Cultural appropriation is a challenge for mainstream minds

Cultural appropriation has been a recurring issue recently, from the outcry over author Joseph Boyden taking on what many consider to be a false cloak of indigenous heritage—Grey Owling is becoming a popular term—to the more recent social media piling on experienced by Hal Niedzviecki, a member of the editorial board for the somewhat obscure Writer’s Union publication Write Magazine, when he dared to express the opinion that he doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation. The general consensus appears to be that cultural appropriation is bad. It is.

But it is also a very difficult topic to tackle when it comes to the creative arts, as evidenced by the somewhat ill-advised kneejerk Twitter reactions to the issue coming from some of the leading lights of the Canadian literary world (aka offering to help fund the appropriation prize that Mr. Niedzviecki satirically suggested in his article—offers that have been condemned by Mr. Niedzviecki himself).

In the present context, cultural appropriation is when someone presents themselves as an indigenous creative person and their work as the product of that oppressed culture and marginalized racial group. Currently, it’s cool to be Native.

It hasn’t been so “cool” to be Native in the mainstream of Canadian society for most of Canada’s colonial past, although Archie Belaney made kind of a run at it as the aforementioned Grey Owl, a name the transplanted Englishman gave himself as he played the role of an indigenous person in Nothern Ontario a century ago. Mr. Belaney successfully dined out on his assumed identity for many years. He was married to a Mohawk woman in a traditional Anishnaabe ceremony. The current raft of wannabes claiming to be Native must have so many residential school survivors and elders who grew up in the racist maelstrom that was Canada’s history shaking their heads in disbelief.

There is that other cultural appropriation that manifests itself at rock concerts and raves, the wearing of war bonnets and other accoutrements as fashion items—such bonnets recently raised approbation at the Toronto 150 celebrations even as the “offenders” referenced it as paying homage to Canada’s indigenous heritage.

War bonnets have also made appearances adorning the heads of local Anishinaabe leadership in the not so distant past, despite being a plains cultural artifact and not at all historically correct for this region. Since those days Anishinaabe leaders have adopted headdress stemming from their own heritage, but it is a curious question: does cultural appropriation only count if it is the mainstream culture doing the appropriating? Can an Ojibwe legitimately carve a west coast-inspired totem pole or an Odawa carve Inuit soapstone walruses and polar bears?

Cultural appropriation is a very tricky concept—but its by-products are very familiar to most of us. The blues, jazz and rock and roll were all stolen from black culture by mainstream artists—most of whom did not experience any of the crushing racism of Jim Crow. Elvis, say it ain’t so. (Does Elvis’s Cherokee great grandparent allow him a bye in this? What would his mother’s Jewish ancestors think?)

But perhaps there is a world of difference between adopting an art form or artistic style practiced by others and presenting yourself as a member of an oppressed group that originated that style. It is a fundamental question of authenticity.

Local artist Blake Debassige recently raised the point with this newspaper that the arts councils which award grants that specifically target indigenous groups whose works are underrepresented only require that the applicant self identify as indigenous. Therein is another strange and challenging question. Who decides who is Native enough to be authentically Native? It somehow seems slightly off to include practicing wannabees in the mix.

Is this a blood quantum thing? Is a band council resolution required? What about those whose identities have been ripped from them by the Indian Act and a host of other odious policies like the Sixties Scoop that have checkered this nation’s past?

There are a fairly large number of people whose blood quantum would and does qualify them for a status card under the Indian Act but who do not identify as indigenous, do not practice or follow Native traditions, yet who would pass muster to avoid the approbation that faces those who have indeed otherwise, walked the walk. There are many people who, in good faith, adhere to traditional Native culture and traditions but who would fall far short of the “official” racial requirements to be considered legitimately part of the gang.

Many of the above-mentioned issues and concerns are not meant to be flippant, or to belittle the issue, but are cited to illustrate the need for some foundational structure upon which to measure whether an artistic work meets the bar. There needs to be an open debate on this, not within the mainstream society, which is by its very nature unequipped to deal with the nuances involved, but within the indigenous communities themselves.

Authenticity of indigenous voices cannot be left to the federal government or one of its agencies to determine. That body has too long sought to erase the First Nations and their rights through a fundamentally racist set of regulations that ignores indigenous cultures and traditions that would historically qualify an individual’s membership within a nation.

We need a set of cultural norms that will provide a smell test that extends beyond “I know it when I see it,” and those norms must start with a reasonable consensus of what constitutes cultural appropriation and authenticity within the indigenous communities.

This is an important issue, and it cannot and should not be left to vagaries of mob rule through social media because social media is notoriously mercurial and too easily subject to abuse.