Kyle Wark: Honor Native people by defending our sovereignty

Kyle Dlaakaw.éesh Wark. Photo from Facebook

Kyle Dlaakaw.éesh Wark of the First Alaskans Institute explains why playing Indian never honors Native people:
If you want to honor and flatter us, fight for Native people’s right to access subsistence resources on our traditional homelands. Advocate for Federal or State recognition of Tribal sovereignty, which includes land management, the protection of our people from domestic violence and sexual assault in Tribal courts, and Tribal management of child custody cases. Recognize the inherent connection between perpetuating Native life ways, including art forms and diet, and our strength as Native people, including raising up strong families. Testify on our behalf in the legislature. Donate to Native causes, volunteer at Native events. Celebrate our entire way of life. Don’t dress like us for one day of the year. “Playing Indian” trivializes the historic trauma, culture loss, and heartache of Native peoples.

Perhaps you think that your particular style of “dress up” does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes because you pursue historical accuracy in your “costume.” Maybe you copy archival photos of ceremonial dress, like our Tlingit at.óow. Where’s the harm?

Among other issues, Tlingit at.óow are our intellectual property rights. They are deeply sacred spiritual entities, many incarnated in objects like haa shuká (“clan crests”). These items represent the accomplishments of our ancestors: they are paid for in blood. We pay, every single time, for the right to display them at ceremonial events. Wearing at.óow outside of legitimate cultural contexts trivializes our history, and privileges what you choose to emphasize: your story about that at.óow, not ours. Even if you repeated the clan’s words verbatim, you would only pretend to deign to recognize our claim, even as you usurp it.

Perhaps you think, if you can’t wear ceremonial garb, at least you can wear ordinary clothes, right? As you dig into the archives again, you find out that after almost a century of colonial influence, 19th century Tlingits wore the same clothes as other Victorians. You’d be constantly telling people that your costume portrays not a Victorian, but a colonized Tlingit.

Get the Story:
Kyle Dlaakaw.éesh Wark: The Perils of Culturally Appropriative Halloween Costumes (Indian Country Today 10/31)

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