Cultural Appropriation: an Exercise of Futility for the Native Community

Thunder Bay Anishinaabe Artist Speaks on Cultural Appropriation

By: Mary McPherson (in support of Neechee Studio Collective)

In recent years, a topic of much debate has been cultural appropriation. Settler society, in the name of free speech, feels entitled to misappropriate Indigenous material culture and Indigenous intellectual property. Misappropriation occurs in many forms: headdresses for festivals, “Indian princess” costumes for Halloween, smudging kits, Woodland art, and much more. The list of ways that settlers have taken elements of Indigenous cultures is seemingly endless.

Indigenous peoples have also made significant contributions to Western discourses that we are not credited for and do not benefit from, including canoes, medicines and other advanced technologies. In contemporary times, settler society values aesthetic qualities of Indigenous peoples and misappropriates Indigenous cultures by integrating our intellectual property and cultural materials into Western hierarchies.

This ultimately leads to the development of stereotypical perceptions that lack in substance and never derive from the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples. When representations of Indigenous peoples in the dominant society are constantly defined by settlers, it creates challenges for Indigenous peoples concerning how we are perceived, how we are heard, and how we identify ourselves.

Identifying ourselves as Indigenous peoples remains a constant struggle due to the continuing effects of colonization. We are repeatedly subjected to how the outsider perceives us.

Of course, cultural appropriation is not new. For centuries, scientists and anthropologists regarded Indigenous peoples as objects of study, recording and defining who we are based on their perceptions and misguided interpretations of us. V.F. Cordova, the first Native American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Philosophy, recognizes in a 1997 article in Ayaangwaamizin: The International Journal of Indigenous Philosophy Volume 1, Number 1, that Indigenous peoples are consistently dismissed as being sources of information concerning who we are. Indigenous peoples are considered “too subjective” to analyze our own cultures, and too tainted by Western technology and contemporary society to be able to speak with authority about who we are. Western society, however, has always viewed itself to be objective, providing the grounds for Westerners to enter Indigenous communities and conduct violent and invasive research studies – and advancing their careers with their findings.

The common perception has identified Indigenous peoples as being “uncivilized”, or less progressed, than Western society; however, Indigenous peoples have always been interdisciplinary philosophers, scientists, artists, mathematicians, teachers, and more. Much of our traditional knowledges have been lost as a result of assimilation policies. These policies included the operation of government-funded and church-run residential schools and the effects of child welfare legislation resulting in the Sixties Scoop.

Another example includes the 1885 amendment to the Indian Act (commonly referred to as the Potlatch Law), stating that it was illegal for any Indian to participate in an Indian festival, dance or conduct other ceremonies. This ban continued until 1951 and was enforced by Indian Agents, resulting in our ceremonial practices going underground or disappearing completely.

In a 1992 article in Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives, Gloria Cranmer Webster articulates that in 1922 the federal government made agreements with those who were charged under the Potlatch Law. The government offered that those convicted did not have to serve their sentences “if their entire villages agreed to give up their ceremonial gear, including masks, rattles, whistles and coppers.” These cultural materials and ceremonial objects ended up in museum collections and many museums continue to refuse to repatriate cultural materials back to communities. In many instances, the supposed “artifacts” held within museum collections were acquired through theft or illegal agreements. The theft of Indigenous material culture and intellectual property continues today in the form of cultural appropriation.

In Canada, a lack of legal restrictions allows for cultural appropriation to take place. Due to the pervasive notion that Indigenous peoples are a “vanishing race” as well as “primitive” in comparison to the “more progressed” Western population, the intellectual property rights of Indigenous traditional knowledge remain virtually non-existent.

Indigenous traditional knowledge is not taken seriously by Canadian law or Canadian society, resulting in limited legal consequences for non-Indigenous individuals who misappropriate and/or profit from the use of the intellectual property of Indigenous peoples. In a 2017 article written for Policy Options, Andrea Bear Nicholas states that the intellectual property of Indigenous peoples is left out of the Copyright Act, allowing researchers to claim copyright over our material culture and intellectual property, the stories of elders being an example.

In a 2010 paper delivered to the World Intellectual Property Organization, Gregory Younging compared this practice to the concept of Terra Nullius (Nobody’s Land) that allowed for settler occupation of Indigenous traditional territories, and Gnaritas Nullius (Nobody’s Knowledge) causing Indigenous knowledges to be situated in the public domain. When Indigenous intellectual property is considered Gnaritas Nullius and situated in the public domain, not only is its theft arguably legalized, but it is also at risk of becoming misinterpreted, colonized and integrated into Eurocentric systems of control and colonial power. Cultural appropriation is an example of how the theft of Indigenous material culture and intellectual property permeates within Canadian paradigms. Ultimately, cultural appropriation is part of a discourse that further oppresses and diminishes the voices of Indigenous peoples.