Decolonial Discourse: The Fatigue of Cultural Appropriation
Columns / June 6, 2017
Justin Bige, Contributor
Indigenous people, especially artists, don’t have the time to educate and listen to repetitive commentary while dealing with the actual impact of cultural appropriation.
In the past year alone, cultural appropriation has been made visible to the Canadian public in incidents with notable artists, photographers, writers, and more. For Indigenous people, and with recent advances in social media, the reaction to this appropriation is lightning-fast.
Write magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki resigned after publishing an article called “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in which he states that he does not believe in cultural appropriation and, in fact, thinks there should be a prize awarded to the author who is most articulately appropriative. This issue of Write was an Indigenous-focused issue, and he used works by Indigenous writers such as Helen Knott to hammer in his arguments.
Following the publication of Niedzviecki’s article, several members of the writing and publishing community in Canada showed interest in endorsing such appropriative ideas. The Managing Editor of CBC’s The National, Steve Ladurantaye, was one of many CanLit executives across the country actually pledging dollar support for an appropriation prize, should it be created.
CBC interviewed an Ojibwe pop culture critic, Jesse Wente, who listed the names of Indigenous writers published in Write’s last issue: Joshua Whitehead, Richard Van Camp, Tanya Roach, Louise Bernice Halfe, Elaine Wagner, Gord Grisenthwaite, Alicia Elliott, Shannon Webb-Campbell, Helen Knott, and Gloria Mehlmann. These names bear repeating, as when stories like this arise, the ones who have their art and repute attacked by appropriation often are pushed out of the spotlight.
My point isn’t to explain that cultural appropriation is wrong. It’s to bring to light that it happens and will continue to happen, because colonization and appropriation go hand-in-hand. Jesse Wente said in his CBC interview, “We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized. It is the very foundation of what Canada is built on, and not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of all things Indigenous—our lives, our lands.”
Recently, the conversation has turned towards practicing our cultures proactively so we no longer waste energy on being reactive. If we can make a slight change to our goals and intent, sustainable ways of life that honour our ancestors are just around the corner.