Readers write: Cultural appropriation in a Home Forum essay

Ann Hermes/Staff

Cultural appropriation

Thanks so much for all of the wonderfulness that is The Christian Science Monitor Weekly. There are so many things I appreciate about the publication, including its insightful coverage of news from around the world, the aptly named Humanity Behind the Headlines section, and more.

I always turn first to the Home Forum essay. My eagerness comes partly from having had four of my essays published in the Home Forum section, which I’m proud to include on my résumé.

Why We Wrote This

Letters to the editor for the August 19, 2019 weekly magazine.

But, frankly, I’m appalled by the June 24 Home Forum essay by Todd R. Nelson titled “A lifelong gift from the grand shaman.” While I appreciate his point that his summer camp experiences led him to respect the natural world, I find it completely unacceptable that the Monitor is lifting up such an egregious example of cultural appropriation in 2019. 

Calling the camp “Camp Indian Name” was probably an attempt not to be offensive and/or not name a particular camp. It falls far short of that goal. And the description of the sham “shaman” and his attendants glorifies a practice that was all too common in the past (and probably is now, too) of white people using caricatures of Native American and/or indigenous culture as theater and to add a “spiritual” element to meetings.

I’m saddened and distressed to see this essay published in the Monitor. In the future, I hope that the editors avoid essays that are so centered on white privilege and so demeaning to other cultures. Thank you again for all of the powerful good you do in the world.

Mary McClintock
Conway, Massachusetts

Response from Owen Thomas, editor of the Weekly Monitor:

So sorry to hear that we disappointed you with Todd R. Nelson’s “A lifelong gift from the grand shaman.” As you note in your letter, the aim of the essay was to celebrate the “gift” of awareness of nature. We expected that intention would outweigh the fact that it also describes a camp tradition in need of scrutiny.

The Native American culture in the essay is something to be admired and aspired to. That said, there is a way to celebrate those values and communicate them to youth in a way that is more appropriate. The essay was, in hindsight, a miscalculation on our part, and I apologize on behalf of the Monitor.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.