When I was six or seven, our family went to a church picnic in the red rock canyon below my friend Ilene's mother's hogan. It was a cool, gray day. Maybe rain would come, and it would be welcome in the high desert, even if it cut our picnic short. The women, all Diné except for my mother, started making fry bread. I watched for a while, and then someone handed me a ball of dough, as she would one of her own children. I watched some more and imitated––flattening, stretching, and doing the fun part of flapping the dough back and forth between my hands. It came out kind of oblong with some holes in the thin places, but the woman who'd passed me the ball, tossed my offering into the deep fat to fry along with all the others, and I was immensely pleased. Proud.
Years later, when my high school classmates married in Toadlena, I attended their wedding with my Navajo boyfriend, also a former classmate. After the wedding I went into the summer shelter made of green branches laid over and against a framework of tree trunks. One end of the shelter had been turned into a kitchen with a woodstove, and it stayed cool in there because of the shade and the breezes sifting through the branches. I joined the women who were making the wedding feast, and I started making fry bread with them.
Though I learned from Diné women to make the bread, I did not make it most days or any days in my mother's hogan. She did not live in a hogan. I did not even make it with my mother in the missionary house, even though she did make it sometimes there. Making fry bread was never part of my daily life. Thus, I've come to wonder if it was appropriation when, as a twenty-something, I made Navajo fry bread for a potluck in a bilingual education class at the University of New Mexico. It would definitely have been appropriation if I had pretended the fry bread came from my culture, which I didn't do. Perhaps, if I had specifically acknowledged that I learned how to make dahdíníilghaazh from Navajo women when I was a girl, that would have clarified that I was sharing something that I had learned from another culture. The question then arises whether learning or borrowing from another culture is appropriation and where the line might be drawn, if there is a line.
I know the fear that I am appropriating or that I'm about to appropriate something, especially from Diné friends and culture will always be with me. I am hyper-vigilant, and I know I will make mistakes. I have to admit that the fear is about both ego (wanting always to be right) and truly not wanting to hurt anyone else. Appropriation is a sort of sanitized word from the Latin, instead of the rougher, maybe truer, Anglo-Saxon word, theft. Plain and simple, appropriation is stealing, taking something that doesn't belong to you.
For me, appropriation is taking on something from another culture and acting as if I have a right to it, as if it does belong to me. I know I will take over things that don't belong to me, and I will act as if they do, fully believing it. Or at other times I will question, even agonize over, whether they belong to me or to someone else. I will worry that I am overstepping the bounds—the bounds of remembering I am White. That I am part of the group called colonizers. At the same time, I know I also cannot help being human. That I will and do, all the time, make mistakes.
Nowadays, after living for a year and a half in Denmark and Sweden, having a daughter who is "half" Danish, I bring ris alamande, the traditional Danish Christmas pudding, to an annual Christmas potluck in New Mexico. I never wondered, until this moment, if I might have been appropriating something from Danish culture by bringing the rice porridge mixed in whipped cream and slivered almonds, covered by cherries in heavy syrup. It seems perfectly fine to share that delicacy, and yet, I'm still unsure about whether it was all right to bring fry bread to that class. This seems odd, since I lived many more years in Navajo Country than I did in Denmark. But I think the difference lies in the fact that I'm acutely aware in the case of fry bread that I have inherited the privileges of the colonizers. That is a non-issue with the Danish dish.
Blatantly offensive appropriation is out in the open when White people dress up in feathered bonnets and face paint to cheer on a sports team with a name like Redskins or Indians. Or when they do the same for a Halloween costume. Appropriation is saying you're the descendent of a Cherokee princess when you haven't a single indigenous genetic marker. Appropriation is developing a line of clothing with Native designs when they don't belong to you because you're not Native. Those are clear instances of stealing.
And then there are all the questions that come from somewhere in between. Is it appropriation to participate in a spiritual ceremony offered by an Indigenous person? Or does that simply constitute learning from another culture? Is it appropriation to practice the Native ritual you learned there? On the other hand, it is a non-question for me that teaching an Indigenous ceremony, once learned, if you're not yourself Indigenous, constitutes appropriation.
I don't know if it is appropriation to say that I come from Teec Nos Pos, deep in Navajo Country when, because of my skin and my ethnic heritage, I can't live there anymore. But I lived there once, and it still feels more like home to me than any other place on Earth. It is now home-not-home to me. But on profiles, I say it's where I'm from.
At one time, speaking Diné bizaad (the Navajo language) constituted respect for the place and people hosting me. Now, I don't know if I might be seen as appropriating if I speak some Diné to a stranger because all the visual and auditory cues tell me they are Diné. Speaking Diné feels like the most natural way to connect. I'm aware the other person, if it's someone I don't know, could feel I'm just showing off or acting like I belong when I don't. But being so careful not to cross a line can also keep us from connecting, when connecting with one another is what our world so desperately needs.
Sometimes if I use Diné bizaad with someone I don't know, true communication comes out of it. Like the time I was checking out from the old stone motel in Chinle, at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly. The Navajo desk clerk, assuming, I suppose, that I was a garden-variety White tourist, made a little small talk. "Where are you going next?" she asked.
"T'iis Názbas," I gave Teec Nos Pos the Diné pronunciation.
She laughed. "Hey! You say it just like a rez girl! I can't even say it that way." She was probably in her forties and readily (but sadly, to me) acknowledging that she didn't speak her heritage language. Nevertheless, because I risked it, we made a connection.
On the other hand, the older clerk, who had checked me in the evening before, was present at check-out time. She looked sullen and said nothing when she heard our exchange. Did she feel I was affecting a way of speaking that I shouldn't, that didn't belong to me, an action she resented? Or did she just need a second cup of coffee to get her day going? Or was she judgmental about her colleague? As I asked myself these questions, I also reflected that she'd been rather grumpy the evening before. There was no way to know what was going on that morning.
There is also the question of motivation. Theft can come from at least three places—greed, need, and "because I can"––entitlement. A deep reality of lack, of insufficiency, lies at the root of all of these. Greed and entitlement speak to a lack of character, an emptiness seeking to be filled at another's expense. Greed and entitlement also reflect unmet needs, deep needs, that ought to be met with integrity, not through theft.
Admiration for, rather than stealing from, someone else's culture comes from a place of security, of being okay with who I am. I still have far more questions than answers. And that is also where theft comes from sometimes—from not knowing. What I do know is how uncomfortable I feel when another White person says or does something that feels unquestionably, or even questionably, appropriative. I'm also uncomfortable when I'm being abundantly careful and don't know who to ask, when I think I might be taking something that doesn't belong to me. Then I decide I will just be even more careful.
But there is also a loss when we must be so careful with each other. Yet perhaps it is necessary at this point in time because of vital shifts that are taking place. More Indigenous people are speaking up. The US poet laureate is an Indigenous phenom, Joy Harjo (Mvskoke). The new Secretary of the Interior is Deb Haaland (Laguna-Jemez-Norwegian American). Indigenous water rights and protection of sacred lands are in the news. I ask myself if this means I should step even further back, be more careful, be silent where I might previously have acted as an advocate, stepping up on behalf of justice for Indigenous people. Even that, I don't know. So much I don't know.
What are your thoughts, or perhaps questions about appropriation?
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