'Cultural appropriation:' Inuit react to Calgary man's drum dance

A Calgary man has sparked a debate in Nunavut over cultural appropriation after he was filmed wearing Inuit sealskin clothing and demonstrating drum dancing at an Aboriginal Awareness Week event.

Zinour Fathoullin's performance at Aboriginal Awareness Week event triggers backlash

A Calgary man has sparked a debate in Nunavut over cultural appropriation after he was filmed wearing Inuit sealskin clothing and demonstrating drum dancing and throatsinging at an Aboriginal Awareness Week event.

"I saw him go up in his full sealskin outfit and do his performance," said James Kuptana, a co-ordinator of volunteers for the event. He says he was the only Inuk involved.

"I was actually really upset because I didn't think it was accurate based on what I had seen other Inuit performers do."

Zinour Fathoullin performs at a National Aboriginal Day event in Calgary earlier this month. This image is a still taken from a video recorded by Liberty Rivers and posted on Facebook. (Liberty Rivers/Facebook)

Zinour Fathoullin's wife Gayle says the pair have been part of National Aboriginal Day events in Calgary for 15 years.

"We aren't Inuit, but we are just asked to share that culture with people as a celebration of aboriginal people's day."

Zinour Fathoullin is from Russia. Gayle says she met her husband in Siberia, where Zinour, a trained dancer, worked with Siberian Inuit. They moved to Cape Dorset in 1996, where they became involved in local dance activities. They participated in a performance to mark the birth of Nunavut in 1999 and toured briefly with several local dancers showcasing Inuit culture.

The Fathoullins now operate Legacy Artwork in Calgary, selling artwork and custom paintings. They also offer workshops, such as one titled "What's hot in the igloo?" which offers "An exciting and interactive day or half day program that brings the Canadian and Siberian Inuit cultures to life through dance, drumming, storytelling, and traditional Inuit clothing" for $800 a day.

'We still exist'

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuk filmmaker in Iqaluit, told CBC she was "disgusted" to hear about the Fathoullins' enterprise.

"They're making money on pretending to be experts on Inuit culture when there are Inuit there! I mean, we still exist," Arnaquq-Baril said.

"It's like they are saying Inuit culture is dead and they will just act it out so people can imagine what it would be like.

James Kuptana, a co-ordinator of volunteers for the event and the only Inuk involved, says he was 'really upset' after watching Zinour Fathoullin's performance. (submitted by James Kuptana)

"Sometimes there are situations where it is a fine line when you are not quite sure whether to call something cultural appropriation or not. But this is so far beyond."

Gayle Fathoullin responded to the controversy with a statement on Facebook.

"We never claim to be Inuit and never have," she wrote.

"We are always up front in stating that we are presenting from the perspective of our time lived in the Siberian and Canadian Arctic and a sharing of these cultures.

"When Zinour dances (as in the video circulating), he is careful to explain that his dance is his own modern interpretation of aspects of Inuit culture and dance and drumming rather than a representation of traditional Inuit dance and drumming. When we throat sing, we are clear that this is our own version of it and a demonstration."

'An ambassador of the Inuit culture'

Gayle writes that Zinour was mentored by an unnamed Siberian shaman and was given permission to use a Shaman's drum for performance and teaching purposes.

Speaking to CBC News, Gayle elaborated.

"She must have had a sense that he would be a person to be an ambassador of the Inuit culture," she said.

"She gifted Zinour with her stories and asked him to put her stories — to interpret them through dance and drumming."

Mary Wilman, mayor of Iqaluit, says she knew Zinour in 1998 when she was a co-ordinator for an Inuit dance group. She says they hired him to do choreography for the group, but 'that's totally different than for him to automatically become a knowledge [holder] or expert on Inuit.' (CBC)

Gayle also names Nunavut Inuit elders who, she said, "shared their stories" and "encouraged me to just go out and have fun with it and to use it as a vehicle to share the Inuit culture."

In the Facebook statement she says Mary Wilman, now mayor of Iqaluit, invited them to Iqaluit to choreograph dances and work with an Inuit youth dance group.

Wilman says she knew Zinour in 1998 when she was a co-ordinator for Inuusutut Muminitiit, or "young Inuit dancers," in Iqaluit.

"We hired him to do choreography," Wilman said. "That's totally different than for him to automatically become a knowledge [holder] or expert on Inuit."

Tanya Tagaq responds

David Serkoak, a well-known teacher and drum dancer from Arviat, Nunavut, is also mentioned by the Fathoullins in the statement as the maker of the drums they use.

Now living in Ottawa, Serkoak says he's too old to hold grudges or worry about people who imitate Inuit drum dancing. But he does say, "If I were to go back, who bought some of my drums and was misusing them or being used not the Inuit way? Yes, one of them is Zinour."

Well-known Inuk performer Tanya Tagaq responded on Facebook to Gayle's statement, in which Gayle said the Fathoullins helped launch her career.

"You do not have to be claiming to be Inuit to be culturally appropriating," she wrote.

"It would be all right if you were doing it in your backyard for no profit, but us indigenous performers have a hard enough time making ends meet without non-indigenous people taking gigs and misinforming people."

Making a statement about identity

Arthur Manuel, a Secwepemc from interior B.C., is director of the Indigenous Network on Economy and Trade, which advocates on the international level to achieve recognition of aboriginal title and rights.

He says aboriginal people are making a statement about their indigenous identity when they wear traditional clothing.

"At certain times you need to be very cognizant that you may get some form of backlash against being indigenous. Non-natives can just take off [regalia] and blend right into the non-indigenous circle.

"There's a liability that the non-indigenous person, through taking on that dress, never really paid. They can do it at their pleasure."

Gayle Fathoullin is adamant that she and her husband have done nothing wrong.

"Any opportunity to celebrate a culture, when it comes from a place in the heart can't be harmful," she said.

"The Inuit of Calgary also have a responsibility to not only be critical and angry and upset but also take a step forward and reach out to us."

That's a sentiment James Kuptana does not agree with.

"I think the general Canadian public knows so little about aboriginal culture and they know even less about Inuit culture, which is a specific group of aboriginal people.

"So when I see misrepresentation, I would almost rather have no representation."


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