Cultural appropriation is a seriously hot-button topic. It ranges from the aggressively entitled stance of, “I can do whatever I want!” to the perpetually angry approach of “everything is cultural appropriation!”. Of course, the former is a much larger portion of the debate, and the latter is almost always a huge straw-man argument that few people actually make, but serves to bolster the idea that anyone who takes issue with cultural appropriation is a hysterical hater. That might not be clear when you first start looking into the issue, however.
I bring this topic up precisely because it does scare and confuse and inflame. Except I want to avoid all that negative stuff as best I can. I won’t be completely successful, but that is because there are no set-in-stone rules here. There is no ‘common’ sense, because our viewpoints on the subject can and will diverge radically and we lack a common understanding.
It shouldn’t need stating that I am not presenting myself as an authority on this, but I’ve found that I do need to include this disclaimer. Much like in the post on what to call us, I present you with my thoughts on the matter, recognising that there are legitimate arguments for and against my various positions. In short, nitôtêmitik, this issue isn’t easy for anyone. Not for me, not for you. If easy answers is what you seek, I shall leave you disappointed. Promise.
Because so much has been said on this topic about colonialism and racism and marginalisation and so forth, I wanted to add in a few points from a related but slightly different perspective than I often see discussed. To cut down on verbiage (too late), consider this entire post an ‘add-on’ to the larger discussion, rather than a complete encapsulation of it.
First, some resources
A lot has been said on this issue, and although I do a lot of in-my-head work, I also read what other people have to say about these things. You should too.
You don’t have to read it all right this second, but I want you to have a few more resources to access if this topic interests you. I tend to focus on cultural appropriation as it relates to native peoples, though this issue is hardly limited to us.
There is also an absolutely fantastic, clear, and accessible guide now available from Simon Fraser University as part of their Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project (2015) called “Think Before You Appropriate: things to know and questions to ask in order to avoid misappropriating Indigenous cultural heritage“. It is honestly one of the best resources I have ever seen, so please give it a gander!
So a guy walks into a bar and asks…
There is no punchline actually. Each one of these things is a symbol, a visual recognition of a certain kind of achievement. I’m sure you can think of many more of these symbols of military, humanitarian, academic, literary or what-have-you achievement.
The symbol is important, but only because of what it represents. Without that deeper meaning, the Victoria Cross is gaudy jewellery, a Bachelor Degree is just a piece of paper, the Giller Prize is abstract art and an eagle feather is just ornamentation.
These symbols are restricted to those who have fulfilled certain criteria. Yes, there are people out there who would mock the symbols and wear representations of them for kicks. They’d get some odd looks though…I mean, how ironic can you claim to be, lugging around a fake Giller Prize?
There are also people who would lie about their achievements and pretend to have earned what the symbols represent. You can imagine the reaction to someone pretending they’d earned the Victoria Cross…or someone claiming they have a degree in medicine when they do not. Sometimes these kinds of claims are met with criminal sanction, so seriously do we take this sort of thing.
Restricted versus unrestricted
So there are a category of symbols in Canadian culture which are restricted within that culture. Not everyone can use those restricted symbols. There are rules about how you have to earn them, who can fashion the symbols themselves for you, who can present you with these symbols, and even sometimes what you can do with the symbols. And always behind that material, physical symbol, is the oft-times intangible ‘thing you achieved’ that is linked to the symbol itself. Obviously, other cultures also have restricted symbols linked to deeper, less obviously visible achievements.
Then there are symbols in Canadian culture which are not restricted to those who have achieved specific things. Every Canadian is entitled to use the Canadian flag for example, and the meaning behind the use of that flag will vary depending on what a person individually wishes to symbolise. A connection to the country? A call for unity? A protest against some action or policy? Questionable fashion?
The meaning varies though the symbol stays the same, and we can (and do) alter that meaning with how we use the symbol. We express different ideas with how we use the symbol, and we do not generally punish people for doing what they want with that symbol.
If someone unfamiliar with Canadian culture were to decorate herself with a string of fake Victoria Crosses, the reaction would be different than if the same person draped a Canadian flag over her non-Canadian shoulders.
In the case of the Victoria Cross, there is a possibility that the person wants to make a statement about what the Victoria Cross represents. That would require understanding what the medal represents of course. Simply choosing it because it ‘looks nice’ and wearing it out to a party, does not a statement make.
Since the Canadian flag does not have such a clear cut meaning, there is not as much need to ‘get what it means’. Its meaning can vary just as much outside of Canadian culture as within it. Canadians might be offended with how someone outside the culture uses the flag…but they can also just as likely be offended by how someone within the culture uses it.
Cheapen the symbol, cheapen the achievement
In case it wasn’t extremely clear, eagle feathers are restricted symbols in the many indigenous cultures found throughout Canada and the US. They represent various achievements made by the person who is presented with the feather. Being presented with a feather is a great honour. Many indigenous people will receive only one in their life-time, or perhaps never have that opportunity.
Because of the significance of the eagle feather, very few native people would display feathers they haven’t earned. It would be like wearing that Victoria Cross I keep mentioning. Someone outside the culture might not realise what the symbol means and perhaps would not call that person out in disgust for wearing it…but those from within the culture probably would. It would be shameful.
It also cheapens the symbols earned by others. Oh, those who earned the symbol would still know what they did, and that would never go away, but part of the power of a symbol is what it says to others. These kinds of symbols are not for our own, personal recognition of our achievements alone. They say, “here is a visual representation of the honour bestowed upon this person for their achievement”. When everyone is running around with a copy of that symbol, then it is easy to forget that some people have to earn it and that it means something. In fact…when many people run around with copies of restricted symbols, there may never be widespread understanding that the symbol ever meant anything.
And that is exactly where we are at with so many symbols from cultures other than our own. No understanding of all what they mean, and if they are restricted or not, and why.
And hipsters? In most of our nations, women do not wear feather headdresses. Ever. Stop it.
How do I know what’s restricted and what isn’t?
Ha, okay, of course I have more to say on the subject. But it really can be as simple as asking sometimes, or even just doing a little research on the ye olde interwebs.
I find nothing wrong with someone wearing beaded Métis moccasins, for example. Moccasins are not restricted in my culture. They are often beautiful works of art, but they are not symbols of achievement beyond the amazing work put into them by the artisan.
I would not be okay with someone wearing a Métis sash if they are not Métis, however. The sash has become a symbol of identity and achievement. Perhaps it was not always that way, because in the past it was a very utilitarian thing used to carry all sorts of things (including infants), or tie your coat together, or what have you. But it is a powerful symbol now, and sometimes presented to Métis in the same way the eagle feather is presented.
Stop rolling your eyes at the term ‘sacred’ and think ‘important’ instead
Before I go on, I want to discuss something. I do not care if you are religious, spiritual, or atheist. These are choices you make, and I respect them. However, because of the turbulent history of religion in western settler philosophy (and in many other parts of the world, from whence Canadians come), the translation of terms from our languages into the word ‘sacred’ can sometimes cause trouble. Let’s talk about that for a second.
I feel that when other cultures discuss ‘sacred’ things, some people feel obligated to reject or elevate those things because of how they feel about their own religious traditions, or their atheism. The issue gets confused as being about ‘religion’, when that is not necessarily what is going on.
Usually when we say ‘sacred’, there are more complex terms in our own language that apply…all of which basically mean to impart that the thing in question is ‘important and meaningful in a specific way’. When you see the term ‘sacred’, please remember that.
Adapting to the interest
The Maori have sacred tattoos called tā moko. As I note above, this is not just some religious mumbo-jumbo with no further meaning. The tattoos are specific symbolic representations of relationships, often kinship relationships. In addition, they no doubt have all sorts of meanings I don’t have a clue about. The point is, they aren’t just pretty designs. They are designs with restricted, important meaning.
But they are nice. And humans like nice things and want them for themselves. So when non-Maori started copying these tattoos, a decision was made to promote kirituhi. These are designs similar to tā-moko, but without the specific important meanings. The kirituhi are not restricted, and are specifically designed to accommodate interest in the style of tattoo, without violating the meaning of the tā-moko.
More importantly, the decision to create a non-sacred version of the tattoos was made within the culture. It is very likely that not every Maori person agreed this should be done at all, but you will never have complete agreement in any community.
I would be uncomfortable wearing a sari. For one thing, I have no idea how to put one on and would end up looking terrible…
But they are truly beautiful, aren’t they? Amazing fabrics I can drool over all day. Yet my discomfort is not really about how to wear them, nor is it based on the sari being a restricted form of dress, because as far as I know it is not.
I would feel uncomfortable because I know very little about the cultures from whence the sari comes. I have not attended an Indian wedding, or other occasions where wearing a sari makes sense. I do not believe I would be disrespecting Indian cultures by wearing a sari (unless I chose the very unfortunate day of Halloween to put it on as a ‘costume’ in which case, please feel free to slap me). Nonetheless, my lack of any real connection to Indian cultures makes the entire thing awkward.
Other people have experiences with and within the culture that mean they can wear the sari and not feel strange. I think that some people from outside a culture can have legitimate access to these things, without it being cultural appropriation.
But it is a minefield, because thoughtless cultural appropriation of meaningful symbols is still very much the status quo in settler cultures. Thus it is still more reasonable to assume someone has little real understanding of the culture from the symbol originates from, than to assume they have a meaningful connection to that culture. This can be very frustrating for people who have learned a lot about another culture, and who are even integrated into it. But until things change, and thoughtless (and even mean-spirited) appropriation is a fringe behaviour, this is something you may have to live with if you do not come from the culture you so admire.
That there are examples of people with legitimate access to the cultures of others, does not mean you personally are not engaged in cultural appropriation if you do the same as they do.
If you admire a culture, learn about it
The bastardisation of geisha culture is not a happy history, and these abuses do not mean that the symbolism has lost meaning within Japanese culture even if some Japanese play into the stereotypes. To put it another way, just because many people before you have ignored the symbolism and importance of geisha styles of dress, does not mean it is okay for you to do so. We’re trying to become better people aren’t we? There are many other beautiful, unrestricted Japanese styles that you can access an integrate into your own personal style. Please don’t claim you are honouring someone else’s tradition or culture when you fail to learn even this much about it.
Recently on tumblr, a platform I am still getting to know, there was a concerted effort made by aboriginal people to take back certain categories which were seen as misrepresenting indigenous culture.
Prior to that day, and most likely going back to the dawn of Tumblr, the #Native American tag had been one which none of the native/first nations people could go to and not cringe and get pissed looking through.
Tumblr is a vast blogging site that consists of nearly 40 million blogs and over 15 billion posts. Anyone can post whatever they like to Tumblr, although most posts tend to be images. And bloggers can tag these posts by subject matter, thus enabling other users to browse all posts on Tumblr by tag.
For many Natives, it was a very frustrating experience to click on tags such as #Native American and find the material to be mostly very UN-Native. The tags were filled primarily with images of non-native hipsters in various stages of being clothed and soberness wearing headdresses, skewed ideas of natives, dream catchers, that damned two wolves story, and other racist stereotypical imagery of Native Americans and First Nations peoples. The tag that ought to belong to us, and that ought to help us find each other, was being used by others, slapped insensitively onto images and ideas we actively dislike.
The emergence of social media platforms like tumblr, Facebook, twitter and yes, blogs, has created amazing possibilities for aboriginal people to combat centuries-old stereotypes and misconceptions. However, we are up against the sheer volume of those stereotypes and sometimes it can feel like a losing battle.
But actions like that described above are not just a way of lashing out at people engaged in cultural appropriation. There is a real desire to get accurate information out there, for natives and non-natives alike to access.
Many aboriginal people have been disconnected from their own cultures because of Residential Schools, the 60’s Scoop, and continuing ‘fostering-out’ into non-native families. When these people want to learn more about their own culture, they have to wade through so many inaccuracies that it can feel impossible at times to reconnect. Non-natives with a real interest in aboriginal cultures face this as well.
For example, when artwork is mistakenly represented as Dene, Ojibway AND Cree, the viewer does not have an opporutnity to see how the styles are different, contributing to an inaccurate ‘pan-Indian’ view of our cultures. All the misinformation out there is a serious impediment to having Canadians understand who we are. It is a serious impediment to understanding ourselves.
Try celebration, instead of appropriation
It’s okay to love our stuff. You can even have a whole lot of it, legitimately and guilt-free! Take a look at the artisans/clothing page for some legitimate native swag. Notice that none of these places are going to sell you eagle feathers or war bonnets.
There are a lot of knock-offs out there, and regardless of your views on pirated-anything, the fact is, buying cheap imitation “native stuff” hurts our communities and quite often perpetuates stereotypes and cultural confusion.
A lot of work and high quality materials go into aboriginal ‘stuff’. Carvings, woven baskets, clothing…there are skills and training involved in producing this sort of thing that can be imitated, but not matched. You can’t afford $200 for beaded and fur-trimmed moose-hide mocs? Perhaps you should consider going without until you can. Can’t afford an original piece of aboriginal art? Buy a print. You can support aboriginal communities in a real, tangible way by supporting our artisans.
A lot of fakes are being produced both here in Canada and overseas. Yes, that shit is offensive. If you like our stuff enough to want it, then please. Get it authentically. Know what nation it comes from (Cree? Dene? Inuvialuit?) and who the artisan is. If you’re buying art, find out what it means. Does it represent a traditional story, or a modern one? I mean…if you’re buying this stuff, don’t you want to know about it?
*sigh* I know that’s expecting a little much when you’re looking at a dream-catcher print t-shirt from H&M, but hopefully this will at least help people avoid buying stupid ugly fake headdresses from online and retail stores. This is a great article on approaching questions about fashion, btw, if you’re worried about feathered earrings and so on.
Anyway. There is a lot more to be said on this topic, but I’m going to leave it there because holy, ever longwinded!