While really doing deep dives into sources of where you see and hear from Native people, as well as history and terminology, is incredibly important, sometimes we really experience a cultural in the sort of “gateway” cultural activities of eating, listening to music, speaking the language, participating in art making.
At the same time, I want to caution that cultural appropriation can be harmful. Appropriation is generally when you take something from a cultural for aesthetic or “cool factor” reasons, without actually understanding where it comes from, or honoring those whom you learned it from. Sharing cultures is not bad – taking and stealing from cultures is not good.
This week is set up to start experiencing and sometimes practicing the cultural elements of the culture of the land you occupy. Because they should be as specific to your area as possible, there aren’t links here to follow, but some (fun!) work to do on your end.
Learn the word “thank you” in the language of the Indigenous group whose land you are on. Practice it over and over, try to hear an Indigenous speaker pronounce it, and practice using it in common daily conversation. I will often say “thank you” in Tlingit or Dena’ina followed by an English “thank you” so that the person knows what I’m saying, but just as often I won’t. I get a lot of questions about it when I say it or because I use it as my email signature, and it opens up a conversation about the language. These past months I’ve started always including it in food or grocery deliveries to my house.
More importantly, it helps, just a little, in the massive effort to keep this language on the land. An enormous amount of time, resources, funds, violence, and even laws went into killing our Indigenous languages by the federal, state and municipal governments, and citizens of the country and state. It is a responsibility I hope people will take on to start using time, resources, funds, kindness, and laws to make these languages healthy again. Starting with knowing the word “thank you” is just that – a start.
If you already know “thank you” in your land’s Indigenous language, the obvious next step is to learn more. Get books (children’s books can be the best to start with!), watch YouTube videos, look for area classes, listen to podcasts – whatever it takes! Make learning the language of the land you’re on a responsibility.
Look for music by Indigenous people in your area. Sometimes they will be on big music sites like iTunes, but often Native music is in places like YouTube, museum stores, heritage centers. Maybe it’s “traditional” music, maybe it’s an Indigenous artist who has mixed music styles. Find something from your area, even just one song. And then – just listen. Listen to the song over and over. Start to know it by heart. Start to understand what the sound of people is on the land you’re on.
NOTE: “Native American” music is very, very often appropriated and shaped. And often that appropriated music sounds nothing like what the Indigenous music of the area actually is. Try to diligently check to make sure this is music by Native artists.
If you are already familiar with music from your area, dig into different styles. Compare “traditional” and “modern,” and see what ties them together. And then, for goodness sake, share it! Let other people know about the music and artists you’re listening to. Buy the music, support them.
FOOD! Eat a meal made entirely from foods and/or dishes from your region.
Try some Indigenous food from as close to the region as you can get. I will be the first to say – this can be difficult. Native people have been crowded out of the food market, many of our foods are illegal to sell commercially, and even the history of food from the area can be very distorted and overtaken by non-Indigenous people.
Starting with the specific group, tribe or nation of your area and seeing if there is a history they have of the foods and dishes from their land, and what is still made or cultivated.
At the same time, this can be a fun one to try and just get “close enough,” because food itself changes remarkably in a short amount of time. A dish can change a lot in a single generation, much less thousands.
A decent place to start is just to educate yourself about what foods were not only “discovered” on this continent, but what foods were actually part of a large agricultural network. Tomatoes, potatoes and maize as edible foods didn’t just “happen” by chance – they were cultivated and developed over thousands of years. By knowing these ingredients, especially those from your area, you can start to understand the dishes and literal flavor.
Here’s a for-instance – I’ve grown up thinking pecans, catfish, and red beans and rice were a Southern dish from another introduced culture. The first time I visited New Orleans, an Indigenous leader of the area started listing the foods Indigenous to the area, and I realized I had never considered that so many of these foods and dishes were actually cultivated and created by Native people.
Now I try to learn what the real Indigenous foods are from that area whenever I visit a place. I know I want people to know that we have an incredibly long and proud and delicious history of Alaska Indigenous ingredients and dishes here – but often “Alaskan” food is defined by foods brought in from outside, or the foods are taken over without consideration for where they come from, and who knows them best.
A great place to start looking into more of this is on a variety of Indigenous food and cooking groups found online.
Do a fun three-day challenge – only eat foods/ingredients Indigenous to your region, or to the continent. Look at all the ingredients you have to work with, and either come up with or research dishes you can eat for all your meals and snacks. It may be easier than you think, it may be harder. But it will probably be delicious! Spoiler: It will almost definitely be pretty dang healthy too.
Find a holiday or Indigenous celebration that either used to be practiced on the land you occupy, or currently is. Again, this can sometimes be difficult to track down. Many, many of our ceremonies, celebrations, and even memorial practices were literally made illegal, for generations. The attempt to kill the cultures completely was a strong and nasty part of the government and settler goal, and a lot of time and resources were spent trying to do this.
You can start with what is currently practiced, but you can also research what used to be practiced. For instance, I wanted to find out when Tlingit people would have celebrated a new year. While most Tlingit people now follow a Gregorian calendar version of the new year introduced and then forced on us, from what I could see, Tlingit people considered a late spring to be the first of a new year – specifically many clans celebrated the first salmon run of the year as the introduction to a new annual cycle. By knowing this, it can tell you a lot about the culture itself. We are a people who highly value and respect the salmon cycles, and have many stories about them. It makes a lot of sense that this would start off a new year. And in doing that, while the first salmon run of the year will cause a community to go abuzz still, I try to remember and recognize now that this is a time to reflect and celebrate how we have always connected with the land.
If you aren’t finding a holiday or celebration specifically connected to your land, try and find a “new” holiday or celebration to recognize and honor. Indigenous People’s Day, Alaska Native and Native American Heritage Month, Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, Walter Soboleff Day, and Katie Johns Day are all “official” days recognized in Alaska. Find one, learn about it, celebrate it, honor it, spread the news! And try to honor it in a way that respects what its about – Elizabeth Peratrovich was a civil rights activist. On Elizabeth Peratrovich Day you might find a way to forward civil rights in your community.
Advocate and help the Indigenous group in the area you occupy celebrate and recognize days. Maybe that means advocate for implementing “Indigenous People’s Day” in your area by writing emails to send your elected officials, maybe that’s assisting with organization or resources for a community celebration. There are numerous Native celebrations going on right now in my direct community, from big gala events to memorials for respected Elders, to this “Heritage Month” itself. I guarantee some of them could use a skill or resource you have.
Learn about three things regarding Native clothing –
- Research the historical clothing that was actually worn in your area. This may seem like a weird one, but it is so, so frustratingly common to portray an inaccurate image of Native clothing. It’s something I rarely even comment on anymore because it’s exhaustingly persistent. But more people recognizing and correcting this would be a help. The traditional clothing of any people can tell you a lot about the land and culture.
- Understand – REALLY understand – that a Native person can literally wear anything and be just as Native as someone wearing clothing you perceive as “more cultural.” And just as you likely don’t walk around in dubloons or petticoats, most Native people where contemporary clothing on the daily.
- Learn what you can and what you shouldn’t wear in regards to Native clothing and accessories. This is also INCREDIBLY common. Just a few days ago there was a Twitter photo of a white teacher and her student dressed up in stereotypical Native headdresses and outfits to “celebrate” the whole “Indians and Pilgrims” thing. DON’T DO THIS. EVER. You may have heard the phrase “My culture is not a costume.” Learn what that means. Understand that while, at the exact same time it was “fun” for young white boys to dress up like “Indians” and fake fight, young Native boys were being forced from their families, into boarding schools, and were beaten for looking or sounding “too Indian.” There are ways you can wear Native-made jewelry and clothing, but they differ by region, and should be done respectfully.
Now that you really understand both historical and contemporary Native clothing a bit more, get some! And of course I don’t mean “dress up like an Indian.” I mean find some clothing, jewelry, or accessories that are authentically Native-made and support them! If you don’t have funds for this, simply finding some Native-made clothing or jewelry you like and sharing that on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram can be a huge help to a Native artist or business. If you do have the funds, purchase some cool beaded earrings, a warm formline wrap, a snazzy Native-designed tshirt. And make sure you know who made it, and whenever anyone compliments you or asks about it, tell them who made or designed it. While of course it differs in different cultures, it is highly respectful and common practice to state who made whatever it is you’re wearing or someone asks about.
Learn more about a medicinal plant Indigenous to your area. If you can, see how that is incorporated, or was incorporated, into the medicinal practices by the people. Again (and I know this can sound very broken record, but imagine what it’s like to live it!) – this may be difficult to find because so many of these practices were discouraged or made illegal. But there are plants that the Tlingit people have used medicinally for thousands of years and now that they are being studied, wouldn’t you know but that research is “proving” they work in exactly the way Tlingit people have said they would for millennia. You can gain an understanding of the land and the sophistication of the people from your area, despite being depicted as so base by most of colonial history.
See if you can find an Indigenous person making or utilizing that Indigenous medicinal plant and try it out. I DON’T mean go nuts and overhaul your healthcare. But try a tea that is known to calm upset tummies, or a salve known to calm an itchy patch of skin. Again, this could be difficult, and medicinal practices have too often been overtaken or abused as well, so this is not a mandate to start running roughshod over Indigenous plants and making your own things with no guidance or training. This knowledge is hard won. But try to find an Indigenous expert already doing that work and experience what they are doing yourself. And compensate them for that work.
Give/send a gift to a Native person or Native organization in your area. Make it meaningful, and thinking about what you know about their needs now, their culture, their celebrations. Maybe this is simply a card with an Indigenous-language “Thank you” written on the front, and a note of appreciation. Maybe this is a substantial financial gift you can afford to give. Maybe this is a hand-crafted present for an Indigenous person you are friends with, or a cool Native-designed online purchase delivered to a staff, or a meal delivered to an Indigenous “essential worker” you don’t know that well. Just make sure it’s:
- Not someone in your household – this is a gift for your outer community.
- About them – not you. Don’t expect anything in return, don’t focus on something you would like, but what they need or like.
Many Native cultures, including mine, highly value meaningful gift giving, and some turn it into a whole language themselves. This is not something I understood what was so different until just a few years ago, but my culture’s practice of gift giving is something I really love, and have always loved. But the gift means you are taking care of your community, thinking of others specifically, find them valuable enough to spend your time and possibly money on.
And while you’re at it, something you already own that has high value to you is totally acceptable. This isn’t the time to dump the things you don’t want on unsuspecting people in your community. But if you have a nice necklace that you think your friend might like, a piece of art that a Native organization might appreciate, these are totally acceptable and thoughtful gifts.
I also want to emphasize – this doesn’t have to mean spending money if you don’t have it. A homemade card, a baked good, something you already own – thoughtful doesn’t mean expensive.
If giving gifts in this way to Native people in your community is already something you commonly do, try to find an Indigenous organization you can give to for the holiday season in a charitable way, rather than personal gift. Maybe Native Elder programs are looking for food donations, or cards and letters, or Native social services are looking for socks, or coats. Some Native employment agencies appreciate gifts of clothes clients can dress for a work interview in. And there are so, so, SO MANY Native organizations gathering masks, food, hand sanitizer, etc. (or straight donations!) for COVID relief all over the country right now. If you don’t have anything organizations needs, or financial resources right now – spread the word about the need! Urge your social network to give.
I’ll be linking the previous and next weeks here as they come up.
Cover photo of maqtaq by Juno Kim.