A wooden teepee erected Wednesday, March 4, as part of a Santa Barbara City College art project was dismantled the following Monday after Native American students complained to school administrators, prompting a vigorous discussion about cultural appropriation and freedom of expression.
Second-year student Eric Heras, who is of Apache descent, argued the teepee contributed to a long tradition of negative stereotypes of native people. “I was shocked because I didn’t think anyone would be dumb enough to do that or ignorant enough to do that,” he said. Heras got in touch with area American Indian Movement (AIM) representatives, who also contacted SBCC staff.
“Having our native culture used for playtime and dress-up places an image of a fairytale fantasy, which results in believing natives cease to exist,” student Laina Godinez told Native News Online.
The art students did not intend to create a structure that would mock Native American cultures, said Art Department Chair Joy Kunz. The piece was a time-based performance assignment, Kunz added, and the students intended for the space to be used by people to come together. “It’s a very simple premise,” Kunz said. “It’s not like they’re accomplished, professional artists making art to make a public statement,” she went on. “They are a class.”
Upon receiving the complaints, SBCC President Lori Gaskin and her staff convened a meeting with about 15 art students and approximately eight Native American representatives. The representatives, mostly Chumash, expressed anger, pointing out that the campus is a Native American burial ground.
Taken aback by the accusations, the art students agreed they would disassemble the teepee two days earlier than planned, Kunz said. Together, the students and the Native American representatives removed the triangle pieces of recycled wood piece by piece, a process that took about three hours. “Both parties were unhappy, but it was two communities coming together face to face, rather than digital accusations,” Kunz said.
In an email sent out to the entire campus, Gaskin formally apologized to the Native American community for the perceived insult. “I can assure you, such intent never entered the minds of these art students or their professors,” she wrote of their motivation for building the teepee. Gaskin also emphasized that higher education institutions provide a space for intellectual curiosity, exploration, and growth.
But Heras contends the school did not go far enough. “I don’t want this to be a slap on the wrist,” he said. “You have to make sure that this is not acceptable behavior. If I were to do something that was unacceptable, I would be reprimanded.”
Heras added that he was angry when he found a poster for the arts and music Lucidity Festival inside the teepee. “This is not just a college problem. This is a community problem,” he said. The art class is expected to issue a statement in the coming days.
During the last week, dozens of emails circulated between faculty members displayed an array of opinions about the teepee and its removal. SBCC English Professor Celeste Barber expressed sadness that the structure was disassembled, as she admired its architectural design and had planned to take her grandson there for a lesson about Native American life. She called its removal censorship. “For me, this goes to the heart of our constitution and the Bill of Rights,” she said. She compared the matter to the controversy at UC Irvine about removing American flags from a school lounge, as well as the Charlie Hebdo murders. “Where is it going to end?” she asked.
Barber’s written remarks prompted many to chime in via email. Some applauded her for taking a stance, claiming the issue could have been used to create a platform for understanding rather than divisiveness. Others disagreed, contending that offensive acts are still offensive even if the intent is not malicious, likening the teepee to a caricature or a shallow understanding of other cultures. As of this Saturday, a photo of the teepee was still displayed on the school’s Facebook page accompanied by dozens of comments from people who said they were disturbed by the project.
“We’re not looking for consensus,” Kunz added. “A whole lot of learning has gone on. Many performance artists would agree that the piece has taken on a meaning and impact that the students never imagined.”
A forum to discuss issues of cultural sensitivity is tentatively set for April 7 at 12:30 p.m. in SBCC’s Garvin Theatre.