Back to our roots: Colo­nial­ism and cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion

It is not about ‘shar­ing and imag­in­ing,’ it is about en­ti­tle­ment by self-ap­pointed supremacy

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LAURA KOOJI Laura Kooji is a res­i­dent of Hamil­ton and is of Anish­naabe (Ojibwe, Nipiss­ing Ter­ri­tory, Red­tail Hawk Clan), Scot­tish and Ger­man (Men­non­ite) an­ces­try. Laura has worked in the in­dige­nous com­mu­nity in Hamil­ton for the last eight years in the so

As an in­dige­nous writer, I have spent the last cou­ple of weeks watch­ing the is­sue of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion be tossed around as a re­sult of two re­cent ex­am­ples: The first be­ing artist Amanda PL and her pla­gia­rism of Nor­val Mor­ris­seau’s work. The sec­ond, Write mag­a­zine cre­ated a spe­cial is­sue in­tended to fea­ture the work of in­dige­nous writ­ers Joshua White­head, Richard Van Camp, Tanya Roach, Louise Ber­nice Halfe, Elaine Wag­ner, Gord Grisen­th­waite, Ali­cia El­liott, Shan­non Webb-Camp­bell, He­len Knott, Glo­ria Mehlmann and Ka­teri Aki­wen­zie-Damm.

A few of those au­thors specif­i­cally wrote about the ef­fects of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion. The mag­a­zine com­pletely un­der­mined all of the au­thors with an ed­i­to­rial piece writ­ten by the mag­a­zine’s edi­tor Hal Niedzviecki. He ad­vo­cated for more cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion and called for a “Cul­tural Ap­pro­pri­a­tion Prize” to en­cour­age it. Sub­se­quently, he re­signed his ed­i­to­rial po­si­tion at Write, as did Wal­rus edi­tor Jonathan Kay for his state­ments sup­port­ing Niedzviecki.

To be­gin, I am not go­ing waste my en­ergy re-ed­u­cat­ing and re­hash­ing what cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is and isn’t. I also want to en­cour­age ev­ery­one to read the ar­ti­cles by in­dige­nous artists and writ­ers Ay­lan Couchie, Ali­cia El­liot, Ka­teri Aki­wen­zie-Damm and Chelsea Vowel. I urge you to lis­ten to the pow­er­ful in­ter­views by Jesse Wente. I am also grate­ful to Lenny Car­pen­ter for his words on the per­sonal toll of en­gag­ing in this con­ver­sa­tion re­peat­edly.

Thanks to so­cial me­dia, more than ever be­fore in­dige­nous voice has a plat­form for cri­tique and pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is both ad­van­ta­geous and treach­er­ous. This, much to the cha­grin of sev­eral me­dia lead­ers who didn’t seem to know or care any­one was pay­ing at­ten­tion when they pub­licly planned their pool for the “Cul­tural Ap­pro­pri­a­tion Prize.” This has been shock­ing to the pub­lic and me­dia who seem quite com­fort­able in the as­sump­tion that there are no con­se­quences for be­ing gross.

What I have ob­served is amaz­ing ed­u­ca­tion work be­ing done by in­dige­nous peo­ple and a few good al­lies. The al­ter­na­tive is a tidal wave of de­nial, fragility and re­fusal to lis­ten.

To be clear, this is not a de­bate or a mat­ter of “dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.” There is one truth that is at the root of all of this: colo­nial­ism. There is a com­mon re­fusal face it and it’s mean­ing head on. Why is that? The truth is painful. It’s deeply en­trenched in raw, bru­tal vi­o­lence. It’s shame­ful and hor­rific. It takes vul­ner­a­bil­ity to ad­mit that just maybe, there is some­thing ter­ri­bly wrong with the deeply held at­ti­tudes and val­ues that shape Canada’s set­tler­hood of law, land, ed­u­ca­tion and art. Let’s face it, it takes an in­cred­i­ble amount of hu­mil­ity to get over hav­ing to al­ways be “right.”

Canada would not be what it is to­day with­out two found­ing ide­olo­gies, Terra Nullis (land not be­long­ing to any­one, there­fore free to take own­er­ship) and the Doc­trine of Dis­cov­ery (a con­cept of pub­lic in­ter­na­tional law that le­git­imizes colo­nial power and own­er­ship of non-Chris­tian lands out­side of Europe). These in­ter­wo­ven con­cepts boil down to “find­ers keep­ers” and they do not end with land. They con­tinue to the hu­man be­ings liv­ing on it. We can­not sep­a­rate cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion from the core prin­ci­ples that have shaped and sharp­ened the weapons of col­o­niza­tion and the con­structs of power that are at play at this mo­ment in time.

Canada must first learn about, then ac­knowl­edge, the first agree­ments that in­dige­nous and set­tler an­ces­tors made in the Wam­pum belts. Canada must face that those agree­ments were bro­ken by an as­sumed ide­o­log­i­cal supremacy. Colo­nial­ism is not a past oc­cur­rence, it is on­go­ing and cur­rent. This is the rea­son for the In­dian Act and the depart­ment of In­dige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs Canada. It is the rea­son why Canada is one of four coun­tries who voted against the United Na­tions Dec­la­ra­tion on the Rights of In­dige­nous Peo­ples.

Cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is not about “shar­ing and imag­in­ing.” It is about en­ti­tle­ment by virtue of self-ap­pointed supremacy. We are not be­ing self­ish, over-sen­si­tive or dig­ging up the past. We are deal­ing with a real-time, on­go­ing process that has a past of ir­refutable ev­i­dence to sup­port it.

There has never, at any time, been a point where in­dige­nous peo­ple have had to stop fight­ing to sur­vive and pro­tect our­selves. Our places of liv­ing, ways of sur­viv­ing, sto­ries, cer­e­monies, cloth­ing, spir­i­tual items, chil­dren have all been taken, out­lawed, dis­placed and ex­ploited.

To me, the idea of white artists/ writ­ers whin­ing about “free­dom of ex­pres­sion” through sup­port­ing cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is both laugh­able and in­fu­ri­at­ing. Who has truly had their “free­dom of ex­pres­sion” sys­tem­i­cally bru­tal­ized in Canada? Not white artists, not white writ­ers.

White-dom­i­nated arts and me­dia in­sti­tu­tions are not free from crit­i­cism or so­cial con­se­quences for their be­hav­iour. We don’t have to ac­cept “free­dom of ex­pres­sion” as an ex­cuse for con­tin­u­ing a le­gacy of abuse and profit from the very nar­ra­tive of colo­nial­ism it­self while at the same time deny­ing it.

As for “free­dom of speech”? I will be greatly sur­prised if the day ever came that a white writer is jailed for writ­ing about their fan­tasy of try­ing to sur­vive in­ter­gen­er­a­tional res­i­den­tial school trauma while re­claim­ing lan­guage and cul­ture.

The bot­tom line here is, if you are not in­dige­nous, you do not get to de­fine what in­dige­nous cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is and isn’t. You do not get to de­cide what black cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is or isn’t. Ul­ti­mately, in light of 500 years of colo­nial vi­o­lence, you don’t get to ex­plain to any­one how you are en­ti­tled to use, re­de­fine and profit from ev­ery­thing you see. You do not get to de­cide what is harm­ful and not harm­ful when there is very clearly a long and bloody trail of de­struc­tion that has paved the way for you to con­ceive your­selves as the ex­perts and the be­gin­ning and end of all things. Not ev­ery­thing is yours for the tak­ing. That is chang­ing, like it or not.

When all of this blows over (as it al­ways does) un­til next time, what will be the le­gacy in the main­stream me­dia’s mem­ory? Not the list of in­dige­nous writ­ers who had their hard work thrown un­der the bus. It won’t be Nor­val Mor­ris­seau’s fam­ily mem­bers who tried to pro­tect their rel­a­tive’s gift brought to our na­tions as a way of con­tin­u­ing and sav­ing our sto­ries and teach­ings. What will be re­mem­bered is the “threat to free­dom” and the false del­i­cacy of peo­ple in po­si­tions of power over who gets to be heard and who doesn’t. It will be the in­no­cence and wellmean­ing in­ten­tions of artists who fancy es­thetic “style” in our most pro­found ways of cop­ing with and pre­vent­ing loss.

In­dige­nous peo­ple take on the emo­tional, men­tal, phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual labour to ed­u­cate on all things re­lated to our past and present. How­ever, we can­not make peo­ple lis­ten and we can­not make peo­ple care. I do not come to this ar­ti­cle with any ex­pec­ta­tions of “free­dom.” I have to tread care­fully. It’s ex­pected that I should be grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to be given a plat­form at all. As I com­mu­ni­cate what I know in my bones to be true as op­posed to “an imag­ined life,” I must do so nicely. Af­ter all, it’s easy for me to be dis­missed as just an­other “an­gry na­tive.”

I’m be­holden to the sur­vival and le­gacy of my own an­ces­tors and fam­ily mem­bers. When I write, I am re­spon­si­ble to a com­mu­nity that I live and work in, on land that I my­self oc­cupy as a dis­placed in­dige­nous set­tler. My words on the page mat­ter to those peo­ple be­cause my sur­vival de­pends on them, and theirs on mine. This is what in­ter­con­nec­tion, ac­count­abil­ity and au­then­tic­ity looks like. Canada should re­ally try it some­time.

“An­drog­yny” by Nor­val Mor­ris­seau seen at the Na­tional Gallery of Canada in Ot­tawa.

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