How Do I Avoid Cultural Appropriation in My Classroom or School?

While educators are encouraged to integrate Indigenous knowledges into schools and classrooms, people have also become aware that respectful inclusion of Indigenous resources means avoiding cultural appropriation or exploitation, and misusing or misrepresenting Indigenous knowledges.

Educators often ask about the difference is between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. In appreciation, we can learn about and understand other cultures, and in a cultural exchange there is an intentional sharing of cultural knowledge. These are both different than cultural appropriation of Indigenous knowledge which occurs when non-Indigenous people take elements of Indigenous knowledge as their own, without permission to do so and without recognition of where the knowledge comes from, and how it exists within specific contexts. Cultural appropriation is especially significant to be aware of when there is a power imbalance between the cultures, or when there has been historical suppression of the culture that is being appropriated.  The power imbalance is what helps define the difference between a colonizing culture taking and using as its own aspects of a marginalized culture, and when a historically marginalized culture adopts elements of the colonizing culture (which can also be an assimilative process).

One common form of cultural appropriation found across many art forms (including text/literature) are works that mimic Indigenous art forms, but were created by non-Indigenous artists who indicate that they were “inspired” by Indigenous art or people. It is not respectful for non-Indigenous folks to try to create Indigenous themed works of art or literature no matter how much they may be “inspired” by Indigenous works. Besides often misrepresenting Indigenous cultures or knowledge, this kind of action takes space and opportunity away from authentic Indigenous representations.

Cultural exploitation is another a term people may be familiar with. Indigenous knowledges are usually context specific and connected to place, people, and other knowledge and protocols; when aspects of these knowledge systems are taken out of context they can be misinterpreted, misrepresented or misused. This is often reflected when, in an attempt to include Indigenous knowledges in schools, educators end up trivializing cultural knowledge by equating it with craft projects. For example, learning about the variety and meanings associated with the various cultural poles and pole-raising practices of First Nations on the coast of British Columbia does not need to be accompanied by learners making toy “totem poles”. Learning about the history and relevance of button blankets for some First Nations does not mean students making paper or craft representations of the blankets.[1] Instead, students can learn about these, and other cultural artifacts, in terms of their cultural significance and how they are created. Students can learn about the knowledge and skills required to create cultural artifacts, or the knowledge and skills required to engage in cultural knowledge-based processes. Students can be exposed to authentic examples of Indigenous cultural knowledges in contexts that the holders of that knowledge deem appropriate.

People can continue their own learning about respectful terminology relating to Indigenous cultures and understand why “costume” is a disrespectful way to refer to regalia (and why it is not appropriate to try to use representations of regalia as a costume). Educators could come to understand the significance of regalia, and support Indigenous learners who choose to wear it in school settings.

Cultural exploitation can also serve to perpetuate pan-Indigenous perspectives, where Indigenous cultures are assumed to be homogeneous. It is necessary to understand the diversity of knowledges between and among Indigenous peoples and respect that protocols and knowledge systems differ between not only First Nations, Inuit and Métis for example, but also from First Nation to First Nation.

Cultural knowledge systems are complex; there are often layers of cultural knowledge and protocols that need to be in place for many processes practices, and it is important that non-Indigenous educators understand that not all cultural practices can or should be replicated in classroom settings.

It is with these contexts in mind that we might understand how important it is that Indigenous peoples have the right to control how Indigenous cultural knowledge is used, and with whom it is shared.

A final note on appropriation and misrepresentation. Current communication technologies have made it easier for non-Indigenous people to masquerade as Indigenous in the promotion of ideas or products in on-line. Easy access on-line to representations of Indigenous cultures is more easily used as “inspiration” for some non-Indigenous artists and writers to create works that might look like authentic Indigenous works, but are not. Not only does this result in inauthentic representations and/or promoting “pan-Indigenous” perspectives, it also continues to displace or suppress authentic Indigenous voice. In a country where colonial assimilation policies have attempted to erase Indigenous peoples, cultures and histories, we need to be vigilant about supporting authentic Indigenous text/literature and art.

Taking Action

Classroom/Learning Environments

  • Use teacher or classroom resources that have been created by Indigenous peoples or organizations.
  • Critically examine all student resources to determine that they are authentic Indigenous resources, not created by people who “were inspired” by Indigenous cultures. This may require checking on names of authors, designers, or other artists.
  • When including authentic Indigenous content, help learners understand where it comes from.
  • Help learners understand the differences between cultural appropriation and appreciation, and why this is important.

Educational Leadership

  • Work with Indigenous nations on whose traditional territory a school or school district sits to create specific school district policies that recognizes that the local Indigenous knowledge used in a collaboratively developed resource remains the property of the people it comes from.

Read, Listen, or Watch

[1] There are many ways to learn and teach about these elements of First Nations cultures without trivializing them. One example can be found in the FNESC Math First Peoples Teacher Resource Guide

(This post is a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, anticipated publishing date September, 2022)

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