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My culture is not a costume

October 27th, 2017 | By Cordelia Qignaaq Kellie Print this article   Email this article  

For the Bristol Bay Times - Dutch Harbor Fisherman

This past Tuesday, a community member posted a meme in the Juneau Community Concerns group on Facebook. It was a Native American woman and the text said, "My culture is not a costume." The accompanying message posted was along the lines of "Happy Halloween everyone!" It should have been a one-and-done.

What ensued in the following comments was an outburst so reprehensible, little of what was posted will be repeated here; over 130 comments worth of discussion, in a matter of hours.

Support. Rage. Racism. Applause. Ugliness. Beauty. The best of online heroics merged with the worst of antics that fit the very definition of cyberbullying.

And all across the spectrum, from every background, intention, and angle, was a snapshot of attitudes in 2015. What was clear, as an Alaska community, is that the old fights have given way to new fights. We have so far still left to go.

And among the digressions, tangents, self-projections and stories shared, was the meme that incited so much discussion, an idea that touched so many nerves: "My culture is not a costume."

Given the response, including the violent nature of threats, the post was taken down.

There is a lot of good content online these days about cultural appropriation and dressing up as Native Americans as Halloween costumes, and here are some links that are worth checking out:

• The Perils of Culturally Appropriative Halloween Costumes by Kyle Wark, Tlingit:

• Halloween Costume Correctness on Campus: Feel Free to Be You, But Not Me:

• Native Americans Tried On "Indian" Costumes And Things Got Uncomfortable: your-costume#.iaPmd9qwg

Due to the great content of these pieces, and so many like them, many of these points aren't going to be rehashed. Doing a quick internet search will show so many more.

Given the serious nature of so much that was said in Juneau Community Concerns, this is going to be a direct and to-the-point commentary. No pretty visual constructions. No carefully crafted illuminations. Just plain speech in response to the plain speech of the very real person in that meme. "My culture is not a costume."

PC Nation?

Some of this content about being "PC" is a reiteration of what has been written about the debate regarding Columbus Day.

By now I'm sure many people have heard about the "political correctness epidemic" that is washing across our nation. Many say that "America never used to have this problem," but why is that? Why now?

When somebody decries an action or suggestion as "just being politically correct," it provides a catch-all reason for dismissal, removed from consideration of that voice's request.

Many said that it's just being "PC" to remove the name of McKinley from official registers regarding the mountain, and now it's officially Denali nationwide. That's not being PC; that's progress. Many more say it's being PC to revise America's thinking about Columbus Day and then, Alaska became the first state to officially name October 12 Indigenous Peoples Day. That's not being PC; that's progress.

Minority groups previously silenced have a voice that is being heard. The sense that "being PC" is coming from all angles is because in this melting pot of a nation, there are so many ethnicities, heritages, orientations, groups and sub-groups, cultures and creeds.

When somebody is saying that another is just trying to be PC, it also speaks to those who are in power and those who have the potential to be dismissed. There was every sort of discrimination and downright hateful messages shared in the Facebook comment string, but in speaking with the community member who shared the meme on Facebook, she said that her main thought on it was this whole issue wasn't about non-Natives. The meme was a photo of someone Native stating that her identity wasn't a costume. She said she was surprised how many non-Natives found a way to make it about them.

And so perhaps instead of lamenting the state of "political correctness," we can respect where it comes from, and see feedback as an opportunity to be better. Like believing that when groups of indigenous people across the Lower 48, Canada and Alaska are sharing a cohesive message, that counts for something.

The Power of Community

In discussing this issue with many in my network, I had a friend who is Alaska Native say, "I wouldn't be offended if someone dressed up in my culture."

In our communities, we have learned that we are stronger, together. There is value in the voice of the communal. There is meaning when a group comes to consensus.

Indigenous people come from a variety of locations, backgrounds, cultures, heritages, and environments, just like anybody else. As Native people, we are also expected to be the authority on the Native experience.

When the voice of the individual is focused on over the voice of the community, a single person can seemingly deflate the very real logic and sentiments of thousands of people in any discussion.

But when you hear a community saying "No," that counts for something.

And among the discussion, there is room for innumerable related dialogues and questions. There was a lot of conversation in the Facebook post comments about what this means about different costumes for different cultures or scenarios, and that's great. We can and need to trust that the advocates for those respective communities, cultures and heritages have got this handled, they're taking care of their own people.

But that creates a vacuum of space where those engaged discussions about this issue locally may not necessarily be able to speak with authority about another culture's experience. Not everyone has all the answers, and that's okay; raised questions are an opportunity for fresh evaluations, but uncertainty about parallel issues does not nullify the validity of one: "My culture is not a costume."

Nalliq wants to show solidarity for the community member who shared that message in Juneau Community Concerns; quyanaqpak for spreading the message and showing support for our indigenous brothers and sisters in the Lower 48, Canada and beyond.

But it's also important to reiterate that a community's experience is not open for negotiation. A group's reality is not open for debate. When a community is saying "No," that counts for something.

This first appeared as a post on the Nalliq blog ( in 2015 and is reprinted here with permission.permission.


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