The 7 & 8 year olds I have been working with this term wanted to find feathers to make head dresses the following week. I like to ask the children what they would like to do for the next session and, as far as I am able, I try to do it. So far so child-centred. Their request came in response to a Native American story I have shared with them. It comes from the Achomawi people in Northern California. Traditionally they were hunter gatherers so we have been making bows & arrows and foraging in the hedges around our school field. The story is called The Rainbow Makers. It came to me from Chris Holland, a passionate story teller and nature connection facilitator. He always acknowledges the lineage of the stories he shares and this one comes with permission from the Achomawi people of the Pit River Tribe.
There was something about the children's request that was bothering me. When does cultural appreciation turn into cultural appropriation? How far should we intervene in children's play?
I put the question to my forest school community and I am very grateful for the honest and generous discussion that ensued. Sharing stories is a wonderful gift to share. It is something that I think humans must have been doing from the very beginning. Stories travel across continents and through time. They are a doorway into other cultures, a way to understand other people who do things differently from our own families and communities. They help us grow empathy, help us to connect with our common humanity. In a country filled with people from many cultures it can help us appreciate why some people do things differently if we tune into each other's stories.
It's also important that we tread lightly and with respect.
We want children to understand and have knowledge of other cultures but it's also our role as adults to call out stereotypes and tokenistic attitudes. That way we can support their critical thinking and sense of social justice. There is an open letter to non-natives here explaining very clearly why wearing a feather head dress causes great offence to First Nation people. We cannot ignore the racist history, the stories of stolen land, stolen children and forced assimilation when we are trying to decide if children's play inspired by a story is just harmless fun.
I think it's vital to respect children's play even if it can look challenging to us adults. It's important to give respectful, authentic lessons about culture too. We need to share these with our children in an age appropriate way so that stereotypes aren't perpetuated without challenge.
After reading and discussing these questions the same things keep coming up. Make space for the authentic voices to be heard, don't take over the story if there is someone more entitled to tell it. Go to the source. Where you possibly can, ask the people from that particular tradition how they would like to be represented. If you can't ask directly try and find a website from that community. Do the work to find out. The most important thing then is of course to listen to the answer. Isn't that often the case?
So what happened in the end with this group of children and the feathers? The class teachers talked to the children about the importance of the head dress and why wearing one when you are not entitled was offensive to Native Americans. Back on the field, the child that made the head dress suggestion came to chat to me about it. We talked about other things we could find & make, things that could be special for us. It was a brief conversation but it told me that he had been listening.
There are some useful articles here which go into more depth:
USA Today on cultural appropriation and children's costumes
Decolonising schools - the emphasis is on the festival of Thanksgiving in the US but there is plenty to take away and apply to the UK. There are also lots of useful resources & links to take you further into these questions.
Fashion and cultural appropriation blog post here - useful to think about tokenism.
This site has a list of blog posts covering a range of indigenous issues around cultural appropriation as well as identity, history and misconceptions.
The Common Worlds Research Collective are doing lots of work on decolonising early childhood work, lots to delve into.
For more in depth stuff I recommend Edward Said's book Culture & Imperialism
For a modern perspective on the Native American experience I highly recommend Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy by Kent Nerburn. It's an uncomfortable read but a beautiful compelling one. I couldn't put this down. There is also a film of the first part of the trilogy. I haven't seen it yet but it gets great reviews.
Finally there is a link here to Woodland Tribe's Anti Racism Resources. There is stuff for parents , teachers and play workers.