(Image via patronusmeaning.tumblr.com)
I was watching Top Chef the other night and their challenge was to take their family’s heritage and prepare a dish that represents their culture and where their family came from. Chef’s are a very diverse group of people. The Cheftestants this season come from Pakistan and Vietnam. There are also chefs with Italian, Creole, African American, and Eastern European backgrounds.
And then there was Tyler from California. He was at a disadvantage in this challenge, because, by his own admission, he was just a white guy from California who didn’t have a culture. Instead of cooking a dish that represented his West Coast heritage, he tried to cook a dish that his Swedish grandma had made, although he didn’t know anything about Swedish cuisine. Tyler lost the challenge and was eliminated.
I’ve always felt the same way Tyler felt. My family, both sides as far as I can tell, have been here for two or three hundred years. I’ve always called myself Heinz 57, because my DNA comes from a variety of different ethnicities, but we’ve been here so long that we have no “cultural” identity other than American and our culture is nothing but a series of cultural appropriations.
Look at our food, for instance. Pizza. Tacos. Chinese takeout. Gumbo. The food we eat on the 4th of July is hamburgers and hot dogs might be American, but potato salad is German. French fries come from Belgium. The Scottish are responsible for fried chicken. Virtually everything we have is appropriated due to the very nature of our melting pot status. Our only “culture” is garishness, loudness, and over-consumption of everything. America! F*&^k yeah!
Cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to Native Americans, has gotten a lot of buzz lately. The use of Native caricature in sports mascots has seen some very heated debates. Girls wearing “Indian” headdresses pop up in our news or Instagram feeds with each big music festivals and they are quickly called out as inappropriate. Even No Doubt got a lot of grief for the costumes they wore for a recent video that has since been pulled due to its insensitivity to Native culture. And every Halloween, Native people make videos and memes to remind everyone that they are not a Halloween costume.
I’m not sure people do it to make fun or demean Native people. In fact, the argument always seems to be “We’re not making fun. We’re honoring Native people.” However, ask most any Native person and they will tell you that wearing a chief’s headdress made out of duck feathers, doing the “tomahawk chop,” and making war whoop noises like the “savages” in old Westerns is not honoring anyone.
A hot term on the internet these days is “spirit animal”. There are quizzes you can take to find out what your spirit animal is. Spirit animal isn’t even exclusive to animals. It can be a celebrity, a sports hero, or coffee. While on the surface it appears to be all in good fun, to a large group of people who our country has been trying to destroy for over 500 years, (It’s still happening. Anyone remember Standing Rock?) it’s just another way that the colonizers are chipping away at their identity and stealing what’s left of their culture.
There are 562 federally recognized tribes in the US. Not all tribes believe the same way, but they each have a unique and special relationship with the Earth and with animals in particular. Animals play a large part in their creation stories. They taught the first people which plants were to be eaten or not eaten and which plants to use to heal their bodies. Clans were often named after the animal which best represented their role within the larger tribe. Even today, when an animal is killed for food, its spirit is thanked for sacrificing its life so that the people can live. Animals aren’t just a commodity or a hunting trophy; they are honored relatives.
I know that most people truly mean no harm when asking about my “spirit animal”. I even play along most of the time, but do we have to use the phrase spirit animal? I know it’s much easier than saying, “What animal do you most relate to?” or “If you were an animal, what would you be?” but it’s not that hard and it wouldn’t hurt anyone.
It may seem like a little thing to us, but all these “little” things add up. Believe it or not, Native people still exist and it hurts them when we marginalize them, wonder why they don’t just “get over” Wounded Knee or the Trail of Tears or any of the other government policies meant to “Kill the Indian, and save the man,” and destroy the land that they love and are taught to protect. The least we can do to show respect to the Indigenous people of this country is to quit buying t-shirts that say “My Spirit Animal Is Whiskey” or claiming that Nikki Minaj’s butt is your spirit animal.
In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling used the word “Patronus” instead of spirit animal although they’re pretty much the same thing. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily, but it also doesn’t make a Native child feel like who he is is wrong.
What’s your Patronus? Mine is an elephant.