Student Voice


February 3, 2023



Awareness of cultural appropriation grows

May 8, 2019

The use of the term “spirit animal” became an internet trend a little over a decade ago, and has now become widely used in popular culture. This normalization has contributed to the cultural appropriation of the Native American community.

Cultural appropriation, as explained by Cyndi Kernahan, a professor of psychology and assistant dean for teaching and learning in the College of Arts and Sciences, “Means taking on or taking up pieces or features of another groups culture in a way that trivializes them and doesn’t accurately represent them.”

Kernahan said that cultural appropriation happens frequently in the Native American community. “Urban Outfitters has even sold various things that have trivialized different Native cultures. There has also been controversy around celebrities wearing a headdress, thinking it looks cool in a picture but not recognizing what that headdress actually means and what its purpose is,” she said.

The original use of the term spirit animal originates from within indigenous spiritual practices and traditions. Ann Lawton, a lecter of art and a registered art therapist, explained, “By taking that and using it for our own enjoyment and consumption, it is further silencing and not acknowledging the importance of the practices these people use.”

“I can see where we want to identify with animals and want to connect with them. That’s fine, but the term spirit animal is not right here, since that is talking about someone's spiritual discipline,” Lawton continued.

There are instances of positive cultural espouse, which is called syncretism. Kernahan explained syncretism as “The smashing together of cultures. In a way, our entire American history is that way. The problem comes in when one culture has a lot more power and lot more dominance. Taking up the symbols and practices and ideas from another culture without properly crediting it,” said Kernahan.

“The issue with cultural appropriation is when people are taking these ideas and not understanding what they mean, that they’re relevant, important and meaningful to a particular group,” Kernahan said.

In today’s visual culture, the sources of inspiration behind many images are not questioned. “If you know something isn’t right or you’re not sure, question it. Asking questions about where ideas came from is key,” recommended Lawton.

Kernahan expressed the importance of mindfulness. “Be thoughtful of ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘Where did it come from?’ Don’t do things mindlessly.”

Research has shown that many history classes are inadequate in teaching students a complete story, which can lead to accidental cultural appropriation. “Many students come by this kind of ignorance honestly. Also, our schools are very segregated. It makes sense why you might not know these things, then have some humility and say ‘I don’t fully understand why someone was offended, but what can I do here to fix this,’” said Kernahan.

Cultural appropriation can be avoided in a variety of ways. Kernahan said, “One is just being more educated about what other cultures practices are, what things actually mean to that culture.”

Kernahan explained that a curiosity and willingness to learn, supplemented with research could be helpful. “If you think of something like a pow wow or spirit animal in the native community, figure out what that means. [. . .] If you don’t know, you can always ask a professor on campus.”

If confronted about doing cultural appropriation, Lawton said, “Not getting defensive is huge. We always go to that defensive place because it’s what we’ve experienced and we don’t want to seem stupid or ignorant. Humility and grace are a huge part of the process and all you can do is learn and change.”

Kernahan also suggested that people watch movies, read books, or engage with people that are from a diversity of cultural groups. One of the strategic goals of UW-River Falls is to be global ethical citizens, and cultural appropriation does not serve this goal.