One of my most uncomfortable experiences as a journalist was a story I did in 1995 to mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. I worked in Washington for Religion News Service at the time, and my task was to come up with a story with national appeal.
I decided to check in with Native Americans to learn what the day meant to them as members of a culture that non-Indians such as myself naively believed still held closely to traditional spiritual beliefs about humanity's place in a holistic world order. (In truth, there were dozens of distinct indigenous cultures spread across the Americas prior to European colonization.)
I'd connect environmentalism with indigenous beliefs for mainstream newspaper readers (RNS's main client base at that time). It was, I thought, a story sure to get widespread national play.
So I started making calls, beginning with the editor of Indian Country News, then the leading national publication covering Native American interests.
Did I get a tongue lashing.
What a silly premise, he told me. Poverty-stricken contemporary Native Americans cared more about day-to-day survival than Earth Day. Nor did he wish to indulge some white reporter's attempt to link contemporary environmental concerns with some generalized, romanticized and fantasized indigenous spiritual trope.
You took our land and now you're after our beliefs! I was, he bitterly insisted, committing cultural appropriation.