Why I No Longer Use “Tribal” or “Tribe” to Refer to The Dance
I am a Cree member of a First Nation in Canada. I also taught Indigenous Studies at a college and a university for 22 semesters, to Indigenous adults, and I co-wrote a manual for Aboriginal Studies for the college.
Furthermore, I am a FatChanceBellyDance® Partner Studio.
Recently, because of discussions around the use of the word, “tribal,” in some forms of belly dance, I was approached for my thoughts by dancers who were aware of my background. Specifically, I was asked to address the idea that the terms “tribal” and “tribe” appropriate Indigenous culture and weaken Indigenous activism.
My initial reaction was that I did not have strong feelings about these terms. However, when I reflected further, I recalled the times when I felt uncomfortable or even embarrassed using the word “tribal,” especially when speaking with Indigenous relatives, friends, or colleagues. As a white-appearing Cree woman who did not grow up on my reserve, my experiences are more in line with mainstream North Americans, so I didn’t know if I was being overly sensitive. I decided to ask other Indigenous people for their thoughts.
I consulted several people who either grew up on reservations and/or are visibly Indigenous and so have experienced racism because of their appearance. They are also all highly educated and involved in Indigenous issues. They include people from the Métis, Cree, Stoney/Nakoda (Sioux), Dene/Navajo and Cherokee nations. They work as writers, lawyers, professors, librarians, housing coordinators, communications officers, and university executive advisors—all focused around Indigenous people, Indigenous education, and/or Indigenous rights.
These are the exact questions I asked:
- What did you think of when you encountered the term “American Tribal Style®” belly dance?
- Do you consider the terms “tribal” and “tribe” to be specific to Indigenous people?
- Do you feel it is culturally insensitive/appropriative for non-Indigenous dancers to use the term “tribal” or “tribe” to describe themselves and their dance style? Why or why not?
The responses were so overwhelmingly strong and unanimous, independent of one another, that even I was surprised. Everyone I asked found the use of the terms problematic. Some of the comments I received are:
- “tribe” and “tribal” is a term applied by colonizers to people and their governance systems they believe to be inferior or less developed.
- the terms are insulting.
- at the same time, some Indigenous peoples continue to use them. They can; others shouldn’t.
- People who use this term misunderstand the racist history of the term AND continue to engage in that racism by glossing over our social and legal complexities as “tribal” peoples when they use it to mean their friends, or to describe dances or clothes or whatever.
- non-Indigenous groups using the term seems tone-deaf at best and unsafe at worst. (i.e. They would feel unsafe joining a group like that.)
- I find it a bit jarring when I see tribal or tribe: I was in a spin class and the instructor had a shirt that said Ride Tribe and it didn’t offend me, but it just made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I guess it’s that the word tribe has a lot of power and history to it, and to see it in a fitness class used without thinking feels like that instructor has no way of understanding me. In that case, it was probably doing the opposite of what she intended: exclusive instead of welcoming.
So, “tribal” can be thought of as similar to the term “Gypsy,” in that it has positive connotations for some people, but it has been used in negative and racist ways to marginalize and oppress the people to whom it has been most commonly applied.
While the term may have different connotations elsewhere in the world or throughout history, many of us are dancing on Turtle Island (North America), and I think it’s important to be aware of how our terminology may affect an oppressed group of people here. i.e. We should make every effort to be respectful of the people on whose traditional lands we live, work, and dance.
Furthermore, I have seen evidence that the term has negative connotations elsewhere, also, particularly in other colonized lands (Africa, New Zealand, Australia, etc.).
In the book, “White Negroes,” the author writes, “[W]hen we think of the evolution of a word, it is best not to assume this new definition replaces the old. As we’re already in the practice of comparing words to plants it makes much more sense to think of them as trees with roots and branches where each branch is another possibility for meaning that exists in relation to other meanings. And if one of those branches once provided so many switches with which to strip humanity from generations of people, we can’t assume that branch has rotted off and died simply because another, unexpected branch has grown up and out from the same mother tree.” (Jackson, 2019, p. 117)
Indigenous women are frequently stereotyped as sexy in a primitive, savage way, and terms like “tribal” contribute to that. (Not ATS®, but some other “tribal” belly dancers—even wear feathers, headdresses, etc.) Such stereotypes are incredibly harmful to Indigenous women, who are more likely to be victims of violence and sexual assault than are mainstream citizens. (This is likely why my friend mentioned she would feel unsafe.) This tends to be true in other colonized countries, also. So, I prefer to distance myself from those stereotypes.
“Tribal” was originally used to describe our dance because it is a group style of dance, and because it has an ethnic “vibe” to it. However, it has come to be used much more widely where neither of these elements apply. It has lost its group/community connotation. e.g. What do people like Rachel Brice, Zoe Jakes, and Mardi Love mean when they say they are doing “tribal” style belly dance? Also, their dances, and even ITS dance, rarely have an ethnic vibe these days. So, the word seems to now mean “not Middle Eastern Style” belly dance, and has, therefore, lost much of its original intended meaning, anyhow.
On FCBD® Volume 4, Carolena says, “You are free to create new steps and variations, but whether or not they will see the light of day depends on how logical they are. If something needs a lot of explanation, it’s not going to thrive.” Well, not only have I frequently had to explain what ATS® is and how it differs from traditional styles of belly dance, but I have often had to explain what it isn’t: i.e. not an Indigenous style of dance, not connected with Indigenous nations or groups, etc. Therefore, describing our dance as “tribal” causes confusion and needs a lot of explanation.
For these reasons, and because I have chosen not to alienate other Indigenous people in my area or cause them to feel stereotyped, excluded, or unsafe, I now refer to my dance company as Mythri Fusion Dance and the style of dance we focus on as “FatChanceBellyDance® Style.”
Ekosi. Hiy, hiy.
About Cultural Appropriation
There are some common reactions to the topic of cultural appropriation and these reactions can be problematic.
- It isn’t appropriation. It is sharing.
Sharing happens when the group in question CHOOSES to share their culture, and when items of the culture are used in culturally appropriate ways and contexts.
- We are honouring you (or the culture in question).
If people tell you that they are not honoured by this, and you choose to continue, then you are not doing it to honour them.
- Art has always evolved and borrowed from other arts and cultures.
Yes, but when this happens through the subjugation of other people, and when it happens without benefitting or acknowledging the people of the culture, then it is not borrowing. It is stealing.
- But we admire you, and we want to show it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
It is a form of privilege to be able to imitate oppressed people without facing the kinds of consequences those people face/have faced.
- That was all ancient history. We should move on and be all one people.
No. It is not ancient history. For example, the last Indian Residential School in Canada closed in 1996. My mother-in-law, aunts, uncles, and mentors attended residential school. Indigenous people did not have the vote in Canada until 1960 (which is after I was born). Indigenous people are still othered, still stereotyped, still marginalized, and still ignored and erased. This is true of other oppressed groups, as well.
- I have a friend/student/coworker/partner who is of __________ ethnicity, and they don’t have a problem with it.
One person does not speak for a whole group. (This is why I consulted.) Not everyone in an ethnic group will have the same opinion, and may not have the same awareness. Some people identify as part ____________, but have no actual connection to the __________ community. Some people within the community cling to what they are used to, don’t want to rock the boat, or are just busy living day to day and haven’t given a lot of thought to the issue.
- “Using ‘Tribe’ and ‘Tribalism: to Misunderstand African Societies” by David Wiley, Department of Sociology and African Studies Center Michigan State University, 2013 https://www.africa.upenn.edu/K-12/Tribe-and-tribalism-Wiley2013.pdf
“Tribe, a concept that has endeared itself to Western scholars, journalists, and the public for a century, is primarily a means to reduce for readers the complexity of the non-Western societies of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the American plains. It is no accident that the contemporary uses of the term tribe were developed during the 19th-century rise of evolutionary and racist theories to designate alien non-white peoples as inferior or less civilized and as having not yet evolved from a simpler, primal state.”
- “Is using the word ‘tribe’ or ‘spirit animal’ offensive to Native Americans?” in How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitchhttps://hownottotravellikeabasicbitch.com/is-using-the-word-tribe-or-spirit-animal-offensive-to-native-americans/?fbclid=IwAR3q-6THG8akFdPyP1ClsVLIDy6eecV79TMY4E_9EsibHUjbnhw7SpMNOKY
- “Some thoughts on the use of the word ‘tribe’ by teachers and schools…” in American Indians in Children’s Literaturehttps://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2018/09/some-thoughts-on-use-of-word-tribe-by.html
- “What is in the word tribe?” in Pambazuka News https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/what-word-tribe
- Talking About “Tribe”: Moving From Stereotypes To Analysis http://kora.matrix.msu.edu/files/50/304/32-130-153D-84-Background_Paper_010_opt.pdf
[T]oday most scholars who study African states and societies-both African and non-African-agree that the idea of tribe promotes misleading stereotypes. The term “tribe” has no consistent meaning. It carries misleading historical and cultural assumptions. It blocks accurate views of African realities. At best, any interpretation of African events that relies on the idea of tribe contributes no understanding of specific issues in specific countries. At worst, it perpetuates the idea that African identities and conflicts are in some way more “primitive” than those in other parts of the world.
Tribe has no coherent meaning.
Tribe promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness, obscuring history and change.
In the modern West, tribe often implies primitive savagery.
Images of timelessness and savagery hide the modern character of African ethnicity, including ethnic conflict.
Tribe reflects once widespread but outdated 19th century social theory
Tribe became a cornerstone idea for European colonial rule in Africa.
- “Transnational Fusion Dance… An Open Letter to My Dance Community” by Donna Mejia https://donnainthedance.com/2020/01/10/transnational-fusion-dance-an-open-letter-to-my-dance-community/?fbclid=IwAR3yebQgsIXu9umKPqr0662-emxZ2oVsgaYrW8UwVXyzlvgj2UKnU_AgeUA
Responses to my Questions:
[Personal comments redacted.]
I would like your perspective on something, if you don’t mind. I do a style of belly dance known as “American Tribal Style®.” This was a name given to the style by a well-known dancer, and not by the creator of ATS®. The dancer called it that, because it is a group style of dance, unlike the more traditional styles of belly dance. Dance troupes who do this style often use “Tribe” or “Tribal” as part of their name. (e.g. “Wild Sky Tribal” or “Black Swan Tribe.”)
I have been asked to join a panel discussion about this at our upcoming annual “Reunion” event next month. This event attracts ATS@ dancers from all over North America and even the world. Some dancers are concerned that using the terms, “Tribal” and “Tribe” might be cultural appropriation of Indigenous North Americans.
Because your opinion is one that I respect, I would be interested to know your thoughts on the subject.
What did you think of when you encountered the term “American Tribal Style®” belly dance?
Do you consider the terms “tribal” and “tribe” to be specific to Indigenous people?
Do you feel it is culturally insensitive/appropriative for non-Indigenous dancers to use the term “tribal” or “tribe” to describe themselves and their dance style? Why or why not?
I’d appreciate any thoughts that you are willing to share.
S. Kootenay-Jobin. Stoney/Nakoda (Sioux). Indigenous Housing and Events Coordinator at a university
Transcript of S’s comments (sent to me in two audio files, while he was holidaying out of the country).
Tansi, Brenda. I’m very happy to share my opinion on this. When I first opened up the message, and I seen American Tribal Style Belly Dance, my immediate thought was, “Oh, my goodness! This is so interesting. There’s some Indigenous groups across Turtle Island who participated in belly dancing,” but I was also wondering if it was kind of a fusion taken on with some traditional cultural customs, but also with some modern adaptations to culture, as well. Um, I do feel like when we are using the term, “tribal,” I feel like it is referred specifically to Indigenous peoples. Um, the fact that it has the term, “American Tribal dance,” in there, you think of when you hear about American Tribal colleges or Native American tribes, especially in the United States, where they use “tribe” and “tribal” very, very much more than we do here up in Canada. I do feel like, given the context, [word unintelligable] that the wording is it could possibly misrepresent the origin of the style of dance. I think, maybe, taken … [sentence cut off in the audio].
This also makes me think of when people have gone to a powwow for the first time, or it is the first time that they see an Indigenous dancer, and when people said, “Oh, I really enjoyed your tribal dance,” or “What do these dances mean to your tribe?” So, once again, going back into having it feel like it either originated or is a fusion of cultures of current Indigenous peoples mixed with something from either around the world. But that’s just my thoughts. I really hope your panel discussion goes well, and thank you for reaching out. Let me know if you have any questions.
T. Kenny. Cree. Government Indigenous Cultural Communications Advisor (This role focuses on supporting the development of tools and networks to foster culturally appropriate communications.)
Tribe- interesting choice on how we use the term to identify or unify communities – like online tribes…. I see it used in many contexts .
Personally I never even thought anything negative of the use of the term
But the more I sit with it the more I find it could be problematic, not by how it’s intended but how historically that term was used to define us.
I would encourage perhaps another term that’s less contentious in historical context
My two cents- but hope it helps
J. Loyer. Cree/Metis. Anthropology and Indigenous Studies Liaison Librarian at a university.
This is a hard question. A lot of fitness communities get drawn to the word tribal or tribe. Something seems to resonate with them around connection.
I think there’s two things going on: 1) tribal = wildness/savagery, and 2) tribal = a specific way to talk about sovereignty
1) when fitness groups use tribal to mean their community, there’s an idea of fierce community, wildness, boldness. But this draws from stereotypes of Indigneous people as connected to kin, always in the past, and less civilized. They ignore the historical context of the term and maybe don’t even realize that that’s what that could mean.
2) tribal, especially in the States, has a specific meaning connected to Indigenous sovereignty. People can be tribally enrolled, a tribe can be federally recognized, etc. So when fitness groups use tribe more casually, it runs the risk of jeopardizing that hard-won sovereignty, equating a federally recognized tribe as the same as this group of people doing fitness together.
Personally, I find it a bit jarring when I see tribal or tribe: I was in a spin class and the instructor had a shirt that said Ride Tribe and it didn’t offend me, but it just made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I guess it’s that the word tribe has a lot of power and history to it, and to see it in a fitness class used without thinking feels like that instructor has no way of understanding me. In that case, it was probably doing the opposite of what she intended: exclusive instead of welcoming.
Anyway, sounds like an interesting panel! I found this conversation helpful: https://hownottotravellikeabasicbitch.com/is-using-the-word-tribe-or-spirit-animal-offensive-to-native-americans/
C. Vowel. Métis writer and lawyer whose work focuses on language, gender identity, and resurgence.
tânisi, sorry it took so long to respond, …[personal comment redacted] Yeah, I’ve thought about the use of the word a lot, and I don’t like it when non-Indigenous ppl use it, and here’s why. It’s been used as a pejorative against Indigenous peoples around the world, on every continent, and it comes from a racist, anthropological view of linear cultural progression. So “tribal” peoples are less than, less developed, less civilized, less capable. It is linked to colonialism, and the idea is that people will eventually “progress” beyond tribes. Look at the way people use it as a synonym when they mean “insular”, “backward”, “primitive”, “partisan”, “acting against the common good” and so on. So here we have a term, that has been applied to us and other Indigenous people, that is all about how lacking we are in many areas, and then others come along and want to use the term, ignoring that history. The second reason I dislike non-Indigenous peoples using the term, is that in a way it has been “reclaimed”, or has legal status for some of us, particularly in the U.S. where many First Nations still use the term for themselves, tribal governments, tribal courts, etc. And just like other legislated terms like “Indian”, that are no longer as widely used because there is some recognition of the racism of these terms, they nonetheless continue to have legal importance. Also, people within these groups have been called this or call one another this for generations; it’s ridiculous to tell people that they cannot use a term for themselves when it literally defined them legally for so long. In that way it is an insider term, acceptable when used within the group, but NOT acceptable when applied by others on the outside. These two things, the racist history of the term, and the insider reclamation or claiming of the term, for me, signals that “tribal” is OURS. We don’t use it the way it was applied to us, we use it to refer to our people, our legal orders, our sociopolitical systems, which are complex and quite “advanced”. People who use this term misunderstand the racist history of the term AND continue to engage in that racism by glossing over our social and legal complexities as “tribal” peoples when they use it to mean their friends, or to describe dances or clothes or whatever. Does this dance style originate with any Indigenous people? If so, is it open to everyone to learn or it is held in ceremony? If not, which is more likely, then why call it that? Let these people own their inventions without attributing it to us.
I think people who have had the term used for them by colonial authorities get to use it or not, but no one else.
Dr. R. Watchman. Dene/Navajo and Cherokee. University professor and co-director of the Office of Academic Indigenization at a university.
Good evening, Brenda,
[Personal comment redacted.]
I think I knew that your dance style was called that, and from my recollection of hearing it, I believe I was initially taken aback by it… not because I was offended, but because at the time, I found it unusual for people north of the Medicine Line to use the word ‘tribe’ as is done regularly in the States.
While there are many scholarly resources out there, I will share just one by Debbie Reese: https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2018/09/some-thoughts-on-use-of-word-tribe-by.html
Here are my brief answers to your queries:
What did you think of when you encountered the term “American Tribal Style®” belly dance? (answered above), but to elaborate a bit: The former person I was with (John) would always almost immediately admonish me for using the word tribe in the context that I am talking about Nations (again– in the U.S., we–Indigenous people– have a different, albeit problematic, relationship with employing tribe in lieu of Nation, although it has gotten better in the last 2 decades. I am, for instance, from the Great Navajo Nation, whereas in my dad’s day, he was from the Navajo Indian Tribe). So, because of the admonishments, I learned quickly that (many) Indigenous people north of the Medicine Line were very sensitive to certain self-identifying words, whereas I was used to (as are many): Native, Tribe, American Indian, etc.. to talk about ourselves. It seemed pretty black and white up here.
Do you consider the terms “tribal” and “tribe” to be specific to Indigenous people? ONLY when used by Indigenous people to refer to ourselves; yeah. I cringe when non-Indigenous people use it.
Do you feel it is culturally insensitive/appropriative for non-Indigenous dancers to use the term “tribal” or “tribe” to describe themselves and their dance style? Why or why not? Yes– again, it’s ok if WE use it; but not them. We don’t know if non-Indigenous people have the context, or quite simply the education to understand the political and cultural weight of the term. While I have always recognized the anthropological bent that the term carried, Elders, grandparents, and community members did not necessarily, and hence “passed it down” as one to be descriptive of groups of people who shared common languages, cultures, etc… This cannot be the same for non-Indigenous peoples.
I hope this helps as you prep for your panel discussion.
Ahéhee’ (Thank you),
Dííjį́ nizhónígo nee á’doo’ááł (Have a beautiful day today)
A.J. Fischer. Executive Advisor of Indigenization at a university and co-chair of the Indigenous Gathering Place Society in our city.
A.J. is my husband, and we discussed this casually, over dinner. Initially, like me, he did not have a big concern, but after thinking about it more and hearing from some of his colleagues, he has changed his mind and thinks it is a loaded term: loaded with its history of colonization and conquest, and loaded with the connotation of inferior or primitive.
- Jackson, L. M. (2019). White Negroes: when cornrows were in vogue … and other thoughts on cultural appropriation.E-book edition. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. https://www.amazon.com/White-Negroes-Cornrows-Thoughts-Appropriation/dp/0807011800
- “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh: https://www.nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack
- Cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation by Hoda Katebi: https://bust.com/style/193076-cultural-appropriation-vs-appreciation.html?fbclid=IwAR27hVD4h1X5twUJ2JilRCnlnSRNQWqH4ltWlV2ChhVS8NZSUIH0MFlO4kw
- “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation” by Jarune Uwujaren:https://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/?fbclid=IwAR3wdRJhBRi-B-Tw7W5Wt87-ob4-4-dzR3z1x5pn9zHC-h9_yIulQPqgR6Q
- “7 Resources on Cultural Appropriation” by Relando Thompkins-Jones https://notesfromanaspiringhumanitarian.com/7-resources-on-cultural-appropriation/ (especially Cultural Appropriation Bingo, originally created by Sheila Addison)