Can Anyone Own Culture Today?

S. GomezNew Yorkers Tipi

This question has been on my mind lately as I observe our behavior at work, in the grocery store, shopping and social media. You name it, my thoughts are full. What culture am I writing about?  Is it the big culture, as in the dominant culture, or little culture, the culture we personally experience every day? I mean both, especially the dominant culture because whatever it does affects us all. The reality of New Yorkers making Dakota tipis in their living rooms and the Washington Redskins deciding to keep their name make me take pause. What do I mean by owning culture? Is that even possible? The easy answer is that no one can own a culture. In fact, my culture is my own, your culture is your own and the culture of our friends and neighbors belongs to them. This framework would allow me to think that no one can ever take away my culture. Is there a law against this? Should there be a law?

The reality though is different. There seems to a lot of culture cut and paste happening in the world especially with young people and corporations. Culture cut and paste means exactly what we do on a keyboard with words and sentences: a person finds something wonderful from another culture, “cuts” it from the original culture and “pastes” into their cultural lifestyle.

Recent examples are Selena Gomez at the Billboard and MTV Movie Award shows in her Bollywood inspired song, dress, bindi and dance; a Latina embracing East Indian style. Macklemore/Ryan Lewis and Pitbull (and many others) are White and Latino rappers, embracing the musical style of African Americans.

German BoyOrder of the Arrow

A global example is the Germans who love “Red Indians”. There are many groups of Germans who get together to practice the culture of “Red Indians” and they have been doing this for decades. They bead, they dance and sweat.  Indian Country Today said it best that it is “touching and occasionally surreal”. Let’s not forget our own American obsession in the Boy Scouts Order of the Arrow where boys take an Indian name, wear regalia, perform “Indian” style and pretend to be an Indian in order to get a badge.

Is this ok to do? Should we care? Who has the right to take something from one culture and use it or practice it without any interaction with the source culture? Anthropologists call this cultural reciprocity but I don’t think what we are seeing today fits that general description. The two most prominent American examples of one culture “owning” another culture that come to mind are:

  1. The boarding school experience for indigenous Americans with Richard Pratt’s purpose to “Kill the Indian and save the man”.
  2. The slavery period for African Americans.

Both examples illustrate that one dominant American culture acted in an unjust way that they owned another culture and could force American Indians and African American to give up their cultures. This foundation has consciously or unconsciously laid the foundation to give the dominant American culture permission for people to operate with their own cut and paste behaviors without asking anyone for permission or regard for the cultural source.

So what can we do in this day and age of a shrinking, flat world where we are having more opportunities to mix culturally than ever before?  Will there be a world of cultural property like intellectual property?

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 could be considered something in this vein. It is designed to protect the arts and crafts of American Indian nations from fraudulent practices in the United States. How robust a law is that and is it doing its job to protect what is set out to do? Will cultures, especially those so very unique and in threat of assimilation choose to protect their cultural heritage from the infringement of others?

Kevin Locke


I invite us to consider justice. Where is the beacon of justice on this discussion of taking and owning culture without permission? Justice allows us to look at things with our own lens and not rely on others or be pressured to do something that might be wrong. Justice in this sense is not the justice meted out punitively by a court of law but the justice that comes from us. The reality that everyone on the planet has a basic human right to live freely and be treated equally leads us to the concept of collective trusteeship as defined in The Prosperity of Humankind. The trusteeship “creates … the right of every person to expect that those cultural conditions essential to his or her identity enjoy the protection of national and international law.

When asked about this subject of people owning culture today and culture cut and paste, Kevin Locke, award winning Dakota flutist and hoop dancer,  had this to say:

“It is a paradoxical situation. Currently we all have our own identity and have the right to self-identify in any way. I believe that in the eyes of God the limitations of race, gender, nationality are trumped by the spiritual reality of oneness.

Kevin went on to say, “There is a paragraph from The Prosperity of Humankind that I really like and that speaks to this topic. It is the analogy of the gene pool. We are only as strong as the diversity of the gene pool. Likewise, we human beings are only as strong as the wealth of diversity in the human race. This diversity is critical for our survival. Our cultural diversity must be allowed to bear its fruit in the world.

“My personal example is the Dakota flute. Sometime in 1980 or so, someone changed the original Dakota tuning to a European style tuning structure. No one had a chance to find out what was there in the first place. No one in the dominant culture knew there was a Dakota tradition behind the flute.  What happened was that the new tuning process spread all over the internet, there were New Age recordings and it was popularized across the globe.

“I am in the process of recording the original Dakota songs so people will know the original source. The flute originates from a vocal tradition as represented on the flute. It is a style of poetry akin to Japanese Haiku.

“ The quote that I believe explains my point of view is this: ‘On the one hand, cultural expressions need to be protected from suffocation by the materialistic influences currently holding sway. On the other, cultures must be enabled to interact with one another in ever-changing patterns of civilization, free of manipulation for partisan political ends’. Therefore, it is ok to cut and paste other cultures as long as people are conscious of the origins.”

Let’s challenge ourselves when confronted with a culture cut and paste opportunity to consider investigating the practice through a lens of justice.  The following questions may assist us in this process of ascertaining justice:

  1. Does my potential cut and paste suffocate the cultural expression of another?
  2. Does the practice exist in my culture?
  3. Do I stand to make financial gain from it?
  4. Do I understand the context of its use and meaning?
  5. Is there a chance that I am desecrating or distorting it meaning?
  6. Is the potential for what I am doing free from partisan political ends?
  7. Am I suffocating the cultural expression of another for my own manipulative gain?
  8. Does it cause harm to the other culture?

The answers to these questions will lead us to make a just and equitable decision and hopefully prompt us to go to the cultural source and ask people their thoughts. If the answer is no, will we honor it? Every culture has the right to exist and be protected. Time will tell how the protective processes will be developed and implemented nationally and internationally. I believe that when we begin to interact with genuine friendships and mutual respect, many new things will begin to emerge. Imagine if the New Yorkers who want to make tipis went to the Pine Ridge Oglala Nation and asked what they thought about in-house tipis made of bright fabrics? Would they have their blessing? Now that would be something to see!

How do we, a diverse people with the capacity of justice in our hearts, cut and paste in a respectful and authentic way that honors the great cultural diversity of this planet? I believe, that when we come together to consult, and I mean all of us, we will grapple with the issues and figure out how to address these cultural issues in just and equitable ways.

So, can anyone own culture today? The answer is no. If we see the concept of ownership through our own eyes we would see that it is unjust.

What’s in a Name? Everything!

BebaBean1 BebaBean2

As I travel this great country I am amazed at some of the names of cities, towns, landmarks and commercial products that come from another time and space. Am I in a time warp, alternate universe or the twilight zone? It certainly could not be 2013. My first example comes from a Sacramento, California children’s clothing store. I was shopping for clothes and noticed a product  for parents to use to cover unexpected baby boy urine accidents called Pee-pee Teepee. It is shaped into the tipi form. Great concept but wrong name. This is an example of cultural misappropriation of Dakota and Lakota people. See my previous post on this subject.

Why should we care? Tipi is a Dakota word meaning dwelling. Ramona Kitto Stately, Dakota educator, says, “As a Dakota Art and Culture major and an indigenous woman, the Home (tipi) is the heart of the people.  It is the place where we live, where we nurtured and grew families.  The home never left us as we traveled in seasonal cycles, it came with us.  It was so sacred to the people and so necessary for shelter that it was owned by the women.  There is a specific protocol to putting it up, the door facing the east to greet the dawn.  The morning is the most sacred time of the day, we come out and pray and give thanks for the present, the gift of a new day”.

Ms. Stately goes on to say that “Sometimes the tipi symbolism show up in some our oldest designs which proves that the lodge was the very important part of our world.  It is on the Jeffers Petroglyphs which is over 5,000 years old. Taking a sacred object and associating it with a diaper is so incredibly disrespectful. It is proof that the master narrative and white privilege is alive and well in America”.

Please contact Beba Bean and let them know why they need to change the name. Beba Bean not only trademarked the name but wants us to know that it is a perfect shower gift!

Minnesota, the land of 10,000 and more lakes, has its own controversy with the word squaw. The s-word is a pejorative word for female genitalia, specifically American Indian. It is sometimes known as the s-word because indigenous women no longer want to say it and they believe it is equal to the n-word in its offensiveness. Why in the world would we continue to use such a word once we know it is offensive?  Since 1994, activists have been trying to remove the word from the state. Angela Losh and Dawn Litzau, then teenagers, led a successful movement to have Minnesota legislators pass a law to ban the s-word on 19 geographic features. They were successful and eventually the s-lake name was renamed Nature’s Lake. An issue remains because the town remains s-Lake.  In protest, Minnesota Ojibwe residents of the Leech Lake Reservation simply refer to the town as s-lake. Minnesota could learn from its neighbor South Dakota (and other states) who is making efforts to remove the words “negro” and the s-word from 18 sites.  Squaw Valley, California continues with the name and has its own website We need to work harder to remove all offensive names from American towns and cities.

Dr. Anton Treuer learned about s-word bread from the Old Town Baking Company. He complained to the company and wrote a great counter story to the name on Facebook. His post was later removed. There is now a Facebook page called S-word Bread Needs a New Name. Indian Country Today reports that the company will rename the bread. Kudos to Dr. Treuer for his advocacy and leadership that is making a positive change!


Just Google the s-word bread and several recipes turn up. Milton’s Bread Company is another example. Indian Country has another post about it. Many people have complained and now the bread has been removed from its website. Let’s hope the bread is gone for good. When we see examples of the s-word on products, place names and the like please contact the company and legislators to let them know your disgust. Without our actions, change will not occur. A couple of great resources to assist us in learning about indigenous people of America are Everything you Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask and Do All Indians Live in Tipis? by the National Museum of the American Indian.

So what’s in a name and why should we care? We should care that linking the traditional home of the Dakota and Lakota nations to a personal hygiene product is racist and culturally insensitive. It is an example of a majority culture taking advantage of a minority culture. When the names are taken for personal or professional gain we are marginalizing and mythologizing native people  but not inviting them to the table of friendship, decision making and the board room.

K-12 Leadership: The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent

The recent actions of two superintendents caused me to take pause. Why, because they are polar opposite examples of effective leadership. Their actions are two examples of what K-12 superintendents are doing to lead or not to lead their school districts into the 21st century. First, let’s take a look at a “good” superintendent. Recently, Albany Public Schools made headline news because a teacher required her students to write a report from a Nazi perspective as to why ”Jews are evil”. It was called “Pretend You are a Nazi”. Several students refused to participate and protested the assignment. The protest reached the ear of the superintendent Dr. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard. She immediately began what would seem is a routine investigation as any superintendent would do. Prior to the investigation was recognition that she understood the intent of the lesson, the connection and understanding that as an assignment, students do need to address issues that are uncomfortable and use writing to learning how to argue from both perspectives. However, the distinction is that the exploration of multiple perspectives just for the sake of gaining diverse perspectives should never be undertaken at the expense of others who were victimized.

What distinguishes Dr. Vanden Wyngaard is how she chose to address the situation. She listened and responded to a perspective that is not typically acknowledged: the students. What makes her “good” is that she responded and not reacted. Dr. Vanden Wyngaard, as quoted in CNN, called the assignment “completely unacceptable.” “It displayed a level of insensitivity that we absolutely will not tolerate in our school community,” Wyngaard said, “I am deeply apologetic to all of our students, all of our families and the entire community.” Through the investigative process she invited the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to provide trainings to her staff and students. Wow! From what I read from the copy is that she was not threatened by a different perspective and decided to make much needed systemic changes in the curriculum and instruction. We can learn a lot from her example.


The second superintendent example comes from Georgia. The story continues to be in the news because of the wonderment that a high school in 2013, Wilcox High School was finally having an integrated prom. Steve Smith is an example of a “bad” superintendent. Mr. Smith stressed, according to a CNN report, “the segregated proms aren’t organized by the schools”. He later wrote that  “he and the county’s board of Education “not only applaud their (the student’s idea), but we also passed a resolution advocating that all activities involving our students be inclusive and nondiscriminatory. I fully support these ladies, and I consider it an embarrassment to our schools and community that these events have portrayed us as bigoted in any way”.  Mr. Smith also was quoted as saying his high school will consider hosting an integrated prom in 2014. Consider!  How’s that for leadership savvy? At first, I thought that the superintendent was responsible for finally making changes to the prom policy but found the contrary to be true. The prom was actually organized by an interracial group of students who decided enough was enough. A segregated whites only prom was still held in the county.

What makes Mr. Smith a “bad” leader? It is the fact that he is not taking the opportunity to lead his students and families into 21st century multiracial America. He did not stand up to the parents and the school board by supporting his students with an integrated prom. By allowing the district to not host any prom as a strategy to not host an integrated prom sends a terrible message to his students. The message he sent to them is that white and black students should not mix and be friends. This is unacceptable. Proms are an example of a school related activity that should be hosted by district officials with the help of volunteers not parents who want to keep white students away from black students.

Who makes the lists of “indifferent” superintendents? They are the leaders who accept educational racial disparities and gaps in their programming and achievement and do nothing about them. They allow mediocre teachers to continue to teach poorly to the very students who need access to the best educators and they allow principals to improperly lead their schools by perpetuating inequitable conditions of learning and achievement.  Children under the care of these “indifferent” superintendents do not reach their potential. Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond recently summed up what indifference looks like today and what America needs to do for the better. Superintendents can learn from her research and expertise. She was interviewed by Dr. Eric Cooper on NCEBC (National Council on Educating Black children) blog radio and shared her views called: Educational Inequality and America’s Future: What Must Be Done? Her key points:

  • We should treat our children as our most precious resource.
  • We need to advocate for an equitable school system.
  • Provide equitable funding, resources and opportunities to all students not just the students who come from affluent families.
  • We should pay attention and provide equitable education to English language learners, low income students and students of color. Provide the supports needed for success. This is an investment.
  • Provide high quality teachers to students and high quality programming as well.
  • Provide job embedded professional learning opportunities for teachers.
  • Invest in high quality teachers and principals.
  • Take care of our children by providing health care, housing, high quality pre-school, access to learning opportunities and meals.
  • Provide enriched curriculum for all children not just basic skills.
  • Analyze what is needed for children and then provide the necessary supports.

We must keep our school districts and superintendents accountable to provide equitable education for our students. It is critical for us to work together and advocate for changes or our nation will continue to decline in educational outcomes. What will we tell our grandchildren and future generations? That they were not worth the investment? As Dr. Darling- Hammond eloquently states: “We should treat our children as our most precious resource”.