Guilty of Appropriation

Candace, 10 August 2005, Comments Off on Guilty of Appropriation
Categories: Academia, Bodies, Canadiana, Culture, Diversity, Racism, Women's Studies

Every summer I take my children camping with a group of homeschooler families. This year’s trip is to a 17th century reconstruction of an Iroquoian village. The trip includes observing a ‘day-in-the-life’, performances of traditional Native dance and storytelling, canoeing down the river and sleeping in a longhouse. The goal of the village is to preserve and educate people about Native culture. I have never been there but have compiled information based on the promotional materials provided by our group organizer, the village website and discussions with people who have visited the village in the past. A year ago I never would have questioned going along with the group and would have seen the opportunity as fun and exciting. Now I wonder if this would be cultural appropriation and if going on this trip perpetuates stereotypes of Canada’s indigenous peoples. Starhawk, in “Cultural Appropriation” writes, “we can experience and learn from a multiplicity of cultures and spiritual traditions” but that “issues of entitlement and authenticity need to be addressed” (201).

It would be simple to say that camping at a historic site is an educational opportunity. I treasure these trips with my kids and use them to reconnect after a busy school year. The issues of stereotyping and cultural appropriation complicate things this year. The promotional material about the village says that participants will be offered opportunities to sample food prepared by traditional Native methods but also offers traditional Western food for the unadventurous. Participants do not have to step outside their comfort zone. As the dominant group, white people expect to be accommodated wherever they go. Their culture is the norm and everything else is ‘other’. Jessica Johnston suggests this is part of why there is no diversity in Toronto street foods. The health and safety regulations are created by the dominant group and make it impossible for marginalized groups to participate in the economy of “sidewalk snacks” (6).

The promotional material from the village romanticizes the life and culture of the Native people. There is no mention of the hardships, the colonization, or the racism endured by indigenous people in 17th century Canada. Nor is there any mention of Native people’s ongoing struggle against discrimination. There is an invitation to share coffee and Indian donuts and browse the unique gift shop. Tourists are welcome to see the pretty parts of history and are not shown the other side of the story. Adrienne Shadd expresses the invisibility of Black people in Canadian history in her article “Where Are You Really From?” (10). This applies to Canada’s indigenous people as well. Outside of this village there is no evidence in many parts of Canada that Native people exist. Arun Mukherjee writes that some people may even be taught that Native Canadians are an entity of the past, that is, “extinct” (2001, 215).

In our commercial culture people have been trained to consume. If there are sufficient funds anything can be owned. This applies to owning other cultures. Native sculpture, dream catchers, moccasins, feathers, beadwork, and dolls are only some of the things that are sold by Native people. When I was a child my family bought moccasins every summer at the Pelee Island Trading Post. One year my grandmother took me to the monthly bingo at town hall and I used the $19 I won to buy my very own pair of deerskin moccasins with beadwork on the toes. My experience at the bingo seems a dreadful contrast to the one described by Valeria BedassigaePheasant in “My Mother Used to Dance” (36). I was welcome at the town hall and I was welcome at the Trading Post. Pheasant was met with prejudice and hostility because of her differences. Doris J. Saunders says “differences should be appreciated and not despised” (120) but it is difficult to change the attitudes of racist people. For me, the combination of my white skin and money was all I needed to freely go wherever I chose. I was so proud of those moccasins because I paid for them myself. I never considered how they were made, who made them or where they came from. I was thrilled to have something unique.

A few years later, at age twelve and about to start high school I chose tall moccasins with fringe and laces. They were a new item at the store that year and I thought I would look trendy walking down those high school hallways with something no one else had. As far as I knew there were no indigenous people in my school. I knew that I could choose to blend in or stand out depending on my mood. Because I am part of the visible majority I never had to consider what it would be like to not have that choice. Once I got to high school I realized how important it was to blend in, how often ‘different’ equaled ‘bad’. My acceptance was based on my ability to appear ‘normal’ and ‘just like everyone else’. I never wore those moccasins outside my bedroom. Wearing the moccasins made me stand out. By taking them off I could blend in again. Changing my appearance was easy. If I were Native I would have chosen between wearing traditional clothing and standing out or conforming to fashion norms and hiding part of my self. This is what some of the women in Amber Nasrulla’s article discuss when they talk about living in Canada and choosing to wear the hijab. Observing Muslim hijab in North America subjects an individual to name-calling and prejudice. When she wears hijab a woman knows that she will stand out. I know it would be completely inappropriate for me to wear hijab but I never thought it was wrong for me to wear the moccasins if that is what I wanted to do. I had never heard of cultural appropriation and was completely unaware that there was a line somewhere between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. I belonged to the culture of white people and my dominance was meant to be invisible to me. I was not meant to question my racial advantage.

Last summer I went to Toronto’s “Dusk Dances” at Withrow Park to see an evening of dance performances. One of the performers was Lisa Odjig, who is a several time world champion Native hoop dancer. People in the audience admired her as she spun her many hoops with great concentration, dexterity, and skill. It never occurred to me then that watching her performance might be a kind of appropriation. She made the choice to participate in the festival: she paid a registration fee; she received a portion of the admission fees. She told the audiences how this art has been passed through her family and that she makes all her clothes using traditional methods. She shares her work to show the positive parts of Native culture. It is her goal to help change the stereotypes of Native people. She is not dressing up to pose for portraits with tourists (see Jeanette Armstrong 35). I think she is one of the people Saunders describes who “accept[s] [her] Native blood out of a growing pride in who [she] is” (120). She is showing the skill and talent of Native people and not trying to cash in “for the benefits membership offers [her]” (Armstrong 35) or on the exotic appeal Western people feel toward different cultures. Women of other cultures are often thought of only in sexual terms, like the women in Tator et al.’s article about Miss Saigon. Asian women were stereotyped as exotic sexual creatures suitable for sexual fantasies, prostitutes and mail-order brides (148-149). Instead, Odjig accurately represents her own culture in a positive light, which discourages stereotyping. I think that watching her performance let me participate in the celebration of another culture and was not an appropriation.

If I decided to take the trip with my children I would be offering them a kinesthetic learning opportunity to discover more about Canadian history. Going and doing enriches anything that we may read or discuss. Part of me wants to go because I probably will not have this opportunity again. But it is not my culture. And Native people are not presenting it. It seems to be another occasion where white people present the pieces of history that they deem profitable. Native culture, language and history are being lost (see Silman 222) and although this village keeps little bits alive the bits chosen reflect the bias of the choosers. The bits chosen depend on what the dominant group feels meets the market demand. The village organizers are controlling in a way, which bits of Native history will survive.

The victorious and the affluent write history. The history offered in this village does not include early colonialists dependence on Native skills. Saunders says that the Aboriginals were thought of as savages although it is likely that “the first European whites . . . would probably never have survived without the help of the savages they so despised” (120). Silman quotes Juanita Perley who says “[the whites] would never have survived if it hadn’t been for the Indians nursing them along”(225). The village does not teach about the roles of Native women in the fur trade and as diplomats. While canoeing the Grand River they promise to point out the home of General Brant but make no mention of colonialism where a “foreign power dominates and exploits an indigenous group by appropriating their land and resources, extracting their wealth, and using them as cheap labour” (Henry et al. 326). There is no mention of how Native people lost their land through war and treaties. There is no discussion of Native children being sent to residential homes. There is no discussion of Native women who lost their status when they married non-Natives (Silman 9-13). There is no discussion of the systemic racism Native people continue to face in education, employment, and the justice system. Starhawk says one step in avoiding cultural appropriation is to “support the present-day struggles of the people” (205). But all of these things detract from the commercial viability of the village as a business. In a world where success is measured in dollars, capitalizing on the stereotypes of the savage and the squaw draws in families, tour groups and schools. Learning about Canadian history seems like a good thing but not when it is dressed up and facts are ignored. This misleads and perpetuates stereotypes. If the trip included Native history told by Native people and the dancers and storytellers were all Native then I would feel that the culture was being accurately and acceptably shared. I would like to hear from a group similar to Asian ReVisions (126) and what they want me to know about indigenous history.

I was once part of a dramatization of a local Native legend. Like Miss Saigon, the play used “sugar-coated clichés to explain complex historical, political, and social realities” (Tator et al. 46). I made costumes for this play and assembled props including drums and feathers. One of my tasks was making the show look as authentic as possible – not be authentic – just look authentic. I knew nothing about Native culture and it was figured that neither would the average audience member. I got some books out of the library and copied designs out of old photographs for the items I created. It never occurred to me nor was it ever suggested that I go out and find people to ask. It never occurred to me that the books I was searching might be inaccurate or that I might not choose a good design or that the designs I chose might be inappropriate. I gave no thought to whether the symbols were used locally or not; my only concern was did they look Native enough? I was arrogant and ignorant. The purpose of the show was to dramatize Native life. The actors painted their faces uninformed that specific colours and patterns have meaning. We argued about the correct pronunciation of the main character’s long name and never considered verifying it somehow or somewhere. We never considered whether it was appropriate to perform the show. It was just another show, no different than the Neil Simon we had just done or the sex farce we would do next. We concentrated on rehearsals and ticket sales.

One of the actors had an emotional breakdown during the last week of rehearsals. Because this is not uncommon in theatre we figured it was just another case of nerves/jitters/insecurities. This time was different though. She told us that she was part Ojibwa and that our representation of her culture was painful. She felt that the singing and drumming performed by the white actors was disrespectful to her people. I thought she was just being dramatic – not unheard of in the business. I had no clue she was Native – she certainly could “pass as white” (Saunders 120) and we were only doing a play. People were coming for fun. Dinner theatre was not meant to be deep or meaningful. I wanted her to lighten up, learn her lines, and let us get on with rehearsals. She had no suggestions and we were in a crunch for opening night. She ended up dropping out of the play and I was glad we could finally get on with the work. Maybe she was inhibited to speak up sooner because as Saunders suggests, “most people of mixed blood were ashamed of their Native roots” (120) or maybe we had already shown too much cultural racism. When I think of this now and how insensitive I was – how white people used this local legend for financial gain – I am ashamed. I needed to make money and so I did what was asked of me without thinking about the greater implications.

I have been part of ceremonies with some of these other families where a smudge was passed or other rituals were ‘borrowed’ from indigenous peoples. People are drawn to the spirituality they believe all Native people hold. As Chrystos says though, Native people are “not a means by which you can reach spiritual understanding” (310). I have always declined from participating in smudges because of allergies but also because I am just not comfortable with the use of rituals. Starhawk describes the anger felt by Native communities when people were taking “rituals, chants, myths, and sacred objects out of their context, diluting their meanings, and sometimes profiting off them or dishonestly claiming authority and expertise they hadn’t earned” (201). I understand this anger, but this is the first time anyone has ever heard me give voice to any awareness of cultural appropriation.

I have decided to take a different vacation with my children this year. I have realized that our lives will not be incomplete if we never sleep in a longhouse. As much as I think traveling with the group is a good experience what they really want is time with me. As a parent I feel pressured to provide every possible opportunity for my children. It is hard to turn down a trip that could be so exciting. We enjoy camping and canoeing and are all interested in Canadian history. If I deprive my children of another experience because of my personal politics I am called selfish and over-protective.
Many of my parenting choices have fallen outside mainstream Western culture and I am getting used to a challenging road. I know that I only have one chance to teach my children what I think is right. I want them to be sensitive to the feelings of marginalized groups and I want them to have experience with making tough choices. I want them to be aware of racism and be willing to speak up when they see it in its various forms.

I had to tell the group that we would not be attending and why. There are many alternative ways that my family can learn about Native culture. One member emailed me privately to say that she and her partner had also been uncomfortable with the choice but felt as new members they should not create any conflict. Another member said that her family had done a trip years ago and had spent so much time filling in the gaps of missing information that maybe it was more work than it was worth. Some could not understand the issue of cultural appropriation – one said it was better to have some information about the lives of Native people than no information and that if the Native people were unhappy with the representation then they should do something about it. This of course would only happen if they were able to afford the trip in the first place, but I accepted that each family makes this decision for themselves. Some reminded me of the play I did and say it was just for fun and not to take it so seriously. One said that my kids were too young (ages 4, 7 and 11) to learn about the somber realities of Native life (historical or present) and to let them just go have fun. Another told me it was just more of my elitist politics and that I have been in Women’s Studies too long.

Making this choice is difficult. These are some of my oldest friends. Making an unpopular choice is difficult. My kids understand but when their friends come back and tell them about all the ‘cool stuff’ they missed I am sure there will be some sense of having been left out. Even though sleeping in the longhouses might be an exciting adventure, I know none of us would choose to live in them full-time. And as all non-indigenous people we would never have to make that choice. It might be a fun adventure for a weekend but only because we know it would only be temporary. Tator et al. say, there is always a hidden narrative: the superiority of Western culture and Western values” (46). After the trip we would all go home to our indoor plumbing, refrigerators and white privilege. Even if we could choose to stay, we would not. I think the best way for me to learn about Native culture would be to do as Starhawk suggests and listen “to what the indigenous voices [are] saying”(202).

Works Cited

Armstrong, Jeanette. “Poems.” Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature, ed. Smaro Kamboureli. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996. 280-85.

Chrystos. “I am not your Princess.” Not Vanishing (Press Gang, 1988), in Women: Images and Realities. Ed. Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair and Nancy Schniedenwind. Mountain View, California: Mayfield, 1999. 310-11.

Henry, Frances, Carol Tator, Winston Mattis, & Tim Rees. “Glossary.” The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society. Toronto: Harcourt, Brace, 1995. 325-29.

Johnston, Jessica. “Dogged Determination.” This Magazine, 2005. 38(4), 6.

Mukherjee, Arun. “The ‘Race Consciousness’ of a South Asian (Canadian, of Course) Female Academic.” Talking About Identity: Encounters in Race, Ethnicity, and Language. Ed. Carl E. James and Adrienne Shadd. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2001. 212-218.

Nasrulla, Amber. “Their Canada Includes Hijab.” Globe and Mail, August 22, 1994.

Pheasant, Valeria Bedassigae. “My Mother Used to Dance.” in Talking About Difference: Encounters in Culture, Language, and Identity. Ed. Carl E. James and Adrienne Shadd. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1994. 35-40.

Saunders, Doris J. “Why Admit You Are an Eskimo?” Talking about Difference: Encounters in Culture, Language, and Identity. Ed. Carl E James and Adrienne Shadd. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1994. 119-20.

Shadd, Adrienne. “Where are you Really From? Notes of an ‘Immigrant’ From North Buxton, Ontario.” Talking about Difference: Encounters in Culture, Language, and Identity. Ed. Carl E. James and Adrienne Shadd. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1994. 9-15.

Silman, Janet. Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1990. 74-81.

Starhawk. “Cultural Appropriation.” Webs of Power: Notes for the Global Uprising. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2002. 201-05.

Tator, Carol, Frances Henry & Winston Mattis. “Miss Saigon.” Challenging Racism in the Arts: Case Studies of Controversy and Conflict. Toronto: U of T Press, 1998. 141-58.


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  1. Spicy
    12 August 2005, 6:00 pm

    Thanks – I really enjoyed that. Very thought provoking.

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