The problem with appropriation of cultural appropriation

, , Comments Off on The problem with appropriation of cultural appropriation

When future generations hold exclusive ownership of ancestral cultural symbols, dissemination becomes limited and survival is threatened. The opportunity to grow a culture is dependent on cross-pollination and evolution.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on October 15, 2018.

OTTAWA—Halloween used to be a children’s candy blowout that spanned a couple of days.

Nowadays, festivities have become bigger than Christmas in some circles, with costume shops and lawn decorations popping up all over the place a month before the big event.

It also generates more hype in the millennial adult population than among the youngsters, who are now encouraged to have family parties instead of door to door outings.

According to Statistics Canada, despite national population growth, the number of kids going door-to-door was less in 2016 than in 1996.

But the Halloween business market is now hovering around $1-billion with young adults becoming the  biggest spenders in costumes, makeup and edible goodies.

Pre-Halloween hype includes social media pop-ups and traditional media interviews on issues like ghosts, spirits and the meaning of the day of the dead. We are inundated with scary stories and science tips about the afterlife and how one can connect.

Just last week, Tapestry, an insightful Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio show, examined Halloween through a different lens, that of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation seems to be the flavour of the month.

Understandably, Indigenous communities are outraged that some of their sacred symbols are being sold in knockoff form at tourist traps in all parts of the country. To that end, Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia funded the establishment of ARC (the Authentic Indigenous Arts Resurgence Campaign), which is described as an initiative to promote and support the sale of authentic Indigenous art.

Coast Salish artist Shain Jackson, a key founder of the movement, is also educating the public on how cultural appropriation involves stealing symbols of his people’s history and then replicating them via cheap, foreign copies, that flood Vancouver sales outlets. 

That theft is not only soul-destroying to people trying to rebuild their cultural identity. It also robs them financially. Communities that are struggling to survive economically need all the help they can get.

The appropriation discussion provides a legitimate forum to debate how and why cultures can be best protected and promoted. 

Jackson himself is cognizant of the delicate balancing act between protection and exclusion. He cites the case of a non-Indigenous artist married to a Salish woman with Salish children who creates art but cannot be included in the list of certified-Salish artists.

But if we take cultural appropriation to the extreme, we start to divide the world into smaller and smaller tribes where only a lineage-pure group of people is allowed to explore their cultural story.

A musician on the same show even suggested that people need to research Mexican culture before we can appropriately don Halloween costumes.

Otherwise, we run the risk of being accused of stealing other people’s cultural practices to bastardize them for our own purposes.

The Winnipeg-based Mariachi Ghost band leader explained how he justified the decision by non-Mexican band members to paint their faces in the symbolic skull masks typical of a Mexican remembrance of the Day of the Dead.

But he went on to claim that Halloween was appropriated from that tradition and he encouraged Canadians to research costumes before putting them on.

Here’s where the cultural appropriation argument runs amok.

Halloween actually derives its origins in the 2,000-year-old festival of Samhain. Celtic peoples, who populated large swaths of what is now the United Kingdom, France, and northern Spain, believed the dead returned to Earth on that day and dressed up in other-worldly garb to welcome them.

Jorge Requena suggested that Canadians needed to learn about Mexican tradition before going out in Halloween costumes but perhaps he needs to undertake his own history refresher course.

Therein lies the problem with appropriation of cultural appropriation. When future generations hold exclusive ownership of ancestral cultural symbols, dissemination becomes limited and survival is threatened. The opportunity to grow a culture is dependent on cross-pollination and evolution.

In the same CBC segment, a McGill university lecturer confessed that she quit a yoga group after 10 years because of the Lululemonization of the place. Apparently newbie yoga followers were disrespectful of the history and context of yoga, so she moved to another club that did not promote what she considered cultural appropriation.

In my view, that interpretation was more than a little rich.

Tapestry bills itself as an exploration of spirituality, religion and the search for meaning. It provides a forum for debate on issues like cultural appropriation.

Given the broad brush that can even paint Halloween in a negative light, it appears this debate will continue for years to come.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.