HALIBURTON – Cultural appropriation of Indigenous design and method in the art world has been a long-standing battle for authentic Indigenous artists. When a group of medical students from McMaster University viewed two inauthentic “totem poles” during a wilderness medicine elective at the Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre in Haliburton, they took positive action.
Christa Jonathan, a student attending McMaster from Six Nations, noticed that the poles were not authentic during the group’s stay at the elective in August.
“There were about 10 [medical students] that participated in this elective for two weeks and we had to fill out an evaluation after staying out there,” she said. “The elective is run by some doctors and they just rent the space and the cabins at Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre.”
“Throughout the week I noticed that there were totem poles that were on the property and they weren’t actually totem poles, they were just basically wooden poles that had different designs carved into them that I could tell were not Indigenous.”
Jonathan added that a back story on the carvings wasn’t given, and that they were specifically referred to as “wooden carvings.”
Jonathan confirmed her thoughts with one of her peers who has a Ph.D., in Archaeology and works with the Seashell Nation on the Sunshine Coast of B.C.. Allowing the poles to remain would make it easy for other viewers to mistakenly assume that the carvings were authentic totem poles.
Jonathan then brought her thoughts to the rest of her peers, who supported the idea that in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its era, they as a group should request for the carvings to be taken down. Collectively, the group then used their evaluation sheets to request the removal.
“There were about 15 of us that all potentially wrote it in our evaluations,” she said. “A little over two weeks afterwards, they said that they recognized [the appropriation] behind the carvings and they said they were going to remove them.”
“In my evaluation I said ‘in recognition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, this would be a really good step forward in the relationship with indigenous people if summer camps like this one would remove these symbols.’”
Jonathan then explained that from the email sent confirming the removal of the carvings; the staff at Bark Lake mentioned that after learning more about the TRC, they spoke to the surrounding Anishnaabe Nations about the carvings and the Nations agreed that the removal is appropriate.
The advocacy of the group as a whole shows just how well the use of both voice and reason can create positive change and understanding.