Questioning Power & Repairing Harm: Addressing Cultural Appropriation in Our History
One of Camp Fire’s five interwoven strategic commitments is addressing and ending cultural appropriation. In 2020, Camp Fire began working with Thrive Paradigm to identify culturally appropriative elements of its programming and recommend changes aligned with Camp Fire’s values of equity and inclusivity. In April through July of last year, Thrive Paradigm helped Camp Fire establish a task force, conduct an audit and develop recommendations for changes and next steps.
The task force reiterated that Camp Fire has a long, rich history of positive youth development and that removing culturally appropriative practices doesn’t detract from that. Instead, making thoughtful changes to end cultural appropriation and acknowledging the harm that appropriation has done is right in line with Camp Fire’s founding mission to “guide young people on their journey to self-discovery.”
What is cultural appropriation?
Let’s start with the working definition Thrive Paradigm created together with Camp Fire:
Cultural Appropriation refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from the culture of people who have been systemically oppressed by that dominant group.
The adoption of these elements from another culture typically occurs without the consent of the people who belong to that culture and who have been historically marginalized.
Acts of appropriation and their implications are not determined by the intent or awareness of those engaged in such acts but are instead shaped by, and in turn shape, the social, economic, and political contexts in which they occur.
Undoing the harm that has been caused by cultural appropriation requires engaging in dialogue with individuals and communities that have been impacted.
The task force was created to start that dialogue. It included Camp Fire council representatives, National Headquarters staff, content experts, members of Indigenous communities, and a Youth Advisory Cabinet member. They used an audit tool—a checklist and set of guiding questions—to look at samples of camp and club curricula, activities, ceremonies, recognition items, and more.
“There are two elements that I like to uplift when talking about cultural appropriation: One is around power, and the other is around harm,” says Thrive Paradigm’s Jimena Quiroga Hopkins, one of the task force’s facilitators. “For me, it’s really about understanding cultural appropriation within the broader systems of power and oppression in this country. And secondly, what is the harm it is causing? That harm can be immediate or it can be long-term.”
The tool asked the task force to consider:
- Culturally appropriative language: Do the words or language potentially take or draw from a culture’s intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions?
- Culturally appropriative images and iconography: Does the image or symbol potentially take or draw from a culture’s intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions?
- Stereotypes and myths: Is an element from a culture depicted in a stereotypical or one-dimensional way or perpetuates a myth?
- Culturally appropriative traditions and rituals: Does the original ritual, tradition, image potentially hold sacred meaning?
- Context: Is the ritual, tradition, image used out of context from its original meaning or purpose?
- Other: Is there language or are there images that are non-inclusive or biased toward a particular group of people?
“I found the tool to be unique in that often when asked to do these types of things, it’s not specific enough for Indigenous communities,” says Barbara Mumby Huerta, a task force member and Open Society Racial Equality fellow. “Jimena was able to drill down to what those issues are in a really succinct way.”
“This process really had us considering the intent versus the impact of our organization for the last century,” shares Ben Matthews, Program Consultant, Diversity and Inclusion for Camp Fire National Headquarters. “Even if our founders had good intentions, we now understand the context and see how the homogenization and commodification of Indigenous cultures by Camp Fire have caused harm. The assessment tool makes you start to question where the power, the benefit, and the harm lie in a particular practice that we may have never questioned before.”
Through the audit, task members surfaced some common cultural appropriation themes in appropriated symbols and imagery, language and names, and ritual and ceremonial elements.
- Cultural homogenization of Native Americans. Often, implicit or explicit references mixed cultural elements from different Tribal Nations and regions and/or removed elements from their specific cultural contexts. This downplays and disrespects the diversity of Native American cultures.
- Stereotypes. Reviewers discussed how some materials romanticized Native Americans, portraying them in idealized, one-dimensional ways that made them sound like mythological beings from extinct cultures. This again disrespects the diversity of Native American cultures—and the diversity of people within those living, breathing, evolving cultures.
- Native American Aesthetic. Even when specific Native American symbols weren’t being referenced, some materials seemed to adopt a design aesthetic that resembles Great Plains or Southwestern Tribes’ art.
- Power Dynamics. When the task force reckoned with who was benefitting from the use of Native American symbols, imagery, language, names, rituals and ceremonies, the answer was clear: Only Camp Fire and participating youth. In the materials audited, there wasn’t any proof that Indigenous communities were receiving any social or financial benefit from this use.
- Historical context. The task force reviewed historical documents that showed Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman, aka Ohiyesa, Wahpeton Dakota Sioux, had been consulted in the early years of Camp Fire. In the past, his involvement was sometimes seen as justification or permission to adopt Indigenous traditions. The task force cautions against making assumptions about his intentions or letting one man stand-in for a diverse group of cultures. The task force encourages Camp Fire to consider the larger historical context—including the way the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 forced detribalization and assimilation onto Native Americans into the first part of the 20th century.
“In my experience doing this work, there’s a lot of ignorance about the history,” says Barbara. “At that time, religious practices were outlawed for Native people, but yet Caucasian children could freely explore, co-opt and exploit practices that we as Indigenous people would be killed for doing.” Learning, understanding, and sharing Native American history will be an important part of Camp Fire’s ongoing process.
The task force had several ideas for replacing or adapting existing appropriated program elements:
- Connect with local Tribes. Work with local Tribal stewards to acknowledge harm, make changes and receive permission. “It’s important for Camp Fire to develop clearer strategies and protocols for not just representation but authentic partnerships with Indigenous communities where the councils are located,” says Jimena.
- Use non-appropriative language for naming people and places. Youth can choose a meaningful club or camp name using their own language(s) and background(s) instead of appropriating those of other cultures.
- Stop or adapt the use of gowns. Some councils have already transitioned to using vests or other regalia.
- Update awards and recognitions as needed. Keep affirming youth but use non-appropriative symbols and iconography.
- Choose original symbols. Youth can still choose symbols for themselves, based on their own dreams, interests and backgrounds.
Phase Two is already underway. Camp Fire is creating a self-assessment tool, based on the one the audit task force used, so all councils can do their own analysis. Councils will have the opportunity to identify and share best practices as they work to replace culturally appropriated practices and traditions. Camp Fire is developing a youth-led process, so young people can have a voice in creating those new elements. And there will be a professional development plan so Camp Fire staff can learn more about the history of Indigeous people and be trained on this vital issue.
Camp Fire will also be creating an advisory task force to explore the best way to “undo the harm.” This process is often called reparations, and it involves acknowledging the harm done, offering solutions to address that harm, and some kind of compensation for the suffering caused.
“Some kind of reparations need to happen,” says Jimena. “I don’t know what that looks like, but bringing the right people to the table to figure it out is part of moving forward.”
“One hundred percent,” Barbara agrees. “Prior to this unique point in time, these conversations would happen, processes would stop, but that’s where it ended. No one took advantage of this opportunity to take it to the next level and repair that harm. Reparations should be a cornerstone of this type of work.”
There aren’t many examples of nonprofit organizations who have gone through a reparations process—especially in the field of positive youth development. There is no simple model to point to or typical outcome to expect. Instead, Camp Fire and Indigenous communities will be working together to discover a path forward.
“I think that there is an opportunity to not just make a bold statement,” Jimena says, “but lead.”
Go Deeper: Resources to learn more
- Playing Indian, by Philip J. Deloria, explores the history of cultural appropriation of in America (1999)
- NDN Collective is an Indigenous-led organization “committed to creating a world that is more just and equitable for all people and the planet.”
- The Decolonizing Wealth Project is based on Edgar Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance.