The Passionate Eye·Point of View

Fake Indigenous art is the tip of the iceberg of cultural appropriation

‘Pretendians’ have infiltrated academia, media and the arts, says Anishinaabe writer, but how do we determine who is real and who is fake?

‘Pretendians’ have infiltrated academia, media and the arts. How do we determine who is real and who is fake?

A non-Indigenous man wearing a headdress has a brushstroke of paint covering his eyes with the word 'Indigenous.'
‘Pretendians’ have infiltrated academia, media and the arts, says Anishinaabe writer, but how do we determine who is real and who is fake? (Paul Kemp Productions)

If you've ever walked around Vancouver's Gastown area, you'll have surely seen the many art galleries and souvenir shops scattered about the streets. 

Venture inside these trendy tourist locations, and you'll find beautiful, handmade art pieces — often done in recognizable styles from many Indigenous cultures. According to The Pretendians, a new documentary from The Passionate Eye, over a billion dollars are spent annually on Indigenous art in these shops.

Of course, as consumers, many of us assume that these pieces of art are authentic. That is, we are told and believe that the so-called Indigenous art is made by Indigenous artists.

More and more, however, it is being revealed that a great deal of this so-called authentic Indigenous art isn't made by Indigenous people at all. Instead, it is made by non-Indigenous individuals and businesses who have taken on Indigenous identities and aesthetics. These people are often called "pretendians" by those immersed in the issue.

Among other harms, pretendians make a profit off of people's desire for Indigenous culture and items. You might think this is a rare issue, but it actually happens all the time. 

An investigation by data journalist Francesca Fionda, one of the experts featured in the film, found that out of 40 shops in Gastown, 75 per cent appeared to be selling inauthentic art. 

This case of pretendianism in art raises some important questions: How do we tell what is "real" versus what is "fake"? Can we ensure Indigenous people aren't being made to compete against non-Indigenous people in a market that should be accessible to them? And how big of an issue is this really?

These are the types of questions that The Pretendians, hosted by Indigenous author and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, seeks to explore. And given that the prominence of pretendians seems to be growing, it is important that we take these explorations seriously.

About 75% of Indigenous art in Vancouver's Gastown is fake | The Pretendians

2 months ago
Duration 2:44
Drew Hayden Taylor does some undercover shopping with Francesca Fionda, finding some suspicious art products that are not authentic.

Determining what is real and what (or who) is fake

Outside of the art world, a range of non-Indigenous people are taking on Indigenous identities, too. Perhaps you have seen headlines about it online and in the news: distinguished university professors, filmmakers, authors and others who have made a living off of their alleged "Indigenous perspective." 

There are dozens of respected and often highly decorated individuals who cannot substantiate their claims to specific Indigenous communities, who have outright lied about their family history or who base their claim on a single, extremely distant Indigenous relative. 

In The Pretendians, Taylor travels to Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, which describes itself as "an Anishnabek community that is located in the Madawaska, Mississippi and Rideau watersheds." Ardoch is not a federally recognized First Nation and, more importantly, many Algonquin voices and communities say it's not Algonquin at all.

There is a lot to discuss about Ardoch — not only that they appear to have very few checks and balances in place to be considered a community member. In the documentary, Anishinaabe professor Veldon Coburn says that, for some time, all you needed to do was complete a self-declaration form on Ardoch's website.

This unrecognized Algonquin 'First Nation' allows members to join by signing a one-page self declaration form. | The Pretendians

2 months ago
Duration 1:52
"It exists as a website, it's a facebook page." The Ardoch Algonquin First Nation doesn't exist physically as a territory or community, but has many members who claim Indigenous heritage.

Many feel that this lack of criteria makes the Ardoch community simply an avenue for pretendians to validate their dubious identity claims. This can become an especially distressing situation when communities like Ardoch involve themselves in important politics and policy-making decisions, like treaty negotiations, as Coburn says they did in the late nineties. 

At the same time, it is important to hear the cautions from Indigenous people who are worried that we too easily rely on conditions like government recognition to be considered a "real" Indigenous person or group. These voices remind us that Indigenous citizenship and identity are, so often, complex and don't fit neatly into checklists we might want to make in an effort to assert who we truly are. We should not take these concerns lightly.

So, as you can see, the issue is complex — and it seems to have reached a boiling point. 

Who gets to decide if someone is Indigenous or not?

Many Canadian institutions do not have processes or standards in place to distinguish Indigenous people from pretendians. And in lieu of any formal processes, some people have taken it upon themselves to fill those gaps. 

We have seen coverage of a university hiring committee denying an Indigenous job candidate for not producing specific documentation proving his status — despite his very real identity and community relationships. In other cases, social media accounts have been created (often anonymously) to expose people believed to be making false claims to Indigenous identity.

So this brings in the other part of the conversation: How do we deal with the pretendian problem?

Frequently, debates are being had within Indigenous communities about this question. People ask: How do we determine who does or does not belong, and who gets to make that decision? Can there be any standard way to know when our communities and nations are each so distinct? Is social media the appropriate place to have these conversations about identity? If not, where and how should we have them? Who benefits from how we are having these discussions, and who falls through the cracks? 

There are no clear answers — but many conversations to be had

When it comes to these questions, there seems to be no consensus — even as the pressure for answers mounts, and more people realize how implicated they are in the pretendian conversation.

But whether you are a consumer having to question the authenticity of your Gastown art, a hiring manager responsible for bringing Indigenous candidates into your place of work, or part of an Indigenous community that is navigating these conversations, Drew Hayden Taylor will hopefully be able to offer you some insights. 

Importantly, I say insights, not answers. A single documentary cannot possibly answer all of the monumental questions the pretendian phenomenon has evoked. However, as it appears that pretendians aren't going anywhere anytime soon, we should assume that neither will the speculation about how to go forward — or the insistence that the topic of Indigenous identity is too important to ignore, even in this complex world. As long as this is the case, we will need to have conversations like those The Pretendians seeks to have.

Watch The Pretendians on The Passionate Eye.



Riley Yesno is a queer Anishinaabe scholar and writer from Eabametoong First Nation. She has written and provided commentary for some of Canada’s largest media outlets, and her work focuses on Indigenous brilliance and liberation everywhere. Find her on Twitter @Rileyyesnomaybe.

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