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April 08, 2024

A First Nations Perspective 8

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation ... the very words tend to put my back up and I find it difficult to write about. It is difficult to write about because I believe that not everyone will understand why cultural appropriation can be an issue to some First Nations and/or Indigenous peoples. What they may see as fashionable when wearing something that is considered sacred in the First Nations worldview, can be seen as offensive by the other party (First Nations/Indigenous peoples).

First off, let me explain what cultural appropriation is. "Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or behavior. These elements are typically imported into the existing culture and may have wildly different meanings or lack the subtleties of their original cultural context." Because of this, cultural appropriation is sometimes viewed negatively, and has been called "cultural theft."1

Cultural appropriation is unique to every Indigenous nation and by that I mean that every nation holds their artifacts, images, and ceremonial items within a specific context, and these meanings should not be misconstrued or abused in any way. If you have questions in regards to certain items, do not be afraid to ask someone from that particular nation. I have found that someone is always willing to explain the meaning of something if asked politely and respectfully.

A lot of people don't understand the ramifications of cultural appropriation. They think it is something to laugh about, when in fact it is not. If they are called on it, they get defensive and angry, or they turn a blind eye to it. Mainstream culture thinks that it is cool when stores try to make a dollar out of selling headdresses, dream catchers, mukluks, eagle feathers etc., and they don't take the time to understand the true meaning behind these items.

Cultural appropriation does not just happen with our artifacts, it also happens with how we are seen in the media -- newspapers, film, and literature. In film, you just need to think of movies such as Dances with Wolves, Avatar and the Disney movie Pocahontas. In the movies we are depicted as the 'noble savage,' "the damsel in distress" or 'we need to be rescued."

In researching this article, I found that there was no shortage of materials to look over when it came to cultural appropriation. In one book, Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Culture, edited by Carter Jones Meyer and Diana Royer, a contributing author S. Elizabeth Bird writes about the construction of the Indian and the role anthropology plays in this construction. She states, "It is not new to point out that mass culture images of American Indians are images created by white culture, for white culture. In earlier times, that alien image was feared and hated, fed by and feeding a popular culture that mythologized the massacre of whites by savage, uncontrollable Indians."

Bird further argues "The 'captivity narrative' in which honourable white women and children were degraded and destroyed by lustful savages, became a staple of popular journalism and fiction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and echoed on into the twentieth." She also argues "Current media representations are understandable only if seen as the legacy of a complex mesh of cultural elements, including formal history, literature, material artifacts, folklore, photography, cartoon, art, mass media, and anthropological discourse."2

It is important to note that how we as First Nations people are seen goes back into the work of early historians and anthropologists. We as First Nations people have been seen as the "Other." Descriptions of us became the core of museum exhibits, world fairs, Wild West Shows, and early silent films. Through the lens of these early images, First Nations people have been effectively placed into a kind of time warp, from which we have not emerged from in the eyes of the non-native.

I suggest that if we were a culture that used to be feared and hated, why is it now 'cool' to take our culture and traditions and turn them into something that it is not meant to be about? Popular discourse on First Nations people has always been racist and stereotypical, but when a non-native wears feathered earrings, or wears mukluks or buys a "fashionable" headdress, it is all of a sudden cool. What incenses me the most about cultural appropriation is the notion that our culture, traditions and languages are seen as what early historians have called 'primitive or backwards," and then there is blatant racism played out in the mainstream culture about who we are as a people, and our artifacts, ceremonies and images are the cool thing to get or have.

Another form of cultural appropriation is the naming of sports teams and mascots such as the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Black Hawks, Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins. First Nations people have been calling on these teams to change their names and logos to something that is not racist and stereotypical, yet team managers do not care to change anything about these names, and say "oh its no big deal."

First Nations people have struggled since first contact with attacks on their nations through colonialist strategies and policies implemented by the Canadian government. Do I need to call attention to residential schools, or the Sixties Scoop, where thousands of children were taken from their families and communities and adopted out to non-native parents, which effectively stole our identities as First Nations peoples? What about ceremonies that were deemed illegal in the early 19th and 20th centuries?

You just need to think about the potlatch ceremony on the West Coast. The potlatch ceremony was "an important cultural and spiritual practice among Aboriginal peoples on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Chiefs used potlatches to name children, to transfer titles and privileges from father and son and to mourn the dead."3

It was through the efforts of a few missionaries, Aboriginal Christians and Hudson Bay Company traders that it came to be believed the potlatch ceremony encouraged non-Christian beliefs and distracted Aboriginal peoples from 'productive work.'

In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology, in which he stated "Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture ... Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, 'to kill the Indian in the child.'" The last residential school closed in 1996.

It is issues such as these that the average mainstream culture struggles to understand because of the absence of Indigenous voices and real identities in film, television, education and literature. First Nations people have been misrepresented for a long time, and it needs to stop!

The very utterance of the words "cultural appropriation" incenses some First Nations people. I know it incenses me. It upsets me because I grew up not knowing my culture, language and traditions, and though I am now at a point where I understand a lot more of my culture and traditions, I find it infuriating when I witness non-natives trying to integrate themselves into our culture and community, and then do nothing but tell us 'how' we should be or 'what' we should be doing to better ourselves.

To mention just First Nations people as being the only ones that face cultural appropriation would not be fair. It happens to all Indigenous peoples, and all Indigenous peoples face some kind of battle with their government and the policies that have been instilled to eradicate their culture, traditions, languages and rights.

I find that no matter how hard First Nations people fight to protect their culture and traditions, when it comes to 'borrowing' of images or the selling of artifacts that we hold sacred to ourselves and our nations, we are told "ah, it's no big deal," or we're told "get over it already." But if you think about it, if we were to take something from another culture and the tables were turned, the whole concept of cultural appropriation would take on a whole new different meaning, and we would be the ones wondering "why are these people so angry about this?"

Lastly in another book, Writing As Witness: Essay and Talk, written by Beth Brant, the reader is privy to "New Age" religion. This is where cultural appropriation is the most dominant. Brant writes about how we are surrounded by magazines, books and journals with a heavy reliance on paraphernalia and language, and how some of it is 'borrowed' from Indigenous cultures. She writes, "It seems that those folks who are anxious to have an experience with other worldly beings are the same people who would declare they are colour blind or refer to Indigenous peoples of any continent as 'our Natives.' There is some kind of patronizing and ethnocentric behavior being acted out as that of the missionary and the liberal."4

There is so much to write about when it comes to cultural appropriation, that once I got started, I found it hard to stop. I could go on and on, but my most important message about cultural appropriation is that it is wrong, and the mainstream public needs to understand that First Nations culture, traditions and languages are an integral part of who we are as First Nations people. Our culture, ceremonies, traditions -- everything that is a part of us -- is not something that can be bought and sold.


1. Wikipedia: Acculturation
2. Carter Jones Meyer, and Diana Royer, Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures. University of Arizona Press. 2001
3. School District 79 Aboriginal Education, Chapter 16: Banning Traditional Practices
4. Beth Brant, Writing As Witness: Essay and Talk. Women's Press. Toronto. 1994


Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-08-25
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