“Indians” in the American Imagination: Exploring Cultural Appropriation through Structured Academic Controversy

Essential Question

What is cultural appropriation, how does it affect Native American communities, and should it be regulated by law?


In early 2014, Pharrell Williams was winning. His latest single, “Happy,” was in the midst of a 47 week run on the Billboard Hot 100, 10 of which were at the top. Williams’ personality, every bit as outwardly positive as the song “Happy” suggested it might be, was made for TV, and he quickly became the darling of talk shows on the late night, morning, and daytime circuits. Famously, in April 2014 Williams broke down in tears of inspirational joy while discussing the wave of fan interpretations of the song with Oprah Winfrey. Also moved, Oprah suggested the song was so successful, “Because it came from such a clear space that the energy was absolutely uninterrupted by anything other than allowing it to flow from heart to heart.”

And then Williams posed on the cover of Elle UK magazine wearing a feathered war bonnet.

As happens in the social media age, many fans, and others, were “#nothappy.” To them Williams had become yet another artist guilty of “cultural appropriation.” The bonnet, which has origins primarily in Plains Indian tribes, was ceremonial, something earned by a select few, even within those tribes in which it did exist. Some argued that it was a leftover stereotype from the eras of “Buffalo Bill” and Cowboys and Indians, something worn by few that had come to represent all. However, many others disagreed, suggesting that Williams had every right to don the headgear and had been wrongly accused. In response to the uproar, Williams accepted the criticism and issued what, at least to this author, seemed a heartfelt apology.  

Once an academic term uttered mostly on university campuses, events like Pharrell’s magazine cover on Elle have brought the contentious issue of “cultural appropriation” into public consciousness. The practice, defined by Fordham Law Professor Susan Scafidi as, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission…[especially] when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways,” is viewed by some as a serious issue that deserves legal action. Others, however, believe that “cultural appropriation” is a natural outgrowth of the “melting pot” culture of a place like the United States and that there is nothing negative about it whatsoever. Perhaps no bellwether of the contentiousness behind the term is as telling as the Wikipedia entry for the term, where the open source nature of the site allows anyone to make edits, and they do. “Cultural appropriation” is updated, and also reverted to its previous state almost daily as individuals seek to control the meaning of the concept itself.

In this lesson, students will engage in a structured academic controversy to address the question, “should appropriation of Native American cultural practices be regulated by law?” Working in small groups, students will consider cultural appropriation in varying degrees by watching RUMBLE clips of African American “Mardi Gras Indian Tribes” from New Orleans, viewing images of sports logos, controversial fashion items, and consulting divergent viewpoints in regards to each. Groups will pair off into a “yes” and “no” answer, and support their position with evidence. Then, the groups will switch, and each defend the opposite position. Finally, the class will end with each student drafting a personal response to the activity.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The definition of “culture”
    • Various definitions of “cultural appropriation”
    • About the debate regarding the validity of the concept of “cultural appropriation”
    • About specific instances in popular culture labeled as “cultural appropriation”
    • About the Mardi Gras “Indians” of New Orleans
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Through textual analysis of divergent viewpoints on cultural appropriation, students will be able to evaluate both sides of the debate and then employ research-based evidence in the statement of their own beliefs about the issue