There are so many things I would love to write about this week, because so much is going on right now concerning First Nations people. However, I believe in follow through, and that means sometimes sticking with a topic to make sure you’ve covered it thoroughly.
I want to discuss more about cultural appropriation, because it is such a diverse topic and after a couple emails I received last week, I realized there were a few more things that needed addressing.
I appreciate the honesty people write me with and I welcome different opinions. Perhaps it’s the teacher in me that welcomes the opportunity to take another approach to a topic. It helps me to occasionally reframe my thoughts.
It’s not just that Bedford’s Road’s Redmen and Moose Jaw’s WHL Warriors inappropriately use First Nations logos and names, but it’s what that represents to First Nations people. On a cursory glance, some people might think these are “cool” tributes and homages to different cultures. To First Nations people though, these images are insulting because of the ignorance behind them.
The use of paint and feather on a logo trivializes a long, rich culture and history. In most traditional First Nations and Native American cultures, which these crass images are based on, there is so much significance tied to appearance. The items people wear traditionally, as in powwows or ceremonies are not worn for pure aesthetic appeal, thrown together in a haphazard manner. They have history, and teachings. From head to toe in regalia, a First Nation person’s appearance tells history, identity, tribal affiliation, marital status, even lineage, and so much more. Long ago, people could tell tribes apart by these distinctions in appearance. In just a glance, a story was told about the person.
Every element of a person’s appearance was treated with profound respect, at all times, even when regalia was not worn. It is still this way. Many traditional items are handed down from generation to generation.
Because of the cultural significance of regalia and ceremonial attire, perhaps now you can understand why First Nations and Native Americans take offense to the mocking nature of a few feathers and paint stripes on a cartoon “Indian.” These are caricatures of rich, vibrant and thriving cultures. To continue using such images is one more way that First Nations and Native American peoples have been rejected, trampled on and devastated. Cultural appropriation is a modern attack that visibly mimics and diminishes cultures that have to be continually defended.
For generations Indigenous cultures around the world have fought against colonialism, and the persistent belief that their practices are inferior and need to be subjugated and replaced. To splash a cartoon image of a First Nations person is one more way in which these cultures are disrespected and not taken seriously.
Such images give the impression that these cultures can be robbed from without penalty because First Nations people can seemingly be owned or possessed, like pets -- mere mascots or at the very least, a joke.
Feathers and headdresses are highly revered because they are inextricably connected to First Nations’ spirituality; they are all one entity. To mock this is no different than taking the image of the Pope and his Papal Mitre or a Jewish man and his yarmulke and splashing it onto a sports team. Can you see how sacrilegious that might be?
But these images are repeatedly taken out of context and used to sell merchandise. Take Saskatoon’s Sheepdog’s for example, who came under fire in September for selling T-shirts sporting the image of a First Nations person wearing a headdress. First Nations and Native American people object because this is tacky and repulsive, and says so much about those who parade such images.
To make light of these issues is to completely disregard how a culture views the image or object in question. We all know the significance of a doctorate or medical degree. Seeing the degree in a frame on the wall, we can all appreciate the years, effort and dedication it took someone to earn it. But if I decided that I just liked how it looked, because it was “cool,” and I went out and made my own degree in imitation, and then slapped it on my wall, it wouldn’t make me a doctor.
I have no right to do that, as we are all aware. I would have completely disregarded the meaning of that degree, the symbolism and significance it represented within this culture. By taking the degree out of context and copying it, I have not only disrespected a culture, but have also made myself appear cheap and foolish.
Perhaps now you can understand why cultural appropriation causes such controversy. Headdresses, costumes, names, and images, taken out of context; stolen or imitated and claimed or exploited and used by other cultures are inappropriate and offensive and promote negative stereotypes and bullying.
Even President Barrack Obama gets it. On Oct. 5, he was quoted on Huffington Post as saying he would think about changing the Washington Redskins’ name if he owned the team. “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” he said.
So what is the solution? Should everything related to First Nations teams or Native Americans be completely avoided? No. But when in doubt, take a cue from your fellow Indigenous friends, and make sure it’s someone knowledgeable. If you don’t know any First Nations person who is knowledgeable, then ask me. I can hook you up with many informed First Nations people.
Go ahead and wear that Idle No More shirt with pride. You’ll probably make a lot of new friends while you’re at it.