Indigenous

3 Indigenous writers discuss cultural appropriation with CBC's Rosanna Deerchild

'You can't just take Indigenous esthetics and culture and claim it as your own,' Jaimie Isaac says

cultural appropriation

CBC's Rosanna Deerchild speaks with Joshua Whitehead, Jaimie Isaac and Niigaan Sinclair, left to right, about their views on the 'appropriation prize' controversy and what cultural appropriation means to them. (CBC)

 shares

The fallout from the "appropriation prize" controversy in the wake of an editorial published in Write magazine has left many wondering what exactly constitutes cultural appropriation, and how it is different, if at all, from appreciation.

The editorial's author, Hal Niedzviecki, later stepped down, as did Walrus editor Jonathan Kay after he published an opinion piece of his own advocating for debate around the issue of cultural appropriation.

On Tuesday, host Rosanna Deerchild of CBC Radio's Unreserved spoke with three Indigenous writers, including Joshua Whitehead, whose piece on "Indigenegativity" appeared in the same spring Write issue that carried Niedzviecki's editorial.

Niedzviecki wrote that he didn't "believe in cultural appropriation" and encouraged writers to "imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities." Several media executives, including one from CBC, had tweeted they would contribute funds to any such "appropriation prize," as proposed by Niedzviecki.

"I suppose I wasn't surprised because this is kind of how it's been throughout my ... career so far, but at the same time, it hurts," said Whitehead, who lives in Calgary.

"I wish I had a heads-up that was going to be in there ... I totally would've gone and ripped up my cheque."

In response to the editorial, Whitehead wrote an addendum to his article and posted it online elsewhere.

Winnipeg-based artist and writer Jaimie Isaac pointed to a recent incident involving a Toronto art exhibit as an example of cultural appropriation, which, she said, "has been around the Indigenous arts community for time immemorial."

A Toronto gallery pulled the work of local Indigenous artist Amanda PL after receiving complaints. Amanda PL, whose creations focus on nature, animals, Indigenous spirituality and medicine, said she's inspired by the Woodlands style made famous in the 1960s by the Anishinabe artist Norval Morrisseau

"I completely stand in solidarity with that exhibition," said Isaac. "That was a perfect example of mining the esthetics of Indigenous art and completely disregarding the meaning or the history of that artist and what it stood for."

"You can't just take Indigenous esthetics and culture and claim it as your own."

Jaimie Isaac and Rosanna Deerchild

Isaac, left, and Deerchild at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2015. (Anna Lazowski/CBC)

For Whitehead, some of that history comes from a place of pain, which is brought back to the fore when Indigenous art is appropriated.

"When I think of appropriation ... it's linked to assimilation, it's linked to the residential schools my father was in, it's linked to the '60s scoop, the murder of my grandmother."

AS IT HAPPENS | 'I invoked cultural appropriation in the context of literature and writing only': Hal Niedzviecki

"All of this comes to my being when appropriation is played, and used and defended."

Niigaan Sinclair, acting head of the native studies program at the University of Manitoba, frequently writes about Indigenous issues. Sinclair said the cultural appropriation debate is not a free speech issue, because people can write about anyone, and he has done so in the past.

Niigaan Sinclair

'Appropriation is theft based on power and privilege. Appreciation is engagement based on responsibility and ethics,' says Niigaan Sinclair, an author and acting head of native studies at the University of Manitoba. (CBC)

"Anyone can engage with any culture and borrow things. People do it all the time," he said, noting he has written from the perspective of women, people with disabilities and non-Indigenous individuals. "To do it without responsibility or ethics is where violence and genocide begins.

"Appropriation is theft based on power and privilege. Appreciation is engagement based on responsibility and ethics."

Sinclair said words have power and the ability to shape perceptions of a group, so taking extra care to accurately represent them is paramount.

"Words create practice, practice creates policy, policy creates law, and next thing you know, we're taking children and hammering the Indian out of them."

"We have historical precedence [in Canada]."

More On This Story