Aujalee Moore, April Campbell
Health, Medicine and Nursing, Social Science
Material Type:
Lesson, Lesson Plan
Middle School
  • SB 13
  • SB13
  • Tribal History/Shared History
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives

    Education Standards

    Health: Cultural Appropriation

    Health: Cultural Appropriation


    This lesson asks students to examine the concept of cultural appropriation and the impact that contemporary acts of cultural appropriation may have on Native Americans in Oregon and across the country. Students will participate in two activities. First, they will engage in a whole-class discussion about cultural appropriation, led by the teacher using the accompanying PowerPoint presentation.


    The presentation shows several contemporary examples of how Native culture has been generalized and appropriated by media and advertising. Second, students will engage in structured academic controversy—an instructional strategy that requires them to argue one side of an issue, then change sides and argue the opposing view.


    The background section of this lesson offers a brief of overview of how Native American cultures have been appropriated by the media, advertising, entertainers, artists, writers, and others. The following definition of cultural appropriation may be useful for both teachers and students: Cultural appropriation is the adoption of the elements of another culture (often a minority group) by members of the dominant culture. It is an unequal exchange in that the appropriators often uses these stolen elements for monetary gain or prestige, without regard for the value, respect, or importance paid to these images and traditions in the original culture.

    Health: Cultural Appropriation

    The cultural appropriation of Native American imagery, songs, stories, clothing, hairstyles, arts, crafts, and spiritual practices remains widespread in mainstream American culture, despite several decades of controversy and discussion. Those who continue to participate in it often attempt to justify it as a form of homage—a way to “honor” Native culture—or they attempt to brush off criticism by arguing that “imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

    For many Native people, these arguments ring hollow. The appropriation of Native culture by the dominant Euro-American culture rarely preserves the meaning and value of the original source nor does it acknowledge the diversity of the 570-plus Indian Nations in North America. It is not flattery. It is often simply a matter of exoticizing elements of another culture for personal gain. Native clothing and hairstyles, for example, are all too often co-opted with no regard for meaning.

    For many Native people, cultural appropriation is simply another form of colonization. It exists alongside land theft, genocide, cultural suppression, and other federal policies whose sole purpose was to eradicate Native American people and cultures.

    In her book, Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi notes that cultural appropriation is “most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, [such as] sacred objects.”

    One example that is very relatable to students is that of Halloween—a time of fun, excitement, and, too often, cultural appropriation. While most Halloween costumes are harmless, some are not. The conversation around Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation has been happening for at least the last three decades. For example, in 2011, Ohio University conducted a poster campaign called We’re a Culture, Not a Costume (see PowerPoint slide) that quickly took off in social media and has been updated by the university a few times since. This campaign highlights the importance of understanding how wearing a costume for just one night can have a negative impact. In 2012, the poster read, “You wear a costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.”

    In your classroom, you may want to begin your exploration of this topic by discussing common Halloween costumes and whether they represent acts of cultural appropriation, however unintentional. The next step is to not shy away from the challenging conversations that may result. Discussions of cultural appropriation are often politically charged, as they can challenge longstanding traditions and unexamined cultural biases. Encourage students to move the conversation forward by striving to find active solutions.