The do’s, don’ts, maybes, and I-don’t-knows of cultural appropriation.

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.

The blog Native Appropriations is a great place to do some reading.  The post “But Why Can’t I wear a Hipster Headdress?” deals explicitly with the kinds of things you’ll see in the Hall of Shame.

Tumblr user adailyriot put together a good list of links to read and check out.  I would ask that you not go into this exploration expecting everyone to speak softly and politely.  You may not understand why some of these behaviours impact us so deeply, but that lack of understanding does not justify rejecting our words if they are not delivered in a certain tone. Remember that this is me at my calmest.  I have been moved to tears of helpless rage more than once over these things…and my words are not always polite when I am processing that sort of thing.

So a guy walks into a bar and asks…

What does the Victoria Cross, the Order of Canada, a framed Bachelor’s degree, the Giller Prize and an eagle feather all have in common?

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.

Legitimate access

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

It does not take long to find out that certain modes of so-called ‘geisha’ dress are restricted in Japanese culture for example.  The common ‘geisha costume‘ attempts to imitate the maiko.

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.

Combating misinformation

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.

On January7, the Native/First Nations Tumblr community came together as a unified force and took back our tags: #Native American, #NDN, and the ridiculous #Indian Hat.

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!


About âpihtawikosisân

Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. Currently living in Montreal, Quebec. Passions: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. Education: BEd, LLB, working on a BCL
This entry was posted in Cultural appropriation, Culture, Decolonisation, Metis beadwork, Pan-Indian, Representation of natives and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to The do’s, don’ts, maybes, and I-don’t-knows of cultural appropriation.

  1. Lisa says:

    Thanks for adding links to my website for authentic, inoffensive Metis moccasins and garments!

  2. Jenn Jilks says:

    This is an informative post. I’m aware of some of these issues. It bothers me to see some of the examples in life. I’ve seen a German silver worker using Aboriginal designs, images ans spiritual symbols in central Ontario. Great post.

    • At least in the US, there is a law that prohibits non-natives from passing their work off as native. We have nothing similar in Canada, though how such a law would work here is not something I’m prepared to figure out right now. A little questioning will usually uncover the truth, however, and I would like more people to insist on authentic work by aboriginal artists, if aboriginal work is what they want.

  3. Joey says:

    Thanks for posting this. I was often confused about what was cultural appropriation and what wasn’t, but the explanation of sacred things really did clear that up for me. I am very interested in many cultures and I am glad that it’s okay to be. I think so often people get really upset while discussing this and when I ask questions I’m seen as trying to argue when I’m really not. I just want to understand where “the line” is, you know? I feel like I have a better understanding of the subject now.

  4. Jadey says:

    This is fantastic! This definitely goes into my roster of links for the next time (and I know there will be a next time) someone asks me, “But why can’t I wear a feather? It looks so cool!”

    There are probably still going to be people who could read something like this and just not care (rargh), but I think that for at least some this might be the argument that finally penetrates and gets them thinking outside of their assumptions. I’ve read a lot of stuff on cultural appropriation, but this post shows me that I still have more to understand. I used to be embarrassed because I bought a lot of aboriginal art when I was a kid, and when I first learned about cultural appropriation and colonialism, I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for me to own these things or display them. I think there will always be some fraught elements to a white settler displaying or wearing aboriginal items, even when these aren’t sacred or knock-offs, because of the societal power dynamics (i.e., I would be careful not to wear certain jewelry I own if I was going into a circumstance where I might mislead people to read me as aboriginal in a way that benefits me or to score “cred”), but you make very good points about the value of supporting artists.

    Thank you!

  5. Jadey says:

    (And by “aboriginal art” I do mean art made by aboriginal artisans! Mainly at pow-wows and also at some galleries and stores run by people from local reserves in my community growing up.)

  6. MJ says:

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve been trying to learn more about cultural appropriation, but it’s been difficult. Having this baseline understanding will make things a lot easier.

  7. Emo says:

    Through your tireless research on Tumblr, I have learned a lot about the crassness of drunken white people that I didn’t know already. The woman in this photograph (wearing what she tags as an “Indian Hat” at the Glastonbury Music festival) actually posted a self-justification for it as follows:
    [The photograph:]
    [The quotation from her blog:]
    [Question:] It’s pretty seldom that pics like these get posted by the people who are actually IN the photos, but that’s good. it gives me an opportunity to actually speak to you and ask you your thought process behind this. Why did you decide to put on that bonnet on and wear it to a concert? What was your motivation in this? What were you thinking? I really want to know. I want to know too. What was your mindset? Why, of all things to put on your head, wear an Indian headdress?
    [Her answer:] because it was beautiful seeing it there, i loved the colours and everything asnd i thought the best place to where one is the most unpredictable place, the next thing i know everyone had started doing it, i hope that helps.

    There’s a reciprocal aspect of this that is even stranger: it is now so common for white people to appropriate FN religiosity that it is expected of white people by many FN people themselves in strange contexts.

    I know a white woman (with no FN blood at all) who volunteers at a FN center (details are here left intentionally vague); people appreciate her and like her there, but when she expresses no interest in acquiring the usual accoutrements of FN religiosity, the response normally is, “Oh, so you’re part Indian after all?”, and she’s back to explaining that she’s merely a white person with good intentions (as on day one). I can completely understand why and how people (in the current generation) have developed this binary assumption: either you’re white and interested in dissimulating being FN, or you’re actually FN, and therefore not interested in dissimulating it (and, perhaps, you are not particularly interested in being invited to a traditional religious ceremony, because you’ve been to a hundred of them already, and will need to go to more when your family next cajoles you into it, etc. etc.).

    I’m not complaining about this, it is just a really strange “shadow” cast by the same problem you’re talking about: it has come to be assumed that all white people are involved in this kind of crass appropriation… (or, at least, all white people who have any interest in FN…) so when you demonstrate that you’re not into the appropriation, many FN people then revert to the assumption (earnestly enough) that you’re not really white (i.e., despite appearances).

    For the first time, recently, I saw a young FN guy (probably Cree, given where I met him) wearing a “Cleavland Indians” baseball hat (i.e., with the infamous logo of the “smiling Indian”, etc.). I looked twice, because I was wondering if he had written some political slogan on it, or if he had otherwise defaced it, but apparently not: the political commentary was presumed to be self-evident.

    • I wouldn’t say I’ve been doing research on tumblr the few days I’ve been there…more like enjoying every second of my time reading some truly kick-ass refutations of stereotypes and myths surrounding native people. I had no idea the place existed until a friend was showing me her tumblr page. Not that I needed another on-line place to spend all my time…

  8. Latining says:

    Thank you for posting this. I was just talking with a friend about where the line was. I would love to support Aboriginal artists, but it’s difficult for someone not of the culture to know what is and isn’t okay, especially with the colonialist history. I think this is a really useful rubric, but raises more questions than it answers. It does, however, provide a good ground for understanding what some of the key issues are and how to extrapolate to find the answers yourself. Really, I just think this is fantastic and thank you so much for writing it.

  9. jb says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful explanation. I guess I can count myself as one of the well-meaning but bumbling white folk and this has helped to set me straight. I remember years ago a Native friend of mine telling me how she much she disliked people getting tattoos of cultural symbols- whether Native symbols or otherwise. Her words stuck with me and have always made me think carefully about the use of other cultures’ icons and if doing so might be rude or racist. She didn’t explain to me why it made her uncomfortable, perhaps she couldn’t even articulate it herself at the time, but clearly she took issue with cultural appropriation. Reading this post finally sheds light on the issue and helps me to be more sensitive to it. Thank you.

  10. Brian Fisher says:

    Hello âpihtawikosisân. Your comment about “that damned two wolves story” got me going. I see that I am one of the few who didn’t get the reference so I looked a bit & the first thing I found was a British site with a $40 poster of the story with a photo of a wolf’s face staring out at me. So lots of folks are looking to make some money on the back of this story.

    Today my nephew posted the story on FaceBook. I responded with a link to your blog.
    After an extended exchange with one of his friends, he provided me with this link that attempted to find the story’s origin.

    One person in the discussion recounts his 1958 visit to a Cherokee Baptist Church in northeastern Oklahoma, very near the Cherokee Nation Tribal Headquarters. It was in a Sunday school and the parable was told to the class by one of the church’s elders.

    Are your objections to this story more about its exploitation than its message and origin?

    All the best,

    • That wasn’t my comment, it was Britt Reid from the article linked to.

      My issue with stories like these is that they are so vaguely attributed, and questionable in origin. Our stories come with provenance…as in, when we tell stories we say who we heard the story from, which community it comes from and so on. These kinds of stories presented by people as belonging to ‘the Cherokee’ are often stories that non-natives have made up themselves. Your spidey-senses begin tingling when the person telling the story can’t specific which community the story originates in, or what actual member of a community passed this story on. The practice of passing on stories without provenance (or making them up) is in direct violation of our storytelling traditions, and is in itself problematic.

      • Latining says:

        This is more of an anthropology question and I’m trying to separate it from colonial history as much as possible, because I recognise that in such a context the problem of appropriation is pretty obvious.

        Anyway, what I’m wondering is what is the view on cultures that view stories as being sacred and belonging to everybody? For context, I’m thinking about Greek and Roman epic that views stories as coming from the gods and therefore it is impossible to claim ownership or history because the stories are almost minor deities that inspire people to tell them. There is obviously a culture clash in storytelling traditions, and while I can understand the Greek perspective, I lack the lived experience to understand the other side.

        Sorry if that was long winded; stories and their transmission are fascinating to me, and I like all the perspective I can get.

        • There’s a distinction between provenance and ownership that’s important here. In the Cree context, the stories aren’t ‘owned,’ but they are always part of a chain of stories, passed down from one person to the next interpersonally. You learn them from someone who learned them from someone who learned them, in big long chains of stories. You’re allowed to alter or modify them as inspiration suggests, but there’s always a thread of continuity with earlier people and earlier stories.

          When someone who never was taught a story tells it, it breaks the chain and things get out of whack fast.

          This is a different worry than one of ‘ownership.’ There ARE aboriginal groups that ‘own’ stories. For example, many coastal peoples have ownership of important ceremonial objects/names and stories (e.g. Haida, Wakashan, Salish groups). Out there, it’s not just provenance but rightful entitlement to tell the story. That tradition has bled inwards onto the prairies in the past 25 years, through the hair-pullingly frustrating ‘pan-Indian’ approaches that have developed. Cree people from younger generations now talk this way, for example. I have a very negative opinion of these developments, wrt to Cree contexts.

          The Greek tradition is importantly informed by Writing, right? When you write something down, ownership and provenance issues shift quite substantially, since the story is now an Object. Most oral cultures work roughly in the ways aboriginal cultures here in North America work. Even oral English culture does – check out some of the excellent work done on the issue of “Entitlement” in English conversation and storytelling (e.g. Amy Shuman’s work). It’s only the written traditions that change these things drastically.

          This is why the writing down of sacred texts sometimes causes such troubles. For example, thanks to the anthropological work done by Swanton with the Haida back in the day, Robert Bringhurst can hop on over to a library, pull the texts, and republish them in whatever way he wants. Complete with his own pompous commentaries and wildly-inappropriate critiques. This violates all kinds of Haida cultural practices.

          For the Cree, it’s a bit tricky. The atâyôhkêwina told to Leonard Bloomfield were likely told to him AS him, not as a representative scribe, quite. It’s not clear what they thought would be done with the stories, quite. There is no ownership, really – only provenance, so for the old Cree tellers, it was perfectly fine to tell them to Bloomfield. It’s just not clear how that goes on to those of us that read them now. My own opinion is that, if you devote yourself, you can probably put yourself into that chain of provenance – reconstruct or resurrect it. At least, I hope so for the sake of modern Cree young people who have no stories to tell.

        • I was hoping you’d address this. I felt uncomfortable doing so.

  11. Gingerwombat says:

    Do you ever contact the sellers of these items to let them know it is inappropriate? Why or why not?

    • The two I linked to? I only have so much patience for this sort of thing. I find it’s more effective to deal with people who would otherwise not think twice about purchasing something like those items. That’s not to say I never talk to the producers of such items, because sometimes it is effective. More often however, I get to listen to delightfully obnoxious justifactory nonsense and the sellers go on doing the same old thing.

      So yes. I do. When I feel like engaging.

      How about you?

  12. Kim says:

    During the circus that was the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, the Cowichan knitters of the beautiful and famous Cowichan sweaters were ripped off for chinese knockoffs, just as the symbolism of those “games” were a culturally ambiguous ripoff of the Inuit Inuksuk, which has nothing what-so-ever to do with BC aboriginal culture. At the same time, the cartoon figures that were used for merchandizing were designed and manufactured in China. That should all be illegal.

  13. Kim says:

    Could you break down your name phonetically for me? It would help me memorise the spelling…

    • I’m not sure the pronunciation would help with the spelling 😀 It’s ah-pih-tuh-GO-si-sahn.

      • Latining says:

        Is the u sound closer to a soft “ah” or a more guttural “uh”?

      • You’re collapsing the -awi- to â âpihtâkosisân? 🙂 How cool! Never seen that pronunciation before, but it’s certainly a possible analogical extension of Cree phonology…! (aw plus i goes to â inside of stems quite a lot. wîhtamawêw vs. wîhtamâk) Also, you’re pronouncing the first vowel as ‘short’ a, not â. I’ve heard that both ways – it’s a confusing form with a lot of variation…

        • I’m not collapsing it when I say it actually, but when I say it out-loud people tend to not hear it. Same with the ‘h’, which I’ve had people describe as a ‘pause’. And I messed up the ‘ah’ and ‘u’ sound when I wrote it down by reversing it (now fixed) 😀 My ‘pronunciation guide’ was less about ‘how to say it properly’ and more about ‘how most people end up repeating it back to me’!

  14. ZK says:

    Thanks so much for this. In terms of your analogizing the misuse of other symbols like the Victoria Cross etc. I think it’s also useful to point out that cultural appropriation is (obviously) happening in a very specific cultural and historical context, and when symbols of the culture of a marginalized people are appropriated by the dominant culture, that has a very different meaning than if it were to happen the other way around. I think that because of the social and historical context here in Canada at this moment in time, it means something different and is especially problematic when its white people wearing headdresses or bindis or “navajo” print etc.

    • I don’t think there’s any difference. The people in a ‘dominant’ culture that are appropriating things in the ‘dominant’ culture are, by definition, not using the symbols of their own group. People who put crucifixes in bottles of urine are not catholics, for example, and do not respect what the crucifix means to catholic people. Hence, the appropriation is on the same frame as it is in the aboriginal situation – an outsider or outside group misusing a symbol for their own entertainment.

      Saying that it’s somehow ‘worse’ in the aboriginal situation because aboriginals aren’t the ‘majority’ is just continuing the discourse of aboriginals-as-children, I think. I think it’s more appropriate to treat them on the same level as everyone else. If you don’t respect other cultures and religions, why should you respect them? Because they’re weaker? Hardly a helpful argument.

      • Mmmm, I think the comment was an attempt to bring in the history of colonialism and margnialism I deliberately did not discuss, as I think this has been discussed better elsewhere and I was hoping to add something slightly different to it.

        • I was actually glad you avoided that issue in your post. I’m not much of a fan of the whole ‘marginalism’ thing, obviously. I think it puts aboriginal people eternally on the sidelines, waiting – hoping to finally get ‘recognition’ one day. They don’t need it – they’re the center of their own worlds if they want to be, you know? I mean, what did they do for 10,000 years before the British government forced them into treaties in (what is now called) Canada? Wait around for the King of England to recognize them? Nah – they were too busy Being Cree (or Being Blackfoot, or Being Saulteaux, etc.) to worry about what some chucklehead somewhere else thought about something.

          It’s part of the whole estrangement cycle that these people deal with, and I think the sooner aboriginal people stop thinking of themselves as ‘marginalized,’ the better for them.

  15. I have to object to phrases like ‘just some religious mumbo-jumbo with no further meaning.’ That, to me, is the root of the problem. But I’m weird.

    I guess my opinion on a lot of this stuff requires it to be contextualized wrt to the people who take the appropriation attitudes you’re talking about. The more general problem (I mean more general than the specific appropriation of aboriginal cultures) is that the majority of modern people don’t respect or value anything at all. In particular, this respect is lacking for things that have to do with the spiritual side of human life, which people now view as non-existent, I guess, having forgotten most of the reasons people that came before them decided that. Since aboriginal cultures (the ones I know anything about at least) tend to place a strong focus on the meanings behind physical things, the majority of the things they construct and value are ‘spiritual/religious’ in the modern scheme. As such, they will never get any respect now.

    Aboriginal beliefs and expression are not by any means alone. Take a look at reddit’s atheism page to see how Christianity fares in general, or ask anyone you know what they think of Mennonites, Evangelicals, Catholics, etc. and their cultural expressions. (How far do you think you’ll get on tumblr before you find an appropriation of Catholic symbolism?) People from an Islamic perspective are barely allowed to exist, much less have their cultural expressions respected. Western tourists happily tromp through Buddhist temples with their shoes on, asking who they can pay to light some joss sticks while Richard Gere expounds on his fancy understanding of Tibet. Madonna (note the name, obviously) puts a tilaka on her forehead and offends the entire Hindu word. Half the western world likes to Riverdance to their newfound Gaelic Spiritualism and get drunk like a leprechaun on St. Patty’s day.

    I think the way to combat aboriginal appropriation is to hit the root, not the branches. The root here is a disrespect for the value of other people’s insights, other perspectives, and other ways of seeing the world. People who don’t believe in anything they can’t put between their teeth or take out a certificate of ownership on have now won the debate, and the rest of us who take some other view (e.g. that the world is forms that hold meanings) are completely marginalized. The modern solution is to bulldoze over these significant differences (sometimes literally). It’s this approach that has thrown aboriginal cultures into the crisis they’re in, of course – but until everybody in these crises realizes they’re not alone – until Mennonites realize that the Cree are in much the same straits and the Cree realize that the Irish are suffering from many of the same problems, there’s not going to be enough of a concerted pushback to do anything. Every group tries to re-invent the wheel and fight alone (and each other).

    • I have to object to phrases like ‘just some religious mumbo-jumbo with no further meaning.’ That, to me, is the root of the problem. But I’m weird.

      I think there are two ways people approach how they conceive of the ‘sacred’ in their minds…as I mentioned before they tend to either elevate or reject. I think you’re talking about those who elevate (often to ridiculous heights). Except in doing so, they twist it out of all recognition.

      I read a great quote the other day I’m going to share to explain what I’m trying to get at.

      “Although the New Age moment claims to have parted ways with modernity, it actually replicates its fundamental values and practices. Specifically, the hyperindividualism of the movement, its emphasis on personal growth, and its profound materialism show the influence of the industrial capitalist ethos. The movement’s relationship with Native America is similarly complicated, and it further affirms these particularly Western values. Here, the New Age seems to work at cross-purposes, torn between its need for alternative cultural models and its unwillingness to challenge European America’s political and cultural dominance. While the New Age valorizes a distorted (Westernized) vision of Indianness, for example, it pays little heed to the historical presence or contemporary dilemmas of Native Americans. In Sherman Alexie’s words, the New Age “blindly pursues Native solutions of European problems but completely neglects to provide European solutions to Native problems.” Moreover, middle-class whites dominate the movement, and their relationship to Native America remains one of possession aimed at regenerating white society. In other words, the movement’s practices belie its claims to have wrested itself from America’s colonial history.”

      Shari M. Huhnforf, Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination

      I think that the elevating and rejecting crowd are both working from the same model you’ve described, but justifying this approach in different ways.

      • That’s a very good point, and a nice quote.

        I think you’re right that there’s two sorts of appropriaters to deal with. Your “mumbo jumbo” comment was meant as a jab at the elevators, then? In that sense, I think you’re probably right to use the phrase.

        Although I think there are a lot more upper-class whites in the New Age groups than perhaps is thought – check the prices of popular indian stuff on the west coast, for example.

        The elevaters are sometimes the worst to sort out. They are definitely seeking to solve personal problems by swallowing up another culture; they remind me of westerners who quick-convert to Buddhism or buy the Dalai Lama’s latest DVD… Sometimes, aboriginal people themselves have been estranged from their own religion by these types, and then turn it into a performance of ‘mumbo jumbo.’ That, to me, is the worst of it.

        I’ve been thinking about these appropriater types – the ones you’re calling elevaters – w.r.t. to aboriginal sexuality issues lately. That’s a real mess – the indian living in a ‘state of nature’ as an ‘untouched child of nature’ running free and naked in the woods (a la Disney’s Playboy Pocahontas) and all that.

        • My mumbo-jumbo comment was both about people who reject anything religions out of hand because of their own cultural feelings about religion AND to those who dabble in new-age spirituality.

    • Nokamis says:

      Sounds ominous Mr. Moniya, and sadly correct, however I will continue to subscribe to your earlier opinion “… that, if you devote yourself, you can probably put yourself into that chain of provenance – reconstruct or resurrect it. At least, I hope so for the sake of modern Cree young people who have no stories to tell.”

      It saddens me deeply to see our traditions bastardized, however, as I continue in the telling of our old people’s stories to my grandchildren I take much comfort in knowing they will continue to fan the flames of our oral tradition for generations to come.

    • Emo says:

      Jeff, I know you don’t want to hear it, but I find a great deal of what you have to say logically flawed.

      “Religion” as a category is not more real than the specific instances that are in that category; and respect between one religion and another is a reciprocal arrangement, unique to each pair, and very difficult to generalize about. The asymmetries of history are very much the point that your line of reasoning refuses to take seriously. It is entirely possible for Muslims to practice their religion inside Buddhist countries (under Buddhist governments) and they do, with large Muslim temples and communities found throughout places as diverse as Sri Lanka and Thailand; meanwhile, it is both illegal and impossible for Buddhists to practice their religion inside Saudi Arabia (and you can look at other examples of majority-Muslim countries on a case-by-case basis… some of them just barely tolerate the existence of Buddhist temples, and some don’t at all, etc.). I’m not making a grandiose generalization here: I’m arguing that there’s a great deal to be learned from looking at specific instances, whereas the general category (e.g., “respect for religion”) is really misleading. The respect that one religion accords another may not be reciprocated: First Nations may be indulgent of monotheism, while the monotheists (in return) may regard everything about First Nations religiosity as “the devil” to be destroyed.

      With the indigenous peoples of Canada, the asymmetry is extreme, and I find all of your arguments on the matter logically flawed. It simply isn’t the case that the Cree conquered England (nor even the Isle of Jersey) to then force the British to conform to Cree religious expectations. It is simply not the case that the Cree built their farms on land that had formerly belonged to Hutterites (i.e., there is a glaring lack of reciprocity, in that the Cree do not have land given to them for “colonies” in Austria, where the Hutterites come from). I find it completely absurd to say (as you do) that the Cree need to find “common cause” with the Mennonites and the Irish. What exactly is their common cause? You imagine that they share in this common abstraction of “religion”, and you contrast that category to everything you dislike about modernity. That is, simply, absurd. You may just as well preach to the government of Saudi Arabia that it is in their interest to build Buddhist temples within their territory for the sake of their common religiosity (they would then be united against all the people whom you deplore for not believing in anything, Jeff?).

      Each religion is incompatible with the others, and the history of their (reciprocal) relationships emerges from the terrible history of conquest and conversion by the sword. Do you really think it is the case that “People from an Islamic perspective are barely allowed to exist, much less have their cultural expressions respected”? Where? Here in Canada? Muslims are now over 2.8% of the population of Canada; they may outnumber indigenous people soon enough, as the projection is that the number will continue to rapidly grow. I’d say that Islamic religion and culture is flourishing in Canada especially relative to indigenous culture; if you make a map of the mosques you can visit in Toronto, you’ve an impressive array of choices, compared to First Nations institutions of any kind (spiritual or not). If you made a map of how many places you can hear Arabic (or any given language that has recently arrived from the Muslim world) spoken fluently, you would have a map full of dots, compared to Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, etc.; and Toronto is full of shops with signs written out in Arabic, Farsi, etc. etc., while you’ll never see a sign up in an indigenous language.

      If you contrast the religious history of First Nations in Canada to any other group (from the Hutterites to the Muslims) it is very clear who has been “barely allowed to exist”. Immigration and religion are part and parcel of the process of cultural genocide. And given that you talk so much about having respect for others’ beliefs… why can’t you extend that respect to people who (from your perspective) “don’t believe in anything”?

      • Yeah you’re exactly what I’m talking about, actually. You are playing both ends of the argument. On the one hand you think you’re neutral and logical and somehow ‘unmarked,’ while the religious folks are all marked and non-neutral. On the other, you demand to be treated on par with a religious belief, which makes you actually a competitor of religion, rather than a simple observer of it.

        I really have nothing else to say to most of that. Have a nice time being angry! 🙂

  16. Latining says:

    Thank you for the informative response. I knew about half of that from disparate contexts, but wasn’t sure how it fit into the whole, and you made things very clear. I appreciate it.

    I was actually asking about Greek because epic poetry comes from oral tradition and gets most of its conventions from there (although you’re right, there’s a shift in style with literacy and I should have been more clear I was thinking about the oral tradition), and I found the very different approaches to oral storytelling and the conventions around it interesting. I wasn’t trying to sound like I thought the Greek tradition was superior, just trying to explain my frame of reference. I’m very sorry if (that?) it came off that way.

    • I don’t think it came off that way at all:)

    • If this is in response to your question above about Greek/Cree orality, I didn’t see where you were implying that the Greek tradition was superior either! 🙂 Did my response make it sound that way?? I think it’s an excellent idea to compare Cree literature/philosophy/language to the classical world for a variety of reasons. People tend to be sensitive about it, though – largely, I think, from an inferiority complex about not knowing the classic stuff as well as they really ought to (being European-descendants and all, whose entire worldview has been shaped by this stuff).

      Epic poetry was definitely part of the oral tradition, like you say. I was taught back when I was a classics major that the rhythmic aspects of these poems were originally mnemonic devices, in fact. That’s pretty clearly true for the great central asian oral epics…

      The Cree don’t really have what we’d call poetry – not historically anyway. Fidelity of transmission wasn’t thought of the same way, so it’s a tough comparison to make clearly…

  17. Yannick says:

    You know, your blog is really wonderful for Canadians who aren’t Métis, First Nations or Inuits. I get to learn so much about topics that can only be discussed in ignorance otherwise! It’s wonderful.

  18. Jacob V says:

    Telling me or anyone that they should respect the ideas or notions of one specific people group or culture is absurd. It makes no more sense than asking someone of African decent to respect the symbols of the KKK because they reflect the beliefs and cultures of a group of people. Irrational twaddle.

    • Yes. It is indeed ridiculous that anyone should have to tell you to be respectful in the first place. I agree. This should be common sense.

      No but really…if you don’t want to respect other people’s cultures, make sure you don’t claim that you are. Just admit straight up that you don’t care about being disrespectful.

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