The cultural appropriation debate is over. It’s time for action“White settlers” is apparently the term for Canadian redheads who don’t claim to be Indians.
CONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
MAY 19, 2017
Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is an Anishinaabe writer and editor from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Saugeen Ojibway Nation. She is the founder and managing editor of Kegedonce Press, a publishing house devoted to Indigenous writers.
In In 1989, my cousin, Chippewas of Nawash poet Lenore Keeshig, took the issue of "appropriation of voice" to The Writers' Union of Canada to tell non-Indigenous writers to "stop stealing our stories." The controversy she sparked raged for months afterward. Some writers were supportive of the call while others were vehemently opposed. In 1990, Lenore wrote an op-ed, in this very newspaper, titled, "Stop Stealing Native Stories." In it, she wrote that, "Critics of non-native writers who borrow from the native experience have been dismissed as advocates of censorship and accused of trying to shackle artistic imagination …"
This controversy continued into 2017, a year that, for Indigenous people, marks 150 years of colonial oppression. As the Canadian government unrolled its Canada 150 budget and agenda, Indigenous people across the country recoiled. Canada “150″? Really? To suggest that this country didn’t exist for us before 1867 is a punch to the gut – a half-billion-dollar, year-long celebration that hammers home the message, over and over again, that Canada depends on our erasure. The reality of our existence does not fit the official national narrative and so it must be dismissed, ignored and forgotten. Whether that erasure is attempted through the Indian Residential School System, the ongoing apprehensions of our children by Child and Family Services, the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women and girls, “starlight tours” conducted by police in Saskatchewan, the wildly disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s prison system, the theft of our lands and resources, the stealing of our stories or the inequitable policies of a party on Parliament Hill, the message is persistent – and devastatingly familiar.
This past week, I reread my cousin Lenore’s article. How heart-breakingly familiar it is 27 years later. In her piece, she cites the same objections to our concerns today, the same disingenuous reframing of the issue into one about freedom of speech, the same subtext embedded in arguments that suggest we are not capable of telling our own stories with the skill, beauty and depth that white middle-class writers could, or that, unlike them, we are too biased. And there are similar explanations from us that our stories are ours to tell, that they have power, and that we can tell them best.
Since the publication of Hal Niedzviecki’s “Appropriation Prize” editorial in The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Write magazine, white Canadians from powerful media corporations have attacked and insulted us for opposing the idea that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist.
I was interviewed as an Indigenous publisher in that same issue of Write magazine. I am a writer, poet and publisher. I have put my own writing career on hold many times to fight for respect and space for Indigenous writers and our books. I am also a consultant and have worked with Indigenous groups and organizations across the country, including the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) in the early stages of its mandate. …
But if the past 30 years have taught us anything, it is that there is a powerful, loud bunch of privileged white settlers who do not want to learn about us or from us.