OPINION | It's disrespectful for non-Indigenous artists to make a profit off our designs

Myrna Pokiak says there should be no debate over whether non-Indigenous artists sell products at Inuvik's market. After having her own words 'stolen,' she says it's disrespectful to make money off someone else's art.

Myrna Pokiak had her own words 'stolen' by a northern author 15 years ago, and she isn't over it

A traditional Kitikmeot tapestry made in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, depicts a scene from the 1950s. 'There are so many family designs, stories, clothing, and art never shared with the public in fear that so quickly our history, our traditions will be stolen,' writes Myrna Pokiak. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

A recent CBC article looked at a debate in Inuvik, N.W.T., over non-Indigenous artists selling traditional-style crafts at local markets. It sparked a large discussion online, including this social media post by Myrna Pokiak, an Inuvialuit woman from Tuktoyaktuk now living in Yellowknife. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Some will agree, some will disagree, some will be angry, others will learn, but this has been keeping me awake at night and giving me flashbacks to a very difficult time in my artistic journey.

Until theft of your art form happens to you, it cannot be understood. It's personal. We share our culture to show our pride, not intending for those we teach to profit off the gifts we give.

When the woman in Inuvik said she wasn't copying anyone and she draws her own designs, those words stung. Clearly she does not know enough about our culture or respect the gifts she received — she's profiting and going against the unspoken history of our culture.

I hope this 'artist' will realize the unspoken gifts she was taught should respectfully not be sold for profit.

I had my own words stolen from me by a recognized northern author more than 15 years ago.

I wrote about a polar bear harvest with my dad and shared my story to give the author an idea of what the Arctic is like. I was curious what his opinion would be of my writing and thought if he liked my stories, maybe I had a chance to be an author.

About a year later his book was done, so I bought it. I started reading it and hadn't even gotten past the first chapter before I could feel the tears starting to build up in my eyes. Soon, my mouth began to get dry, barely able to speak, trembling with sadness then anger.

Fatima Tin's handiwork at the Inuvik Arctic Market led some to question her right to sell work similar in design to traditional Indigenous craft work. (Submitted by Fatima Tin)

Then, I started to cry as I read passages that were identical to my words. I could see my writing and flashbacks to my experiences in his fictional story: descriptions of the way my family cooks, travels, camps on a hunt, prepares meals, images of the ice formations described from my own eyes. My name, for that matter, used in the story. 

I was so appalled and angry I put the book down. To this day, I still wonder, when I do get my story published, will people think I stole that author's words because they're in his published book? It's my conscience that is bothered, not his.

Unspoken gifts

There are so many stories, family designs, clothing, and art never shared with the public in fear that so quickly our history, our traditions will be stolen. I can only imagine that other artists do not set up tables at markets for that reason.

My mom married into an Inuvialuit family, living in the North for well over 40 years. Thanks to so many Inuvialuit seamstresses who shared their patterns, she was able to learn to sew us the clothing we needed, and teach us what she was taught. 

I asked her growing up why she didn't sell the clothing she made.

Gifts do not give you permission to make a profit.

She would tell me in few words "out of respect," as she was grateful she was taught by some of the best. All she wanted was to be able to sew for her children and make sure we were taught our ancestors' traditions and patterns. 

She knew those who taught her shared their knowledge so she could provide for our family the necessities of life as a trapper, mother and wife living a subsistence lifestyle. There are many more women and men who made the North their home and were taught cultural teachings and respected the unspoken lessons of those gifts they received.

A traditional south Baffin Island amauti by a designer and seamstress in Iqaluit. Pokiak writes that Inuvialuit seamstresses shared their patterns with her mother, but her mother never sold her works 'out of respect.' (CBC)

Those who listen with more than their ears can understand; it is often not always what is said, but what is not said that we must pay attention to.

To the non-Indigenous woman who was selling traditional Inuvialuit crafts in Inuvik, saying it's "out of love," I hope this "artist" will realize the unspoken gifts she was taught should respectfully not be sold for profit, as she is selling a gift that was given to her out of kindness and generosity of our cultural teachings. Selling is disrespectful.

Listen with more than your ears — gifts do not give you permission to make a profit. Earn back respect and stop selling reproduced Indigenous art.

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Myrna Pokiak is Inuvialuit from Tuktoyaktuk. She currently lives in Yellowknife with her three beautiful girls and husband Eddie Paul. She is the owner of Alappaa Consulting, where she combines her education, culture and art bringing forward her passion for culture. Her strong work ethic and respect for those before her are the driving forces behind her motivation.