On Cultural Appropriation

When I was growing up, the closest thing to a positive public image of Aboriginal people I can recall seeing was the TV test pattern. Almost every other Aboriginal image was in a negative context (TV, movies. comic books, stories, school). The test pattern was almost benign.
 
It appeared to be a neutral image, but in its own way, it also had a negative impact because it reinforced us as a disappearing (or disappeared) race. It reflected who we used to be, not who we were at the time of my youth. It was the image of an Indian man wearing a war bonnet, something that almost no-one did any more.
 
It was against the law for Indians to “wear Indian garb” for so long in Canada, that nobody wore traditional things anywhere at that time. Even at powows, which slowly were coming back from the world of legal prohibition, dance outfits rarely, if ever, included war bonnets.
 
As I grew, I came to realize that the impact of this lack of imagery was to reinforce the idea that we no longer existed as a people…that we were invisible and irrelevant. I came to wish that our society had evolved in a way that included us in its images. The fact that it did not, made all of us feel apart from each other.
 
The Montreal Gazette this morning has a story about a fashion boutique where a Canadian Fashion Designer has developed and is selling a fashion line called Inukt and is accused of “cultural appropriation”. I think that is the wrong term to be throwing around. I personally don’t see anything inherently wrong with society using images from our culture appropriately, it’s when those images are used inappropriately that I have a problem. It’s cultural misappropriation we should be fighting and that’s the term we should be using.
 
Whether what’s going on in Montreal is an inappropriate use of our culture, I will leave for others to decide, but I hope the fashion industry does use images that include us and that they do so respectfully. I want our clothing to become popular items to wear. I want our images and images of us to be shown in a positive way. I want the Chicago Blackhawks to keep using the image they have on their hockey jerseys.
 
I want Canada and all its institutions to be proud to include us in the imagery of this country, not solely because there’s a profit to be had, but because its who we are and who this country is. If we demand that they stop using those images, we lose something. All of us. We will continue to be invisible.

About Senator Murray Sinclair

Canadian Senator Formerly Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba and recent Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
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