Part 3 in the Reconciliation Series.
This week I’m thinking about cultural appropriation as I consider reconciliation.
Obviously, these two don’t mix.
First of all, what does it mean to appropriate a culture? It means we are taking something and using it as if it were ours. In so doing, we strip it of it’s cultural significance and meaning – effectively disrespecting the culture it comes from. We do this with names (the city of Mississauga, for example) but also with items. It can feel very innocuous and innocent, but when seen as part of a larger story of colonization and genocide the seriousness of it comes through.
In order to support reconciliation, we need to cultivate awareness about the small and large ways we appropriate Indigenous cultures.
Shopping can be one place to practice this awareness. As the 150 list says, if you are interested in something Indigenous, make sure it’s Indigenous-made.
But cultural appropriation seeps in, in other ways too. Last week I was a family camp with my daughter. Arts and crafts is a common camp activity, and one of the sessions was making dreamcatchers. What’s the problem you may ask? Well, dreamcatchers are not a craft. They are symbolic. They are cultural. They mean something for the people who devised them. They have a purpose and a history and a story. They aren’t souvenirs. And when we make them as simply an arts and craft project we strip all that meaning away.
Twenty years ago I took a vacation with my mother to the Yukon. We took a tour led by Indigenous people (their company) and learned about their cultural practices and presence in the Yukon. They told us about dreamcatchers as we made our own under their supervision. That’s possibly a wee bit better, because of how it was made, but I still feel awkward hanging it. I did, however, take it out and hang it over my daughter’s bed when she was having bad dreams, explaining to her first what it was, how I came to have it, what I had learned about it, and for whom it was important. Maybe this just makes me feel better though…
Cultural appropriation can be slippery. Sometimes we may enjoy a practice or feel an affinity for/really enjoy something and in so doing, don’t mean any harm. Smudging comes to mind as an example. I have heard both sides in answer to whether it’s ok for someone who is not Indigenous to smudge. As with many things, there will be different opinions and perspectives. But particularly in the context of reconciliation, we have to be very very careful – and open to criticism (so I’m looking forward to your comments!)
The bottom line? Be aware. Ask questions. Recognize the impact – and the ripples of a seemingly small act. Be conscious of the ways we take parts of Indigenous culture and make it less than it is; the ways we don’t honour these many rich cultures.