Back to our roots: Colonialism and cultural appropriation
It is not about ‘sharing and imagining,’ it is about entitlement by self-appointed supremacy
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.