COMMENTARY: Selling our culture

by Jan 31, 2022OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Editor


Cultural appropriation. From the tomahawk chop to the Jeep Cherokee to car dealership, cigar shop style Indian statues towering over a heavily trafficked road, it is interwoven into American society. Some Indigenous members of our communities are outspoken and repulsed by it. Others just chuckle and say that it is part of living for Natives in America.

If you have ever worked the front line of a visitor center or other amenity on a reservation or territorial holding like the Qualla Boundary, you have endured some particularly insulting examples of cultural ignorance and in some cases, appropriation.

I worked with our own Cherokee Welcome Center for several years and my coworkers in that building got to hear some things that would have caused a street brawl with many in a Native community.

“Where are all the Indians?” “You don’t look like a Cherokee…” “You know, my great, great grandmother was a Cherokee princess, but I can’t prove it.” And “Where do I go to pay the fee to get on your roll?”

Of course, our front-line staff was trained to professionally and courteously respond to comments like this. The Welcome Center leadership and staff prepare themselves mentally and emotionally to address questions that come from a lack of education on our culture. They would educate instead of chastising. Dealing with someone who has insulted you or your culture in a compassionate way takes some preparation and soul-searching. Still, it was hard not to be shocked at some of the things people would say. Discussions of these encounters made for some interesting conversation at team meetings. But we, within the community, could learn a good lesson from our family at the Welcome Center. Reminding ourselves that cultural ignorance isn’t typically displayed out of maliciousness.

Many times, people malign a people when they are trying to connect with it. And like many other things in our culture today, the error they make is in the sources of information they depend on. For example, back in the 1940s through the 1970s, most people in this country got their information about Indigenous peoples from commercial movies and television shows. In most cases, these representations of Native Peoples were outdated caricatures, lumping very different Indian cultures into a single, mostly western Indian representation. West coast entertainment companies took the most dramatic view of Indians, from clothing they wore to the cultural practices, and twisted them to appeal to a primarily Caucasian audience (because in that time, that audience had the biggest buying power and ability to contribute to the movie-makers pockets).

And when we, our own people, began to look for ways to offset the decline in income from the lumber industry that occurred in the 1950s, we turned to tourism as a new revenue stream. But the real culture of the Cherokee people looked much different than that shown to the American public through the entertainment industry. No tipis. No elaborate or ornate war bonnets. No fast, stylized dances. So, the tourism efforts of the tribe focused on making the Boundary look more like the romanticized image of the Native American that was popular among those who we were trying to get to come to the Boundary and spend time and money. From our outdoor drama to the streetside stands, elements of our culture were twisted and embellished to fit the image that got the most attention from the traveling public. We encouraged cultural appropriation and participated in it ourselves by taking cultural elements of western indigenous cultures and using them for our own profit.

Even very recently, in the last couple of decades, when we have attempted to reeducate the traveling public, focusing more on true traditional Cherokee culture, we as marketers of our culture have been a bit confused and confusing. In much of our imagery, you will see tribal members dressed as they would have been in the 18th century. And in our messaging, we infer that this is a common thing to see on the Boundary. Then, millions of tourists pass through our Boundary every year, with thousands stopping at our amenities, to see a very different Cherokee than what we have portrayed. And while the streetside tipis with war bonnet-clad Cherokee men have disappeared (primarily by an act of law by our government), the visitors still see primarily roadside stages in front of businesses displaying the western Indian dances from pow wows. And those men and women who entertain at those stages are not typically in traditional Cherokee dress. They are usually in pow wow regalia.

I was in a local restaurant last year when a family of tourists made their way into the dining room. There were three elementary school age children in the family. I was sitting with some friends from the office, all tribal members. The first thing that we noticed about this family was that those three children were wearing bright, pink-dye feathered headdresses; facsimiles of war bonnets that they had likely bought from a shop on the Qualla Boundary. My Cherokee friends at the table expressed quite a bit of anger at this family who were presenting a new facet of the cultural appropriation concept. My friends were upset at the parents for not educating their children and buying these things to wear around the Boundary. Interested, I asked my table mates who they thought that family bought their pink headdresses from? They had to be bought from a Cherokee-owned building and from a Cherokee-owned or leased business. Thousands of items are bought on the Qualla Boundary each year that are appropriates of another Indian culture or a distortion of our own.

There are still hard feelings among some people in Buncombe County over the removal of an Indian statue that stood in front of a car dealership for several years. While some try to argue that it was a harmless homage to American Indians, it more resembled the cigar-store Indians that still populate smoke shops around the world today. “The figures were a product of their time, a period fraught with prejudice against indigenous peoples. The statues helped to invent and then reinforce the quintessential stereotype of an ‘authentic’ Native American by often depicting figures with bronze-colored skin wearing feathered headdresses, long fringed skirts or shirts, and moccasins. Critics have compared the characters to racist lawn ornaments of black jockeys. Two of the more common types of Indian cigar statues portray the ‘noble savage’ with a stoic expression and passive stance; or the warrior, who brandishes a weapon he’s poised to use. In their day, these silent statues were effective communicators, meant to indicate to all-including the illiterate and non-English speakers-what was for sale. What they represent today to citizens of the 21st century is a more complicated message, eliciting both appreciation and disapproval.” ( So what was the Indian statue at the car dealership used for? As an homage to the noble Indian? Or a draw to sell cars? What motivation makes the most sense to you?

As a member of the Tribe and a person who loves the community, I am saddened by our past permissiveness to first condone cultural appropriation and then to participate in it ourselves. To some, including leaders within our government, it has been expressed that it is a small thing to allow bits of our culture to be for sale or even for us to exploit our past for monetary gain. Some have indicated that we have bigger issues to address. But this mindset and practice of selling or lending our culture may be a root cause of some of the larger issues to be faced. And selling our culture should not be taken lightly. Cultural differences are to be celebrated and revered, not exploited. We should not allow anyone to tell us they are using our culture to honor and salute our culture when their obvious goal is to make financial gain from our history.