Learning New Cultural Boundaries in 2019’s America

Southern Oregon University psychology major, Zhawen Wahpepah, a 26 year old Native woman of diverse tribal ancestry, sat down and answered a few questions about cultural appropriation.

Can you explain the differences between the stereotype of Native you encounter in Ashland and the traditional definition of Native?

The stereotyping of the Native belief system in Ashland is abundant and almost entirely different from what the traditional Native belief systems are. Native traditions are completely impossible to describe to people who have not grown up within the culture or who haven’t gone to extensive amounts of traditionally ran ceremonies. The Native culture is taken and dissected by non-Native people, cherry picked and disrespected. The best way I can describe the stereotype of Natives or Native belief systems I see in Ashland is that the people here buy into the “noble savage” archetype or the Pocahontas/Disney energy. The Non-Natives of Ashland practice the abridged version of Native culture, the teachings/ideals/ integrity of the culture is completely lost. Natives believe when people take from our culture, it is not only damaging to us, but to the ones practicing it as well. It all boils down to humility and respect, which is something that is lacking from the “new age” community in Ashland in regards to Native culture.


What about basic Rogue Valley history do you wish persons knew before they step to you to ask a question?

The basic Rogue Valley history everyone should know is: there once was an abundant Native community here before it was completely destroyed and made into what is now today. The original caretakers of this land deserve to be considered when dealing with any and all issues involving land developments/zoning . . . etc. The Native population here is extremely small, mostly made up of Native peoples whose tribe originates from elsewhere (myself included.)

White people tend to forget that there are hundreds of tribes and us Natives all vary drastically from one from another. I am Ojibwe, Kickapoo, Sauk and Fox. When White people come to me for questions regarding the Valley/its original inhabitants, I am no better at answering their questions than an internet source since this is not my land. I have been educated on certain things regarding the Natives who originate from here, but I cannot, and will not, speak for them. We are not one size fits all, and respect/reparations need to be given to the original inhabitants.

How do you handle the sentiment expressed by more than a few White persons that they do not possess a culture?

I feel very sorry that White people feel they have no culture to practice of their own. Unless they are from recent immigrants, a religious affiliation, or born into other cultural practices, that feeling is a valid one. The need to be included in a culture is a natural thing for humans. Without a culture, it is easier to fall off of your path or become misguided in different ways. This is the reason why the New Age community developed into such a large presence, especially in dominantly white communities such as Ashland.

I do not fault people for wanting to find a culture they can call their own, I encourage it. What I don’t encourage is the taking of other cultures; picking what suits your needs from ancient belief systems of PoC.

I know many white people who are actively involved within traditional Native practices. Some of them I even look to for guidance because they talk the talk and walk the walk – just as a Native person would.

The reason why they are so well respected is because they went into the belief system with pure humility and a willingness to learn and look their own whiteness/white fragility/ privilege dead in the eye. These white people do not share or sell Native ceremonies to people. They do not begin running ceremony without years of practice and multiple permissions granted. They go through a rigorous process of training just like a Native person would, but even more so because the Native community must be completely certain that, that person is a trustworthy ally and able to run a purely traditional ceremony.

My advice for white people who feel they don’t have a culture and are desperate to find one, is to first try connecting to your own roots. Many European cultures still practice their traditional beliefs and some of them do reside in America. If that is not an option for you, then approach someone of another culture and ask if you can learn from them. Do not take/appropriate other cultures for your own benefit. That is a form of stealing and spiritual bypassing.

What is your most mature definition of culture?

It’s hard to define culture as a Native person, because our culture is our identity/ belief system/ worldview/ political perspective/ familial connections/ language/ dance/ songs/ ceremony; I could go on for eons. Native culture is a bit different because it’s not a religion or a place you are from, it’s your entire way of life and how you look at/go about things daily. I suppose culture can be described differently depending on who you ask and what culture they are from, I can only speak for myself and my own. It’s not something language can fully express either, especially since the English language was forced upon Native people. There are disconnects between the English language and how we truly feel, or live. You have to be there and live it to fully understand what culture means to us. It’s a feeling and a sentiment.

Is song, dance, idea culture?

Song/Dance/Idea is definitely culture to Natives. In fact, some of the most important facets to our culture. We have many forms of song and dance and at least one of these elements is in every one of our ceremonies (speaking on behalf of the Native culture I grew up in). We have songs passed down for generations and dances that bring inter tribal communities together.

Where do you draw the line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation? Meaning, is a White person owning a Mexican restaurant, for example cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation can be a blurred line, especially when I am doing racial equity work involving cultures that are not my own. I can only speak to Native culture and what I have learned through the tribes I have come into contact with and the elders that guide us.

Cultural appreciation is like the scenario I described when explaining the mindset of the white people who are fully accepted into Native culture. They do not cherry pick, mix different cultures together, steal or disrespect.  They continuously ask questions, ask permission, and in a constant state of learning and owning their own baggage as a white person. They give back to the community and march hand in hand with us for our rights.

Cultural appropriation is the exact opposite of this… except as a white person it may be hard to see the differences. For example, The countless amounts of sweat lodges I see being ran in Ashland by non-Native people is astronomical. When and if a Native person tries to intervene, they are met with hostility ( I know from experience).

It’s hard as a white person who wants to practice Native culture to know exactly how to get their foot in the door. Something I think is extremely important to talk about is Native people who have fallen off of the traditional road and instead sell their ceremonies to white people for money or affirmations. In fact, many Natives who have this mindset relocate to Ashland because the white people here are eager to soak up teachings from them. The best way to know if you are within a legitimate ceremony or working with a non-problematic Native is a hard thing to decipher from outside the culture, and these Native people are erasing all of the hard work us traditional Natives are doing to conserve our culture on a daily basis. One thing for sure is if a person (Native or not) asks for money for ceremonies, advertises on any type of platform particularly on social media, or leads with their ego front and center, they are not a legitimate source for ceremony.

It is extremely difficult to be a Native person in this country. Our history is not taught in school except for false history. We are not portrayed in any media like other cultures are (unless we are shooting arrows or taking to animals) and our designs, artwork, and medicines are sold and seen as trendy. Our land is still being taken away from us, we have one of the lowest life expectancy rates and the highest poverty rates. We get killed by police at a higher rate than any other race, only 1 percent of our population survived (90-100 million indigenous were killed in the genocide.)

This is just the beginning of the atrocities happening to our people and we haven’t had much time to pick up the pieces to thrive as a nation since then. So much has been taken from us including much of our culture and we are desperately trying to protect it. We are a small population so just because you don’t hear our voices doesn’t mean they are not there, We just don’t have the numbers to back us up and amplify our needs like some other cultures in America do.

All we ask is for people to respect us and stop continuously taking our things without permission. When a Native person calls you out on appropriation, your first instinct should be to believe them. I have to say, the vast majority of Native students that have lived in Ashland left immediately after school or transferred out of Ashland because of the actions of the New Age community here. They feel misunderstood, unheard and taken advantage of. If the majority of the Native population/POC community feels the need to relocate because of appropriation or other racial equity problems and don’t feel safe in Ashland mentally or physically… that means it’s a serious problem that cannot be ignored any longer, and white people have a responsibility to do better.

Zhawen Wahpepah, Native woman in the Rogue Valley.

One thought on “Learning New Cultural Boundaries in 2019’s America

  1. Excellent interview. Thank you both for having the courage to speak out on these issues. If “nice white people” want to create peace, we must start by having difficult conversations about our silliness. I fell out of love with New Age-ism many years ago, for all the reasons you noted. I have adopted a culture of “knowing my place” when it comes to the tradition of other people. Unrecognized privilege is such a sad and dangerous thing, and I have found that the only way to know it’s operating is to be humiliated, every once in a while. Thanks, again.


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