Growing up in San Carlos, Arizona, Southern Utah University junior and former 2018 Miss Native American SUU Shelvie James never recognized herself as “special.”
As a part of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, James grew up in a community almost entirely of other Native Americans and members of her tribe. It wasn’t until she moved to Cedar City, Utah for her education at SUU that she recognized a significance in her identity.
“Being here at SUU where there’s not that much diversity, I kind of appreciate it a lot more just because there’s, like, one Apache student, compared to many different tribes…it’s good to have that small representation, even if it’s just you,” James said.
As a member of the Native American Student Association, James uses her time and voice to educate others about her individual tribe and to celebrate the diversity in Native American representation at the university.
With Halloween approaching, James is bracing for the cultural appropriation of her Native American culture from those who do not share her heritage. Whether it’s the stereotypical “Indian” costume or individuals adopting parts of Native American culture that do not belong to them, James is tired of feeling “erased.”
“I feel like it’s my place to say, ‘Hey you know, I’m kind of offended by that because I am Native American, and you’re dressing up like me as if I don’t exist anymore…It feels like you’re just stripping away the identities that we try building, and bring us back to a five dollar Party City costume,’” James said.
According to James, there’s a difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating it. Some examples of appropriation include dressing in traditional Native American regalia or the sexualization of the traditional “Indian.”
“…what you’re really doing is making me feel like I’m cheap, like, ‘I can be a Native American for one day and then go back to being a white person.’ And that’s what really hurts the most, that they get to strip that identity away after one night, and I live with it every single day of my life,” James said.
Another example of appropriation comes with the purchase of Native American jewelry or other handmade items. James emphasizes that while it’s respectful and appreciative to purchase such items, it’s important to do so from actual indigenous businesses.
According to James, the purchase of Native American items from non-natives is a threat to the community. Rather than supporting those willing to share a piece of their culture with others, it benefits and puts money in the pockets of those appropriating what isn’t theirs.
Although white people are typically those who exhibit cultural appropriation most often, James emphasized that people of color can be just as guilty. For her, it comes down to a matter of education and understanding.
“We’re not trying to get mad at people for appropriating Native American culture, for example, but we’re just trying to inform them so they can change their ways. And I know that that’s not the idea of most people to offend anyone, so we’re just trying to help each other out so we can all live harmoniously together,” James said.
To appreciate Native American culture, James says it’s simple: listen. Those interested in learning about the culture and supporting it should recognize that being an ally does not mean adopting pieces of a culture that do not belong to them.
The SUU NASA encourages all those who are interested and willing to learn about Native American culture to attend events and club meetings, regardless of heritage.
“We want allies there. We want people to experience a few of the things that we’re willing to share, like our events. Something you can do is just listen. And just understand that something that seems very miniscule to you means a lot to us because that’s all we are, that’s all we’re taught to cherish,” James said.
The club meets on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and celebrates the multitude of tribes on SUU campus.
Story by: Amanda Walton
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