Cultural Appropriation of Indigenous People in Canada

There is no denying that humans are often perpetuated by the desire to constantly learn and be involved in aspects of foreign societies and cultures. However when the use of certain elements from a culture are used out of context and for one’s personal enjoyment it can be seen as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation not only offends the people of that culture but can also negatively influence how the culture and its people are presented in society.

A group that has often been on the receiving end of such appropriation in Canada are that of the indigenous people of Canada. We are often taught about these people at an early age in school as well as television. The history of the indigenous people of Canada is often told through history books written by the white men that had colonized their land. However, not included are the forms of abuse and intimidation tactics that were used to counter indigenous land claims. This piece of history is rarely discussed for several reasons. The first being that a significant portion of indigenous history is passed down by word of mouth and can easily be misconstrued when not told by the indigenous people themselves. The other is that if this part of Canadian history was common knowledge it would damage our history of peacefully discovering this land for ourselves, as well as provide evidence as to why indigenous people in Canada seem to be systematically oppressed.

Canada often portrays itself as a diverse and culturally accepting population, however do not seem to understand that the indigenous population is one of various long-standing practices and beliefs that need to be respectively upheld. There are many situations in which the integrity of their culture could be easily devalued by non-indigenous people who are simply unaware of the effect that their actions have. A major form of this cultural appropriation that we see today is in the fashion and entertainment industry.  In âpihtawikosisân’s article An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses she explains the cultural significance that a headdress has to indigenous people and the constant harm that is being done by its appropriation as a fashion and costume item. She references items and symbols that are a part of our culture that are of equal importance and considered “restricted”. Most of the population understands that one would never possess or display an academic degree that they did not earn, nor wear a purple heart on their chest that they did not receive for serving in the military. Wearing an indigenous headdress as a non-indigenous person is of the same calibre of disrespect. Âpihtawikosisân explains that headdresses were of the highest honours, and only awarded to indigenous leaders and warriors who had performed acts of courage and honour. Therefore, to wear a headdress that was not directly awarded to you is an act of cultural appropriation that undermines historical indigenous practices that have been around for centuries.

To ignore the importance of preserving a group’s culture within our nation is selfish and destructive, when implementing beliefs such as the salvage paradigm is a far more ethical option. The salvage paradigm is a simple belief that it is necessary to preserve a culture that is seen as the less dominant culture in a society. Without preservation, the dominant culture will continue to lose its historical heritage to the dominant culture. Our past has set a customary structure on the treatment of aboriginals in Canada. Through colonizing Canada the aboriginals were to assimilate to a way of life where there culture, land, and history was ignored. Stories told of the indigenous people of Canada was beign conducted by white people who know little of their culture, known is appropriation of voice. It may be strange to imagine that someone’s “voice” could be taken or represented by another person, however it has happened time and time again to indigenous people that have worked hard to prevent it. Indigenous people of Canada have asked that Canadian writers refrain from telling stories about people of culture in order to preserve the authenticity of their culture. They stated that “stories show how a people, a culture thinks.” (Coombe, 253), and that these stories can not be told by people that do not fully understand the culture without compromising the authentic meanings of the stories.

It is a constant struggle for indigenous people to gain the social and cultural equality that Canada seems to prides itself on. The indigenous people of Canada pride themselves on their long standing heritage, and encourage others to appreciate it. However, it is far better to learn and appreciate a culture then it is to impose and appropriate. It is wrong to pick out and only appreciate the “beautiful” parts of a culture and ignore the issues of treaty tights, discrimination, and substance abuse that the indigenous people of Canada have faced.

References

An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses. (2012, February 10). Retrieved March 17, 2015, from http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/

Coombe, R. (n.d.). The Properties of Culture and the Politics of Possessing Identity: Native Claims in the Cultural Appropriation Controversy. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, 6(2), 249-285.

Current Polices of Forced Assimilation in Canada Against First Nation, Inuit and Metis – Historical Root. (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2015, from http://caid.ca/assimilation_policy.html

The do’s, don’ts, maybes, and I-don’t-knows of cultural appropriation. (2012, January 30). Retrieved March 17, 2015, from http://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/01/the-dos-donts-maybes-i-dont-knows-of-cultural-appropriation/

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5 Comments

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  1. I found it particulary interseting that in the beginning of your blog you brought up the idea that people enjoy learning and practicing the cultres of other people or merely just dressing up to represent some one elses culture. I understand this argument very clearly and I see how wearing native culutral clothing would be offensive; but I think the point they were trying to make about dressing up as a doctor/soldier does not really work with the argument since doctor/soldiers would not be upset if people dressed up like them for an event, the problem would come up if you were trying to make others think you were legitmately a doctor/soldier. So unless the people dressing up as natives were trying to convince the world they wer natives the comparison to doctor/soldiers does not work.

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    • I don’t necessarily believe that it is possible to dress up as a soldier without potentially causing offence to a someone who has served, despite if you were trying to impersonate them or not. Of course wearing a Purple Heart or Victoria Cross that you did not personally receive is very offensive. On top of that, unless you are simply wearing camouflage clothing for the costume there are still many symbols and ensigns on a soldier “costume” that someone may feel should not be represented improperly. Much like the headdress, its more about the symbolic nature of the item and the effort and sacrifices that are associated with it.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading your blog because I thought it presented a clear difference between appropriation and appreciation. At the end you make a good point that there is also a problem with only appreciating the good things about a culture and ignoring the bad things that have happened and been done to them. It seems like the line between appropriation and appreciation is very clear; however, colonizers blur it by normalizing the appropriation.

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning of your blog, as the misrepresentation of the tragedies the Canadian colonizer’s preformed against the indigenous Canadian people in the start of our countries history was something I was not fully taught in secondary schooling. This cultural appropriation was something I experienced first hand at a music festival in Pemberton BC this summer. I saw these beautiful head-dresses and was honestly jealous of the fashion statement, and I never thought about the deep cultural meaning the head piece served Canadian indigenous peoples. Though, I do agree with Sporty Spice about the doctor/solider argument falling short of impactful, yet I understood the attempt. I think a better example would have been the recent fashion trend of many North American girls wearing the South and Southeastern Asian Bindi as an accessory.

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  4. The symbolism behind the headdress is very important. I think that to wear an item similar to this powerful piece, is truly offensive. The fashion industry is all about making bold statements, and by doing so we see trends of designers pulling ideas from different cultures and position of power. In their efforts of being unique; they offend the people who have a symbolic attachment to these pieces. The history and symbolism of these items should be respected and appreciated. Scary Spice, I agree with sporty spice and her comment. I would also like to add the fact that society idolizes over the careers of doctors and soldiers, therefore creating a positive allegory associated with the like. However, dressing up as a native is looked down upon because this act violates their high esteemed culture and tradition.

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