Merriam Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group” as well as, “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”.
Appropriating a culture is to take aspects of a culture like values, goals or attitudes for example and taking them for one’s own use, typically without permission from those of that culture. This definition is entirely correct, however, in my opinion, I believe that cultural appropriation is the using or taking components of another culture and misusing or exploiting those components or trying to adopt them as one’s own.
Growing up, I attended a summer camp in Drasco, Arkansas called Camp Bear Track. Although it claims to be “non-denominational”, the camp is based on Christian values. This particular camp attracted predominately white, private school kids from the nearest affluent cities including, Little Rock, Nashville, Memphis, and Tupelo.
The camp itself is located on the historical Trail of Tears, and one of the owners of the camp, Papa Bear, as we called him took pride in that and thought it was important for the campers to know the history as well.
Each year on the first day after dinner, we would all gather around a campfire to hear the story. We were warned by the camp director not to talk or laugh during this “sacred ceremony”. I remember being scared my first year because I had no idea what was going on and I could not ask anybody questions because I was not allowed to talk.
After we all had been silenced, a steady beat of a drum started to play in the distance. The sound of the drum got closer and closer and louder and louder until Papa Bear was standing in front of us fully dressed in Native American clothing. Traditional or not, he was wearing a headdress, an open vest with fringe, pants with fringe, beaded moccasins and war paint smeared on his face. Next to him was a male counselor who was playing the drum softly, wearing a similar outfit but was without a headdress. Papa Bear then told those who were talking to quiet down and then he began the story of the Trail of Tears. It was not the full history, just a short summary of what happened so that us young campers understood the importance of it and understood why he was dressed the way he was. After the story, the rest of the staff came out dressed in Native American clothing and we were each called into our “tribes”. These tribes were just essentially large groups full of different aged campers so that we could all integrate and get to know people outside of our own age group. I would also like to add that these tribes were some of those same tribes that were relocated. Once called to our tribes we were bestowed with a bandana of the color that represented our tribe as well as paint on our faces as well.
I never really thought anything of this whole theatrical reenactment until the subject of cultural appropriation came up. Having a wealthy white man dress up in seemingly traditional Native American clothing to tell us about how Andrew Jackson, a wealthy white man, forced indigenous people out of their homes to travel across the United States in order to relocate is not only is it inappropriate, it is wrong. It is not just because thousands of people died, but it is wrong because it is not his place to tell the story. He as well as the counselors are attempting to encompass the identities of leaders of an indigenous groups to use as a learning tool and for pure interest as well as entertainment.
There is an unequal power dynamic here. Think about it, a wealthy white man dresses up as a Native American to tell young white children about how a white man forced people to relocate across America. He has taken and exploited components of the Native American culture, the tribe names and the clothing, to make camp more fun and interesting for young white campers. In this case, there is a more dominant culture that is trying to adopt these sentiments as their own.
Now the leaders of the camp may not be necessarily doing this on purpose, they just may be uneducated on what cultural appropriation is. I also have a feeling that they did not get permission from a tribe leader to reenact this story. However, I would like to think that Papa Bear just thought that dressing up would make this story more interesting for the campers and thought that it would be a good tradition in introducing the theme of this camp. I am aware that this is not okay, I am just trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. It is just puzzling to me as to why this camp would exploit the tragic story that is the Trail of Tears in order to give the camp a Native American type of theme.
Like I stated before, I believe that that cultural appropriation is the using or taking components of another culture and misusing or exploiting those components or trying to adopt them as one’s own and the camp that I regretfully attended, not just for this reason, but for others, did just that. They took components of the Native American culture, the stories, clothing, and tribe names and exploited them for entertainment and attempted to adopt them as their own by making it a first day of camp tradition.