Forum highlights pain caused by cultural appropriation in festivals

cultural appropriation
This is not appropriate music festival attire. We are running it as an example of cultural appropriation, which was the topic of a recent forum held at the Las Vegas Indian Center. (Image by Ben Frieden from Pixabay)

When Fawn Douglas saw a website promoting an event entitled Las Vegas Tribal Gathering, she had two thoughts: Enough was enough. She had to do something.

She says for years she overlooked local instances of cultural appropriation from people she felt were kind-hearted but ignorant about the ways in which they were insulting Indigenous Americans like herself. She’d brush off their drum circles and allow them “to do their thing over there, while I do mine over here.”

Flyer for Las Vegas Tribal Gathering
The flyer advertising the Las Vegas Tribal Gathering features the hunab ku symbol prominently. The event has since changed its name and is no longer using that symbol.

“I let it go,” she adds. “I gave them a pass, and now, look! A whole festival of cultural appropriation. I felt responsible.”

Douglas shared the Las Vegas Tribal Gathering website on social media and her post garnered dozens of comments. Most of them were highly critical of the event’s imagery and language, with one calling it “new age bullshit” and another suggesting the organizer “just throw the whole event out.” The event’s organizer, Ian Gonzales went on the defensive, posting in all-caps “THIS IS TRIBAL APPRECIATION” as opposed to appropriation.

Then, something rather remarkable happened.

The conversation moved from defensive comments typed online to, for a lack of a better word, the real world. A few dozen people, most of them indigenous, some from as far away as Southern Utah, gathered Friday at Las Vegas Tribal Center for a forum on cultural appropriation. Through a live stream online, still more watched from as far away as Peru. And the result was a two-hour discussion that brought several people to tears.

Douglas told the group she was partially inspired by an episode of The Art People Podcast, during which local artist Justin Favela and Afro-Latina artist and Boston City Councillor Julia Mejia argued that call-out culture (in other words: public shaming) isn’t working and activists should instead engage in constructive dialogue.

Call-in culture, if you will.

“I assumed there’d be so much anger in the room and blame,” says Douglas of the forum she organized. “We gave space for the people accused of wrongdoings to lash out. I thought they would lash out. But the opposite happened. They apologized.”

At the forum, attendees expressed their grievances about the festival, starting with its name: Las Vegas Tribal Gathering. Several attendees believed using a derivative of the word tribe suggested it was officially connected to a tribe, specifically the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe. The festival is scheduled to take place next week at Vegas Roots Community Garden a few miles away from that tribe’s colony near downtown Las Vegas.

“We are the Las Vegas Tribe,” said Douglas, an enrolled member. “For someone to co-opt that name and word was infuriating to me.”

“One of the most hurtful things is seeing pictures of the artists from your festival wearing breastplates, headdresses and items from my culture, using words from my language, (things) that I don’t have or didn’t have and have had to rediscover,” said Mercedes Krause, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. “Playing dress up. That’s what it is to me and my culture that was ripped away from me.”

Searching for symbols

Reading from prepared remarks, Gonzales began by telling the group he respects “all tribes and all people” and that he imagined his event as a venue for people to share their own cultures. The festival will include sessions on yoga, sound healing, breathwork, dance and meditation, among other things.

“Their education from their indigenous cultures is what they will be teaching,” he added. “I’m not here to teach other people’s cultures.”

Gonzales apologized for not reaching out to local tribes beforehand, saying it was something he “just didn’t get around to.” Similarly, he said he recognized the name was problematic and had already changed it.

One thing Gonzales defended was the festival’s use of the hunab ku symbol, calling it an ancient Mayan symbol representing a supreme god, or one being, that encompasses all and can unite opposites.

“This image is the image of my god,” he said. “I honor my ancestors the way you honor yours. By me removing that symbol, that’s me removing my culture and my people. I honor all indigenous roots for I am Mesoamerican.”

That sparked responses from several people on what exactly the hunab ku is.

David Barragan, an adjunct faculty member who teaches gender and ethnic studies at UNLV and is also a Latinx artist who goes by Olmeca, said the true symbolism and cultural significance of the hunab ku was obscured by a prominent 1970s figure who used it to promote a book on new ageism. He said that interpretation promotes a romantic concept of pan-indigeneity.

“Back in the day, hunab ku meant a lot to me because I wasn’t able to really find where I was coming from,” Olmeca said.

Olmeca added that once he began talking to family members, he learned about the forced migration of his family and now the new-age description of hunab ku no longer means much to him. He said over time and with the additional resources of today, indigenous people have moved away from pan-indigeneity and toward understanding specific peoples and histories.

“I got lucky,” he said. “I am privileged to understand my history. A lot of us don’t understand history. It doesn’t mean we aren’t indigenous people. It just means we don’t know where we are from.”

The lingering pain of people wanting to reconnect with an identity and history that has been systematically eradicated through colonization, especially among the diaspora of indigenous people, was a recurring theme throughout the two-hour discussion.

Yoshabel Shay, a high school counselor and indigenous activist, said the festival website reminded her of her own struggle with identity and growth. Her family comes from El Salvador, descendants of Maya Nawa.

“The hunab ku is such a famous symbol; it is an automatic symbol that one attaches to, like, ‘Oh! That’s Mesoamerican!’ I think it’s natural to be excited about it. Later, I found out the history of it, which actually turned me off.”

Shay added the symbol for her is now “a reminder of what was taken from us.”

Listening and learning

Napoleon Reyes, who goes by Napo, is a “holistic healer” and musical performer scheduled to participate in the event. The photo of him featured on the festival’s original website showed him wearing a headdress and red face paint.

He told the group at Las Vegas Indian Center he had learned his healing practices from the father of a former girlfriend years ago. That indigenous man had accepted him and trained him, so he felt those pictures were not akin to playing dress up. But he acknowledged the depth of the issue and his own ignorance.

“I really appreciate you,” he said, addressing those who’d spoken. “I feel ashamed. I want to tell you all that. And I’m sorry. And that won’t happen again because I didn’t know it was such a big deal. I thought it was just white guys who wear warbonnets that are doing wrong.”

Napo said his great grandfather was Seneca. He has a mixed ancestry that also includes Filipino.

“It’s all mixed up,” he told the group. “I’m not in a tribe. I feel like I’m an orphan. I’m just trying to figure out what I am.”

“That journey is okay, brother,” responded Olmeca. “You’re amongst family here.”

Moving forward

Gonzales has since changed the name of his event to Ancient Future Festival, removing any confusion about it and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe. Napo is still attached to the event, but the photo accompanying his bio no longer includes him with a headdress or red face paint. Douglas says Napo told her he would never use that photo again.

Douglas said she hopes the forum inspires other marginalized groups to respond to instances of cultural appropriation with dialogue and discourse — not only because doing so might yield better results, but because it can benefit them. Many of the indigenous participants Friday described the conversation as healing.

Adds Douglas, “What was brought to the forefront from the audience, the panelists, everyone, was the issue of identity. How we process who we are and where we come from.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.