By William Morin
It can be hard to make sense of all the discussions and debates online and in print lately of cultural appropriation, in other words taking without permission. Who has the right to use/misuse the art of another culture? When appropriators are called out, do walls of justification go up? Is there a story to explain it away, or money to be made? If so, then nothing changes.
The theft of culture is what colonization did to Indigenous Peoples globally. Acculturation is what they sold us, and assimilation is what they imposed on us. Western societies dismissed, consumed, appropriated and misappropriated us as the norm.
The Indigenous ways of seeing the universe and our place in nature are complex, unique and the source of Indigenous art. Translating our art and culture is an ‘in-cultural’ responsibility that can not be co-opted or outsourced by ‘out-cultural’ individuals around them.
Here’s a question: “Who knows what a totem pole is?” Whatever you answer, most of you will get it wrong. Even though the cultural art and the carved poles are unique to the northwest coast of the Americans, the word ‘totem’ is not from a west coast Indigenous language.
Comparably, the capital city of Canada, Ottawa, actually comes from the Odawa, an Anishinaabe-speaking sister tribe of the Ojibway. So, the word ‘totem’ is also pronounced ‘dodem’ in Ojibway, which means ‘clan’.
Many Indigenous tribal groups have clan systems within their respective geography. As seen in drawings on ancient scrolls, the Ojibway animal clans are a complex pre-contact governing system aligned into a seven-pointed star codex.
This totem misnomer is a colonial hangover of our shared history. As an Anishinaabe artist and educator, decolonization seems the next course of action. I take it as my responsibility to do my part through my art, both as an anecdote and an antidote, in addressing this ongoing theft.
As my mom would say, “There is no word for art in Ojibway. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” Ojibway scholar James Dumont says the Anishinaabek see the world from a 360 degree perspective, an all-inclusive view needed more now than ever before.
Over the years, Indigenous Peoples, primarily women, have challenged and “called out” the misuse and misrepresentation of Indigenous art and culture in mainstream media. Sadly, the issues have not received public recognition until a male Indigenous artist speaks up. So, as an Anishinaabe mizinbiige-nini, and Ojibway artist and man, I am listening, miinwaa miigwetch—thank you for being defenders of our culture, Mizinbiige Ogiichitaa Kwewok, image warrior women.
It is important to recognize that most Indigenous languages in the Americas are verb-based—action words in tune with the natural world, where words are animate, with spirit, alive, living; or in-animate, not living. One of my language teachers, Doris Boissineau baa, pointed out that our art is not without spiritual thought. “The drawing is not of ‘a bear’, it becomes ‘the bear’, with spirit, alive….”
Our art is spiritually sourced and needs cultural insiders to translate. Anything else is gibberish and disrespectful, misleading the culture stolen.
The harm caused by cultural appropriation can lead to identity confusion, cultural distortion and spiritual damage of Indigenous Peoples. This alone should be enough to encourage ally artists, media outlets and institutions to work with Indigenous members in the long journey from decolonization to cultural revitalization in our shared history.
William Morin is an Ojibway Anishinaabe artist from Michipicoten Anishinaabek (Mishibikwedenong), Indigenous activist, and professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.