indigenous designs are all around us: more thoughts on accusations of cultural appropriation

Coast Salish Orca
In 2017, I wrote this post: accusations of cultural appropriation are a form of bullying -- and don't reduce racism, and a follow-up: postscript: some clarifications and addenda to my recent post on cultural appropriation.

For a less-lengthy refresher, scroll down to "The current climate of accusation is misguided and harmful. Some thoughts.". I respectfully ask you not to comment without reading the second post.

Now, two years later, I live in an area with a significant Indigenous population. I engage with Indigenous people every day -- library users, service providers, community partners. Although I treat all customers with respect, I understand the special sensitivities involved here, and try always to "walk the path of reconciliation," as an Indigenous person said to me recently.

When I moved here, I noticed that many people -- Indigenous and non-Indigenous -- wear and use gear with Coast Salish, Kwakiutl, or Haida designs. These designs are displayed on jackets, backpacks, hoodies, and all manner of household goods. These are sold at schools, cultural centres, museum gift shops, and similar places. They are sold by Indigenous people for the usual reasons -- to display culture and to generate income.

It is not considered impolite or racist -- and certainly not genocidal! -- for non-Indigenous people to wear and use these objects. Undoubtedly some were purchased from more authentic sources than others, but there's no way to tell.

Would it be inappropriate for a white person to "dress up" in Kwakiutl ceremonial robes for Halloween? Of course!

Is it inappropriate for the local high school that serves both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to use an Indigenous design as their logo? No. It's considered respectful and appropriate.

So I've had my own perspective reinforced. Not only are these accusations of cultural appropriation bullying and based on assumptions -- they are often complete bullshit.

This short column in The Guardian expresses it well.
What the row exposes is that such controversies are less about equity and opposition to racism than about cultural gatekeeping – self-appointed guardians licensing themselves as arbiters of the correct forms of cultural borrowing. Such policing is deeply problematic, both artistically and politically.

It’s true that cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field but is shaped by racism and inequality. Confronting that requires us, however, to challenge racism, not police cultures. It’s difficult to see how creating gated cultures, and fragmenting struggles, helps promote social justice or who it empowers beyond the gatekeepers.

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