Cultural appropriation

This topic is surfacing again with Canadian mainstream media. A recent issue of Write published an editorial by Hal Niedzviecki where he states that he “does not believe in cultural appropriation”.

In this celebratory year of Canada 150, Niedzviecki’s editorial shows that white privilege does not understand the cultural distinctiveness of Indigenous voices.

From the earliest beginnings, settlers ventured not to a “new land” but to a fully functioning island with societies that had developed complex harmonious systems that were fully sustainable. The first colonizers were unable to see this truth because they looked with the lens of European influenced individuals. They saw land as conquerable, women as property and resources as undeveloped. They failed to see the harmony, the strength of Indigenous women and the limited use of resources by all inhabitants of this island.

Fast forward five hundred plus years later, and the view is remarkably unchanged.

Why is it that the oppressor society feels their way of knowing, supersedes that of the original peoples?

In this editorial, Niedzviecki clearly wanted to have not a debate but a massacre of Indigenous authors. This article challenges Canadian mainstream writers to write in the area of indigenous experience. Hasn’t this already been happening? One prime example of cultural appropriation was seen in Joseph Boyden’s work. His unwillingness to definitively name his tribe, people or protocol in writing material similarly already published has left the non-Indigenous writers angry and ready to have this continued “debate”.

It seems impossible for the settler colonizer to accept that a culture rich in thought, expression and artistry has emerged with spirituality and protocol to guide the Indigenous.

The spirits that are in every Indigenous people have followed ancestral flows from their earliest creation stories to the current time. It is a line of thought embedded in another dimension that beats like a drum reverberating through the centuries.

Can a person, or society without this understanding mimic the expression of the Indigenous writers, poets, artists and composers?

Indigenous people have responded to Niedzviecki’s work with incredulity. He called out to Indigenous artists to contribute their work, then lead off their contributions with this disclaimer. It was betrayal.

Worse, Canadian media rallied quickly around Niedzviecki posting publicly on twitter donations to go to an “appropriation prize” pot. While there have been apologies, retractions and resignations since, the issue remains why did this elite group of media feel that belittling Indigenous authors and taking up their space was laughable?

Is it because Canada is built on the appropriation of land from all six hundred plus First Nations? Is it because Canada can willfully ignore the plight of the Indigenous in their own land while claiming to be a safe haven for refugees and immigrants? Is it because Canada is pushing through with a Canada 150 celebration while outstanding Indigenous land, water, and social issues fall by the wayside?

Canada purports to have human rights and free speech but when the Indigenous exercise any of these rights, it is “playing the race card” or “identity politics”. The “race card” was invented by the settlers. Did they not receive doctrines and writs decreeing that the original people were savages, sub-human and therefore best handled with termination or assimilation? They even have the Indian Act, a longstanding racist piece of legislation that is specific to the Indian people.

If the original peoples choose to pursue and defend their identity, laws and languages, then identity politics – that is a different value system – is seen as a threat to existing Canadian mainstream institutions.

The original agreements enshrined through treaties, between the UK Crown and the original peoples, are acknowledged as a framework for a shared existence. The treaties were not bills of sale for the land, waters and resources that are held in trust for all life in this island. In fact Canada, the successor state to the UK has yet to produce a bill of sale that validates their “ownership” of this country.

Where have the settlers proven that their ideas of “progress” and development are better for the planet or all peoples? Very few benefit from capitalism and as the planet reacts to capitalist systems, it is becoming clearer that a shared existence is the way for all people, plants and animals to survive.

This is the heart of the debate in cultural appropriation. There are significant ways, specific paths and distinct protocols followed by true Indigenous contributors. They follow spiritual trails that record an alternate history of this land. The voices in the mountains, the rivers, and land still speak. It is these voices that the Indigenous safeguard, protect and share. If the colonized can understand that the Indigenous way of thinking or worldview is different, then there may be a way to reconcile two societies.

If this latest debacle is an indicator of trust or growth, then Canada is still miserably failing. Media portrays the stories that stream to all people on the planet. With this portrayal is a responsibility to report on the truth. Can the truth be reported or adequately covered if those that control media do not want to hear, see, understand or print the Indigenous truth?

The argument then gets watered down to equality. We are all human beings therefore equal. In the European background, the divine right of kings and the hierarchy of man existed, therefore “equality” was not always an accepted notion. Here in North America, equality is measured by those that fought and continue to fight to maintain this semblance of fairness.

Is it fair that non- Indigenous men of mainstream make the laws, policies and interpret these areas back to what “they” think is fair? This is the voice that is rising. It is the voice that has always been in this land and will continue to exist. Indigenous people are the fastest growing segment in the population therefore, it is in the best interests of all to understand the differences. In understanding differences, there will be a better future for all life on this planet.

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