Regulars and Shorts

Letter: Cultural Appropriation

By Katherine Pioli

January CATALYST’s cover was controversial for some.


Thanks for providing a forum for alternative voices here in Utah.

I’m a Mexican-American/Punjabi man who was raised mostly in Utah, as an other-than-Mormon, other-than-White and other-than-Republican.

Cultural appropriation has been called out to white people as a racist practice so many times I feel bummed to have to remind CATALYST of the lesson, but I sincerely want CATALYST to be a radicalizing force in Utah, and to improve, so I’m going to call it out:

Your January 2017 magazine cover is racist.

White people don’t get to wear pretty fashion items or styles from cultures who they are actively colonizing, impoverishing and shooting with their armies (see: DAPL), let alone cultures they’ve historically murdered in order to steal their land (and in the case of Utah, totally pollute the crap out of it once they have it). It’s racist and insensitive.

In case Utah’s white settler culture has forgotten, it was in January, about 150 years ago, that colonist armies literally shot Shoshone families while they slept, and threw their infants in the freezing cold river while the mothers wept and were shot to death. This pivotal act of genocide (now referred to as the Bear River Massacre) where hundreds of families were murdered in cold blood, was how white settlers were able to “settle” northern “Utah” and southern “Idaho” unimpeded.

This is just one example among a million, of the atrocities that have been done by white Utahns to local indigenous people. Keep this present, and historical, context in mind, then look at your magazine cover again.

I’m not going to get into the criticism of the Indian (I’m talking the subcontinent now)-style bin­di, the face paint that is meant to appear “tribal” to the American imagination and the “smoke ceremony” elements of the photo. I just want to remind white settler culture that there are still people alive today who were imprisoned in concentration camps at Topaz, Utah. Racist genocide of brown bodies is recent Utah history. Don’t forget.

A lot of folks have written about cultural appropriation in detail. Here’s a link…/an-open-letter-to-non-natives…/ that has good info in it.

In the meantime, I’m going to offer up an easy test for white Utahns the next time they want to incorporate elements of a historically-oppressed-by-white-settlers culture. It can be easier for white America to identify racism when you substitute the American context for Germany, the white settler with a German, and the non-white culture with Jewish culture.

So for example: if we were in Germany, could a non-Jewish German model wear a Jewish yamaka because it evokes something “spiritual” or cool to her?

This also applies to things like the University of Utah’s use of “Utes” and its iconography. If we were in Germany, could a German university with hardly any Jewish students at all call their sports team The Jews and use a big letter “J” wrapped in a prayer shawl as their sports logo?

I suggest that the next time you have the good impulse to feature something indigenous on your cover, you actually holler at the Shoshone people. They’re still here!

Thank you for listening. Big hugs to you.

Gabe Dominguez

Dear Gabe,

Thank you for your letter. We try to avoid being crass or thoughtless. We loved the image on January’s cover as the Spirit of Snow, not an indigenous person. Native Americans who objected to this cover saw burning sage; we saw snow. (Our eyeballs are older and less dependable than yours.)

Either way, we’re sorry to those who took offense. It is hard to know the limits: Can we not offer prayers to Mother Earth? Greta’s French-Canadian fur-trapping Catholic ancestors probably didn’t do that. Is wearing silver and turquoise Indian jewelry or feather earrings disrespectful? If only Native Americans can wear feathers, how much Native American do you have to be?

Regarding your comment about the University of Utah Ute, we would like to point out that the University works closely with local tribal leaders who have given the school permission to use the Ute icon. Part of their agreement for use of the Ute is maintaining a scholarship fund for local American Indians. With that in mind, this cannot be considered an example of insensitive appropriation.

But the critical point, and the one we will take home, is that it’s time for white people shut up and listen when such objections are raised. Just listen. No explaining, no justifying. You’ve probably heard it all before, anyway. As St. Francis wrote, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.”

Again, thanks for writing.

—Katherine Pioli and
Greta deJong, CATALYST editors

This article was originally published on February 28, 2017.