Surrendering Ma’ikwe: A Step Back from Cultural Appropriation

24 years ago today, I went to the district court in Ann Arbor Michigan and successfully lobbied a local judge to let me change my name from Victoria to Ma’ikwe. I had been part of a mixed indigenous and non-indigenous community for two summers that was centered around elder Keewaydinoquay, affectionately known to her students as Grama Kee. Wikipedia says this about her: 

“Keewaydinoquay Pakawakuk Peschel (1919 – July 21,1999) was a scholar, ethnobotanist, herbalist, medicine woman, teacher and author. She was an Anishinaabeg Elder of the Crane Clan. She was born in Michigan around 1919 and spent time on Garden Island, a traditional Anishinaabeg homeland…

“She was the subject of controversy, much of it stemming from her willingness to teach those of other than native backgrounds. She started doing this at a time when native people had just secured their abilities to openly practice traditional ceremonial rites and religious observances. Kee said it "broke her heart" that she could find no Native peoples interested in learning about their own culture, and she offered her teachings to non-natives as the only way of preserving her heritage. She said to critics that the time was late, and that people of good hearts and like minds needed to work together to offset the users and those that were actively hurting the earth.” 

She was a brilliant, direct, and compassionate teacher with a mischievous sense of humor, and I still feel blessed to have gotten to spend time with her and to have been one of her hundreds of controversial white students. Grama Kee was the one who listened to the story of the various experiences I had had over a two year period and said at the end, “It sounds like you have a name.” She translated it for me and gave me her blessing to change my name and use an Ojibwe name as my own.

24 years later, I have come to a stark conclusion: it doesn’t matter. 

Not Grama Kee’s work. Her work absolutely matters, and she left behind a remarkable legacy and some really well-educated students, some of whom have followed in her footsteps as important teachers of our time. What doesn’t matter is that an indigenous teacher “gave” me my name, the first pushback I got when I started questioning out loud whether I really should be called Ma’ikwe anymore.

I’ve spent the last 24 years practicing cultural appropriation in a very public and beneficial-- to me-- way. Nearly every time I meet someone new, the curious questions come: “Does that mean something?” or “What language is that in?” or something else innocently, normally invasive that white culture teaches us is our right to ask about names that are not milquetoast white. (If I’d stayed Victoria, for instance, I doubt I ever would have heard that question, and it also “means something”.) 

Over the years, I’ve developed instincts about how much to tell to whom. For some, it is simply, “It’s a long story,” and deflection. For others, I tell a short version of that long story, and there is usually this moment of connection that comes from sharing the story. In 98% of cases, what I get in response is an admiring look: having an indigenous name from a real indigenous elder makes me cool in a lot of (mostly white) people’s eyes.

Lately, the whole thing just makes me nauseous. 

A lot of people have taken a crack at defining cultural appropriation, and it is nuanced for sure. This article by Maisha Z. Johnson is a good summary of how I’ve come to understand it. The most core things for me are four:

  1. The person appropriating the culture is from a culture that has colonized, oppressed and abused the culture they are taking from. (Think white people in relation to everyone else in the US.)
  2. The appropriator is using something that, if a member of the appropriated from culture used it openly, would have negative consequences for that person. It’s “cool” when an oppressor does it, but it can lead to discrimination for someone of the originating culture to do the same thing, sometimes even leading to violence. (Think black girls’ natural hairstyles being banned in public schools and them subsequently punished, while white celebrities sport those same hairdos. Or the topic at hand, names and the right to be named according to indigenous traditions.)
  3. The appropriator is using the thing out of context and without having sufficiently educated themselves about the culture and the cultural context of what they are appropriating. (Think the now annual Halloween costume controversy.)
  4. The appropriator has derived benefit from using the thing, what Briahna Joy Gray calls exploitation in this article. This is especially egregious when the people of the appropriated culture haven’t derived any benefit. (Think the dynamic between Elvis and Big Mama Thornton in the article.)

I think #1 combined with any of the other three is sufficient to say that the act is a legit example of cultural appropriation. The only one of these four that I could possibly be seen as getting a pass on while using the name Ma’ikwe is #3, and that case is, frankly, pretty weak. 

I was, at the time I changed my name, actively involved with supporting and learning about the indigenous community and practices in my area (such as the traditional Ojibwe naming ceremony, as taught by Grama Kee). I’m not going to give you my credentials on that because they are frankly irrelevant for the intervening 20 years of my life. I have not continued that education and support in any significant way. There’s been some occasional educational dabbling, a donation here and there, and I’m a fangirl of some indigenous musicians who I happily pay good money to go see. Those hardly equate to being a sincere and dedicated student. I have mainly lived and worked in contexts that are, for the most part, comfortably white spaces. Spaces built on white supremacy.

I have since returned (and committed with much more seriousness) to work I had done in my early 20’s around racism. The deeper into that work I’ve gotten, the more uncomfortable I’ve become with this name. In the last year, those curious questions have become cringe worthy. Most recently I’ve started using it as a chance to talk about cultural appropriation because I just can’t keep answering those questions like I used to: when I try to, my conscience kicks in and I feel horrible. 

I think this is called remorse. I have been doing cultural appropriation, and I now know it. And… I admit to being slower than I’d like to have been getting to today’s moment to change: I’m attached to this name. I’ve written books, done talks and a ton of teaching and activism under this name. It’s been convenient: with not very many Ma’ikwe’s running around it has been relatively easy to build up a brand and a reputation that easily identifies me as me and my work as my work. Marketers tell me this is awesome! (Cringing again...) In other words, it has been easy to benefit from it. 

The fact that there is deep and real meaning in this name for me no longer seems to be the most important thing about it. The fact that I am well branded no longer seems to be the most important thing about it. The fact that it is racist has become the most important thing about it. So today, I’m surrendering it. It’s kinda terrifying. I say that to be real about this so that if others are contemplating similar things and having similar feelings, they can know that’s a shared reaction. The terror comes from the unknown: I’m not sure what I’m going to lose by doing this. Letting that terror win is one of the forces that keep privilege and oppression locked in.

I’ve stopped being able to feel good about this lovely name I’ve carried because I know this thing that has made me more unique, more interesting, more distinct in many people’s eyes have all come at the expense of others. This comfort and specialness are built on racism, and I won’t do it anymore. 

The process I’ve been in for the past few months as I have contemplated this has evoked relieved liberation. It has also evoked an impending sense of loss of identity. I am literally peeling away the layers of meaning I’ve attached to this name, as well as layers of what whiteness means and how it operates. I keep reminding myself that this is what the loss of some part of privilege feels like. It feels like losing something because that is exactly what it is. But what I’m losing I should never have had in the first place.

In writing about this, I’m not looking for another kind of coolness or admiration. Realistically, I’m not sure how to publish this and not get some of that as a result because I know how dynamics like this work. What I would really like to come from this is more white people doing what Maisha Z. Johnson is calling for in her excellent article and being really thoughtful about how cultural appropriation operates in our lives (and, beyond that, willing to act: I’m not interested in inviting navel gazing that isn’t backed up with change). 

Perhaps some others will do a similar thing, laying down what they can. And if they don’t, well, I’m restoring a piece of my own integrity and that’s valuable to me, even if it isn’t to anyone else. 

I’m also not doing a perfect thing here: I’m using this post in part as an announcement that people can now find me under another name. That’s my fear in action: not wanting my last 24 years to be erased in some way. There’s deep irony and vestiges of privilege thinking embedded in that as well. I’m stumbling through this one, and I know it. If I took another year before actually doing this, I bet it would be “cleaner”. 

But waiting to be perfect isn’t really serving the greater good, is it? So here I am. I don’t know how to fully unbuild or dismantle the racist platform that I’m standing on, but I am going to stop building my life on top of this one racist building block. 

Mayana Katherine Ludwig

Feb. 13, 2018