I have delved into the issue of cultural appropriation/misappropriation before, attempting to explain where I think the line should be drawn, and I’ve also discussed the need to ensure authenticity when approaching stories and resources attributed to Native Americans. To briefly (and inadequately) sum up those arguments (really, read the longer posts):
- Some items/symbols are restricted and should not be used outside the culture because doing so disrespects these items/symbols. Doing so is cultural appropriation/ misappropriation.
- Other items/symbols are not restricted and are freely shared between cultures, and as long as they are not used to perpetuate stereotypes about the people from whence these items/symbols come, there’s no problem. This is an issue of respect, not cultural appropriation/misappropriation.
- If you’re not sure, ask. More importantly, listen.
Recently a boutique has come under fire after its products were made available at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. A number of indigenous people have expressed their concern that these products are culturally misappropriated and perpetuate stereotypes.
The designer, Nathalie Benarroch, has this to say,“… do you have to be French to eat a baguette? Do you have to be Italian to speak Italian? This is just fashion. I’m not trying to be philosophical, or political, or cultural, or historical. We all have deep, intense, challenging lives, and fashion is light. That’s what I like about it.”
Others disagree, including Laich-kwil-tach artist Sonny Assu, “Look at Beat Nation: that is the authentic voice of indigenous people right there,” he said. “Showing that we’re not succumbing to the stereotype and that we’re not pandering to the tourist esthetic to make a quick buck.”
Despite the fact that I am annoyed beyond belief by Ms. Benarroch’s total refusal to actually listen to the concerns of indigenous people while claiming to honour them (a common refrain among so many people engaged in cultural misappropration), I think a nuanced analysis is needed here. I believe this, because to simply dismiss every item sold at Inukt as ‘cultural appropriation/misappropriation’ will not educate Ms. Benarroch, and it isn’t entirely accurate. I value accuracy.
Some of the boutique’s footwear and accessories are apparently made in Wendake (Huron-Wendat) by First Nations artisans. However obnoxious it might be for some to see non-natives in moccasins and fur hats, items like these do not tend to be restricted in indigenous cultures, and most would agree that if they are going to be sold, the benefit should go towards First Nations people.
My criticism: the website claims all footwear and accessories are made on First Nations reserves, but does not list which ones. If these items are actually produced by First Nations artisans, they should receive credit on the website. I also think it is legitimate to question what percentage of the profits actually flow to the people who make them.
Images of indigenous people
There are a number of items that display the images of indigenous peoples, such as shirts, bags and chairs and so forth.
As is usual among ‘native-inspired’ goods, these pictures feature only old-style photos of people from Plains cultures. Chief Joseph is identified by name, but his indigenous name (Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it) and his nation (Wal-lam-wat-kain, Nez Pierce) are not mentioned. Still, this is better than the anonymous “First Nations woman“, and the bizarrely anonymous Sitting Bull.
My criticism: These images are not culturally restricted, but they are deserving of respect. At a minimum, they should be properly named and their nation should be identified. Indigenous people are not decorations. If you ‘respect’ indigenous people, then indicate this by showing you’ve done at least some research in order to discover who these people were and what they accomplished.
There is a deeper issue at play as well. While images of actual indigenous people are not (in my opinion) exactly cultural misappropriation, the propagation of these particular Plains nation images plays into the mainstream homogenisation of ALL indigenous cultures as being similar to Plains cultures. Very rarely does the fashion industry reflect the diversity of our nations, and instead chooses to rely on worn-out tropes, constantly recycling Plains culture as seen through the Settler lens.
I would like to see more diversity of representation in the fashion industry, if our historic figures are of such interest to designers, but above all, I believe these images need to be presented respectfully and in context.
However, I draw the line at caricatures. They play into wider racist stereotypes of red face and are inherently problematic as a result. Designers must not wave these concerns aside, believing themselves to be outside of such cultural contexts.
I do not consider any of these images to be cultural misappropriation which I’m defining as the misuse of restricted cultural items/symbols. In the first case, actual indigenous peoples are depicted, though they should not be presented anonymously. As well, were they presented in a disrespectful manner, I would consider that extremely problematic.
In the second case, caricatures are racist stereotypes, and are to be avoided. There is nothing respectful about these stereotypes.
Random names and images
The boutique itself is name “Inukt”. The word inuk means human in Inuktitut. However, Inuit people also identify themselves as Inuk (singular), and have different names for people who are not Inuit. A number of items in this store have the phrase, “I am Inuk and my heart is free!”
My criticism: That is great, if you are actually Inuk, but would anyone carry around a bag that states, “I am Japanese and my heart is freeeeeeee” if they were not actually Japanese? The phrase appropriates a cultural identity and attributes it to the person displaying the item. That is bizarre, and inappropriate. I consider this to be cultural appropriation/misappropriation.
The boutique also assigns random indigenous names/words to its products, without any explanation as to the origin of these words. Most of the words are Anishinaabe, and some appear to be from various other indigenous languages.
Choosing random words from other languages to label products and make them seem more ‘exotic’ is hardly new. However, given the fact that indigenous languages are severely threatened because of a history of repression wherein our own peoples were forbidden to speak their languages, designers should be treading lightly. At the least, providing a translation and identifying which LIVING language these words come from, would help demonstrate that the designer is not wholly ignorant of the words she is borrowing.
Using these words is not in itself cultural appropriation/misappropriation in my opinion, but they do play into a wider power structure wherein non-indigenous peoples often have more opportunities to access indigenous languages in study than do indigenous peoples themselves. As a result, most scholarly work done in our languages, is done by non-indigenous linguists. This is a complex issue that cannot be delved into in any proper depth here, but it does complicate things. It may not be appropriative, but it is problematic.
A “west coast” symbol is used on a number of different products at Inukt, each of which is given a different name in Anishinaabe…sold at a store using an altered word from Inuktitut. The cultural mishmash here hurts my head. Anyway, I do not know if this particular symbol is restricted. Nor do I know who designed it as no attribution is provided by the boutique’s website. It is possible that this particular symbol has been culturally appropriated/misappropriated, but I leave that judgment up to someone from within the many cultures incorrectly mashed together as “west coast”.
The fact is, the majority of the items at this boutique are not created by First Nations people, and are not even remotely ‘indigenous’. The boutique mostly consists of luxury fur items with a ‘native’ name slapped onto it. These items are not appropriative, just poorly labelled.
My final assessment
I think there is good reason for the controversy. There are examples of cultural appropriation/misappropriation, as well as reliance on racist stereotypes. Not all the products at this boutique fall under these categories, but more work could certainly be done to identify the communities where the footwear and accessories are made, as well as untangling the mishmash of cultures Ms. Benarroch uses to label her items and boutique.
Designers need to do a better job of communicating with indigenous communities if they wish to use indigenous symbols and languages to represent their products. The relationship between indigenous peoples and Settler Canadians is often strained, but it is amazing what some open and honest dialogue can do. As Justice Murray Sinclair recently put it:
I personally don’t see anything inherently wrong with society using images from our culture appropriately, its when those images are used inappropriately that I have a problem…
…I want Canada and all its institutions to be proud to include us in the imagery of this country, not solely because there’s a profit to be had, but because its who we are and who this country is. If we demand that they stop using those images, we lose something. All of us. We will continue to be invisible.
For me, the issue of respect is central, and respect is shown through actions, not platitudes. Inukt could be doing a much better job at this.
If you feel it is inappropriate that these items continue to be sold at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts you can contact:
Sylvie Labrosse (Manager of the Fine Arts Boutique) at email@example.com Nathalie Bondil (Director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact Allison Skinner at email@example.com as the Inukt line being sold at her gallery in Toronto as well. There is a contact form on the Inukt website available here, if you wish to reach out directly.
Thomas Bastien, Press Officer for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts reached out to let us know the following:
“The Boutique and Bookstore is more than just a shop; it aims to promote cultural and artistic diversity”, states Sylvie Labrosse, manager of the boutique. “Following the comments we have received in the past few days, we have decided, in consultation with Nathalie Bernarroch, that our boutique was not the best place for the launch of her collection. We have therefore contacted personally various members of the First Nations community, as well as visitors who have taken the trouble to share their opinions with us, to apologize and to let them know that the Inukt products will be withdrawn from the boutique in the next few days”, she added.
As well, Allison Skinner from distill gallery in Toronto wrote me to let me know that as of two weeks ago, Inukt products are not being shown there.