Growing up, my life reflected a lot of cross-cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. I never really gave any of these things thought because it was just life here in Alaska to parents who came from two different backgrounds. My father was Swedish American. His father was born in Stockholm. His mother was born in Ohio, from parents who were born in Gotland. Dad grew up in a lumber mill town in Washington State where a large population of Swedes meant that he grew up speaking Swedish and English in equal measure. As an adult, he traveled widely in the Merchant Mariner service and first married a Creole woman and then my mother.
My mother grew up in Montana and North Dakota. Her father was born in North Dakota, to Canadian immigrants of Irish and Welsh stock. Her mother was born in Michigan of an Irish immigrant father and a “French Canadian” (code word – Indian) mother. My mother swore they never really faced racism growing up — there were too many Metis around on the plains, but once they got to Seattle, she was surprised to discover that they were considered different. She was equally surprised when she moved to Alaska with her first husband that nobody really cared in Alaska and there was actually a law here that said they couldn’t. It was 1946. Mom arrived in Ketchikan less than a month after the nation’s first anti-discrimination law was passed.
Alaska is an extremely diverse state. About 20% of the population are Alaska Native and about 40% total are non-white. So, nobody should be very surprised, I think, that my parents were comfortable with the diversity within their marriage. They each brought their own backgrounds to raising me. Dad put candies in my shoes for St. Lucia’s Day and Mom told bedtime stories filled with windego (though that is not a Wyandot tale) and the island on the back of the Turtle. Dad made some cool Christmas cookies from Sweden and Mom made a mean colcannon for St. Padrick’s Day. Dad being a chef and Mom a diner waitress, they loved good food and so we ate at a lot of exotic restaurants. That seemed like the sole purpose of visiting Seattle when I was a kid.
My favorite cuisine is Asian. With the exception of really spicy Thai and Indian dishes, I love it all. During the Alaska Federation of Natives gathering here in Fairbanks earlier this month, I wore a kuspuk. I really wasn’t thinking about it. I wore it because we were meeting the ana (Native elder female) who made it for me and I was honoring her, not trying to appropriate a culture. But someone brought it up … was it appropriate for me (a non-Alaska Native) to dress in Native garb? When I was growing up, it was considered very appropriate. It showed respect for the culture and, frankly, kuspuks are comfortable. Today, that zeitgeist is being questioned. Instead of being an exhibition and embrace of cultural diversity, some see it as an affront to their culture.
When I was a kid, we saw cultural appropriation as a gesture of love within humanity. It was a refreshing deviation from conventional American ethnocentric patriotism and isolation. We weren’t just wearing jeans and … well, what exactly is standard American garb? American Flag trucker hats and Confederate bikinis? Dockers and North Face jackets? Royal Robbins sporting wear? Well, maybe Levis, cowboy boots and a Stetson?
As our culture becomes increasingly politically correct and censorious of “offensive” displays of cultural mimicry, diversity has become less about expressions of humanistic cooperation, and more about competitive oppression.
On Saturday night, my son went to a Halloween party. As I was picking him up, I saw a beautiful blonde girl dressed as a Salsa danger. It reminded me a lot of my daughter dressing similarly when she was in high school. The difference being that my daughter is dark haired and really could dance the Salsa. I went home and read a rant by one of my daughter’s college-aged friends about how costumes like this are culturally insensitive to the economic suffering of Hispanic women who had to subject themselves to patriarchal theater. This is the narrative you will commonly hear pushed on many progressive university campuses and blog sites.
Yeah, such killjoy attitudes are kind of annoying, but I actually found the rant outright insulting and abusive. If you want to dress in my tribal regalia, who am I to tell you that you’re not allowed to express your love for another culture? I don’t arbitrarily hold exclusive claim to my tribal culture. Conversely, my daughter is over half-Irish (thanks to the combination of her father’s and my DNA), but she can pass for either Irish or Indian (but not Swedish; like me she is way too dark for most people to believe that of her). When she dressed in Highland dress for dance performances, I suppose there might have been some people with Scottish ancestry who objected to an Native-American-Irish and an African American girl pretending to be Scottish, though nobody ever said anything … I suspect because they were just glad to see their culture preserved by dancers of some technical skill.
These misguided progressive attempts micromanage identity and dictate what types of multiculturalism is tolerable in an effort to socially abolish what they have decided is problematic cultural appropriation makes ethnic relations less harmonious … not more. Of course, it’s not just the far left that has this attitude that seeks to shame (mostly) whites for embracing and adopting cultural differences; that insists they don’t appropriate. The Alt-Right also shames whites for abandoning what was once a rich American heritage and demands that non-whites appropriate European culture.
Neither side wants a free and natural marketplace of voluntary inclusiveness and association. Barriers are not to be breached from either side. And, therein, lies the problem. A world without cultural appropriation is a dull, one-dimensional one without learning or progress. It’s a world where we may peek across the barriers that separate us only in museums and cultural studies classes. How is that helpful to advancing equality or association? Intellectually and socially isolating people from one another is dangerous for everybody, especially culture minorities.
Take it from someone who grew up astride a few different cultures. Culture is spontaneous, and your expression of it should be too. If someone gets angry for you doing it, it may be they have issues they need to deal with.
A word about the photos in this post – 1) is a friend dressed in a kuspuk. I picked her because she is clearly not Alaska Native. 2) is Wyandotte Nation Chief Chief Billy Friend as he addresses the grand opening of my tribe’s new Cultural Center, wearing tribal regalia (yeah, you have to have a sense of humor to wear THAT) Notice that Chief Friend doesn’t look terribly Indian. I believe he has more Wyandot blood than I do, but the DNA just fell a little different. My daughter, who has less blood than either of us, looks more Indian than we do. DNA expression is a fascinating subject. 3) is the Wyandotte nation’s Princess Emilee Willis, dressed in very Western clothing.