Friday, 20 June 2014

Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions: Be Careful How You "Honour"!

Continuing with my series leading up National Aboriginal Day on June 21....

If you haven't had a chance to read the previous installments of this series, please do. The first one looked at historical preconceptions of the First Nations in Canada, most notably the "myth of the Noble Savage". The second one took those ideas a step further by examining how the stereotypes we hold today fell under a similar model. Finally, and most recently, the third post looked at different terminologies one could use in Canada to refer to the First Nations in a respectful manner.

This time, I'm weighing in on what I really could call a "trending" issue: the debate surrounding the appropriation of First Nations symbols and designs in fashion, art, etc.

But before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I, Kita Inoru, am NOT a person of First Nations descent. What this means is that the perspective and the opinions that I express here are solely my own. If there is anyone here who is of First Nations descent and/or is directly affected by the issues discussed in this series, please feel free to shed further light on them in the Comments, and please be patient with me in regards to any errors I might make. Thanks!

Cultural appropriation, at its bare basics, is simply the act of one culture taking something from another. Sounds simple, doesn't it? It would be if we weren't involving something that's inherently complex: people. People with histories, values, and feelings. What this means is that the act of cultural appropriation is NEVER simple, and there is always going to be a risk of causing offense.

Well, in recent years, offense has been caused by appropriation - numerous times. I've seen a number of different cultures being affected by this, and may return to some other examples in the future, but for the purposes of this particular blog series, I'll be focusing on the appropriation of First Nations motifs in particular.

I'm sure, for instance, that many of you would have seen photos from 2012 when a Victoria's Secret model appeared on the runway in a bikini, turquoise jewellery, and a Plains First Nations headdress that stretched all the way down to the floor.

The famous (or infamous?) Victoria's Secret Fashion Show ensemble (c. Getty Images, photographer uncredited)
Immediately, there was an outcry that the use of a Plains First Nations feathered headdress (wapaha) was racist and disrespectful to First Nations people. I have found several reasons cited for this:

1. The wapaha is a sacred object for Plains First Nations peoples, worn only by distinguished tribe and band members who had earned the privilege through service to their communities. Historically, it was the equivalent of a WWI or WWII war medal today. (On a side note: the vast majority of the time, the wapaha is, in fact, worn by men, but since there are First Nations communities where women could act as chiefs, I dare not say that is an absolute rule.)

A genuine First Nations headdress, for the sake of comparison: Sitting Bull's wapaha in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada (Photo by Kita Inoru)
2. In a day and age when many First Nations women have been victims of sexual harassment and assault and many cases still go unreported, unsolved, etc., it is tasteless to show a fashion ensemble that combines something inherently sexy (a Victoria's Secret bikini) with elements of First Nations cultures.

3. It perpetuates a historical stereotype of First Nations peoples as subservient (particularly sexually) to European colonizers and their descendents. It also promotes a stereotypical conception of the First Nations as stuck in a historical mode of dress (refer back to my "Noble Savage" posts for more).

While the middle argument would be specific to instances where non-First Nations people wear the wapaha while in somewhat compromising positions (ex. photo shoots where models wear the wapaha while wearing little clothing - if any), the first and last also appear in instances when people wear First Nations headdresses simply as fashion accessories. For example, the same outcry happens when images surface of partygoers dressed up as "Native Americans" for Halloween or young people attending indie music and film festivals wearing miniaturized versions of the wapaha. I have also seen the same for First Nations designs making it into "tribal" or "ethnic" clothing sold in major chain stores, dreamcatchers showing up in "inappropriate" places (ex. as bellybutton piercings), etc.

(Note: I don't want to point fingers at any individual people here, so if you really want to know, Google it - I'm not showing pics!)

The main reason why cultural appropriation can cause offense is that it speaks directly into a power dynamic. Historically - and, arguably, even nowadays - First Nations peoples have been marginalized by the very societies and lands they call home. They have endured centuries of being pushed aside, both literally (ex. being forced off their ancestral lands to make way for European immigrants) and figuratively (ex. having elements of their traditional practices - language, religious ceremonies, social customs, etc. - banned in order to force them to assimilate into Euro-American culture). For many First Nations people, then, for whom the scars are still very recent and fresh, the appropriation of their sacred symbols and designs feels like the final straw: "You've taken our people's land, you've forbidden our ancestors from practicing their cultures such that we now have to fight an uphill battle just to learn them, and now you want to just treat what little we have left as an "exotic" fashion trend? No - not gonna happen!"

Personally, I think that any anger and resentment that is felt by First Nations people is justified. However, as someone who is "outside" of the debate, so to speak, and simply an observer, I do think that both parties - the offending and the offended - have some things to learn if this is to be resolved in a positive manner. Again, these are solely my own opinions, but here are some tips that I hope will be helpful in the long run.

Personally, I am someone who would rather give people the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. While there are definitely instances where appropriators are deliberately offensive (either to make a racist statement, or just to be trolls taking advantage of controversy for the sake of publicity), I am of the opinion that there are still many cases where no offense was actually intended.

Now, I know some people say that intention shouldn't factor in here - that appropriation is always racist, plain and simple. But I disagree. Imagine, if you will, that you were approached by a complete stranger who said that something you were doing was "racist" - would you know what you did wrong, and why it was wrong? Not necessarily, I reckon. This is where we come back to my previous discussions on the "Noble" element of the "Noble Savage" myth: "But...but how am I disrespecting you? I think First Nations culture is great, and your art is beautiful - how can I possibly be racist for trying to show my appreciation?"

So, let us say that that's you. You really DO care about First Nations peoples and their cultures, and you are drawn to their aesthetics and want to show that somehow. What can you do?

Three words: Do your homework.

The way I see it, if you love a people and its culture, taking the time to learn more about them should be an enjoyable situation. In today's day and age, with the ready availability of resources out there on the Internet, it's not all that hard to research what is considered "okay" by First Nations people re: the use of their art and culture and what is not. For example, there are websites like Beyond Buckskin, that offer blog posts and articles laying out what sort of First Nations fashion design is acceptable and what is offensive. Actually, that is one that I particularly recommend, because it also features a directory of First Nations artists and designers who produce clothing, accessories, etc. that is both visually appealing and culturally sensitive.

Anishnawbek porcupine quillwork boxes featuring Mickey Mouse and the logo from Canada's 1967 Centennial celebrations, now in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario. I do not know if these pieces was made for sale to a non-First Nations market, but if so, they would be the type of thing that is okay to buy and display, since it was made by a First Nations artist aware of their culture. (Photos by Kita Inoru)
Another option, if you are so blessed, is to talk your choices through with someone who is of First Nations descent. Now, I will say very frankly that this is a bit of a risky endeavour. Remember: there is no singular "First Nations" voice or identity: everyone is an individual. What that means is that what's okay with one person may not be to another.

So what if you happen to be in a situation like that and are called out for cultural appropriation? Here are some things you can do:

1. Take it graciously as a further opportunity to learn - getting defensive only belittles the person who is calling you out. Apologize for any offense you might have caused, and ask sincerely how you can do better. Again, if you do actually want to honour First Nations peoples and their cultures, I don't think anyone will fault you for that - it's all a matter of how you do it, so take the chance now to find out.

2. It's not just a matter of freedom of expression. Yes, if you choose to use this as your defence, I daresay that no-one could really rebut that. But here's a saying that I think will help: everything is possible, but not everything is beneficial. Remember, you are under no obligation TO appropriate something from another culture - no one's forcing you at gunpoint to wear a wapaha to Coachella. Freedom of expression is not simply about doing or saying whatever you want - it's also about learning how to utilize and exercise that freedom in a way that is actually constructive to others. So if you know that something is going to be offensive, why do it?

3. Because cultural appropriation implies a asymmetrical power dynamic, not every instance of borrowing really counts. This is in response to one argument I've seen: "If I can't wear a headdress, then you can't wear jeans and a T-shirt either. That's you appropriating my culture!" Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Why? A) because wearing jeans and a T-shirt is not perpetuating a caricature or stereotype (it's so common around the world now to be practically neutral); and B) if it is, it's one that reflects the same Eurocentric hegemony that makes the appropriation of First Nations cultures offensive in the first place.

Finally, I do want to give a quick word to those who have been the offended party in this. I've seen many cases, especially on Pinterest, where it feels almost like people are talking behind each other's backs: posting images of appropriation and making very angry (and very profane) comments. Now, this may be just me, but it does come across as rather petty at times - and also sparks the offender into the natural human response of getting defensive rather than calming down and listening.

This is why my biggest tip for people who are First Nations or who care about First Nations issues is to encourage you to offer counterexamples. Don't just say to someone, "What you're doing is offensive and racist," but offer an example of what CAN be done instead.

Again, as far as I'm concerned, it's all about creating a positive learning environment for all parties, so that those of us out there who aren't First Nations can truly honour those of us who are.


Young, James O. “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 63.2 (2005): 135-146. Print. 
Image Credits
All images (c) their original creators, as indicated (if known) in the captions

1 comment:

  1. Goodness! Either you've been busy or I've been away too long! This looks like it will be a very interesting series! Must read them tomorrow and get back to you ;)