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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

When words don’t convey one’s intent

David Colburn
Posted 6/19/24

Across the many years I spent working in the realm of academe, nothing gave me more pleasure and affirmation than donning my academic regalia to celebrate graduation. When I earned my master’s …

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When words don’t convey one’s intent


Across the many years I spent working in the realm of academe, nothing gave me more pleasure and affirmation than donning my academic regalia to celebrate graduation.
When I earned my master’s degree at the University of Kansas in the liberal arts field of applied behavior analysis, I was bestowed the right to wear a hood lined in fabric colored white, crimson and blue reflecting the achievement, a colorful and meaningful addition to the standard black mortar board, tassel, and robe. Having spent the first few years of college in what might be described as academic purgatory, lost and uninspired, I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment when I donned that regalia and walked in that graduation ceremony. I was the holder of an advanced degree, for everyone to see.
I felt that same sense in every college graduation I participated in over the years as a faculty member or administrator. My regalia was a visual sign of my place in the long-storied history of collegiate education, as academic hoods trace their origins back centuries to the hooded robes worn by medieval monks who taught in the early universities. Wearing my regalia was a way to both acknowledge my identity as a scholar and to honor the achievements of those who were graduating. At community colleges where I worked that also sponsored GED programs, I made it a point to attend those graduations, too, in full regalia to recognize milestones many never believed they would attain.
Anyone who attends a college or university graduation can attest that the procession of faculty and administrators is a colorful affair, as each wears regalia with colors reflective of their own academic disciplines. Velvet bars on the sleeves of the robes indicate levels of advanced study, and even the styling of the robes vary from bachelor’s to master’s to doctoral degrees. If you make the effort to read it, academic regalia paints a unique portrait of both individual and institutional scholarship.
Regalia is a term that is also historically and culturally associated with royalty. If you’ve ever watched a royal coronation, you’ve seen the elaborate clothing and accessories that differentiate barons from dukes and princesses from queens. Their outfits represent centuries of history and culture, each uniquely styled to reflect elements of who they are within the royal constellation.
However, the significance of regalia is lost when a child, or for that matter, an adult, chooses to be a king or a queen for Halloween. Putting on costumes is an act of pretending to be something they’re not. They’ve achieved no particular rank, achieved no special level of knowledge or skill, and don’t identify in a meaningful way with the culture that their attire was plucked from. Theater directors and filmmakers go to great pains to create costumes that create the illusion that actors are someone other than who they are. Costumes are for make-believe.
Regalia, on the other hand, carries significant meanings associated with ceremonies and culture. That is most certainly the case when it comes to the regalia worn by Native Americans when they observe culturally significant events, such as powwows.
The regalia worn by singers and dancers is a very personal expression of their identity as an Indigenous tribe member, reflecting personality, family, history, culture, and spirituality. Elements of regalia are often passed down in families, and a full wardrobe can literally be years in the making. Some regalia is made by the wearer, while others may avail themselves of articles made by others. However created or obtained, regalia represents a claim on one’s historical and cultural legacy, one’s identity as Native. There’s nothing “pretend” about it whatsoever.
In last week’s Timberjay we ran pictures of dancers at the SahGiiBahGah powwow at Nett Lake, a regular practice intended to honor the culture and history of the Bois Forte Band and others who participate. However, as some readers have noted, we fell into a far too common error of calling the dancers’ regalia “costumes.” It is an error many, including this writer, find quite disrespectful. No one at that powwow, or any other, is trying to pretend to be something they’re not. They’re expressing a personal identity born of a rich and meaningful cultural history, collective expressions that should be celebrated and honored as such. Using the word costumes trivializes regalia and all that went into it and what it represents.
In journalism, the significance of word choice is paramount. Words are the primary tools we use to convey stories, shape narratives, and influence public perception. A single word can frame a subject in different ways, reflecting nuances of meaning that can either be beneficial or detrimental. Language not only conveys information but serves as a medium through which respect, understanding, and dignity are communicated.
We slipped up last week in that responsibility. Rest assured that no disrespect was ever intended to our neighbors and friends, but disrespect was conveyed and felt, and for that we sincerely apologize. The Timberjay has throughout its history partnered with Bois Forte Band members to tell stories and share images about the Band’s rich culture and history, reflecting our deep respect for the Band’s place in the North Country region. We will continue to do so with a vigilant eye toward always giving such stories and images the honor and respect they rightfully deserve.