By Maurice Switzer
Anishinabek broadcaster Jesse Wente was shedding tears.
He was participating in a CBC radio debate with Walrus magazine editor Jonathan Kay about the propriety of creating a prize for cultural appropriation – writing stories about someone else’s culture, particularly for profit.
While critical of the spoof dreamed up by some of his colleagues in Toronto’s media elite, Kay was concerned about the social media “mobbing” of the perpetrators by critics of their prank, and clearly convinced that what some people regard as cultural appropriation is a bad thing.
(Kay has since resigned as editor of the Walrus, and some of his colleagues at the centre of the prank have issued apologies. Indigenous peoples will not miss his media absence. During Kay’s tenure as opinion editor of the National Post, the newspaper echoed the Harper government’s dismissive attitudes towards First Nations. On one occasion Kay published an editorial advocating a return to the policy of “assimilation” that led to the national crimes perpetrated in the residential school system.)
Unfortunately, injecting emotions into discussions or debates – whether tears or anger — serves to create greater polarization and less understanding. They tend to generate more heat than light.
This was evident in the earlier debate about Joseph Boyden’s alleged appropriation of Indigenous story-telling, without the required family-tree pedigree some of his critics felt was required. The social media conversation quickly escalated into name-calling and obscenity-laced insults. I found it ironic that many people claiming to defend Anishinaabe ways resorted to distinctly non-Anishinaabe ways to attack Boyden and his admitted mistakes. It was hard to see the influence of the Grandfather Teachings on many of the online comments I saw.
We all make mistakes, and should learn from them. It was a good thing to call out the media elitists who supported the concept of a “cultural appropriation prize”, but we should try and find ways to make this a teachable moment for the many journalists and writers who don’t share such disrespectful attitudes but genuinely want to understand issues like cultural appropriation. There are already too many settlers afraid to raise legitimate questions about Indigenous issues for fear of being pounced on as “racists”.
This is not a new debate. Novelist W.P. Kinsella gained national literary fame long before his book “Shoeless Joe” evolved onto the acclaimed motion picture “Field of Dreams” with a series of stories about life as he imaged it on the Ermineskin Reserve in Alberta.
When I first heard a few isolated concerns about Kinsella’s alleged cultural appropriation in “Dance Me Outside” and the “Fencepost Chronicles”, I ran to the nearest bookstore to buy them. I thought they were hilarious, and think most First Nations people find them to be pretty accurate tongue-in-cheek reflections about on-reserve life.
But Kinsella admitted he never talked to First Nations people about telling their stories, in fact to his dying day he rejected the concept of cultural appropriation, expressing his view – shared by some members of Canada’s literary community – that he could write about any subject he wanted, without asking anyone’s permission. He did just that, and made a lot of money in the process.
I happen to believe that people like Joseph Boyden and W.P. Kinsella have contributed to awareness and knowledge of Indigenous peoples and issues. They demonstrated artistic talent, but lacked what today we call “cultural competency”.
Indigenous peoples are fond of saying that our world views are different from Eurocentric ones. I would go a step further and say that most Westerners do not have world views. As Cree lawyer Sharon Venne so articulately points out, Canada came into existence 150 years ago without its own language, its own justice system, its own religion, its own education system, its own people, and certainly not its own land. So, she argues convincingly, Canada is not really a nation, unlike the dozens of First Nations who have been here since time immemorial. It is a dream without any vision.
So it is left to Indigenous peoples to explain to the newcomers the role that stories play in our world views, why we do not believe that they are mere commodities, to be arbitrarily traded on or transformed into something they were never intended to be. Why it is important that they be linked to specific peoples, communities, and traditions.
One of the most overlooked recommendations in the landmark report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples suggested that First Peoples have an obligation to teach others about our ways. We can’t complain they don’t know about us if we don’t offer to help them understand. Simply put, we can’t suck and blow at the same time!
At the same time as we are chiding people from other cultures about respectful boundaries, we should also be looking at examples of how our Indigenous artists are “borrowing” in substantial ways from the songs, images, and formats of other cultures. Do we also have some cultural appropriators in our midst, making money from copying artistic styles created by people of other traditions, without asking for appropriate permissions?
If there had been no DJ Cool Herc, would there be A Tribe Called Red? Could Tomson Highway have been a great playwright if there had been no William Shakespeare? How much did Pablo Picasso’s paintings influence Norval Morrisseau? Basil Johnston learned some storytelling skills from Jesuits at Spanish Residential School.
Native peoples are even prone to intermural borrowing, sometimes with awkward results. I’ve seen Haudenosaunee chiefs decked out in Plains war bonnets, heard Anishinaabe singers drum to Plains Cree songs. And it has always bugged me to see Indians at AFN assemblies sporting cowboy boots and Stetsons.
We are all part of the Sacred Hoop. We are all related. Our artists should be able to put their minds together to develop some mutually-agreeable guidelines that ensure both creative and cultural integrity.
Let’s not throw the Boydens out with the bathwater!
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He is a fan of the achievements of Tomson Highway, William Shakespeare, Pablo Picasso, Norval Morrisseau, and A Tribe Called Red – although not so much of other Hip Hop artists.