Aboriginal Cultural Appropriation- The BIG Picture

Cultural appropriation is most simply defined as the adoption of aspects of one culture by another. In that case, what makes the wearing of Native headdresses by non-Natives different than instances where western culture is appropriated? To me (and anyone with a little knowledge of history) this is an outrageous question with a painfully obvious answer. Nevertheless, reading âpihtawikosisân’s article and the comments on the blog has made clear that the uniquely offensive nature of appropriating restricted aspects of Aboriginal culture merits further discussion. One of the bog’s commenters argues that it is hypocritical to be offended by the appropriation of Aboriginal culture, when people trespass on western culture by dressing as Kings, Popes and doctors without receiving similar criticism. Arguments that the culture of racialized groups is equal to western culture and therefore comparably legitimate to appropriate overlook the patterns of cultural appropriation in popular culture, the colonial legacy of stealing from Aboriginal peoples and the ongoing misuse of Aboriginal knowledge in national politics, which make Aboriginal culture uniquely harmful to appropriate.

Neon Indian Fans
Neon Indian Fans sporting homemade headdresses.

The seemingly individual act of wearing a Native headdress without the right to, contributes to the broader cultural hegemony deployed in popular media, which constructs Aboriginal peoples as a racialized “Other.”  Othering is evident in representations of Indigenous peoples in mainstream film, television and music as exotic and historic, rather than diverse and ever-present. Additionally,  racial subtexts of sexualization, which arbitrarily associate sexual promiscuity with certain racialized groups add a gendered dimension to the cultural hegemony perpetuated in popular media. The sexy Indigenous princess plot-line is central to Disney characters like, Pocahontas and Tiger Lily. Unfortunately, misrepresenting Indigenous women as sexual objects is not just about a few outdated Disney movies. Popular contemporary bands like the Neon Indians have encouraged fans to dress in homemade headdresses and hardly anything else (Adrienne). While I am ALL FOR women owning their bodies and wearing as much or as little clothing as they please, a headdress is not an okay way to accessorize that look. Given that Indigenous culture has been appropriated and distorted by popular media to construct Aboriginal peoples, and women in particular, as the Other it is unacceptable to use headdresses or other Aboriginal cultural signs to make an outfit or band more exotic and sexual.

Historic and ongoing colonialism, encompassing the theft of land and women from the Indigenous community, make the appropriation of Aboriginal culture unlike the appropriation of western culture. Through a series of treaties beginning in the mid-1700s European colonizers began appropriating Aboriginal land (Fleras 211). In exchange, Aboriginal peoples received reservations and residential schools, which have done more harm than good. Aboriginal peoples continue to live in impoverished conditions where drugs and violence are prevalent and the suicide rate for youth is five to seven times the Canadian average (Fleras 181). These unequal exchanges constitute the first of many instances where Aboriginal peoples have had their physical as well as intellectual belongings stolen. The loss of Aboriginal women, which has evoked frighteningly little concern from the federal government, is another example of theft experienced by Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The Stolen Sisters report released by Amnesty International identifies approximately 12 000 cases in which Aboriginal women have gone missing in recent decades.

Stolen Sisters protesting the lack of concern for missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Stolen Sisters protesting the lack of concern for missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

This number relates to aforementioned hegemonic notion of Aboriginal women in popular media as sexual objects, because such images normalize gendered violence and make Indigenous women easier victims to overlook. Given the centrality of theft and loss to the colonial experiences of Aboriginal peoples, it is difficult to justify the appropriation of yet another aspect of Indigenous culture.

Finally, in a more abstract and institutional sense, the Canadian government appropriates the knowledge of Aboriginal peoples to support a white saviour narrative, encompassing the construction of Canada as the benevolent guardian of helpless Aboriginal peoples. Chrystos states in her poem “I am not your princess,” that she doesn’t have to explain her traditions or spirituality to members of a white settler society to help ease their guilt (66). This comment speaks to the fact that efforts to learn about and represent Aboriginal peoples in Canada are often focused primarily on constructing an image of Canada as multicultural and tolerant.

Vancouver 2010 Opening Ceremonies. Quick! Everyone act multicultural!
Vancouver 2010 Opening Ceremonies. Quick! Everyone act multicultural!

When all eyes were on Canada during the 2010 Olympic games, the knowledge of Aboriginal peoples was used in the opening ceremonies to create an image of national cultural diversity. Meanwhile, Aboriginal peoples turned out in large numbers to protest the games being help on stolen land (Adrienne). Thus, in this example the knowledge of Aboriginal peoples was appropriated to fulfill the image-maintenance goals of a settler colonial society.

Arguments proposing that the culture of Aboriginal peoples is somehow equivalent to that of western culture and therefore open to appropriation are problematic. Patterns of appropriation in popular media, colonialism, and Canadian multiculturalism make seemingly isolated instances in which non-Aboriginal peoples wear Aboriginal headdresses part of a bigger picture of pain and oppression. For this reason I advocate for a more complex understanding of cultural appropriation which encompasses the unequal power dynamics and history of abuse which is not similarly present in the appropriation of the western culture. If “justice is what love looks like in public,” as Cornell West proposes, spreading understanding of the injustice of appropriating culture from peoples who’ve already had so much taken from them is a step towards a society premised on love.

Works Cited

Adrienne, K. “Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualization of Native Women.” Native Appropriations. Jun 17 2010. Web. March 10 2015.

Adrienne, K. “The Vancouver Opening Ceremonies: Honoring Canadian First Nations?” Native Appropriations. February 18, 2010. Web. March 10, 2015.

Amnesty International. “No More Stolen Sisters: Justice for the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada.” Amnesty International Canada. 2014. Web. March 10 2015.

Âpihtawikosisân. “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses.” âpihtawikosisân: Law, Language, Life: A Plains Cree speaking Metis woman in Montreal. 2012. Web. March 9. 2015.

Chrystos. I Am Not Your Princess.” Not Vanishing. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers. 1988. 66-67. Print.

Fleras, Augie. Unequal Relations: An Introduction to Race, Ethnic, and Aboriginal Dynamics in Canada. Toronto: Pearson, 2012. Print.

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3 thoughts on “Aboriginal Cultural Appropriation- The BIG Picture

  1. Your blog brings up a lot of interesting points! When reading âpihtawikosisân’s article, I was also shocked by the commenters who equated appropriating western culture to the misappropriation and misrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples’ culture. I completely agree with your point that the history of oppression of Aboriginal peoples by settlers makes appropriation of Aboriginal symbols extremely problematic. I also thought that you introduced some compelling examples, such as how fans of the Neon Indians band are encouraged to appropriate Aboriginal peoples’ culture. Considering that Alan Palamo of the Neon Indians is Mexican, I would definitely be interested to hear your thoughts on the differences between cultural appropriation by white people and appropriation of other cultures by different minority groups? Do you think that both types of appropriation are equally problematic? Moreover, it begs the more universal question of why someone in a marginalized group would choose to appropriate another culture. Could it be because they believe that because they are also a marginalized group that they are not subject to the same limitations as the ethnic majority when it comes to using restricted symbols? Or perhaps they are simply ignorant about their damaging behaviours and have been raised in a culture of white supremacy such that they fail to see the error of their ways?

    It also interesting to read about the intersection of gender and race in your writing about the racial subtexts of sexualization. I completely agree that Indigenous women are harmed by sexist stereotypes perpetuated by cultural appropriation, and I would also argue that Aboriginal men are harmed as well. When restricted symbols such as the war bonnet are misappropriated, it devalues the symbol and the people who have rightly earned it.

    I also really enjoyed your discussion of native-white relations in Canada. I certainly agree that the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver olympics were a prime example of cultural appropriation. I would definitely like to hear more about your point that the “Canadian government… support[s] a white saviour narrative”. I definitely agree that there is a lot more to be done by the Canadian government with regards to its domestic policy concerning Aboriginal peoples (that’s an understatement!). However I would argue that the prevailing governmental attitude towards Aboriginal peoples is one of vague indifference not one of moralistic self-righteousness. This is because the Canadian government did finally apologize (in 2008) for their mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples in residential schools, however they have not really done anything to make up for the tragic history of colonization other than make payouts to some victims. I would definitely be interested in hearing your perspective on the matter.

    Thanks for the great read!

    ~Emily

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  2. I really enjoyed reading your blog, it brought up so many great and compelling points. Reading about the difference between appropriating Indigenous culture vs. western culture reminded me of the reading by the ‘Badass Teachers Association’ that was assigned two weeks ago. In the reading, Denisha Jones explains how reverse racism doesn’t exist, because racism is a result of structural and systemic disadvantage and inequality. I feel like the point about cultural appropriation is similar to this in that it recognizes the colonial legacies and inequalities which continue to exist today that make the appropriation of Indigenous culture much more harmful.

    I just wrote an essay about the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada, so I’m really glad that you incorporated that into your post. The connection you made between cultural appropriation and the sexist and racist stereotypes of Indigenous women was great! The hypersexualization of Indigenous women in popular culture is definitely directly correlated to the violence that they face. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion show featured a great (well not so great) example of how cultural appropriation and hypersexualization of Indigenous women intersect when model Karlie Kross wore a skimpy leopard bikini and a native headdress. Not only does this re-enforce the representation of Indigenous women as exotic and sexualized, but it culturally appropriates a significant aspect of Indigenous culture.

    The point you made about how Canada uses cultural appropriation to maintain it’s narrative as a multicultural and tolerant nation and it’s ‘white saviour complex’ is especially interesting. The UN and Amnesty International is encouraging global awareness of the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Considering the increase of international and domestic outcry that the issue of violence against Indigenous women is receiving, do you think Canada will be able to maintain this reputation? Hopefully, the Canadian government will address the colonial roots of violence, including colonial stereotypes of Indigenous women that persist through cultural appropriation. How would this effect Canada’s global image?

    Overall, awesome post! I look forward to reading your next one.

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  3. Your blog brought up some very interesting points that I would not have thought of about the article. I enjoyed your focus on how completely ridiculous it is that white people do not see the big problem with dressing in traditional indigenous dress, but if someone wear to try to dress as the pope there would be a big uprise. This brings up some ideas about white supremacy, and how as a race in a way we feel as if we can do whatever is it we please. I like the way you brought up the ideas from Pocahontas. I think this is very important because even in children’s movies these ideas of indigenous women being sexual beings are displayed. This only promotes the idea from a young age, making it hard to stop the spreading of the concept.
    I also thought it was interesting the way you brought it the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Although possibly trying to promote the indigenous culture, without having the opinions of the input of the aboriginals.
    Overall I thought your blog brought up some very thought provoking and interesting!

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