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SHI President Rosita Worl gives presentation on cultural appropriation to educators, artists

The line between cultural appropriation and cross-cultural communication can be difficult for educators to figure out, acknowledged SHI President Rosita Worl in a presentation to art teachers, artists, and school administrators at the Walter Soboleff Building yesterday. But understanding the difference and building awareness of Northwest Coast (NWC) art traditions in the classroom is critical to the long-term survival of these art forms, she said.

“I want to say to you: Teach our art well. It’s a great art. We’ve nominated it to be a national treasure because we think it is so unique in the world of art and aesthetics. It’s been around for several thousand years and we want to make sure it’s around for more. You teachers are crucial to that, in helping us instruct our children, both Native and non-Native.”

Worl’s presentation was part of a two-day meeting on a new SHI art program that will help incorporate Northwest Coast art into Southeast Alaska schools at high school and college levels. Her talk began with an overview of Tlingit clan-based social structures and Tlingit property law, the subject of her PhD dissertation. Worl explained that property is owned by clans, not individuals. Clan-owned items include both tangible and intangible property—for example an object as well as the crest or design that appears on that object. Many songs and stories are also clan owned, as are designs associated with them.

Though clan-owned property is closely monitored, the basic principles of formline design can be freely shared with those outside of the culture. SHI’s policy, adopted by its Council of Traditional Scholars with the input of the Native Artist Committee and Board of Trustees, is to share Northwest Coast art traditions and help train non-Native teachers to present them to their students through programs such as Thru the Cultural Lens and Sharing Our Box of Treasures.

 “I’ve gone through this process of saying this is Tlingit property law—that we own our crests, we own our sacred property. But we also are aware that we live in a modern society and our people are engaged in a cash economy. Our mission is to support cross-cultural understanding, to support diversity, so it is our policy to share our arts and our culture with others…. We want to make Juneau the NWC arts capital and this is one of our efforts—teaching teachers to teach, having juried art shows, trying to get NWC art in public places. By sharing our culture we have a greater chance of it surviving.”

Similarly, wearing clothing or jewelry with formline designs created for the commercial market is not cultural appropriation, Worl said, pointing to the example of Santa Fe, where the entire community celebrates and embraces Southwest Native art.

In closing, Worl said that continuing to have conversations about cultural appropriation is important for the health of our community.

“What do we mean by cultural appropriation? It’s the flow of tangible and intangible cultural elements from indigenous societies to larger, western society. A simple definition, but clouded with so much history and emotion and divisiveness. (In Juneau) we are seeing social disruption. We are even seeing cases of racial violence occurring. I think that we need to understand and come to grips with this…. We need to be able to talk and work this out.”  (Photos by Nobu Koch)