Thursday, July 14, 2011

Inappropriations



Every so often, the universe comes along and offers a cogent example of something that has been kicking around in my brain for some time but never quite articulated.

I have been enjoying Al –Jazeera online for the past few months, especially since I have soured on the right-wing collaborationist drivel being espoused by the Globe and Mail. I particularly enjoy their take on North American news, coming at it as they do from an outsider’s perspective...which is pretty much what you could say of indigenous people in the West these days. We stand on the outside looking in, refugees in our own homelands.

Al-Jazeera did a really good piece just recently on the issue of the wider culture appropriating aspects of indigenous culture. It’s here at http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/native-american-bloggers.

They actually talked a woman who has an entire blog dedicated to the issue, and I love the name of it: My Culture is Not a Trend - http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com/. She handily takes to task, deconstructs, and instructs the blogverse about why appropriation is totally inappropriate.

I have been having difficulty a lot lately with appropriation of native culture. Maybe it’s because of my age; maybe it’s because I am spending a lot of time in my own head decolonizing my thinking and looking at the rest of the world with an increasingly critical eye, but I do not have a lot of time anymore for appropriated imagery and find a lot of it racist and insulting. I always felt that, and it’s a measure of how decolonized my thinking has become in that I now constantly question the motivation behind it. Suffice it to say that I don’t deal very well anymore. It constantly amazes me to watch how much the wider culture commodifies EVERYTHING, including our clothing, our symbols and that final colonization, our spiritual practices. I used to tell myself that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in light of the extreme power differential in our relationship to the colonial occupiers, this is not flattery but appropriation.

The thing that bothers me most, I have to say, is the dominant cultures’ effort to lump all North American indigenous people into one amorphous “native American” group, practically fetishizing Plains Nations culture in this way. Using their symbols and dress seems to have become a shorthand for lumping all indigenous nations under this banner, and if your nation does not follow those pre-conceived notions of what it means to be “Native American” , then you are somehow “less” of an “Indian.”

This is especially true if you are a Kanienkaha’keh in Canada -- we don’t do the sweatlodges or burn sweetgrass or eat bannock. We have longhouse, we burn tobacco and we eat scone. But other than giving the world the Mohawk hairstyle for that fighting warrior thing and lacrosse, most people know nothing about our culture. The only thing they know about our culture is how damn ornery we are, and how active resistance has become pretty much our trademark in Canada. Most people don’t know that the term “bury the hatchet” is Iroquoian, because we buried our hatchets at the base of the Tree of Peace when the Peacemaker gave us the Great Law, or that “caucus” is a term meaning “meeting of good minds”. Caucus is central to modern democracy, and yet no one knows this. Or that the American occupiers stole the symbol of the Eagle for their fledgling nation, holding in one of its talons arrows that had always symbolized the Five Nations of the Iroquoian Confederacy. Now that is some serious-ass appropriation!

I am following both My Culture is Not a Trend and another cool blog, http://iamnotamascot.blogspot.com/. It makes my heart happy to know there’s other NDNs out there, critically thinking and questioning EVERYTHING with some humour but with the attitude of, “Enough with this shit, I’m not taking it anymore – I’m gonna educate you and tell you WHY it’s wrong.”

Because if you really wanted to channel the North American indigenous culture, then you have to take on the genocide, the suicides, the violence, the alcoholism, the diabetes and the heart disease, the poverty and the lack of education, housing, clean water and the denial of economic opportunity. If you really want it, that’s what it means to be indigenous along with our awesome clothing and spiritual means. We deal with the aftermath of colonialism every damn day.

So all you people wanting to wear the lastest hipster-styled headress or moccasins made in Taiwan -- think you're strong enough for that?