After two sessions of lengthy debate on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8, the Pitzer College Student Senate indefinitely tabled a student's proposal to establish a “DreamCatchers” club at Pitzer. The proposed club, which would be a chapter of a national organization called DreamCatchers that organizes events for patients in hospice care, sparked a debate in Senate about cultural appropriation.
The proposal was approved unanimously by the Student Organizations Committee before it reached the Senate. At the Nov. 2 Senate meeting, some senators raised concerns about the name and logo of DreamCatchers for an organization without an obvious affiliation to Native American communities.
Janu Patel PZ ’19, who proposed the Dreamcatchers club and ran a chapter at her high school, said of the decision that she believes the club could have addressed most of the concerns through proactive use of its own activities.
“If I was able to collaborate with [Native American communities], we could also learn what the dreamcatcher means to American Indian tribes while also helping both ends, we would be able to give back,” said Patel. “It still kind of made me mad because if we were able to pass it, we would be able to help students learn about a different culture while also still being able to do what the club was meant to do.”
Patel also expressed interest in founding a Dreamcatchers chapter independent from Pitzer, despite initial desires for a school sanctioned club that would be more prominent on students’ radar.
Student senator Kamyab Mashian PZ ’19, who was strongly in favor of approving the club, said that many senators were worried about the use of the symbol by the founder of the national organization, Caitlin Crommett.
“She's fairly light-skinned and has blonde hair, so in the picture [on the website] it just looks like a white girl holding a dreamcatcher—like a textbook example of cultural appropriation,” Mashian said.
Crommett, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame this year, created DreamCatchers when she was fifteen years old. According to the organization's website, Crommett “collected dreamcatchers for years as part of her Native American heritage.” In an email to Chance Kawar PZ '17, Senate secretary and chairman of Pitzer Student Organization Committee, Crommett wrote that she was “surprised” by the Senate's reaction and that part of her family comes from the Penobscot tribe of Maine.
The Nov. 8 Senate meeting saw discussion over whether or not the name truly constituted cultural appropriation, as well as whether or not the club’s purpose mattered to the proposal. Some, including Mashian, argued that the good the club could do would offset the potential harm of appropriation.
“I hate to be the one to compare two evils to each other, but this is what you have to do if you're in a leadership position,” Mashian said. “You have to make choices like that.”
During the debate, many students asserted that the Senate should defer to the decisions of the Native American community at Pitzer. In an email shared with the Senate, Scott Scoggins, Pitzer's Native American program coordinator, expressed disapproval of the proposal and suggested that Pitzer could form a similar organization without ties to the national organization.
Students also argued that dreamcatchers do not originate from the Penobscot tribe, raising concerns that different Native American communities were being inaccurately grouped together. Others took issue with the language used by the DreamCatchers website and Crommett's email, interpreting it as a halfhearted acknowledgment of the culture she borrows from.
Other students countered that it is not the place of the Senate, which currently has no members of Native American descent, to police the identity or culture of others.
In an email to TSL, Crommett wrote, “Frankly, it is upsetting that the group did not realize they are preventing kindhearted students from making a positive change and difference in the community, and in the lives of individuals who may not have a lot of light in their lives at the end.”
Crommett additionally cited conversations her organization had had with Native Americans who didn’t believe the name was culturally appropriative.
The Native Americans she wrote to “even made it clear that it is almost silly that people would ask if it is, because culture is entirely meant to be shared,” she wrote. “They compared it to people dressing as leprechauns or wearing clovers on St. Patrick's Day—should all Irish people be offended by this? Certainly, this is not the case. Culture is truly, and wholly, meant to be shared and celebrated.”
Kawar said that Senate should be careful to consider different “perspectives and opinions” when making decisions.
“I do think it’s important to take into account that there are certain underrepresented communities on campus that may not feel included or a part of the conversation,” he said.
Kawar also commented on the fact that the discussion took place in the wake of the highly publicized denial of the proposed Yachting Club, which “set a tone for how we discuss clubs.”
“It certainly seems like there’s been a lot more controversy this year surrounding club approvals than has ever existed in the past for Student Senate,” Kawar said.