background, about their support in the community, about lots of things, why should we believe them now? The layers of the irony onion are getting deeper and smellier!

These lands are public lands, we all own them collectively, and yet nothing is being done to protect them. The militants need to be treated like the terrorists they are and arrested and charged, even if they are white, because they are breaking the law.

Six Years After, the Impact of My Dissertation

My 2009 dissertation Termination of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde: Community, Politics, Identity was completed at the Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon after about six years of work. For the first few years I was studying tribal history and finding sources of where to find records. I was writing drafts of subjects and chapters and learning how to write a dissertation. There were umpteen drafts and a lot of mistakes on my part but I kept at in and found the energy to continue despite all of the personal issues I faced. During this time my wife and I had two kids, lost one to an ictopic pregnancy, were raising three other kids, and had innumerable health problems. I went nearly blind and could not work for at least 6 months until I had an eye removed, and my wife had several operations. The problems seemed to continue and some of them seemed insurmountable. Yet we continued and both of us graduated from UO with graduate degrees.

In the midst of research and writing, I got a job at the Grand Ronde tribe as manager of the Cultural Department. For the next five years I dealt with numerous problems as entrenched employees worked to ruin my career. There seemed to be no help for these issues and I survived, a bit jaded and traumatized, yet I continued to worked for a few hours each day to write and edit the dissertation. In late 2008 I decided to just end it. It was not complete, but at some point everyone just has to say, its done enough. One adviser, Rennard Strickland, advised me that the “dissertation is not the final product of our work, we will do so much more afterwards, just get it done, enough.”

The final draft in the final year were about 100 pages too long, so I had to drop 100 pages of repetition. The final product was over 400 pages plus extensive appendices making it about 500 pages in all.

Then my committee was in shambles. One member was gone from the university and unreachable, having health problems. Another had a stroke and was also unreachable. I had to replace two committee members. I found replacements in the History department  Jeff Ostler and from OSU, Deanna Kingston. The other members were Phil Young and Lynn Stephen was my chair (Deanna and Phil have since passed). The debate over me graduating was intense, and I think I was on the edge of not finishing but I think the importance of what I had done in the dissertation was very apparent. So I completed the defense in in March and graduated, for the final time.

Since I completed, I have been able to mine the dissertation for all manner of history of the tribe. The first product was an exhibit on tribal termination at the Lane County Historical society museum. later I used the termination pieces to fill in content for several of the tribes exhibits, which I curated. Then I was able to used many pieces for the tribe’s history documents. cribbing short paragraphs and rewriting I was able to make the tribe’s history better and more accurate than before. The histories appeared in numerous media packets, handed out throughout the United States, as well as at the tribe, in the newspaper, in innumerable tribal correspondences and statements.

Then I was able to use my research skills, acquired while doing the dissertation research, to develop the tribe’s research collections, add much more content, and provide a framework for the archives that are now a part of the museum. I trained staff and took staff to the National Archives, and helped many people who had no research background to learn the skills needed to do their jobs. They are still employed at the tribe today.

Many of my studies were about worldwide models of indigenous sovereignty. I used my experience studying these models to help develop a concept of sovereignty for the tribe which I followed. I don’t think everyone really understood this, and still don’t. But this all helped me to advise Tribal council and the legal department on various issues. I studied language acquisition models from Hawaii and New Zealand, and I was able to step right into advocacy roles for the language programs at the tribe.

In my time I was able to accomplish a lot at the tribe directly related to my dissertation studies. I might not be the culture keeper like some people at the tribe, but I found to right argument, the support, the money and the staff to complete the task. There is something very important in what I did while there. I felt a duty, a responsibility to complete the development of the culture programs. The tribe had given me a lot and I felt a need to return in kind, which I did.

Today, I am engaged in developing my professional consulting business, Ethnohistory Research, LLC. Much of this work is also built on the back of my dissertation work. I have branched out into other research areas, ethnobotany, education, curriculum, history, archives and archaeology. The content of the dissertation is still very relevant to studies of the tribe. In it I found a way to be critical of the histories written about the tribe. I found innumerable mistakes in history. I found that most of the history that we all accepted as written, is completely wrong. And this led me to look closely at these understandings and develop something better. The notion of decolonization was also very important, yet still not understood by the tribe. It may take another generation before people are ready to decolonize.  These subjects I continue to work on. In the dissertation I set a framework for understanding the concept and how tribes may begin to implement it.  The dissertation is available from Proquest. Let me know what you think.

Termination of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde: Community, Politics, Identity

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