by Chris Rogers, News editor
I am terrified of public speaking and thank my lucky stars regularly that, unlike the public officials I cover, I am on the “safe” side of the microphone, notebook, and camera. However, the truth is that every time I sit down to a write a story, I have plenty of opportunities to make mistakes.
I made one such mistake last fall while previewing the Great Dakota Gathering. I described the clothes worn by dancers as “costumes,” instead of the proper term, “regalia.” Later, I attended the event, and had the opportunity to speak with one of the dancers. I asked him about his costume. Rather than cringing, he patiently explained to me, “This is not a costume. Costumes are what you wear for Halloween. This is my regalia.” I apologized, and he generously went right on talking with me. I was grateful for the education, but it was too late to save my preview story.
Calls for politically correct language aren’t always justified, but words do matter, and in this case, I was wrong.
Words have denotations — dictionary definitions — and connotations — cultural associations and implied meanings. Denotation-wise, Merriam-Webster defines “costume” two ways: 1) “clothes that are worn by someone (such as an actor) who is trying to look like a different person or thing,” and 2) “the clothes worn by a group of people especially during a particular time in the past.” Connotation-wise, “costume” carries with it an implied meaning that something about the costume is “pretend.” Putting Dakota dancers’ apparel in the same category as the Batman cape I wore for Halloween in sixth grade is clearly offensive. The second definition is the meaning I intended — as in, a historical folk costume. It is the same word that I’ve used to refer to, for instance, the traditional clothes worn by Polish folk dancers. However, there is a more subtle problem with the second meaning that I didn’t consider. It meant I thought Dakota dancing was a reenactment of a culture long gone, not part of a living, breathing people.
Native Americans have another reason to dislike the word: a lot of people use faux Native garb as literal Halloween costumes. Where I grew up in Missouri, dressing up in Native American costumes was a Boy Scout tradition. Some Native people have launched a “culture not costume” campaign to protest such practices and to try to restore dignity to their heritage.
When it comes to apparel, Merriam-Webster defines “regalia” two ways: 1) “the emblems, symbols, or paraphernalia indicative of royalty” or “decorations indicative of an office or membership,” and 2) “special dress” or “finery.” Finery is how the dancer I spoke with described what he was wearing. This term more accurately describes Dakota dancers’ clothing without the trick-or-treat baggage of “costume.”
Most importantly, Dakotas are the experts on Dakota culture. I shouldn’t presume to tell Dakotas what to call their clothing for the same reason I wouldn’t try to pronounce Winona’s Polish apple festival, Smaczne Jablka.
It’s my job to know the right words and use them, and this was a big blunder. A reasonably educated person would have known that “regalia” was the right word. I started telling a friend of mine about the mistake. “So, you know the clothes that Dakota dancers wear,” I began. “You mean regalia?” he interrupted.
I’m sorry for the disrespect my ignorance showed. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t mean any disrespect. There can be a big gulf between good intentions and actual respect. Actual respect requires understanding how your actions will be received by other people, not just how you meant them to take it. Learning about other people is the first step. While I like to think that I’m against racism and classism and for equality among the sexes, this and other instances have forced me to realize I’ve got a lot to learn.
We will all stick our feet in our mouths from time to time, but we should own our mistakes and learn from them. Journalists, and other people with the power of institutions behind them, especially need to be held to a higher standard. In this job I interact with all kinds people from walks of life very different from my own: farmers, artists, veterans, single mothers, factory workers, people living with chronic illness, the readers of this newspaper. Should I be the one trusted to frame your stories? As long as I’m in this position, I’ll strive for humility, understanding, and good judgment. Let me know when I fall short.