The Stories We Share: When is it Appropriate and when is it Appropriation?

Welcome to 1812

I’m a huge nerd. I really like wearing costumes and pretending I’m someone else.  On Thanksgiving weekend, I participate in the traditional pilgrimage of Canadians who go to the United States instead of having a family meal at home. Except instead of cross-border shopping, I go to a reenactment event centered around the War of 1812. In addition to the British Military Camp (which includes several Canadians like me and our American friends who prefer to lend their talents to the Empire) and the American Military Camp, there is an ‘Indian Village.’ The name makes me shudder a bit, and it contains a fair bit of non-Indigenous people who take it as an opportunity to paint themselves and dress in a manner that makes me a little uncomfortable. That aside, there is the opportunity to learn something on local Indigenous history. There are some recreated traditional dwellings that have been set up that I am unfamiliar with (being Manitoban I have a bit of familiarity with Cree and Ojibway stuff, anything beyond that is literally and figuratively foreign) and my favourite feature is a Pottawatomie storyteller. I’ve talked with him a few times and I love getting his perspective. I also really enjoy a lot of his non-mythical stories. In my head, I enjoy comparing what I hear him say about his experience with reservations and what I’ve heard people from Manitoba and Saskatchewan say about how they’ve experienced reserve life. As I am taking this course in Comparative Indigenous Politics, I particularly paid attention to what we said about clan structure, responsibilities, and community duties and rights. This year, when I returned to Our Home and Native Land, I decided to do some Googling and see if my favourite storyteller had any websites or any resources that I could follow. I found his work and popularity mentioned in many Indigenous discussion forums. He’s been representing Native Americans for over a decade. He is also completely ethnically European, changes between being Cherokee, Seneca, or Pottawatomie depending on the event he is at, and across all the forums I had discovered is widely lauded as a fraud.

Back to the Future

There’s something unnerving about assuming you are getting an authentic experience and hearing the perspectives from someone from a different community than your own and then discovering that it’s at best, insincere, and at worst, completely fabricated, inappropriate and offensive. I am fortunate since, as a non-Indigenous person, the worst that happened to me is I experience a slight violation of trust. I didn’t have to feel misrepresented, mocked, or anything else that I can only assume comes with running into someone masquerading as someone with your background, wielding symbols and stories in a way that could be totally incorrect yet presented as an expert insider. This made me reflect on a role I may play in this and re-examining how I discuss the histories and practices of a group to which I do not belong. I have been a historic interpreter at Festival du Voyageur. It won’t surprise anyone that as a local winter festival that focuses heavily on the fur trade and Franco-Manitobain culture, the Métis people are featured prominently in many of the stories we tell throughout the festival. Is what I am doing respectful? Do I contribute in a meaningful way to the discussion of our provincial heritage? Am I just a jerk?

Authenticity and not Speaking for Others

The last thing I want people to feel after I have shared some of my knowledge at Festival or other similar interpretive events is that they’ve been duped or offended. One of the interpretive activities I have often explained is the process of making pemmican. I have been fortunate enough to be able to participate in all aspects of its processing, included tearing apart a bison for its meat (which I did badly, but have some great pictures. Pics or it didn’t happen, right?). I have often wondered how appropriate it was for me to be presenting this as a non-Métis individual. I found this great blog that does an excellent job of giving one the tools to think about whether on is participating in cultural appropriation or merely celebrating diversity. It boils down to symbols and using that which you have not earned in an inappropriate way. It seems that since pemmican making is and has been largely utilitarian, I can make it and talk about it as a celebration of our provincial heritage, especially if I’m not trying to make myself sound more authoritative by claiming to have a background that I don’t (which, as I mentioned earlier seems to undermine your knowledge when you’re found out as well as being poor taste). Also wearing my moccasins that I purchased from a local, Aboriginal owned business can be seen as support and celebration rather than theft. Not like those people who use items that have now taken on a symbolism that goes beyond that like a ceinture fléchée or a ‘Métis sash.’ Wait, what? The sashes that I wear every February and is sold en masse in the festival souvenir stand? Oh, crap.

When is a Symbol not a Symbol?

In the above mentioned post, I had a moment of panic. One of my favourite pieces of Festival du Voyageur swag was outed as being something misused by outsiders. Ouch. Once utilitarian, the above mentioned author considers the ceinture fléchée to be cultural and thus subject to appropriation. I can’t say this is incorrect (as we’ve mentioned, I do not belong to a community that can make that call) but it hasn’t been called out as inappropriate in the Winnipeg/Festival context (which might not mean anything. There have been sports teams called the ‘Redskins’ all over North America for way too long with too little backlash). Let’s be generous and assume it’s because the  ceinture fléchée has become a symbol of Manitoba generally rather than exclusively of the Métis. Why might this be? We are literally a Métis province. The Métis nation is the who, what, when, where, why, and how at the heart of our provincial creation. In using this symbol, are we celebrating our provincial heritage, or are we appropriating a symbol that is not ours to take?

Dialogue, Definition, and Making it Right

I finished my quest for authenticity and respect with a question. Questions like this often don’t get answered because people are afraid to discuss, afraid to be wrong, and afraid someone else will be heard and not them. In our last blog post, we’d mentioned that there is a widening rift in Winnipeg between our Aboriginal and non-Indigenous citizens. I hope we get used to having safe dialogue so that these questions can be answered and that everyone in our city can make a commitment to being authentic, respectful, and making things right. It’s something I’ve been striving for personally, and I will listen to see if there are answers for my questions on cultural sensitivity. Even if it means I have to reconsider my small collection of festival sashes.

-Ashley