'Learning to move forward': Artists, dancers grapple with issues of cultural appropriation

A Ukrainian dancer, a Métis teacher, a First Nations powwow singer and a self-described "middle-aged white" art consultant discuss their thoughts on cultural appropriation.

'The debate lets us talk about justice, about equality, about fairness'

Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble choreographer Serhij Koroliuk talks to his dancers during a recent practice in Saskatoon. (Jason Warick)

Remember that grainy, viral online video last summer of the Saskatoon Ukrainian dance troupe performing an Indigenous powwow routine?

It sparked a heated, at times vicious debate on cultural appropriation.

Ukrainian dance performance at Saskatoon Folkfest


4 years ago
A Saskatchewan Ukrainian dance group incorporates First Nation clothing and dance into a multicultural performance. 0:54

The issue is coming up across the country with increasing frequency, from headdress Halloween costumes to writer Joseph Boyden's ancestry.

Full Kaleidoscope performance by Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble

4 years ago
Serhij Koroliuk says he ceated Kaleidoscope as a love letter to Canada on his 10th anniversary of becoming a citizen 7:32

But quietly, across the country, many others are quietly grappling with that same issue — in their music, at work and even within their own families.

Here are four of their stories — a Ukrainian dancer, a Métis teacher, a First Nations powwow singer and the self-described "middle-aged white man" working to diversify the University of Saskatchewan's art galleries.

'We tried to approach it with respect'

Ukrainian dancer Aubree Worobetz (Jason Warick/CBC)

Ukrainian dancer Aubree Worobetz cried for most of the drive home.

She'd pulled over to take a call. A friend told her to look at Facebook.

"It was out of control," the Saskatoon woman recalled.

Worobetz and her fellow Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble had performed the multicultural dance called Kaleidoscope dozens of times in Saskatoon and around the world.

They'd practiced three times a week for two hours each. Now, they were being accused of appropriating and stealing First Nations culture.

Some criticisms included the lack of Treaty Six or Métis flags in their tapestry, the inauthentic costumes or their inadequate consultation with elders and experts.

Worobetz didn't go to work for three days, trying to make sense of what was happening.

"We were trying to embody our appreciation of other cultures. We tried to approach it with respect," she said.

Kaleidoscope has been put on hold. Worobetz is hoping everyone can discuss their differences before posting on social media.

She's hoping to learn more about First Nations dance. And she's hoping there's a way to honour Indigenous culture that everyone can appreciate.

"Do we just take it off the table? I'd hate to see it lost," she said.

"It's a time to listen and learn."

Cultural appropriation: Is it ever OK?


4 years ago
Cultural appropriation: Is it ever OK? 1:42

'Let's build bridges, not burn them'

World champion powwow singer John Noon (Victoria Dinh/CBC)

John Noon's earliest memory is the sound of a twig repeatedly hitting an upturned pail.

His grandfather, John, was a traditional healer, and would bring him and other relatives to powwows. The four-year-old Noon tried to imitate the drummers with the twig and pail.

"I remember being excited. I was already learning," said Noon, now a councillor or "headman" at the Thunderchild First Nation.

Noon would go on to capture the world championship in powwow singing. He said First Nations culture "is the backbone of everything I do."

However, Noon and his ex-wife raised their daughters to be global citizens.

The young women dance powwow, but they are also high level hip-hop and ballet dancer.

As for the Ukrainian group who did the powwow dance, he agreed it could have been done much better. But Noon said it's clear they were trying to honour First Nations, and applauded their effort.

"Our city, this country, is going through a lot of growing pains right now," Noon said.

"Let's build bridges, not burn them."

'Racism is alive and well in Saskatoon'

St. Michael Community School Metis cultural coordinator Cort Dozniez. (Submitted by Cort Dozniez)

Once a week, children gather to practice their jig dance routine at both Westmount and St. Michael Community Schools.

Some are Métis, but others come from First Nations, African, Asian or European families.

"Racism is alive and well in Saskatoon. I don't think we're doing well at all," said Cort Dogniez, Métis education coordinator at St. Michael.

"The only way we're going to get past that is through learning. That's why we need to focus on events and activities and learning to move forward."

Dogniez welcomes and encourages kids of all cultures to join the jig group. He said it would be "hypocritical" to exclude anyone from Métis cultural practices, since most were taken from elsewhere. The Métis  jig, for example, is a hybrid of the Scottish and French versions.

The key is to engage respectfully, he said. That takes time and effort.

"It's going to be hard," Dogniez said. "We have a long way to go."

'Things have changed massively'

Former Wanuskewin Heritage Park executive director Jeremy Morgan (Jason Warick/CBC)

Jeremy Morgan points to a small, red jewelry box on a table in the University of Saskatchewan's College Art Gallery.

Inside the box is a tiny sculpture of a boat filled with desperate African migrants. The artist, Curtis Santiago, draws from his experience in Canada, Trinidad and South Africa.

He moved to Saskatoon decades ago to serve as Wanuskewin Heritage Park's first executive director. Morgan has spent his career in the arts working with Indigenous and immigrant groups. Now he's charged with bringing more of those voices and images to the U of S galleries.

As a European-Canadian, some question Morgan's right to hold these prestigious posts. He struggles with it, too.

Morgan said he tries to approach other cultures with humility, developing relationships over time.

"Cultural appropriation is important because the debate lets us talk about justice, about equality, about fairness and about the importance of culture and the arts," Morgan said.

"It is really a way of talking about people having voice who otherwise haven't had any voice at all in our society dominated by male, white, middle aged men."

Those marginalized groups now have a powerful tool, he said.

"They can now go on Facebook and reach thousands and thousands of people. Things have changed massively in the last five years," he said.

"Everyone's heard our stories for a very long time. People in the dominant culture have to listen."

Groups seek reconciliation after cultural appropriation controversy


4 years ago
A Ukrainian dance ignited a debate on cultural appropriation. This is how the groups moving towards reconciliation. 3:17

CBC Saskatchewan is hosting a discussion on cultural appropriation at the Broadway Theatre Wednesday, Nov. 29. Guests include Noon and Morgan, as well as artists, academics and elders of various cultures.


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.