The Trouble with White-Washed History

I have been thinking of banned books.

On January 10th, the Tucson Unified School District voted to eliminate multiple books and essays by Mexican-American and Native American authors from it’s curriculum. They did this because they were afraid to lose money. Only one person on their governing board was against the ban. The others fell to the side of greed.

Let me tell you about my own white-washed high school education:

  • I was taught that slavery was “not really as bad as people think.” My history teacher told the class many slave owners were kind and gentle to their slaves and treated them like family. We didn’t need to believe it was so terrible.
  • I was taught that Native Americans were a primitive people whose only contribution to the world was providing the technology of arrowheads and mortar and pestle. And provided squash and corn to the Thanksgiving menu.
  • I was taught that the Americas did not become populated until after 1492.
  • I was taught that the Mayan and Aztec people were long extinct.

All the while my own identity as an Indian woman was invisible.

We only hurt ourselves and our society when we white-wash history.

Take, for example, my weekend at school. As a religious studies program, intensive class weekends begin with a student-led ritual. In the three years I participated in these rituals I have been deeply moved, inspired, and filled with the presence of the Holy. I have also seen rituals that fell absolutely flat. Generally, these sessions stem from the student leader’s personal faith tradition, sometimes they are more interfaith.

On Saturday, I entered the ritual space to find a table with name cards, hemp rope, and beads. I put my school items on my desk and walked back through the ritual space to get my morning cup of tea. As I walked past the altar I noticed that it had a few feathers and, it seemed to me, someone was taking great effort to offer a “Native American” flair to their set-up. I shrugged it off and procured my tea. When I came back into the room the handouts for ritual had been placed on the chairs and I saw more feathers. Uh-oh. I thought. I read the handout. It was a list of so-called “Native American Prayers.” A long list.

Now, this may seem harmless to many, but white-washed education denies us sensitivity to other cultures.

To me this list of so-called prayers was painful. How does anyone know the prayers are actually Native American or even indigenous? They were printed in English. Are they the badly mis-translated quotes of some antiquated anthropologist who “studied” Indigenous people as though they were not human? Are they quotes gathered up by some new age hipster editor who calls him or herself a shaman in some make-believe fantasy of Indian people? I looked around the room to see if other people were having a similar reaction.

No. At least they weren’t showing it. My hand was shaking while I held the paper. Shaking in anger and grief and sadness and hurt.

I knew I could not be there. I went to my desk and grabbed my phone. My tea. And headed for the exit. On the way out, another glance at the table with the beads and the hemp rope and the names revealed a dream catcher. The kind you can buy in any new age bookstore.

I left the room quietly. Burning inside with grief and pain. Another example of non-Native people taking the pieces of my culture they think look pretty and leaving the rest, including its people, behind. I took myself to the student lounge to wait out the half-hour it takes for ritual when another wave of grief grabbed me. I knew that when I showed my face again I would be confronted with the voices of my colleagues, Melissa! You would have loved it! A Native American Ceremony! Because these people, who I love dearly and who I know have good-hearted intentions, do not understand how inappropriate and un-Indian their so-called ceremony really was. They cannot possibly understand the grief in my bones.

And, of course, this is exactly what happened. I told those who said the dreaded words to me that I chose not to be there because it was inappropriate and untraditional and had nothing to do with my culture. Some people heard me. Some did not. I wanted the day to progress, for class to start, to move on from the pain, but there was another wave of grief about to hit.

Someone told me this had been a “naming ceremony.” Oh, Melissa, What name did YOU get?


Among my people, according to the small amount of teaching I have received from one of my auntie’s, the naming ceremony is a deeply sacred and precious gift. For some families it can take years of preparation and commitment. To receive a name in our own indigenous language is, for me, a way to know God and the way in which God would know me. For my people, names have been lost because of white oppression. Creating a bastardized version of something so sacred is devastating.

The woman who created this ritual meant to do no harm. I trust that her intentions were to inspire and uplift, I trust that she has a genuine interest in my culture. The problem is she did not know any better. Because no one has ever taught her anything different. For too long our classrooms, school districts, teachers, and parents have allowed for a white-washed version of history. The book ban in Tucson is only one example of taking away our story. And I do not only mean our Native story or our Mexican-American story or our African-American story, I mean our AMERICAN story.

If you would like to sign a petition in response to the book ban you may do so here. The letter attached to the petition reaches directly to the members of the Tucson Unified School District’s governing board.


5 thoughts on “The Trouble with White-Washed History

  1. Melissa, it is refreshing to find someone with a soul like yours – you bring to mind a lovely and pure flowing river – at times meandering through gentle, tree-lined places, and at times a turbulent, wild, and passionate life of nature’s power at its best. Feeling your culture’s pain for the atrocities such as this unknowing “ritual” is akin to what the river experiences as the modern world encroaches with its pollutions.
    Your voice will be heard; they teach that we are extinct, but we have survived, and we are still the keepers of the land.
    Elders will be glad to come in to your university and teach about ritual protocol, if they are invited. All would be blessed and benefit.
    By the way, one Native person who was there for the whole “ritual” was not even aware that it was a Native ceremony, as it had no real similarity to our sacred and beautiful naming ceremonies, of which I too have had a part. And thanks to Liz for articulating so well.
    Arlene Talking Eagle (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara)

  2. Thank you for enlightening me through your insight and pain. I am so sorry for the ignorance and insensitivity that occurred. I am grateful that Kelli has connected me to your blog and enjoy reading it.

  3. Melissa, sometimes it is hard to do right by cultures and the people from them when, historically, people have done so much wrong. It would have been nice if someone planning the ritual had talked with you about their plans.

    • Hmmm, I think this is a problematic suggestion. It isn’t as if the ritual was designed for Melissa – it was for the entire community. Melissa shouldn’t bear the weight of representing all Native cultures.

      Speaking as a white woman, I think white people fall into the trap of thinking that we can just ask for permission from people of color and that will make our actions ok. The ritual that Melissa describes would not have been ok even if Melissa had not been there and noticed it. The ritual would not have been ok even if there had been no Native people present.

      I think that refraining from spiritual theft and cultural appropriation is the responsibility of the ritual leader. It is the responsibility of spiritual leaders to ask: where did these prayers come from? to what culture do they belong? does that culture provide a way for someone outside the culture to use them? what do these spiritual symbols mean to the people who created them?

      Native spiritual traditions, no less than Christianity or Hinduism or Buddhism or any other religion, deserve respect. Would a non-Catholic presume to hold a mass with the eucharist wafer because they thought it was cool? Wouldn’t a non-Catholic instinctively know that they shouldn’t/couldn’t just “borrow” a sacred ritual like the mass and do it for fun? Why aren’t Native spiritual traditions accorded the same respect?

      I think that if the ritual leader wanted to create a ritual with elements of Native spirituality, she should have asked Native people to LEAD those sections so that they could be done appropriately.

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