I was helping my fifth grader with a history project a few nights ago when we made a fascinating discovery. As we researched the Native American people indigenous to our area for the presentation he was working on, we stumbled on a wild story that left us both aghast.
Long story short, way back in 1899, the city of Seattle wanted to be known as the “Gateway to Alaska”. So, in order to establish a landmark that perpetuated this title, a group of businessmen sailed to Alaska, where they found a 60-foot totem pole in a Tlingit village. Assuming the village had been abandoned (the people were actually only temporarily away for the summer fishing and cannery season) the men cut down the pole, brought it to Seattle, and erected it in a prominent place in town, where it became known as the Seattle Totem for the next 50 years.
The term “cultural appropriation” is a very loaded term, and there’s a lot of debate about where the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation falls. I know there is always the filter of perspective as we look back on history, but with all that said, THIS seems to be one example of cultural appropriation we can all agree on.
By definition, cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture takes an identifying characteristic without permission, respect, or understanding of its importance or significance to that culture and uses it for their own benefit.
In this example from long ago, an item was literally taken from one culture and used to promote and benefit the economy of another.
Now, again, I realize this is a pretty hot topic, and there’s an ongoing argument over the difference between exploiting a culture and admiring it.
But stick with me here.
If we look simply at the aspect of a dominant culture taking ownership of another culture’s art for their own personal benefit, we have a compelling issue to examine in early education.
As Emily Plank examines in her book, Discovering the Culture of Childhood, viewing childhood as its own distinct culture gives us a new perspective on the artifacts of childhood, most notably their art.
We adults run a risk, she says, of committing “acts of cultural appropriation whereby we use the work of childhood to serve the demands of adulthood.”
This passage got me thinking about the ways we adults sometimes take ownership of a child’s art. Stories of art projects being “fixed” in the back of the room before going home to parents. (You can’t leave those google eyes askew like that for Mom and Dad to see, can you?)
Or experiences where toddlers bring home “art projects” they clearly did not create themselves. (As one mother shared with me, “I threw it away. I don’t need a memento of what his teacher can make.”)
Or even instances where a child’s art is documented and evaluated to such an extent that the child no longer feels free to create in his or her own context. The art is now subjugated to the “demands of the culture of adulthood”.
Are we taking ownership of their creative expression, their art, and their culture as something we benefit from as the adults in the room?
Are we more concerned with how other adults see the art project (and how they view US because of it) than we are with the child’s experience with it?
Can we overdo our intentionality to the point that we are appropriating their childhood art and play to meet the demands of our own adult culture?
As Emily Plank writes:
Children have a right to explore, experiment, wonder, and create, even if those explorations cannot be immediately linked to measurable goals and objectives. Documenting a child’s learning is important. Articulating the profound experiences that take place from day to day is important. Reflecting on children’s daily routines in our programs is important. But sometimes we can’t name all the mathematical, linguistic, and social payoffs from a morning of rich, process-oriented exploration. Perhaps, at some point the fact that our children do the best job they can do at being children is simply enough.”
It may not be as obvious and egregious as cutting down a 60 foot totem pole and claiming it as our own, but in small and big ways, are we taking the work of children — their play and art and exploration — and claiming it as our own?
Like cultural appropriation at large, I think these questions are difficult to answer broadly, but require sincere personal introspection and awareness.
And that awareness will give us more respect for the culture of childhood.
Emily and I have been discussing her book over the course of several episodes of Not Just Cute, The Podcast. You can listen to our discussion on this section of the book here and can catch additional episodes here or at the Discovering the Culture of Childhood Read Along post.
I’ll be talking to Emily soon for our wrap up session on her book, and would love to hear any questions you might have for her! Share your thoughts and questions in the comments section and I’ll be sure to add them into our next conversation.