Accessibility/Mobile Features
Skip Navigation
Skip to Content

My Last Word On This

Cultural appropriation reared its head again. This time sparked by an editorial Hal Niedzviecki wrote in an Indigenous dedicated issue of Write Magazine. In suggesting a cultural appropriation prize he crossed a line and is no longer the editor of said magazine. In the aftermath a bunch of media gatekeepers took to Twitter late one night and pledged money for said award. Sober second thought led to apologies and atonement the next morning but not before a furor caught fire. Resignations and reassignment ensued and Facebook feeds have been deluged with articles on the subject ever since. I've tried to keep up. 

To be truthful I'm not sure what more I can add. This topic was your editor's idea. 

But I'll say this, I'm sick and tired of writing about it and this will be my last time. I've done it so often I can't put a number on it. My coming out party as a writer was in the early 80s and cultural appropriation was already a going concern. Non-Indigenous writers like Anne Cameron, W.P. Kinsella and to a lesser extent Rudy Wiebe came under fire for books like Copper Woman, The Ermineskin stories and the Temptations of Big Bear. Indigenous writers such as Lee Maracle and Maria Campbell asked them to take a step or two to one side and let Indigenous peoples speak with their own voice. Anne Cameron did. Kinsella didn't, defiantly suggesting there were no Indigenous (not his word) writers to tell these stories (that he had gleaned from his time as an Edmonton cab driver). When a list of Indigenous writers was put forward he replied, "I'll give you Tompson Highway."

Margo Kane brought together Indigenous writers and artists for a summit on the issue in the late 80s. The way I remember it we concluded we couldn't prevent anyone from writing what they wanted, but we could counter it by writing our asses off and getting our voices out there.

That was 30 years ago.

I didn't read the original editorial save for excerpts read on news broadcasts or quoted in articles. I didn't read the tweets. My blood pressure is typically at the upper end of normal and I'd like it to stay there, even come down a little. And Jesse Wente eloquently stepped forward and took up the cause, shedding tears for all Indigenous creators. 

I thought of Joseph Boyden, about how quiet his brand has been of late and of his role in this. Issues tend not to erupt in isolation. They often build slowly, a narrative thematically bubbling under the surface waiting for, in this case, an aggressive knee jerk reaction from the vocally privileged when it's suggested the dominant society can't pillage without impunity.
No, we can't stop anyone from writing about what they want. But we can educate, like we always have. Like many of us have been doing our entire lives. Explaining that there are protocols and etiquette around story in Indigenous culture. There is intellectual property. Families own their stories, Elders safeguard the teachings, storytellers safeguard the traditional stories and much of these are off limits. Deal.

Other stories are shared but they come with immense responsibility. Language is critical and we never, ever want to misinform or perpetuate stereotypes. Nuances get lost in translation and it's a fact that other cultures do not share our world view. The values of the writer are revealed in the choices the characters make but choices are made based on distinct values and Indigenous and non-indigenous values are often at odds. Some are shared but many are not. Indigenous people can typically spot the Indigenous voice which will, of course, always have more cred in our community.

Former Walrus editor Jonathan Kay was right about one thing. We are sensitive about this but do you blame us? Our land was appropriated, our languages attacked, our children were and are being appropriated, our images are appropriated. To paraphrase Jesse Wente, our world was destroyed and we live in its ruins and I sit here and write to you in a foreign, occupying language.

For the love of Creator, don't steal our stories too.

Search Articles
Feature Video