“A guy walks into a bar”… Chelsea Vowel introduces “cultural appropriation”


March 16/17 |
by Rev Gordon Taylor

“Cultural appropriation” might seem like a term created for political-correctness which creates more heat than light.  After all, isn’t all culture “public”?

Chelsea Vowel is my new favourite author!  She tackles issues like this in a most articulate and entertaining way.  Her book, Indigenous Writes: A guide to First Nations, Metis & Inuit issues in Canada, is not only a treasure trove of insight for non-Indigenous people interested in Truth and Reconciliation.  It is an extremely enjoyable work of literature!  It is a great read!  (Add it to your list, book clubs!)  Let me acknowledge that most of today’s posting are her words and ideas and that I dare to share them with you in hopes that you will buy her book.

After deflating dozens of excuses Settlers might use for thoughtlessly adopting Indigenous practices, clothing, symbols, art, (I’m just showing my appreciation for the culture; There are more serious issues to worry about; What about the Irish?; Freedom of speeeeeeeeeech! …) Vowel helps us see cultural appropriation from a different view.

“What do the Victoria Cross, the Order of Canada, a framed Bachelor’s degree, the Giller Prize, and an eagle feather all have in common?  There’s no punch line, actually. Each one of these things is a symbol, a visual recognition of some kind of achievement. … The symbols are important but only because of what it represents.

“… There are also people who would lie about their achievements, and pretend to have earned what the symbols represent. [How ironic can you claim to be lugging around a fake Giller Prize? (nice observation and humour, Ms. Vowel)!  You can imagine the reaction to someone pretending he’d earned a Victoria Cross or someone claiming she has a degree in medicine, when they do not.” How would we feel about that?

“In case it isn’t extremely clear,” she writes, “eagle feathers are restricted symbols in the many Indigenous cultures found through Canada and the United States.  They represent various achievements made by the person who is presented with the feather.  Being presented with a feather is a great honour.  Many Indigenous peoples will receive only one in their lifetime, or perhaps never have that opportunity.”

For someone to wear or use an eagle feather without recognizing the honour it represents in that community, would be like wearing a fake Victoria Cross into a Legion.  “To cheapen the symbol is to cheapen the achievement” of those who have earned it.  The same goes for smudging, talking circles, clothing, drums, dances, etc.

How do we know what “appropriate appropriation” is?  Ask.

How often do we adopt an idea or an object or a process from another culture without fully understanding its origins and meaning?  Do we always give credit for a teaching or practice to those of another culture who have shared their art and spirituality?

Where do you see cultural appropriation going on?  Reply via the UCiM Facebook page.

1 Cor. 11:27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.

Vowel, C. 2016. Indigenous Writes: A guide to First Nations, Metis & Inuit issues in Canada.  Winnipeg, MB.: Highwater Press.  pp. 80-91.

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