Culture appropriation in the classroom

This morning I read a 2011 article by Lisa Hix titled “Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans” in Collector’s Weekly regarding fashion designers appropriating the cultural imagery of Native Americans, a practice that upsets Native Americans. Following is an excerpt from the article:

Tis the season for buying presents. As you peruse your local mall, you might find yourself drawn to beautiful geometric patterns in vibrant colors, long associated with Navajo rugs, Pendleton “Indian trade” blankets, and Southwest Native American pottery. They’ll be everywhere you look, on sneakers, pricey handbags, home decor, and high-fashion skirts, coats, and jackets.

But many Native Americans are less than thrilled that this so-called “native look” is trendy right now. The company that’s stirred up the most controversy so far is Urban Outfitters, which offered a “Navajo” line this fall (items included the “Navajo Hipster Panty” and “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask”) before the Navajo Nation sent the company a cease and desist order that forced it to rename its products. Forever 21 and designer Isabel Marant also missed the memo that the tribe has a trademark on its name; thanks to the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990, it’s illegal to claim a product is made by a Native American when it is not.

Further in the article, Jessica R. Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Doctor of Native American Studies at Arizona State University is quoted as saying, “The issue now is not only who gets to represent Native Americans, but also who gets to profit.”

This is certainly not the first time this has happened, nor are Native Americans alone in their complaints about others appropriating their culture. The history of art as well as our everyday lives are filled with examples of cultural appropriation. I picked up the ‘tribal spirit’ dream catcher shown below at a local gas station convenience store. It happened to be “made in China.”

This practice is also common in art classrooms across the U.S. (I can’t say for certain how common the practice is in schools elsewhere). While I know that many art teachers will argue that teaching cultural appropriation is acceptable practice in the classroom (if for no other reason than ‘everyone does it’), my question is should both sides of this issue be a part of the learning experience for students? Should students learn that some groups are offended when others ‘steal’ their cultural imagery?

dream catcher