Native American priest visits School of Theology

Fleming Smith

Junior Editor

On January 28 at the School of Theology, Reverend Rachel Taber-Hamilton visited to speak on “Cultural Appropriation and the Problem of Romantic Idealization of Native Americans.” She spoke of her own difficulties in becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church in trying to combine her native heritage and spirituality with her Christian faith as well as the exploitation and discrimination Native Americans have suffered throughout history.

“There is a way in which cultural appropriation is absolutely a part of how Native Americans experience non-natives who, with good intention, may want to be helpful,” Taber-Hamilton began with a small laugh, referencing the Episcopal Church. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain parts of one culture by another (usually dominant) culture. Literature and the visual arts are key examples, usually placing natives in two categories, according to Taber-Hamilton: “noble Indians and ignoble savages.” She referenced the novel Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper and the movie Dances with Wolves as two popular representations that fall far from the reality. “Stereotypes tell us more about the perceivers than the perceived,” added Taber-Hamilton.

While Native Americans in pop culture are made into caricatures, historically, “Native Americans simply became another resource,” said Taber-Hamilton. After colonization of the Americas, natives were used for labor and their land was quickly confiscated by white settlers. In modern times, Native American culture can be seen in several different arenas, but usually not with actual native consent. “Outsiders may not see what the big deal is,” said Taber-Hamilton, “[but] it’s like we’re being picked apart by vultures.”

For example, many sports teams, from high scool to the professional level, use mascots and team names evoking native heritage. In recent years, the Washington Redskins have faced controversy, but the use of such names is fairly widespread—thousands of teams use names like Warriors, Braves, or Chiefs. Often, this can be accompanied by a non-native dressing up like a stereotypical “American Indian” with little thought of the actual cultural significance.

Beyond sports, native culture is appropriated in clothing, trinkets, and costumes; while some may claim to merely enjoy and celebrate Native American culture, using elements of that culture without context or understanding of its true meaning is not merely “offensive,” explained Taber-Hamilton. “[They’re] by-products of systemic racism,” she continued. “We’re not a relic of the past.” To counteract cultural appropriation, Taber-Hamilton recommends collaborations between Native Americans and different groups in a respectful association, such as the Nike company hiring a native artist to design a Native American-themed clothing line.

Taber-Hamilton highlighted the mistaken sense of most Americans that Native Americans disappeared when faced with Western civilization. On the contrary, Taber-Hamilton herself is an example of the thriving culture and identity of Native Americans that continues in the modern age. She was the first Native American to be ordained in the Olympia Diocese, and admitted that she faced difficulty with the Episcopal Church due to her native spirituality. While many attempted to force her to be more traditional, Taber-Hamilton stood by her heritage. “I want to be a priest in the way God is calling me. Because this is what a priest can look like, too,” she said, gesturing to herself.

Cultural appropriation is only one facet of the difficult relationship between Native Americans and the dominant American majority. While collaborations may take time, partnerships are the only way to heal a wound that is still painful to many in the native community. “It’s a tough walk, to walk in two worlds, but an important one, on both sides,” said Taber-Hamilton of natives and nonnatives building trusting relationships in and outside of the church.

“Together, we must mutually break free of historic forces which keep nonnatives and natives alike within patterns of oppression and victimization,” said Taber-Hamilton. The process of becoming more respectful of native culture begins individually, but significant change—whether or not it begins with changing the name of the Washington Redskins—can only be accomplished through collective effort. “We must allow the past to authentically inform us and commit together to a future of respect between the many, many nations that compose the United States of America, that compose the Episcopal Church, and that compose the Anglican community,” said Taber-Hamilton in concluding her presentation.