Our Policy on Cultural Appropriation

And How We Choose What to Teach

Summer camps and outdoor education programs in the United States have a long history of cultural appropriation. Think about the countless sleep-away camps run by white people with Indian names and out-of-context totem poles. While Ravenwood has avoided the more egregious examples of this, our trend in the past has been to take useful and interesting songs, stories, and other pieces of indigenous cultures that exemplify connection and a regenerative land ethic, and incorporate them as Ravenwood’s own practices.

For a long time this felt like a small, harmless and justified borrowing, enacted in the interest of regenerating a connective culture for our mostly-white participants. But cultural appropriation is never justified, and Ravenwood’s use of this culture out of context can create a barrier to Indigenous, Black, and other People of Color (IBPOC) participation, both as staff members and as students. We hope to start healing this harm by instituting and sharing the following policy on cultural appropriation.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

According to the dictionary, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” The keywords here is dominant. When the taker has the power, the one being taken from can scarcely object. Barriers to objection can sometimes be so high that the takers are never confronted and never even recognize that they are taking. Therefore members of dominant groups must work to recognize when they are abusing power, and must rectify matters. This is what Ravenwood’s Cultural Appropriation policy intends to do.

The use of appropriated culture by the dominant culture causes a lot of problems. It trivializes the cultures of IBPOC people by taking elements out of their ancestral context and into the white colonial context. It reduces cultural elements to offensive caricatures of themselves, and creates stereotypes and unconscious bias. Additionally it can exoticize IBPOC cultures and set up an us-vs-them division. On an epidemiologic level it results in measurable psychological harm to IBPOC individuals and populations.

The act of appropriating culture causes problems too. Taking something without asking implies that the owner does not deserve ownership. This idea is the essence of colonization, the idea that the resource wasn’t being used in its original context, so settler-colonists might as well make use of it on their terms. This belief reinforces the cultural silencing of IBPOC people, a silencing that enables white people to engage in guiltless greed and the taking of what isn’t theirs.

As it states in Article 11 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, indigenous people have a right to control the stories, songs, and knowledge of their own culture. The impulse to take anyway, the impulse that says it’s harmless, the impulse that says summer camps deserve to have a connective song even though we don’t have express permission to sing it, is the same impulse that over-harvests natural resources. This is even the same impulse that enslaves human beings. It is this sense of entitlement, privilege, and deafness to the word “no” that got us into this culturally destructive place to begin with.

What is Ravenwood Doing About It?

Ravenwood wants to honor the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and the cultural value of Indigenous, Black, and all  People of Color. So we have come up with agreements among our staff about how we use and share songs, stories, and folk art traditions (cultural elements) at Ravenwood. 

  • We teach survival skills and basic crafts that exemplify universal solutions to universal human needs for shelter, water, fire, food, clothing, and tools, evidence for which can be found all over the world.

  • We share cultural elements that are from our own individual cultural and family lineages, and we always name the lineage. 

  • We share cultural elements that have been invented by ourselves and our teachers, and always are clear that they are our own inventions.

  • We share cultural elements that we know the ancestry and cultural significance of, and that we know are already freely shared by the original culture, such as stories shared by an Indigenous storyteller on Youtube. Again, we always credit the lineage and teacher.

  • We share cultural elements that have been expressly gifted to us by someone who has permission to give them, and always credit the teacher and their lineage.

 

  • We refrain from sharing cultural elements that we don’t know the lineage of, or for which we don’t know the appropriate cultural context.

  • We refrain from using cultural elements that come from a lineage that is different from the teacher and that the teacher doesn’t have permission to teach.

  • We willingly shift what we teach as cultures change and grow, and as we learn more and develop more relationships.

We are by no means “right” in our positions and ideas, we are learning and growing as fast as we can. We would like to learn and grow with transparency, open to feedback. We hope that publicly sharing these standards, and the reasoning behind them, helps all of us connected to Ravenwood to think a bit more deeply about how we relate to each other as human beings.

Thank you, and let’s build a more just, connected, and sustainable world together!