Cultural diversity and sensitivity are in the air, in unprecedented ways. Our nation clearly is in the midst of a much-needed awakening that’s forcing us to take a hard and nuanced look at our understanding and appreciation of race, ethnicity, indeed every form of difference we encounter in our lives. Teenager Karuna Lohmann shares with us her very wise insights.  

Karuna Lohmann lives with her family in Narragansett, Rhode Island.

Last week, my teacher who isn’t indigenous started a class by acknowledging that we were on land which belonged to the Narragansett people. I appreciated this. She then rummaged through her bag, and pulled out a small, animal skin drum. “I will begin with a Narragansett ritual,” she said, and beat a steady rhythm on it. Each drumbeat resounded softly in the air like an echo. She said, “This is Grandmother Earth’s heartbeat.”  

I wanted to explain to her that this wasn’t right because it was cultural appropriation, but I was nervous. I have seen my mom, who writes books with diverse protagonists, speak up about these issues and people sometimes become angry. It’s especially difficult to speak up about diversity issues because they can be confusing. Cultural appropriation is a complicated issue that many   people disagree on. There’s no straightforward rule.  

Cultural appropriation doesn’t mean cultures can’t share. I think the way in which you take from another culture matters a lot. When a privileged culture steals from, or imitates an oppressed culture, it’s hurtful. I think you should get permission, give proper credit and not use another culture to make money - or if you do, you must pay them back, as much or a lot more than you make. You should also never make fun of, stereotype or mimic sacred traditions.  

I wrote to the director of the Tomaquag museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, who is Narragansett, asking her whether she agreed that what my teacher had done was problematic. She said yes. So, I sent an email to my teacher in which I said that I appreciated that she began with a land acknowledgement, but that when she beat the drum, it was like usurping another heritage without fully understanding it, which was rude (although I knew she was trying to be respectful). I also sent her resources so she could learn about cultural appropriation. When she answered, I was pleasantly surprised. She thanked me for helping her.  

I was lucky that my teacher was so kind and listened even though I was only twelve, and it made me very happy. In the future, people may get upset, but I will continue speaking up calmly and strongly for equality because although it can be difficult, I believe that you should speak up, because if you don’t, nothing will change.