Can you say hello in Ojibwe?

Can you say hello in Ojibwe? How about in Dakota? These are two beautiful examples of languages that are experiencing two critical processes today. On the one the hand they are severely threatened because people are speaking them less and less. On the other hand, they are being revitalized by passionate native speakers who are determined to share them and keep them alive. Speaking one’s language is a dynamic way to retain culture and to converse and really have fun. Language holds the key to really understanding the meaning of life, metaphors and cultural perspectives.

There is another reason why is it is essential to say hello in Ojibwe and Dakota. It can serve as a metaphor for people living outside of native communities to reach out to their native neighbors in bonds of fellowship. For people outside of indigenous language communities, greeting a native person in their first language is a small step to make a new friend and break down the cultural walls that keep us divided. I checked in with two people to gain perspectives- Dr. Anton Treuer, professor of the Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University and Elma Strom an educator of Finnish descent who lives in northern Itasca County, Minnesota.

Tony Treuer

Tony, what is your perspective on learning one’s native language and for people outside of indigenous tribal communities to learn how to speak Ojibwe?

This is the issue I have devoted my personal and professional life to for all of my life. A language encapsulates the worldview of a people. Each group of humans on the planet has a unique view of the world and a unique way to deal with its problems. For example, in Ojibwe, the word for elder is gitchi-aya’ah which means great being. The Ojibwe word for an elderly woman is mindimooye, which means one who holds things together. So in the Ojibwe world you don’t have to teach anyone to respect their elders because it is built into the words already. In mainstream America, elders do not receive the same level of respect or adoration as Ojibwe elders experience so this worldview that is encapsulates an Ojibwe perspective of the world and can be shared with others. All languages have unique views and unique ways to view the world that can influence others in positive ways. Native people have a lot to offer to others and there is many ideas to learn from our native brothers and sisters.

Tony, if someone is interested to learn Ojibwe where do you suggest they go or start from?

There are many ways. Ojibwe has a free online dictionary that you can look up words to learn meaning and pronunciation. Ojibwe is taught at 20 universities and there are several speakers throughout the region. There are many books and resources available as well. You may go to Bemidji State University’s Ojibwe Language Resources webpage for a list.

Tony, why is it important for people not associated with a tribal community to learn Ojibwe or another native language?

First it is a powerful way to overcome the fear of reaching out to a group of people who they have never associated with or worry they will offend because of past and present treatment. Already 50% are students of color and 85% of teachers are white and female with limited understanding of native communities. As a result, everybody has to do better with speaking cultural languages and linguistic languages. Learning a native language provides a safe starting point for some of the most important work of our time. We all need to be brave, lean in, and learn how to say hello in another language- the languages of our children.

The exclusion of native voices in the schools system promotes the dominant culture instead of providing a nurturing multicultural environment where all students thrive and learn. Learning another language is an easy way to provide empowerment for our native students and cultural competence for all of our students.

Elma Strom

Elma what prompted you to learn Ojibwe?

I have traveled to several places in the world. Every time I go, I try to learn the language of the people so I can say hello, thank you, I love you, and other pleasantries just to be able to communicate a little. It occurred to me after moving to northern Minnesota I needed to learn the language of the place that I live. And part of the motivation for learning the language of the place I visit and now the place I live, is that there is so much cultural understanding embedded in the language. I have also learned from past experiences there are many instances that some things don’t translate from one language to another and it is important for me to learn the language and know the pronunciation and meanings. It requires courage to make mistakes and to be able to speak properly.

By studying the Ojibwe language I could understand a little bit of the worldview of the Anishinabe. A person’s language shapes the way they think and I want to be culturally aware especially since I am living here as a squatter on Anishinabe land. The experiences of the native people has affected me since my youth regarding my choice profession, my standard how I live on the land, and my spiritual search to be able to respect the Ojibwe people from whom we can learn so much.

Overall, I have learned that there are some things that cannot be expressed in English so what is expressed in Ojibwe or other languages can really enrich the human race.

Elma please tell us how you learned Ojibwe-

I searched for books and bookstores didn’t have anything but found a pimsleur (language learning program) course from the local library. That is how got started. Later, I joined an Ojibwe language table with several youth. One table was about greetings, another animals, another about trees for example. It was great fun to learn together with young people in this way. It is so different than how English is taught. I made new friends along the way as well.


There is a lot to learn from Tony and Elma regarding the importance of learning to say hello in Ojibwe and other indigenous languages. Indigenous languages are important contributions to humanity because they share a unique worldview that can contribute to the well being of society. Important concepts and ways of being missing from a language can offer a new perspective. Furthermore, if we wish to understand and make friendships across communities it will require a courageous effort to make friendships and learning each others languages can help unpack meaning. Cross-cultural conflicts can be avoided if we take the time to understand what a concept means in English and Ojibwe and other indigenous languages.

Chi mii gwetch Tony and Elma for inspiring us to learn how to say hello in Ojibwe! There are two ways to say hello or give a greeting- aaniin and boozhoo. Your homework is to learn their exact meanings and discover how they are different and when to use them. Also, take a moment to think about how you will reach out to make new friendships.




Learning to heal together- One small example


I haven’t blogged in 6 months because I felt the world did not need one more statement on why there is racism, that racism is bad, or we need more cultural competence. This is not to say that people should not fight to end racism with truth and reconciliation or leading us towards cultural competence. Instead I waited for inspiration. Inspiration came just a short time ago from my experience in the Dakota Women’s Commemorative March. My friend Ramona Kitto Stately, Director of American Indian Education at Osseo a Public Schools, invited me, Maia Caldwell, an Eden Prairie High School social studies teacher, and her 9th grade civics students who were learning about tribal sovereignty.

I learned the importance of starting with oneself to begin the healing process in one’s own community. I saw with my own eyes the power of starting with yourself in your own backyard.

Ramona and Nanette
Ramona and Nanette

My own backyard is the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minnesota has some healing to do regarding the treatment of the Dakota and Ojibwe people. There is lots to read and do about it and one can get caught up in guilt, shame or in one’s own trauma depending on if you are native, white, or depending on your background. The March is an excellent example of coming together to heal in a positive way.

Every other year descendants of the Dakota women, who were forced to march after the Dakota and U.S. War of 1862 to the Ft. Snelling concentration camp, march in unity to commemorate them. The commemoration is done in their traditional ways. The power is in doing it for themselves and not waiting for Uncle Sam or others to do it for them. All people are welcomed to join them not in a reenactment (which is a common practice) but in a spiritual coming together no matter one’s faith tradition or not.

Walking on the land brings a feeling of reflection. How could the women and children walk this trail of tears in moccasins that would get soaked in water from the snow, when did they get to eat, how did they get to use toilet facilities, and how did they stay warm? Walking in silence allows each person to reflect and wrestle with the atrocity that came before them.

Another powerful moment was what happened at the end of each mile. A woman would take a prayer flag made of willow, previously gathered from the concentration camp forest, and recite the names of two women who made the original march. Ramona’s great great great grandmother Pazahiyayewin and Kevin Locke’s great great great grandmother Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman) were commemorated. A prayer was sung evoking Wakan Tanka the Creator, other prayers were silently said, and tobacco was offered by participants. Although the spiritual context was Dakota, each person could feel unified from their spiritual or non-faith tradition. The healing was in the remembering and acknowledging the pain. For me I thought about the phrase “Thy name is my healing oh my God and remembrance of a Thee is my remedy”.

Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman)
Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman)

Ramona puts it this way-  “We walked to regain a voice that was silenced with the removal of our relatives from this place, MniSota Makoce, our sacred homeland.  We walk to gather the energy of the land, heal the soul wounds and to never forget the atrocities perpetrated against those who have lived here and taken care of the land for centuries”.

The commemoration affected each person differently. Maia Caldwell said “Our day couldn’t have started out more perfectly. As we were waiting on our bus for the marchers to arrive at our meeting place, three young Dakota women joined our students on our bus to warm up. It was wonderful to watch them visiting together. Within minutes we were witnessing what this day was all about: an opportunity for healing and reconciliation between two cultures. The rest of the day was wonderful as well. At the end of the day one of my students said to me: “I learned more today than I ever have in any classroom!” One of her students shared his experience with Minnesota Native News.

Eden Prairie participants
Eden Prairie participants

I encourage all of us to start with ourselves and be interested in our local communities. What happened in the past that has not been acknowledged? What needs to be addressed? What needs to be healed? Make friends from other races and cultures in your community and start to talk about it without blame and guilt. Imagine the transformation that can happen when we begin to acknowledge the past, honor each other in our cultural contexts, listen, experience and reflect. No one knows what will happen because we have not really done it yet. Where will you begin? Please share your experiences so we can learn together.

Ramona says wisely that tears are healing and a good way to begin.


The First Flute Meets a Suburban High School: Interview with Kevin Locke

Kevin Locke

What if you were the last person on earth that knew one special tradition? What would you do?  Would you have the courage to speak up and take a stand or would you step aside and let it die?

I know someone who had to make that decision and is spending his life standing for a tradition that no longer exists anywhere on the planet. That person is Kevin Locke and the tradition is the Dakota/Lakota flute. Kevin is committed to ensure that the Dakota flute tradition will flourish for future generations. Listen here for a sample of Kevin’s talent.

Kevin is a hoop dancer and award winning indigenous flutist who has traveled to over 93 countries as a cultural ambassador of Dakota traditions. He has a vision called the First Flute to educate students on the traditional finger patterns and musicology of the Dakota flute. Kevin is a national treasure who serves as an example by tirelessly working to keep a global treasure alive for all of us.

He is a master traditional artist who has made major contributions to preserve the traditions and cultural diversity of the United States. Specifically he has taken the time to meet with elder flutists when he was young to learn the songs, record them, perform them across the planet and is now taking the next step of preservation.

So what is the first flute and what is Kevin’s vision for preservation?

Kevin, what is the first flute?

It is the title of a workshop I created that emphasizes the universality of the flute. Wherever you go on the planet, everyone has one. I also share a definition on my website.

What is your vision of sharing indigenous flute music in America?

The flute is a great entre. The American Indian musical esthetic is so unknown in the world, especially the US and so we can use the flute to educate people.

So what do you do in schools with the first flute?

Students can make their own flutes so they can internalize and familiarize themselves with a type of music that otherwise they might see as foreign or exotic. They also then take ownership. Students learn the notes and the Indian musical scale and then move on to basic melodies. Soon they can play any style song. The first flute program builds capacity and to play authentic indigenous songs in concerts.

Kevin with BandKevin with Wind EnsembleRecently, Kevin brought the First Flute program to Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota. It is a Minneapolis suburban high school with about 3,000 students, 35% of which are students of color and .06% are native. The school created an opportunity to test the first flute project to great success. At first glance, one might think that that type of school would not fit the profile of teaching students indigenous music. Also, we might believe that indigenous music only for native people only and should only go to the native schools. Actually both are important and need to be nurtured. Let’s find out why.

The benefit for non-native students is to learn an authentic musical style is that it interrupts stereotypes they may hold about indigenous people and opens them to a whole new world of music.

The benefit for native students is that they also learn about a tradition that has been lost to them and it is a vehicle for them to connect to their native language. Specifically in the case of The First Flute curriculum, students learn the Lakota language through playing the flute. It is an ingenious method of revitalizing the Lakota language.

School music programs all across the country play music that is cited as “Native American” music and teachers, rightfully so, believe them to be authentic. They look professional, printed in a book or a website and state it is a native song. Many however, are composed by European American composers “inspired” by native music like the “Ojibwe Love Song” and the like.  They are not authentic. The first flute project counteracts that use by providing authentic curriculum and music for schools.

Kevin, what is your biggest take away for this project at Eden Prairie?

The main thing is how much interest the students had for playing the flute and then to realize there is no limit to what they can learn.

What are your next steps?

First I need to finalize the curriculum. There is also interest in sharing Dakota songs for school choirs. My main goal is to continue to use the First Flute as a springboard for keeping indigenous music alive and well.

Thank you Kevin for taking the time to share with us. Also, for opening our hearts and minds to how we can from you to be a steward of our great cultural resources such as the indigenous flute. The First Flute at Eden Prairie High School is an example of many cultures coming together in a common love of the flute. It is important to make indigenous music to be at the forefront of American music because it is the first music of this country. Why shouldn’t everyone take pride in the beautiful cultures that make up America?

Why American Indian Treaties Matter Today: Interview with Annamarie Hill and Mark Bray

Treaty Exhibit at Eden Prairie Schools

One of the most misunderstood parts of American history is American Indian treaties. K-12 lessons about them range from a cursory explanation to absence. Common themes about them are that they no longer exist or that they are broken. There isn’t a consistent practice across the country or a common curriculum that would help teachers teach accurate content about treaties and sovereignty.

Thankfully, a visionary partnership of organizations and committed individuals decided to change the treaty narrative.  In August 2010, a Minnesota partnership created an exhibit called Why Treaties Matter, which educates us about the treaties between the US government and the Ojibwe and Dakota nations. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) partnered with the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) with Minnesota Legacy funds to create the Why Treaties Matter exhibit. It has traveled to over 40 different organizations, schools and colleges and universities.

As a result of the exhibit, my perceptions have moved from a cynical “well the treaties are broken and not much can be done” perspective to a more realistic view of “the treaties are living documents and native people are exercising their rights under treaty law.” The exhibit taught me that treaties are legal documents and they will continue to exist as such. According to the Constitution of the United States, Article VI, Clause 2 (also known as the Supremacy Clause) treaties are the laws of the land. Dakota and Ojibwe people have inherent legal rights to exercise key pieces of the treaties like the right to an education, hunt, fish and gather on treaty land.

So what about the students? How has this partnership transformed their learning about treaties? Last year the Minnesota collaboration added a new partner, Eden Prairie Schools. The district had an opportunity to not only host the exhibit but pilot curriculum related to the exhibit. It was a chance for teachers to have more content knowledge in the form of educator guides they could share with their students. This was content not readily available to them in conventional history textbooks or other curriculum. The pilot was so successful that an opportunity for more curriculum testing is underway.

This month, Annamarie Hill, Executive Director of the MIAC, and Eden Prairie High School Social Studies teacher Mark Bray are bringing the Why Treaties Matter exhibit and curriculum back to the high school students.

Annamarie Hill, Mark Bray, Maia Caldwell, Nanette Missaghi
Annamarie Hill, Mark Bray, Maia Caldwell, Nanette Missaghi

How do we start to appreciate and understand that treaties still matter and impact all of us?  Annamarie and Mark share their insights about this process.

Annamarie Hill Interview

Annamarie, why do treaties still matter and why should we care?

Treaties are the law of the land. They show from the beginning how we transferred the land from indigenous control to the United States. They tell the story of how we got here and became the United States. How Minnesota became Minnesota. The treaties are obligations and they are living, breathing documents.


Why did you create this exhibit and want to work with schools?

We had the opportunity of funding and we had many needs. Of all the needs and issues, education rose to the top for me from what I learned from our tribal leaders, educators, legislators and community. We wanted to create something for the community. If we could be educated around indigenous issues, we could solve many problems and change beliefs about the treaties. We wanted to address the basic laws of our land and show when our legal relationship began. If we are not educated, what can we do?

What are the major myths about Dakota and Ojibwe treaties that your average American has about them?

The myth is that both nations are identical and we are the same tribe and people. Everyone thinks we are the same. The other common myth is that we always fought and were constantly warring with each other. Actually there were a lot of good relations between both nations.

What are the key pieces of knowledge we need to know about treaties in the 2st century?

Treaties are still living and breathing documents that are still in effect today. They are the laws that govern our land. Treaties still matter today and into the future.

Mark Bray Interview

Mark, why do treaties still matter today and why should we care?
The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It is what is in our hearts and minds and I personally think it is the right thing to understand that we made these promises as a nation. Even though we have dishonored the promises, we can fulfill them today. Honoring treaties is one way we can redeem ourselves. I should also add that understanding treaties makes us to be more effective citizens and they work for all students and honors our first people.

How do your students benefit from learning about the treaties?
Overall, 97% of the students who studied the treaties found them very worthwhile. Students have said viewing the exhibit is a moving and powerful experience and transforms them. In fact, one white student said that he never knew or realized what treaties were, what they mean, or what his connection is to them locally. He feels he has a more sense of place in his community as a result of learning about them in his classroom.  He really appreciates the cultural points he learned about the Native Americans of Minnesota.


What insights have they shared with you?
A common thread was that students were able to make a connection to the first people’s history in Minnesota by equating what they were learning in the classroom to the treaty panels. The panel experience was a new way of learning and covering information that has not been available before. This material is often overlooked or forgotten in the textbooks. Many said they had never learned about them before or how much they and native people affect the state government. They believe they are learning important information now.

What were the misconceptions?
The treaty exhibit brought out the myths and stereotypes that some of the students believed about Native Americans and treaties. Through our work, we are correcting those misconceptions. This is a human rights issue. If we don’t honor these treaties, any group will become marginalized. Another myth is that we are islands and that we can’t cross culturally to each to other. Like native students learning to sing opera or a white student learning to bead.

The impact of this work is threefold. The first is that when our students have difficult and controversial conversations about treaties with their families, friends and co-workers they will know why things are done the way there are when native people exercise their rights. Second, the pilot idea has spread to another school district in Walker, Minnesota. They will start a pilot this month. Lastly, the exhibit and pilot has provided an opportunity for interracial conversations between students, staff and community that break down the beliefs we have held for too long about treaties and indigenous nations. These new relationships will never be forgotten.

Going Deeper into Culture Cut and Paste with Kevin Locke

This last week’s post Can Anyone Own Culture Today? generated a lot of questions and comments. A few people were concerned that I was saying that a Mexican can’t perform a German opera or a German can’t learn how to make enchiladas and open a restaurant.  This is what happens. As a commenter pointed out:  “we all humans love to learn”. Isn’t learning the same thing as cultural cut and paste? People do learn new things from other cultures like food preparation, customs and practices and use them in their life. The issue is how we do it. Do we do it with respect and authenticity or not? So what is the difference between learning and cultural cutting and pasting? What I mean by cultural cut and paste is that the learning goes to the next step. The next step is the cutting of that learning from the original culture and pasting or integrating the learning into one’s cultural every day. The difference between learning and the cultural cut and paste process is the application feature. Cultural cut and paste is the application or action step that a human takes to apply what was learned. Sometimes we learn something from another culture while on a trip or going to someone’s house and we don’t have any interest in using it at home. If we decide to do it, the issue is how to apply the learning in a respectful and authentic way.

Cultural Cut and Paste Process


Culture Cut and Paste

Upon reflection this past week, I decided there is another component to this process. It is the added dimension of “copy”. Sometime we copy something from another culture much like we copy text from one document to another. When we copy text, we leave the original text intact. Much like when we copy something from another culture, the original culture stays intact. Or does it? Let’s take a dominant culture encountering an indigenous culture for example. One cannot guarantee that when a dominant culture copies something from an indigenous culture that the original piece stays intake. I believe there are times that the way the dominant culture messages the copy and uses it could alter the original. This is a cautionary tale to consider as dominant cultures across the globe have interacted with indigenous cultures and continue to do so. All cultures are like precious natural resources and should be protected from materialistic decimation.  As stated in the previous post, we have a collective responsibility.

Cultural Copy and Paste Process

Culture Copy and Paste

In the context of a dominant culture, a corporation or an individual attempting to take or own another culture provides the context for why both (learning and respectful cut/copy and paste) are important. We are moving towards increased multiracial and intercultural interactions which behoove us to figure out how to apply our new learning in a meaningful and authentic way.

Another question that came up is: How do I know if I am ripping off another culture? So much of what we do is cultural cut/copy and paste. What if I am inspired by the fashion, music or something from another culture? Can I just take it and use it without giving credit? An example is what I noticed in the southwest during my last visit. Local Dine artists created and sold their silversmith turquoise jewelry to tourists at a price they thought was fair and market bearing. A quick trip to a nearby city or town off the rez showcased similar jewelry made by non-native artists who sold their work at quadruple the price of what the Dine used. This is an example of ripping off another culture for personal gain.

My last post featured insights from Kevin Locke, award winning Dakota flutist and hoop dancer. Readers had more questions and were interested in carrying on the conversation with him. So we are blessed to be able to ask him a few more questions.

Kevin Locke Interview

Thank you Kevin for sharing your perspective last week on the cultural misappropriation of the Dakota flute and that no one can own a culture. My readers are interested in what to do when they want to apply their learning and do a respectful copy and paste process. You have interacted with so many diverse peoples, what advice would you give to individuals or businesses who want to be authentic?

We have to shift our perspective from a material one to a spiritual one where we believe that we are all legitimate heirs to humanity’s cultural wealth. I believe that everyone has the right to achieve one’s destiny.

An example I can share is that a person can learn something from another culture in an authentic way. For instance, right now I am teaching a class on the Dakota flute for teachers to get trained on the authentic way of Dakota flute playing. We did a whole section on the indigenous American flute. The flute playing is so unique compared to the European classical style. It is unique in that the individual ornamentation of playing like the grace notes of vibrato, creating breath sounds, and the like, is individual to the flutist. Their individual style would be inspired by the song birds of their locality. So teachers are learning the Dakota foundations and origins in an authentic way.

How do you think people could handle the permission aspect when someone may feel awkward or don’t know anyone from the new culture they have learned to love and want to copy something?

This is a sensitive issue and the answer depends on the community. For example, the Meskwaki from Iowa, until recently, did not want their language written down. Some Lakota still feel that way today. The onus is on us to reach out to others and be respectful and authentic. I believe that it is our youth who have the great opportunity to achieve the goals of being respectful to everyone from other cultures.

Kevin, you have made me think. What about something that comes from one culture and becomes main stream in an inauthentic or false way into the dominant culture? The Dakota flute is a great example of a dominant culture copy and paste. You explained that a European way of playing the Dakota flute has spread across the globe and become main stream.  Now that we know this, what could a lover of the flute do to rectify their inauthentic cultural copy and paste?

This is an opportunity to pause and reflect. Once a person knows, they can introduce themselves to the underpinnings and indigenous foundation of the Dakota flute.

Thank you Kevin for your insights! We should take the time to reflect on our practice.

My main point is that as we continue to work together more closely and our cultural practices, beliefs, foods, jewelry, designs, etc. will be on display and be shared. As Kevin points out, we need to reach out to each other so we do not rip anybody off and have authentic, genuine friendships. It is up to us in 2013 to figure out how to be authentic and respectful towards each other.

Homework: Reflect on your own practice. What kind of cultural learner are you? Do you cut and paste or copy and paste? If yes, what skills are you using to ensure that you apply your learning to reach out to other cultures to copy and paste authentically?

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.

Why We Don’t See Culture

M. Williams Stefani W. Redskins V. Secret Boy Scouts

Another day passes and I encounter another colleague who behaves as if he or she does not have a culture. How do I know this? By the words they say and the actions they take towards others. Example, “My ancestors gave up their culture to become an American”. This may be true but the ancestor chose to adopt another culture- a variation of the English speaking dominant European American culture. Another common statement told to me is, “Why can’t we all get along? We are a melting pot”. To be accurate, only white people can claim kinship to the melting pot myth. People of color are not able to “blend” into being white.


A common activity at work and school is to host “diversity and inclusion” events that are often billed as being multicultural. These events mostly showcase people of color sharing their cultural story through a window and mirrors activity. The prime objective is to educate white people about diversity. The European American cultural experience is missing except as spectators.

These statements and activities stem from an unspoken and even unconscious belief that many European Americans do not have a culture and in, fact, only people of color have one. This is culture blindness. It is not being aware that you have a culture and, as a result, think only people of color or people that speak different languages have culture. An unintended impact is to feel free to “take” from other cultures and be entertained.

A contributing factor to culture blindness is white privilege. A white privilege that is rooted in a belief that European American culture, specifically derived from England, is the desired way of life in America.  Everything we do is measured against those norms including beauty, type of speech, dress and religion to name a few. This privilege allowed white people to believe they “had the right” to study others and tell them what kind of culture they had, point out deficiencies, measure other people’s brains for their own gain and photograph them in order to document them before they became “extinct”. John Winthrop upon seeing empty American Indian villages full of corn and other crops ready to harvest wrote in 1634, “God hath hereby cleared our title to this place”. I believe that this statement began a racial narrative that people descended from Europe, specifically Anglo-Saxons knew better and deserved the best.

White privilege fed into another contributing factor of culture blindness that I call the National Geographic phenomenon. The stories (ethnographies) and photos from social scientists, like anthropologists, became the stuff of college curriculum and National Geographic magazines. Any white child growing up in the USA, educated in its schools and reading their parents National Geographic subscription would learn that only people of color with darker skin, had a different language and were “primitive” had a culture.

White Americans, in those contexts, did not talk about their culture in that way. No one came to “study” them. They also did not need to address their culture because it was normed and not on the verge of intentional extermination. Still today, a typical college classroom curriculum has students focused on learning about the Pueblo, the Nuer and the like but never their cultural self. This practice creates a cultural knowing gap that perpetuates blindness. National Geographic has an exoticizing effect on the cultures by treating them as different, mysterious and the “other”.

These factors have unconsciously lead major corporations, leaders and entertainers today to take a misstep towards exoticism, cultural misappropriation and potentially racism. Cultural misappropriation is defined as a practice of a dominant culture taking (stealing) music, art, a religious practice, etc. from an indigenous culture and using it in an inauthentic way and without permission.  It is a serious problem today. Current examples are:

None of us are immune to avoiding culture, exoticizing or unintentionally misappropriating another person’s cultural practice but we need to make an effort to stop. We really need to be intentional about working on ourselves by increasing awareness about our cultural self, increase knowledge about other cultures and taking action towards change. We are at a critical juncture in America as we move towards a more culturally and racially diverse society.

Practical steps for improvement:

  1. Self-reflection: Do you know what your culture is? What is your cultural identity? Take a moment to explore and find out. Take an interest in exploring your cultural self. Who are you and what cultures make you who you are? Talk about your culture to others.
  2. Get out more. Talk to people from all walks of life and make cross-cultural friendships.
  3. Stand up and speak out when a colleague or friend decides to keep a mascot or purchase something that is inappropriate.
  4. Hire more people from a diversity of cultures and races. Be sure to create pathways for multiple perspectives to be heard or else you will have segregated silos at work.

Once we are confident of our cultural identity then we can branch out and connect with others from differing cultures in authentic ways.  Change requires action. Action requires confidence. Confidence requires faith.

Commentary on the Five Myths of Talking About Race With Your Child

I recently read Jaime- Jin Lewis’s article called Five Myths of Talking about Race with Your Child in the RIISE blog. Ms. Lewis is spot on! Every parent and educator of children should read it and practice her tips of addressing the myths. I would like to add two more myths to the list. Perhaps there are others as well. Please send them in to the comment section.

Myth 6: Having Same Race Friendships Are Enough

In working with K-12 educators over the past few years, I have heard parents tell me that they are worried that their children only hang out with friends from their racial group. The children have no interest in building friendships across the color line. These parents recognize that their children are in danger of developing bias that left unchecked will grow into unhealthy beliefs about people of color. See Ms. Lewis’s Myths #1 and #3. The question to ask parents is what interracial friendships do they have? Parents are a model of social interaction for their children. One of the best ways to interrupt same race self- selection that children do is for parents to show them the way through their own multiracial friendships. It simply is not enough to talk about race or the benefits of diversity. Children should experience interracial relationships regularly, the earlier the better.

Myth 7: Sending Children on Mission/Service Projects is Enough

Sending children of any race on cross-cultural/racial mission or service trips can confuse them and may send them on a path of superiority. Over the years, parents would tell me that they were so proud of their children going to an Indian reservation or a country of color because they were learning about diversity and embracing it. Parents knew that valuing diversity is a key step to help reduce prejudice and is an important part of living in 21st century America. The major issue with this strategy is that it can promote privilege, specifically white privilege. The privilege that comes from a young person thinking they are doing good helping human kind but perhaps perpetuating a “missionary” attitude. A missionary attitude can be defined as someone trying to help others from a position of a “do gooder” or place of racial, cultural or religious superiority. The term became cemented into the American lexicon during the mission period of the last century with Christians forcibly Christianizing American Indians. The belief was that the spiritual beliefs of indigenous people were inferior.

Parents can’t count on the religious or service organizations providing a race conscious or culturally competent orientation.  It is recommended that parents sit down with their children and have a heart to heart talk about the purpose of their trip and address race and cultural issues.

Ideally, service should be two way and co-created without any hint that one race, culture or belief system is better than another.

Talking about race to anyone can be challenging but it is critical to start the conversation with our children. Ms. Jin-Lewis’s article is a great place to start. What other myths exist that need to be surfaced and discussed? Please share in the comment section.

Are Cultures Nations?

Last week I read Jill Barcum’s commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I noticed she used the word nation for cultures that exist in the United States. Why is this remarkable?  In this talk of nations in the United States, where are the actual nations? Examples include the Dakota, Ojibwe and Cherokee to name a few. This is my response to the commentary and a portion of it was published on February 17, 2013:

It was with great anticipation that I read Jill Burcum’s article, The United States- A Nation of Nations. Instead I became saddened that her commentary focused only on one group of people in the United States- the descendants of the European immigrants and settlers. Ms. Burcum’s commentary is based on a larger text called American Nations which I have not read.

With all due respect to the writer and intent, I believe the article contributes to a false and one-sided narrative of our country. It is also an example of how we are all miseducated about the truth of who we are. Case in point- The only nations within the United States are the Dakota, Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Hochunk, Oneida and many others. Nations are sovereign entities that can create treaties and govern their people. Cultures do not. Nationalities do not. Folkways do not.

The groups outlined in the article-Yankeedom, midlands and the like are contemporary mashups of regions, culture and folkways. They are not nations. This commentary perpetuates the myth to us, our community, our children and new immigrants that the USA is only comprised of white people and only their cultural aspects are important. Yes, I do agree with Ms. Barcum’s statement that we have “multiple regional cultures in North America” but they do not make virtual nations within our union.  Only indigenous nations have that right.

The cultures that make us mighty are African American, Dakota, Ojibwe, Japanese American, Chinese American, Mexican American, and, yes, European American in addition to many more. Acknowledging and validating this reality gives us strength. Each cultural group contributes to the dominant American culture through the vitality of their cultural beliefs, practices and traditions. In fact, we have many sub- cultures in Minnesota such as Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Norwegian, Dakota, Swedish, African American cultures for example.

The overall commentary leaves the rest of the United States out of the United States. It begs the question as we move to 2040- who is an American and how will we work together to change the narrative from myth to the truth of who we are as Americans?

What is Culture, Race and Ethnicity?

What is culture anyway? Is it race, religion, food or a way to dress? Do some people have culture and some don’t? That is what I want to discuss in this week’s post. The classic anthropological definition of culture is that it is a way of life that includes belief, traditions, food, rituals, behavior, language, facial expressions and music. This is not an all-inclusive list. Dr. Yvette Jackson, from the National Urban Alliance says that culture is “whatever is meaningful and relevant to a person”.

Culture is what we pass down to our children every single day through our speech, dress and actions. Every country has a dominant culture that houses its language, governance, education, belief and family structures to name a few. In the United States, the dominant culture is English-American, sometimes referred to as WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant), that originates from English Puritan roots from 1609. Let’s unpack this: We speak English, we dress in English style clothes and have Christian style of beliefs rooted in Puritanism. That is not to say that America was not influenced by the Iroquois, Africans, the Spanish or the French. We were but, have you noticed, we are not speaking Algonquian, French, Swahili or Spanish as the national language? Language is THE carrier of culture. It means that the English colonists created the USA and spread their cultural hegemony from sea to shining sea.  My observation is that in the national context culture is labeled as entertainment, art and having high status and excellent manners a la “being cultured”.

Words that have become synonymous with culture are race, nationality and ethnicity. In case you are wondering, the USA is not a culture although we will encounter people who believe it to be true. The USA is a nationality that is designated on a passport. Adding to the fray is the word ethnicity. This is another word that gets mixed up with culture as well. It stems from the Greek word for nation and really stands for a social group who share a geographic region, language and culture. Over time though, the national media continues to confuse us as does the US Census Bureau. Take a look at any survey and I guarantee that you will be asked to supply your ethnicity when you know full well you are being asked to disclose your race.  The US Census Bureau categories are another story that needs its own discussion.

Culture is not a race though we will commonly hear people make references to the white culture, the black culture and the Indian culture. What gives? Race is a social construct invented by the Swedish taxonomist, Carolus Linneaus, back in 1758. We can thank him for the lovely terminology of negroid, Caucasoid and mongoloid. His invention has been disastrous for the world and we have inherited a false belief of people based on skin color. Even though we know there is only one race, we continue to give it importance by perpetuating that there are five races. American society is obsessed with race.

So are there white and black cultures? I think not. If we decide to go down the white culture and black culture path we run risk of racially stereotyping people e.g. “all white people eat watermelon and all black people have no rhythm. However, within each of these racial groups, many sub-cultures exist trying to survive. For example, if all the white people of the world were put in a line, one would find cultural distinctions of Russian, Dutch, English, Portuguese and Euro-American to name a few. Ditto for black people. What about whiteness and blackness? Those terms have become popular as well in the American lexicon. What do they mean? I prefer to label them cultural behaviors associated with each race. Despite the fact that the Human Genome Project and American anthropological Association have all proven beyond a doubt that there is only one race Homo Sapiens Sapiens, we hold onto the false belief that skin color is the prime determinant of intelligence and behavior.  There you have it. I have contributed to perpetuating race in the guise of unpacking what it means to be us in the early 21st century while trying to be helpful!

The major reason we must be clear about definitions is that we need to bring culture back into culture and not be cavalier about it when so many cultures are in danger of becoming extinct and their languages no longer spoken. This just happened in Scotland, is a huge issue in Indian country and across the globe. Home work for this week:

  1. Identify your culture, nationality and your ethnic heritage.
  2. Share this information with a friend and post.

Don’t wait to find this information out when you travel and you are “outed” by others. That is cheating!

Cultural Musings

Is it just me or is culture being misunderstood, misaligned, being stripped away of its importance or simply ignored in today’s society? We are comfortable focusing on pop culture, high culture, high society culture, being “cultured” and participating in culture wars. What does this mean and should we care? Yes we should. Has culture become a synonym for race, entertainment or a war of values?

The United States is becoming more culturally and racially diverse with each passing day. Demographers predict that by 2040 people of color as a group will shift to majority status. Although there will be more people of color than the white race, this is a misnomer- the white race, as a single race, will still be in the majority. Does anyone care to talk about this radical shift?

This shift is not just about numbers or a fear that certain races are going to disappear into the sunset. It is about many diverse cultures figuring out how to live together in harmony while trying to keeping their cultures intact.  Are we going to walk softly into that 2040 world being culturally blind and unconscious or will we take the time to personally reflect and build our skills?

Let’s break this down. The USA is not a racial or cultural melting pot and never has been but it is the national narrative that continues to be taught in k-14 schools. This misguided narrative has led us to cultural blindness. I offer a perspective that within each racial group is the potential of a “gazillion” cultures fighting for survival in the coming decades. How prepared is the average citizen, like you and me, to interact in a multicultural USA?

The action for this week, should you decide to accept it, is to reflect and discuss with others, preferably someone from a different race or culture:

  1. What is culture?
  2. What will your culture look like in 2040?

On Being “Cultured:”

The Guardian

NY Times Arts Beat

NY Times T Magazine Blog

On “Culture Wars:”

The Culture War is Over

Culture Wars

The Culture Wars Are Over

Can We Call Off the Culture Wars