Indigenous culture needs to be appreciated, not stolen, says artist

Shain Jackson is a Coast Salish artist who sees sacred symbols being ‘borrowed’ all the time by people who don't have a clue about their meaning.
Artwork by Coast Salish artist Shain Jackson (Shain Jackson)

Shain Jackson didn't always see the deeper meaning behind the symbols in Indigenous artwork.

Jackson used to be a full-time lawyer, representing the interests of Indigenous communities and organizations throughout British Columbia.

During one visit home to Sechelt, he was enjoying catching up with everyone when a respected elder confronted him about practicing non-Indigenous law.

The elder said, "You seem to think your law is better than our law."

Jackson was confused. He knew about Coast Salish customs, practices, and traditions, but he had never thought of his community as having substantive law.

"I just said 'Look, the law on my non-Indigenous side — because I come from two cultures — it's black letter law. It's codified. It's there for generations to see. We can follow it. We can amend it. We can work with it. And that's the difference.'"

The elder laughed and pointed at the artwork around the community hall. He then said to Jackson, "What do you think that is, smart guy?"

Jackson said that was a life-changing moment of clarity.

"It didn't dawn on me how intense and sophisticated that symbolism was, and how important that symbolism was to any type of resurgence in our culture. Because our culture, our history, and our world view and, yeah, even our law are codified in our art work," he said.

Jackson decided to take a break from his law practice to pursue art full time with a greater appreciation of its meaning and importance.

As Jackson's affection grew, so too did his understanding of appropriation's harmful impact.

"Our children are trying to understand their roots and where they come from and their history.  And I often say that it's like a building that's been destroyed, and we're trying to rebuild this building. ... Our artwork is that cultural blueprint," he said.

Jackson said people who ostensibly "borrow" Indigenous symbols, often mishandle them, so the symbols become "skewed and bastardized and sold back to us."

He said cultural appropriation of Indigenous art has a serious economic, as well as cultural cost.

"There's a lot of struggling artists and this is essentially taking food right out of the mouths of our kids in some of the most vulnerable communities in the country," Jackson said.

"They're also stealing meaning from our culture and it's something that we really really need right now if we're trying to rebuild our societies."

Jackson now works to protect the rights of Indigenous artists through the Authentic Indigenous initiative.

"Certainly there are sacred things that communities and families will keep close to their chest. Those aren't the things that should be out there. But the general symbolism behind the artwork is something that we want to express. We just don't want it stolen," he said

Jackson values the conversations Canadians are having about cultural appropriation, and he said he hopes it doesn't make people withdraw. He encourages people to continue to buy Indigenous art, but he wants consumers to educate themselves about who and where it comes from.

"I really pray that there's not almost like a freeze with respect to purchasing Indigenous art because people... are feeling ambivalent about what they're buying.  Do your research — it's not hard to research who these artists are."