Monthly Emails

Cultural Appropriation

April 15, 2017

The work we will do together is guided by your ancestors. From the minute you walk in the room they are ready to get started. I am not concerned with who they are as individuals, but more importantly the accuracy of their message.

For several years I worked on an Indian reservation in the social services department. I worked at the youth shelter for tribal teens. I learned to be mindful of my place as a support person for the youth and staff. The shelter was a place for teens to connect with elders and learn about their history as a tribe. This provided an opportunity for the youth to heal with traditional medicines and spiritual guidance. The shelter was a place of hope for them.

From an academic perspective I had learned the term “cultural appropriation.” The opportunity to work for this Native American tribe showed me what cultural appropriation really looked like. It was an eye opening experience to say the least.

Cultural appropriation is defined as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.

Because I connected with my own ancestors, I was a Christian and I had no interest in anthropology or studying “the ways” of this tribe. I was allowed to stay a bit longer at the shelter because I was content to be a support person. I was able to assist them with my knowledge of how shelters are run from a practical perspective.

I was “authorized by this tribe” on a few occasions and had many of my own spiritual experiences while spending time there. For this tribe, blood quantum was necessary. The ancestor work was deliberate and imperative to the health and healing of the community. For the youth this was an intervention, and in many cases a life or death situation. I was not needed as a leader or elder, and accepting this made it easy for me to step down and back away.

Being “authorized” also meant hearing how this tribe felt about cultural appropriation. This then led to being asked to carry this message to others. I have not done a very good job of this, and at times I have felt overwhelmed by my promise.

Here's what happened: There was a coworker I had that was willing to share with me her experience of cultural appropriation. I am grateful to have known Klarice, she taught me the value and importance of ancestor work. Klarice taught me the necessity of sharing with people that “everyone has ancestors that want to assist them in the here and now.” She showed me how to strengthen my relationship with my own ancestors. She would insist that “Yes, we are all part of the web of life, and it’s imperative that we heal our families first. If you expect to be whole, you cannot shut out your ancestors because you’re not culturally interested in them. You need them to help you understand who you are.”

Klarice believed that being separated from their ancestors was why the Native American youth carried so much pain and anger. Connecting with my own ancestors, and learning how they cared for the Earth was affirming. Klarice encouraged me to study and channel my lineage, thus allowing generations of my family to heal from any harm that my ancestors may have caused. I learned that you do not need to be close to your earth bound family for this healing to take place.

Klarice suggested that "I continue to work closely with my own ancestors in spirit, and help others do the same." 

I am here to help, respectfully 

Suzi Caffreys

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