Letter to the Editor of the Manitoulin Expositor re “cultural appropriation”

Dear Editor,

         Re: Cultural appropriation is a challenge to mainstream minds

Congratulations on publishing this stimulating article. It prompted a few thoughts of my own, which I hope you’ll let me share.

It’s certainly true that it’s an odd thing for a person to falsely portray himself as an indigenous creative person, when he’s not. It doesn’t mean that his art is bad, but it certainly heightens one’s scrutiny of it and makes one sympathetic to the weakness in his makeup that would compel him to want to be anybody other than who he really was. But we all have weaknesses and make mistakes. And to be glad when a person loses his job or gets shunned for doing this seems un-Christian.

What I do disagree with is your assertion that “mainstream society”, whatever that is, is unequipped to deal with the “nuances” involved in “cultural appropriation”, as the phrase applies to indigenous- Canadians. We’re all part of mainstream society, including indigenous-Canadians. The Bible, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela all teach us that there is no fundamental difference between people. Science teaches that every Canadian’s blood is exactly the same as every other Canadian’s- that the idea of “Indian blood”, a recent phrase from the Supreme Court of Canada, is sheer myth.

Canadian indigenous culture as it existed prior to European contact, like the European Renaissance cultures that existed then, like Canada’s culture of fifty years ago, has almost totally disappeared. Little of it remains. Why should it? Indigenous societies, being so fundamentally and typically human, were and are naturally subject to the same migration, mixing, change, assimilation and constant cultural borrowings -“cultural appropriations”- as were and are all other social groups that make up the human-the Canadian- family.

For indigenous persons to complain about cultural appropriation is for the pot to call the kettle black. Your column was published in a newspaper, a non-native invention, by way of writing, also a non-native invention. Both of these inventions were “appropriated” by your presumably indigenous writer(s).He or she probably drives around in a car, watches Netflix, shops at the grocery store, owns an IPhone, communicates on the internet, wears a wristwatch and flys in an airplane once in a while…more “appropriation” of non-native ways and means.

 In fact, indigenous-Canadian daily life constitutes an almost complete appropriation of technology-based Euro-Canadian culture. As Marshal McLuhan said: “We become what we behold…we shape our tools, and therefore our tools shape us.”

And indigenous-Canadians are welcome to do this! Non-native Canadians say: “Steal, borrow all you want! Everyone benefits from this. It’s how the world works. It’s how we come together! It’s how progress happens!”

As to art, it would be a tragedy if the normal processes of artistic borrowing and influence, by which any culture makes its contribution to the conversation of mankind, would be frozen or rigidified by “indigenous communities”, (a code phrase for a few select, self-appointed, killjoy, culture czars).

Artistic borrowing leaves the lender no poorer and draws attention to his riches. Subject to the common sense proviso below, it is an act of respect, and helps preserve what is borrowed.

But artists, and people generally, can do more than borrow from other cultures. They can actually imaginatively and convincingly inhabit the mind and mindset persons of other races and cultures, as the white, Anglo-Torontonian Joseph Boyden, (who could use a little of that Christian charity about now), did in The Orenda, brilliantly portraying both the French Jesuit and the indigenous 17th century cultures and world views, and as Annie Proulx, white and female, did in relation to male and female Mi’kmaws in her recent novel, Barkskins. These true, universal, human artists, who could break free from the shackles of their own cultures of origin, exemplify the paradox of literature and of art generally, which is the glory of humanism: the idea that nothing is alien to us, that we all have the power, and we should be free to exercise that power, to imagine ourselves into another’s lives.

The vast majority of cultural borrowings are done, as they should be, as honestly, responsibly, competently and empathically as possible. Cloddish and insensitive caricatures like the Cleveland Indians logo, or war-whooping by mindless, drunken sports fans, are the rare exceptions, which cannot fairly be elevated to the rule. But the judge of this should be the artist himself,( and his intellectual property and defamation lawyer), not that anonymous, indigenous, self-appointed, cultural truth squad, referred to above.

So I respectfully ask your Expositor staff who wrote that excellent article to lighten up, and take it as a good, natural thing- a compliment- something that will help preserve it– when someone appropriates a part of indigenous, traditional culture.


Peter Best



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