Cultural Appropriation: It is not your story to tell and profit from.
Cultural appropriation is such a difficult topic to unpack and explain. The reason for this is that, it is complicated. There is no simple answer to this work. But what I would like people to understand is that when the dominant culture takes elements from a marginalized group and uses it as they please without knowledge, understanding, and respect, and then not caring about how their actions affect the marginalized group, this is for me is the definition of cultural appropriation.
I am by no means the first person to speak of this and address it in lecturers or presentations. There have been many colleagues of mine who have written about how to look for authentic resources and even the First Nations Education Steering Committee has set it up so that educators can pick from their book lists of authentic resources. Today with so many amazing Indigenous authors telling stories, there really is no reason why you aren’t using Indigenous voices in your classroom.
Throughout my journey as an educator in the school districts and now as a Faculty Lecturer at Simon Fraser University and presenter of Indigenous education, it never fails that I have to address cultural appropriation within my talks. A book in circulation today from the publisher Strong Nations called The Six Cedar Trees, is for me the perfect example of cultural appropriation. There are many educators out there at this point that have done their homework and removed this harmful book from their classrooms but sadly it is still in classrooms today being used as the Indigenous Education work. I want to point out that this book is being used as Indigenous education and checking off the box for educators when thinking they have done their work for Indigenous education in their classrooms. Educators believe that using this book connects to Indigenous peoples, Indigenous traditions and culture. This is a problem, this book is written by a non-Indigenous person. I will guide you through that as we unpack this book.
The push back that I get when teachers are angry with me when I tell them that The Six Cedars book is cultural appropriation is, well the artist that did the art work on the book is Indigenous. Let’s be really clear about this issue, putting Indigenous artwork on a book, does not make the author of the book Indigenous. The artist put their work on the book but they did not write the book. The person who wrote this book is a white settler educator looking through the lens of white colonial society as well as through the lens of the western colonial education system. This is why so many white educators love this book because it was written for them, from someone like them.
The other push back I get is, well it says that the book was vetted by community. Vetted is different than written with community. Vetted means it happened after the fact. If this book was written with or alongside community members supporting the understanding of this work, then that would be a different story. It would be in consultation with community. This was not the case. Also this white, non-Indigenous educator used an Indigenous language within the book that was not hers to use. Indigenous languages are endangered languages because of the settler colonial government making it illegal for Indigenous people to speak their languages in public and in Indian Residential schools. Because of these laws Indigenous communities are struggling to keep their languages and cultures alive. This settler educator is taking it upon herself to use a language that was taken from community and sell it for profit. It is not hers to use or sell.
Let's take a deeper look at how this white settler educator created this work, we can unpack what she has posted on her blog. The educator speaks of how she was dreaming up this work, she wanted to understand and fit the new core competencies within her teaching practice. She wanted to package the idea of the core competencies differently, in order to help educators, understand them. She had started at a new school that was focusing on the First People’s principles of learning. She then handed out spirit animal rocks to the staff. I would like to know if this educator knows what spirit animals are? What Indigenous group has spirit animals and would this be appropriate to paint them on rocks and give them away? Did she ask any Indigenous person if this was okay? Spirit animals are sacred in some traditions and she just pulled that piece out and used it for what she wanted to use it for, not asking the importance or cultural significance of it to the people who this is sacred to. This is appropriation. She said that the stones where an “aha” moment for her. But not the “aha” moment that I would have hoped she would have had. Thinking critically as a person who doesn't want to appropriate culture, I would start by, this isn't part of my culture. I need to educate myself on whose culture it is, then I need to make sure that if I were to use this (for profit) I had the permission and guidance of those whose culture it is. I need to fully understand the importance and significance of what it is I am doing. This settler educator did not have a critical moment of reflection, she decided to go further into cultural appropriation with her already appropriated spirit animals. Spirit animals are also not part of the Coast Salish peoples traditions she speaks of in her work. Indigenous people are not pan-Indigenous, we do not all share the same traditions and cultures. She also speaks of why she called it Cedars because of the connection to the cedars in her school yard and how totem poles are carved out of cedar. Here on Coast Salish Territories, we have house posts, not totem poles. Totem poles are from the island and up the coast. So again, taking elements of different Indigenous groups without taking the time and care to actually find out about the land she is actually on and the traditions from the people that are tied to this land. This is what makes it so problematic. She is using ideas and traditions that are not hers, using them in a way of a melting pot of how she would like to use them, not consulting with the nations of the territory. Circling back to the harm of using Indigenous languages in her book, our communities are struggling to reclaim their lost languages because of settler colonialism. This language is not for her to use as she wants. It is for our communities to use. For me is the most hurtful part of this book and clearly shows the cultural appropriation of this white settler educator. This is not her culture, this is not her knowledge, she did not take the time and care to engage in this work and it is not her knowledge to SELL for profit.
The commodification of this book, the posters and all other things made for profit from this book is so disrespectful. Where are the profits of this book going? Is it going to help the communities here on this territory to build language revitalization that is needed? Is it going to support the communities on this territory that live in poverty because of the settler colonial government setting up the system to marginalized Indigenous communities? Or is this money being made of the commodification of a pan indigenous view of Indigenous culture going to line the pockets of a white, settler educator that thought she could use Indigenous artwork and Indigenous elements to sell her work on a broader scale, under the umbrella of Indigenous education? Indigenous education that was not written by an Indigenous person?
Not only is she benefiting from something that is not hers to share, she is also taking up the space in the education market that should be for Indigenous authors and educators. She is blocking out and silencing Indigenous voices by continuing to take up space that belongs to Indigenous voices. This is about power, the power to tell stories of others, means those in power have the control to tell the stories of those who are oppressed and marginalized. The power to set the terms of the relationship people have with Indigenous people needs to come from authentic Indigenous voices. With this white settler educator using her privilege and whiteness to tell the Indigenous stories of this place, she is continuing the power cycle of the white colonial narrative in favor of white settlers. The settler colonial government made it against the law for Indigenous people to practice their language, their traditions and culture. It is not okay for the settler voices now to take up Indigenous languages, cultures and traditions to profit off of it.
Let me be really clear here, Indigenous people should be the only people telling the stories of Indigenous people. No one has the right to tell our stories, or profit off of our traditions and culture. Canada has spent the past 150 plus years telling the stories of Indigenous people, these stories have not told the truth about us, this is why it is critically important that space is made and saved for Indigenous voices to tell our stories, tell our truths, and be the ones to control the narrative of our cultures, our traditions, and our people.
I would like to end this conversation with a quote from Jesse Wente's new book Unreconciled. Page 168-"Cultural appropriation is Canada's tactic, a colonizer's tool. Indigenous people didn't invent it; we just suffer its consequences- so why should we have to endlessly explain it?" I highly recommend everybody read this book or at least the chapter on the power to tell our story.