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.
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 Unfortunately, misrepresenting Indigenous women as sexual objects is not just about a few outdated Disney movies.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.
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.
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.
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.