- Dana Barrett
Indigenous Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation
I want to preface this article by saying that I, the writer, am not of Indigenous heritage and therefore cannot offer personal commentary on the appropriation of Indigenous culture. I do, however, hope this article sheds light on issues that have impacted Indigenous people and communities.
In recent years, the phrase “cultural appropriation” has been incorporated into our vernacular. Often used by minority groups, it has come to refer to the use of dress, slang, speech, and other aspects of one’s culture used by those of a different cultural heritage. However, the line between appreciation and appropriation is a gray area in which misunderstandings can take place.
Cultural appropriation is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
The appropriation of Indigenous culture is clear, as this culture has been historically, and is presently, mishandled at the hands of people from a country founded on Indigenous genocide. Indigenous culture and peoples have been mocked and ridiculed in many facets for hundreds of years. Much of this mockery was based on the promotion of cultural assimilation, with the foundational belief that Indigenous culture was subordinate to European culture.
The Canadian government passed the Indian Act which punished Indigenous children for practicing their culture by sending them to residential schools and forbade adults from Indigenous cultural practices in order to indoctrinate them into “civilized” society.
In films and other forms of media, Indigenous people have been stereotypically portrayed as savages, warriors or “Indian” princesses which is not reflected in Indigenous culture.
In sports, many mascots and logos are racist portrayals of Indigenous people and contain inappropriate uses of cultural symbols.
Large retail companies are known for marketing and selling various products influenced by Indigenous communities. (ex. Moccasins, dreamcatchers, etc.)
Due to overt racism and appropriation on a macro scale, smaller, individual acts of cultural appropriation by ordinary people is viewed as harmless and less impactful to Indigenous people. Without knowing it, by contributing to societal appropriation, these individuals have caused a ripple effect in Indigenous communities.
Many Halloween costumes based on female Indigenous clothing are often sexualized, thus sexualizing Indigenous women in the public eye.
Major companies marketing Indigenous fashion and artwork without contribution to Indigenous communities is greatly damaging to the economy of Indigenous people whose small businesses are unable to compete with such industries.
It is also mentally taxing to witness sacred aspects of one’s culture, which was often prone to mockery, to be used as a trend for profit. For example, many spiritualists use sage cleansing, a traditionally Indigenous practice, which has grown in popularity, without acknowledgment of its origins.
Cultural appreciation can be defined as “when elements of a culture are used while honouring the source they came from.” Many Indigenous people are willing to share elements of their culture with non-Indigenous people provided it is done in a way that is respectful and mutually beneficial.
How to Appreciate Indigenous Culture:
If you are going to purchase cultural items, make sure they are bought from someone within that cultural group rather than a major corporation hoping to profit off sacred aspects of others’ cultures
Also, supporting a small business will help to continue spreading authentic Indigenous culture and allow Indigenous families to earn a living.
Any time you are researching information about a culture, be sure to credit the source, which provides them with a larger platform to meet others to promote cultural understanding.
Don’t refer to Indigenous people as “exotic” as it makes their culture appear abnormal. This truly carries weight since theirs was the original culture of this land and serves as a reminder that the impact of their culture has been diminished significantly throughout history.
If you are going to participate in any aspect of their culture, make sure it is done in a way that is respectful and permitted, which could include doing personal research, asking someone of Indigenous ancestry, etc.
While modern and historical societies have defined Indigenous culture by a small subset of stereotypes, their culture is far broader. Cultural appreciation is welcomed with open arms, as long as we, as non-Indigenous people, play our part in amplifying the voices of those who have often gone unheard.
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