Dallas — This past month has been momentous for me on so many levels. I started the month by taking the last group of South Dallas Cultural Center summer program students to get their passports in preparation for an educational and cultural trip to Senegal, West Africa in November. These 11 students committed to studying their culture/history for seven years, starting with ancient West Africa and ending with contemporary Senegal. I don’t know what’s more exciting to experience; them learning all about a country they are soon to visit or watching their faces as they applied for their first passport. Of course, what I know will be the most exciting experience is witnessing their transformation once they actually immerse themselves in Senegalese culture!
The next plunge into my obsession with cultural equity issues came with the start of my class I’m teaching for UMass Arts Extension on Cultural Equity in the Arts. I was a little apprehensive about teaching an online class, simply because I worried about having such heady discussions without every physically occupying the same space as my students. I knew I had a number of them who are arts administrators, and therefore were approaching this class with a level of seriousness not always evident when such a class is simply an elective. So far, I am thrilled with the level of conversation we’ve been having and the thoughtful approach each student has exhibited in their quest to address the assignments.
As I moved on into September, I participated in an incredible gathering of cultural workers who are Fellows with the Intercultural Leadership Institute, a new initiative that I’ve written about in a previous column. We traveled to South Dakota, to Lakota Country specifically, spending a good portion of the time on the Pine Ridge Reservation. This experience solidified my resolve to keep the pressure on Dallas to achieve cultural equity because each day brought a new awareness of how little I know about Indian culture (yes, I found out they have no problem with the term Indian!).
I had this whole controversy we’re having in Dallas around confederate monuments brought to me from a new perspective, that of the Lakota people, when Lori Pourier, President of First Peoples Fund shared a story with us about her homeland. We learned about a recent renaming of Harney Peak, which had been named such after the Civil War. It was named for General William S. Harney, a “‘hero’ of the Indian Wars.” Lori explained that the name change was mandated by the United States Board of Geographic Names against the will of South Dakota’s governor and senators. She said, “The name change of Black Elk Peak may seem like a minor gesture, but in a part of the country deeply embedded in stolen lands and attempts at forced assimilation designed to wipe out the Great Sioux Nation, it represents a beginning.” She continued “A beginning where our children who had little opportunity to visit the sacred sites in He Sapa learn their history and are constantly shown negative stories about themselves and their local community on local and national news, will have an opportunity to see themselves through Lakota eyes.” (He Sapa Tanyan Yahi by Lori Pourier, Maka Citomi Omani Win/Woman Who Walks the Earth.)
Boy, did this resonate with all the African-American Fellows, many of whom are thinking about Charlottesville and New Orleans and Baltimore and Dallas and all the other American cities that are grappling with how to dismantle symbols of white supremacy embodied in numerous monuments and public facilities. How easy it is to say, oh this is only history being honored when we speak of the Confederate monuments, ignoring the intent of glorifying these men on public lands, buildings and streets. If it’s really only about history, why don’t we see monuments to freedom fighters like Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey or Harriet Tubman throughout the South or for that matter, throughout the North. Why is it only white history that somehow warrants honoring when it comes to erecting monuments and the only way you see people of color represented is if they are in service to the white heroes. One of the parks in Rapid City had this huge monument of what looked like a white angel with some Indians behind her, based on the hugely popular John Gast “American Progress” painting. Imagine little Indian children having to see this daily as they play in this park, this symbol of Manifest Destiny, a concept that signaled their ancestors’ destruction. Of course the ultimate slap in the face for Indians in Lakota Country is the carving of their sacred mountain with the heads of American presidents, one of whom was quoted as saying “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” (Good old Teddy Roosevelt offered these racist words!).
There were so many examples of how cultural equity needed to be front and center in discussions around cultural tourism in Rapid City and its surrounding areas. The place is crawling with old white tourists who seem to revel in the vestiges of “the Old West” and seem oblivious to the authentic indigenous cultures that represent people who populated the area for thousands of years. I wondered how many of them would be interested in learning about the truth rather than delighting in the myths created around the settling of The Old West. I suspect no more than the whites around the country who want to hang on to their Confederate monuments because they are all about history, or at least the history they choose to remember.
I seem to have spent the month of September steeped in the reality of cultural inequity but thanks to my UMass course and the impending Senegal trip, I am not disheartened. I still believe that the inevitability of demographic changes will necessitate that policy makers in the cultural community embrace cultural equity with sincerity in the coming years. I only hope I live to see it happen!
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
» ART-iculate runs on the last Wednesday of the month.
- April: Vicki Meek ART-iculates
- May: On Dallas and Cultural Equity
- June: Equity vs. Diversity
- July: An Arts Super PAC?
- August: Too Big to Fail?
- September: It Isn't Us Against Them
- October: Another Missed Opportunity
- November: Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea
- December: Save Our Summer Programs