Cheerleading, Cultural Appropriation and why ‘intention’ is not all that matters

My friend, Kim, posted the University of Regina Cheer Teams’ twitter posts about their last practice on my facebook wall this morning, because she knew I would share her concern and anger. I stared at the Instagram photos of the team dressed as “Cowboys and Indians” posted with the hashtags  #MeanMuggin #plaidandfeathers.

Cowboys and Indians 3 Cowboys and Indians 2 Cowboys and Indians 1

A hard pit started to form in my stomach as I looked closer at the images: white women (well, they appear white anyways) dressed in short, tan buckskin-like dresses, one of the women with a feather in her hair, another making a ‘whooping motion.’ Cultural appropriation in and of itself is not a new phenomenon, nor is cultural appropriation by sports teams.

Neither is Indigenous resistance.

Indigenous activists, communities and their allies are holding white-settler folks accountable for cultural appropriation, such as the recent (and recurring) misuse of headdresses as a ‘fashion’ statement and the names of many sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins. Just one example of well-thought Indigenous resistance to cultural appropriation is the video released by the National Congress of American Indians, shortly before the Super Bowl this year

The images and hashtags that Kim posted on my wall (and I have now reposted) were quickly removed by the U of R Cheer Team, who offered a short apology offered via twitter, which read: “We apologize for the photos they have been removed from all of our social media.” and in another tweet: “Our last intention was to disrespect anyone.” But, as the history and present-day situation in Canada shows us, apologies do not undo the damage that is done, nor is ‘intention’ behind our actions more important than our actions’ effects. Within white-settler culture, racism is normalized and lived as a ‘natural’ part of politically correct, liberal ideology.  Henry and Tator speak about how, in Canada, certain “democratic principles such as justice and fairness” coexist with racism (1). As such, few people assert overtly racist attitudes, but many still spout (or perform) stereotypes that reaffirm frontier narratives about the Canadian Prairies: that settlers came and ‘broke’ (or started to make use of) the land, which was settled quite peacefully (except for the Riel Resistance, which in these narratives is consistently referred to as a Rebellion). Sometimes the American frontier narrative of ‘Cowboy and Indian’ wars bleeds into our frontier narrative, as in the images that the U of R Cheer Team posted and their practice of ‘playing’ Cowboys and Indians. In these images and the frontier narrative they reproduce, Indigenous people are placed in the past, a culture ‘lost’ and a people assimilated. Indigenous women are hypersexualized. Both of of the stereotypes of the ‘vanishing Indian’ and ‘Indian Princess’ that emerge in the these images and practice undermine Indigenous peoples’ rights to land, to services, to respect. Further, they undermine Indigenous women’s safety (2).

These actions by the U of R Cheer Team are not isolated, they are informed by of and reinforce stereotypes circulating in white-settler communities in Saskatchewan, including Regina. They are an indication of how entrenched these stereotypes and narratives remain. They also serve as an example of why ‘intention’ is not all that matters.

I believe that the U of R Cheer Team did not intend to disrespect anyone. As stereotypes of Indigenous people and a frontier narrative of white-settler ‘progress’ are part of our liberal ideology, it is possible to both have good intentions and act in racist ways within Canada and Saskatchewan. When I was growing up in a polite, small-town, white-settler Saskatchewan town and later when I starting practicing feminist politics in my undergraduate university days, I, along with a lot of the people I was surrounded by, were very invested in being ‘good’ in having ‘good intentions.’ This was first and foremost what we saw as our responsibility and it became our defense when accused of exclusive or denigrating practices. However, ‘good intentions’ do not undo the effects of our actions nor should they excuse them. Rather, our responsibility as a (white-settler) community needs to shift from a simple blind ‘good intentions’ (which justifies a continued ignorance of the effects of our practices) to critical reflection on our practices before we engage in them and reparations when we cause harm (whether unintentional or intentional). It needs to shift to relational accountability to and with Indigenous communities, on this land that we share. This comes through conversations and ongoing, non-crisis-driven relationships with Indigenous communities. This comes through offering reparations for our colonial past, through working with Indigenous people to change the colonial present and the racist and sexist nature of our society.

In an email exchange with some of the U of R folks, I have been informed that the team’s coaches and members will be meeting with the Executive Lead on Indigenization at the U of R and receiving cultural sensitivity training. While cultural sensitivity training is problematic for its focus on providing content and information about ‘other’ cultures without adequately addressing power relations and white privilege, it is my hope that this provides an opportunity for members of the U of R Cheer Team to start to question their practices, their assumptions, and to begin to build new relationships with Indigenous peoples. At the same time, as these actions by the U of R Cheer Team are an indication of how many U of R students and white-settler Regina community members (mis)understand Indigenous peoples and the narrative of Canadian history that white-settler society has been sold, more action needs to be taken across the university and community and we (as current students, as alumni, and as Saskatchewan people) need to be part of that action. We can question stereotypes, exclusive and denigrating language, and hold ourselves, our colleagues, friends and families accountable for the unintended effects of our/their ‘good intentions.’ We can work to build better relationships between and within communities. And we can do that whether the university takes further action or not.

(1) Henry, F. & Tator, C. (2006). The colour of democracy: Racism in Canadian Society (3rd ed.) Toronto: Nelson.

(2) In one of the many examples of how the ‘Indian Princess’ stereotype contributes to the widespread violence against Indigenous women in Canada, in 2001 when a 12-year-old Cree-Saulteaux girl from Yellow Quill First Nation first met three white-settler, 20-something men, Dean Edmondson, Jeffrey Kindrat, and Jeffrey Brown, in Tisdale one of them said, “I thought Pocahontas was a movie.” These men later fed her alcohol and at least one of them sexually assaulted her (while only Edmondson was convicted there is much critique of the court proceedings and many are of the opinion that Kindrat and Brown are also guilty). He was referring, of course, to the 1995 Disney movie, Pocahontas, which features the ‘Indian Princess’ as a voluptuous, innocent looking girl who appears scantily clad in deer hide. For further analysis about the Indian Princess/Squaw-Drudge image and its material effects on Indigenous women, see Anderson, K. (2000). A Recognition of Being : Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto, ON: Second Story PressGreen, R. (2007). The Pocahontas Perplex. In Kugel, R. & Eldersveld, L. (Eds.) Native Women’s History in Eastern North America before 1900: A Guide to Research and Writing, 10-26. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. For an in-depth analysis of the media coverage around the trial of Edmondson, Kindrat and Brown, see Kallio, N. (2006). Aboriginality and sexualised violence: The Tisdale Rape Case in Saskatoon “Star Phoenix.” MA Thesis. Montreal: Concordia University; Keating, B. (2008). Raping Pocahontas: History, territory and ekphrasis in the representation of an Indigenous girl. MA Thesis. Regina, SK: University of Regina. See also McNinch, J. (2009) I thought Pocahontas was a movie: Using Critical Discourse Analysis to understand race and sex as social constructs. In Schick, C. & McNinch, J. (Eds.)“I thought Pocahontas was a movie”: Perspectives on race/culture binaries in education and service professions, 151-176. Regina, SK: Canadian Plains Research Centre.