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.


23 thoughts on “Cheerleading, Cultural Appropriation and why ‘intention’ is not all that matters

  1. Keitha Kennedy

    Racism is alive and thriving in Saskatchewan. I was just on my way to my Mother’s place and was telling my 11 yr old son that Racism is alive and well in Regina. Then I seen this post and it only proved me right. Wow could they not have found an first nation girl to be part of this photo op? (Not that one would ever be) but it only goes to show what these young girls think about the first nation people? I doubt a culture sensitivity workshop will do them any justice as its just bandaid solution.

    1. SueZoo

      I’m a little late to the game as I’m only learning about this incident today.

      I am struck by Keitha Kennedy’s parenthetical comment “(Not that one would ever be)”. Why not?

      {No sarcasm, I’m seriously asking because I do not know the (obvious?) answer}

  2. Alexandra Thomson

    Ouch. Not impressed by my hometown cheer team. I am sure they meant no harm however it is a strong and powerful example of the ignorance within the city – even from women within a ‘higher education’ environment.

  3. Albert

    This girl who wrote this needs to get a life…. Our society seems to or reads into everything that is not important and turns a blind eye to the real issues in this world. I remember playing cowboys and indians as a kid and we had a blast but we had no racial intentions just pure innocence just kids acting in roles. Does it mean that cops and robbers is a bad idea as well?? Robbers are people as well. Pretty sad that we have to walk on egg shells and give apologies for stuff that there was no intent of racial slurs but because someone read into the wrong way it turns something innocent into some superficial issue. You can pretty much look at every life situation and turn it into something bigger than what it really is. Just my thoughts though

    1. Vivian Ferguson

      To Albert who played cowboys and indians as a child,.
      These were adults not kids playing cowboys and Indians. They ought to know better.

    2. Hannah W

      Didn’t realize “robbers” were a marginalized people who had faced cultural genocide and systemic oppression for decades… Probably best to forgive and forget if they had been though, right?

  4. Miklos Legrady

    What an enjoyment of anger and guilt tripping. Passive / aggressive here means being politically correct allows you to be the liberal version of the Westboro Baptist Church. If you read the Westboro papers, they sound as morally certain as this writer. An orgy of hatred and being better than others.

  5. Tyler Barnes

    Seriously? this sort of thing is an issue? How many people dress up in green and tie one on every March 17th? Soon we’ll have to beg forgiveness for dressing as ourselves… As for not having a first nations girl to be part of the photo op… ummm, perhaps there wasn’t a first nations girl on the team? Or should a first nations girl be placed on the team to assuage the feeling of the offended and bump someone who earned her spot? Should I be offended every time I see a first nations cowboy wearing a stetson?

    1. Brandy

      There is a huge difference in dressing as a cowboy, a job some one chooses to do, and dressing as a fictionalized and derogatory version of a cultural stereotype. Get over yourself guy.

    2. Brandy

      As far as dressing in green and getting drunk on St. Patricks Day… there are many people who are unhappy at having the whole of their culture watered down to a alcohol induced joke.

  6. Pingback: Cheerleading, Cultural Appropriation and why ‘intention’ is not all that matters | creewoman26

  7. Pingback: Cheerleading, Cultural Appropriation and why ‘intention’ is not all that matters | Sask Conference Justice and Right Relations UCC

  8. sabr33n

    thank you so so much for writing this piece. I am currently writing a research paper on this exact subject and your perspective has completely inspired me. We all need to speak up and speak out against injustice and these girls did a very terrible thing. The idea that people are sticking up for them honestly hurts. I can’t believe that in 2014 people aren’t able to admit when they are wrong. Why are people so eager to protect those girls, they did something wrong and are being called out. Good! A culture is not a costume! and it certainly is not a joke, especially middle to upper class white girls who have probably never experienced being an ‘Other’ never experienced walking down a hall with people scared of them or people shocked when you speak perfect Canadian English to them. I am so sad that in today’s world we still have to experience intolerance, hate and naivity/ignorance like this. just…. can’t believe it.

  9. kfidelack

    This situation provides a great argument for every degree at U of R to have mandatory INDG 100. In the Faculty of Education (and I’m sure some other faculties as well), we discuss these issues a lot. I don’t think we can blame others for missing out on this knowledge due to the classes that their faculties require they take. It also shines a light on what elementary and secondary education may be failing to do as well… Just something to think about.

  10. feminorth

    Thank you! Totally!

    Colonialism is alive and well at the U of R, and even if it is unintentional, we (white-settlers) need to address issues of internalized racism and anti-indigenous attitudes.

    This was well-written and effective!

  11. Richard Underwood

    I’m a white guy from the U.S. and have been living in Regina for 8 years now. The racism against natives here is so open and blatant amongst white people. It makes me very uncomfortable. Back home the racism towards black people is similar but not to this extent anymore.

  12. Lara

    Being right by making others wrong may temporarily make you feel good and somehow “better” than others but it also makes you insufferable to be around. Such a long-winded diatribe to “prove” your point speaks volumes about you and says nothing about the people you make yourself out to be superior to.

    Life is too short to waste it looking for ways to be offended by what others do or say, particularly when it has nothing to do with you.

  13. Lauren

    I read your publication via CBC, thanks for writing such a beautifully articulate piece. You really expanded my understanding of the issue.

  14. shawn

    i see nothing wrong with the pics all i see is a bunch of young women trying to have fun how is that racist in anyway too me this whole statement is someones jelious opinion and well opinions are like like arm pits everyones got one and most of them stink

  15. Sammy

    I thought this piece was constructively written and well thought out. I feel it’s important to present the criticism in a larger context and in a respectful tone instead of antagonizing individuals who get caught up in these debates. Clearly there needs to be more awareness raising when it comes to matters of cultural appropriation.

  16. Pingback: To be informed | Conversations with Ladybugs

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