Cultural Appropriation 101

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This news article touches upon subjects that are sensitive to many people. Ordinarily, I try my best to avoid drama and online conflict, but I feel that this growing fashion trend needs to be addressed before it becomes the popular thing to do. It is my hope that through calm, rational discussion and input from users, we can start a dialogue that puts an end to ignorance and puts artists on the path towards creating beautiful works of art that do not unintentionally offend various groups of people.

The issue I am speaking of is Cultural Appropriation.

I started noticing the beginning of this trend around last summer. Art and fashion seem to have taken a turn towards incorporating stereotypes of First Nations people, creating photoshoots, clothing and artwork featuring warbonnets, feathered headbands, eagles, dream catchers, moccasins and more. This fashion trend appropriates the culture of First Nations people, usually without consent, or thought for what is considered sacred. Often, profit is made by non-First Nations people from First Nations cultural heritage being incorporated into artwork without permission. This is part of the reason why many people initially find such artwork offensive.

Unfortunately, that fad has somehow found its way onto Deviantart. I cannot control who makes such art, and I cannot force them to remove it, but I can do my best to speak out about the inherent racism contained in such art.

Fields by KayleighJune :thumb150173593: :thumb199731629: Native American by xblubx :thumb256891540:

These pieces are examples of racist art on Deviantart.

I do not believe that these artists are intentionally racist, or that they intended to harm anyone.

I believe that these artists are talented individuals who have put much time and energy and love into their craft, and who want to produce art that is of quality.

I believe that these artists have good intentions and are intelligent people who have a love and respect for First Nations people and art.

I do not believe that these artists are stupid, arrogant, evil, close-minded, or hateful.

But I believe that they are uneducated, and that has lead to the unfortunate creation of racist pieces of art.

Cultural Appropriation(1) is a very deep and complex issue. It is not simply about overt, torch-and-pitchfork hatred. Often, it is not about hatred at all, because artists want to show their love and inspiration from other cultures than their own. This is about unintentional racism. It is a faux-pas, not a crime. That is the first key to understanding and deconstructing appropriation.

It's not about hate!

So what is it about, then? The answer here is ignorance. Let me be clear: when I talk about ignorance, I do not mean stupidity. No one here is stupid, or unintelligent, or incapable of learning. They simply haven't been educated yet.

Ignorance is the opposite of education. It is not the opposite of intelligence!
You do not fight ignorance by calling someone stupid. You fight it by educating.

Now, when we look at these pieces with this lens, we can see that there is a naivete here instead of hate  or a desire to misrepresent a certain culture.

When we look at the first image, we see the phrase “American Indian Inspired Shoot” and a woman wearing a warbonnet. There are three major things wrong with this image:

1) The woman is wearing a warbonnet(2).

Why? The simple fact of the matter is that women of the plains tribes do not wear warbonnets. That is an item for men. Also, not all First Nations people wear warbonnets. It is a tribe-by-tribe item. The people of the Northwest Coast historically did not wear anything resembling what the plains people did.

Warbonnets were and still are items of great spiritual value and medicine. These are not items to be taken lightly. Would you glue your dead grandmother's ashes to a T-shirt so you could look cool at a rock concert? No? Probably because you have great respect and reverence for her. Respect needs to be paid to the warbonnet as more than just a fashion item. It has significance that should not be ignored “because it's cool”.

But what about a feminist perspective? Women should be equal and get to wear them too!

This argument comes from the introduction of patriarchal ideas in colonialism. It assumes that men are the ones in power and that women should aspire to do anything that that men can. It assumes that not wearing a warbonnet is a dishonour and that not being a man makes a woman subservient. This is untrue. Traditionally, women have held strong roles and positions of power amongst many different tribes. Some tribes historically were matriarchal, some patriarchal, some gender-even.

Women not wearing a warbonnet is not a dishonour, or a denial of the power women hold. Women have their own power that men can never take from them in historical First Nations culture. It is only the introduction of colonial ideas of sexism and homophobia(3) that have corroded the wisdom already present in many tribes.

2) The use of a white woman

While whitewashing is not restricted to First Nations people in the media, it is still an ever-present factor. The only beautiful people who deserve to be in magazines and art have light skin, narrow, upturned noses, light coloured eyes, fine, fair hair, high cheekbones, full lips and a thin frame.

Brown girls are ugly. Black girls are ugly. Nappy hair is ugly. Freckles and dark spots are ugly. Fat is ugly. Dark hair and dark eyes are boring and ugly.

This is the sad reality of “beauty” today. It is not just the full exclusion of ethnic girls that remains a problem. Many ads and companies will sprinkle in one or two non-white girls to fill a minimum quota. (Sadder still are the laws requiring the appearance of non-white models in various countries. Shouldn't it be equal from the start?) But, when you take a closer look, you see the decision-making process continuing on.

The whiter girl gets picked.

When choosing between two black girls, often, the girl with lighter skin and a smaller nose gets picked. The Asian girl with rounder eyes and pinker skin gets picked. It's not just a matter of ethnic, it's a matter of how ethnic.

And we are still whitewashing our girls beyond that.(4)

Now that we have picked our caramel girl with European-looking bone structure, it's time to  open up Photoshop. Retouching today is no longer just about getting rid of acne and pores. Noses are reshaped. Skin is lightened. Ethnic features are reduced and removed. Even if an ethnic girl was picked for a photoshoot, the post-production team may have decided that she was “too ethnic” and just, you know, whitened her up a tad. This happens all the time.

Yes, individual artists and photographers do have a right to choose who they photograph, and they can certainly choose a white girl. But what happens when everyone chooses a white girl? Or a fair-skinned “caramel” black girl? Where is the representation of ethnic girls with downturned noses and dark skin? We all have a part to play in the art we produce. We are a community.

3) ”American Indian” is not always the correct term.

Quite often, those who are unfamiliar with First Nations social issues and politics haven't been educated about the subtle differences between the various labels. Or they are unaware that more terms exist than they think. This is a very localized issue, and it very much depends on the area and tribe as to which is the most polite or correct version to be used. If in doubt, always do research and ask

Indian – This label is well-known, and one of the oldest, but also one of the most incorrect terms. Most people know the story of Christopher Columbus trying to sail around the world to India, but never getting there. Now that we know this isn't India, why do we keep calling them Indians? This term is antiquated and outdated, in the same way that “Negro” or “Chinaman” are old-fashioned and offensive terms. “Eskimo” is also an outdated term to refer to the Inuit people.

Injun – The term is out-of-date, and used as a slur, as opposed to “Indian” which was previously thought to be more politically correct. Injun is to Indian rather like “Nigger” is to “Negro” or “Chink” is to “Chinaman”. Both terms are offensive, but one was definitely used to offend. As well, “Redskin” and “Squaw” are widely considered to be extremely offensive.

American Indian – While this term can be considered politically incorrect, some tribes insist on being referred to as this. This is mostly in the United States, and due to legal wording. For example, if a legal document declares that “All Indians have the right to vote on reserve” by asking to not be called an Indian, you are also excluding yourself from such legal documentation. So what would you choose? Being called a nigger and having basic human rights, or not getting to vote? Other tribes, such as those in Canada, find this phrase to be an offensive term and do not want to be referred to as such.

Native American – Part of the same above. Some tribes wish to be referred to as this instead of American Indian or First nations. Always do research.

First Nations – Probably the most politically correct term used in Canada as it was created in consultation with tribal leaders. Though it is not widely used in the United States, this term endows First Nations people, through the phrase itself, with the power and admittance that they are nations, and they were here first. When you say it out loud, can you hear the difference between “American Indian” and “First Nations?” One says that these people aren't even from the right continent. The other uses language to recognize an existing history.

Status Indian(5) – In Canada, we have what is called the Indian Act. It is a document that defines what it means to be an Indian (From a white person's perspective) and what Indians can own, where they can live, how they can govern themselves and more. Information on the Indian Act and its history cannot be fully explained in this article, but it is legislation that attempts to define who is an “Indian” and who is not.

Status Indians are those who qualify under the Indian Act. They have certain entitlements and privileges, but also live under different layers of law, sandwiched between the Canadian constitution and its laws and the Indian Act which controls First Nations self-governance. There is much to be learned about the Indian Act and its history and politics cannot be properly summarized in a few lines. I highly recommend further reading on this subject.(A)

Non-Status(5) – A person who does not qualify under the Indian Act, or has given up Indian Status. This is not always voluntary. The 1876 Indian Act made provisions such as: A Status Indian could apply for citizenship if they met certain criteria. Women would automatically lose their Indian Status if they married a white man. Any First nations man who obtained a university degree, or became a doctor, lawyer or clergyman would automatically lose Indian Status. (Do you see where this was going? This is part of “Kill the Indian to save the man.” Anyone who became educated or successful in the colonized world was no longer allowed to be considered alongside traditional culture. Those who were unsuccessful or refused to assimilate were lumped together and labelled as lazy, stupid drunks who whine about taxes.) (6)

Aboriginal(7) – This word's political definition encompasses First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples in Canada. There are distinct differences between the three and they should not all be homogenized or labelled together as First Nations. This term also refers to the evidence and history of the oldest humans and civilizations found in North America, some dating back tens of thousands of years.

Indigenous – The term itself mostly means “of that area”. It is a non-specific term that, while not politically incorrect, is usually not specific enough to refer to a single group. It is somewhat like the terms “Asian” or “Middle-Eastern”. Simply too broad to be useful, and it can be ignorant when used to refer to great swathes of people or area as one thing.

There is another part of this word that is relevant. “Indigenous” people move around. First Nations people, like everyone else, have cars now. Someone who is indigenous to the Northwest Coast may be living in New York or Australia. That is part of the difference between “First Nations” and “Indigenous”. Someone can be First Nations and not indigenous to an area.

Sometimes, the word can be very hurtful, as history shows many tribes being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, and either placed on reserves far away from their previous homes, or semi-voluntarily migrating to cities due to economic or social needs. Things like the Trail of Tears show that calling someone living on a remote and inhospitable reserve “Inidigenous” can be extremely insulting.

Imagine someone coming into your house, abducting you, and then shipping you off to the Siberian Tundra and then saying, “Ok, good luck! Have a nice life!” Would you be happy if someone else then said, “Yeah, but Siberia became your homeland! You're from there! It's kinda harsh and cold, but that's your life!”

On-Reserve(8) – A political status meaning that someone is considered to be currently living on a reservation. They are included in reservation statistics and are influenced by reservation policy.

Off-Reserve(8) – Someone who is not considered to be living on reserve. These people are often excluded from reservation statistics and from reserve politics, which can include voting and political representation.

Both Status and Non-Status Indians can be considered either On-Reserve or Off-Reserve.

Over the centuries, there have been many efforts by both the US and Canadian government to define what exactly an “Indian” person is, what their culture is and what their rights as a people are.

When artists make art featuring naked women in warbonnets and calling that “Native American inspired” it cheapens the effort many nations have made to reclaim their sovereignty and restore their people to lost ancestral land. It defines “Native” as simply feathers, or face-paint, or silly, whimsical hats and pow-wows. It denies people of their rightful heritage and reduces their culture to puppet symbols. This is part of why slapping the “Native” label on something without thought is hurtful. It is not “honouring their culture” or “representing the beauty of form”. Something can be beautiful and still racist at the same time.

Soft Light. by nrprtm

This image was given a Daily Deviation for its technical accomplishment and artistic use of colour and tones. The focus of the photo is brilliant. The girl's expression is soft and natural. The composition is expertly framed and the lighting is simply mystifying.

However, it's still a hipster girl in a headdress and it's still racist.

Let's discuss the second image. While it contains some of the problems of the previous image, including whitewashing and warbonnets, it has some new issues I feel need to be discussed.

1) The American Flag is prominently displayed.

Many First Nations tribes do not see themselves as American (or Canadian). There were already nations with borders that existed before the first contact with settlers, that were then made arbitrary by colonists. The land was divided into what is now the US and Canada, despite the best efforts of many different nations opposing this. People often forget or simply do not know about the sheer scale and infrastructure of First Nations governance and historical territory. Sadly, many tribes and even families have been ripped apart by the borders that colonists have imposed upon them, preventing contact unless much red tape is waded through.(9)

Could you imagine if someone suddenly said that you exist in a different country from your family? That your only choice is between the land you lived on or moving to be with them? Although First Nations people now live with the new government structure that is the imposed “Canada” and “United States” many still reject these ideas, as they enforce the idea that First nations people did not own and live upon the land before first contact.

This is demonstrated by the Haudenosaunee people who have developed their own passport which has been recognized as a legal document for over 30 years. When travelling internationally, they do not identify themselves as American or Canadian, but as Haudenosaunee.(10)

Now, when we think about the American flag on the shield, it's easy to understand the thinking here.   Native American = Americana, right? They must be the most patriotic, since they were here first! It's right in the name! But therein lies the problem. It wasn't called America. Those stars and stripes had no meaning before they were sewn onto a flag and chosen to represent white domination. This girl is holding a shield of oppression and brutal genocide. Is that really something you want to hold in front of your naked body?(11)

2) The hyper-sexualization of First nations women

Over-sexualization and objectification are serious problems for many, many women in many different cultures, but it is particularly harsh for First Nations women for different reasons. First is a lack of non-sexualized imagery that shows strength and character as an identifiable First Nations woman.

Stop for a moment. How many First Nations women can you imagine right now?

Disney's Pocahontas?
Tiger Lily?
The Land O Lakes Butter Girl?

Now, how many First Nations women can you imagine who have accurate historical portrayal in accurate traditional clothing. Can you think of any?

This is why it is a problem. Mass media portrays historical First Nations women in inappropriate and inaccurate attire, while current First Nations women mostly wear normal clothes, and are rarely depicted at all. People are never really shown what accurate clothing looked like. Most just made it up.

Having this girl wearing nothing but a shield and a beaded garter also promotes the “savage woman” trope.

“It's ok for those native women to show their breasts. They're savages. They're wild and uncivilized people. Their women are lustful animals who will seduce a white man with their exotic beauty. They are promiscuous, they are prostitutes, they are always seeking to sleep to the top, they have no sense of modesty...”

And it goes on and on and on. The “savage” stereotype is one of the oldest and worst ways to downplay the culture of an oppressed people. It has been done to Australians, Polynesians, First Nations, Africans, Indians and people from the Middle East. All over the world, where white colonization exists, people have been reducing the indigenous population culturally to naked savages.

This problem is especially compounded by the fact that First Nations women are far overrepresented in cases of sexual assault, battery, being forced into the sex trade and human trafficking. This is a direct result of living in poverty and struggling with poor education, few resources to rise above poverty, addictions and homelessness.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice statistics, First Nations women have the highest incidences of sexual assault and rape in the United States, 2.5 times above the national average. According to an Amnesty International study, 86% of the time, it is by a non-native man.(12)(13)

In 2009, 13% of Aboriginal women in Canada aged 15 or older have reported being violently victimized, including sexual assault, robbery and physical assault. This is three times the national average for non-First Nations women. (14)

Often, the laws in various states and provinces hamper any sort of attempt at justice, layering and complicating reservation laws, federal laws and state/provincial laws. Some even providing loopholes that encourage rapists to prey upon First Nations women without fear of repercussions.(12)

I am not saying that these pictures of nearly nude women in warbonnets will make someone go out and rape a First Nations woman. But it is blatant mockery in the face of very real and very cruel statistics.

One in three First Nations women will be raped.(13) When you are in a crowd, look to the woman on your left, and the woman on your right. One of you would be the victim of rape or assault. Does that make these images seem “exotic” now? Is she still a fetishised brown earth-mother full of bountiful harvest? Or is this merely a cold reminder of a very unpleasant reality? Once the romanticized veil of fantasy has been removed, we are left facing a very different truth from the pleasant image we see in front of us.

Image three is a good example of romanticism and homogenization as parts of Cultural Appropriation.

It already displays the Hyper-Sexualised Savages wearing next to nothing, it appropriates inaccurate symbolism without permission and paints (quite literally) a story of white, patriarchal romance onto First Nations people. As well, the artist makes mention that he is about to go off to war. This is another issue that needs to be discussed.

Phrases like “putting on your war paint” and referring to First Nations people as warlike, with whooping calls and tomahawks is outdated and disrespectful. Old Westerns aren't accurate portrayals of First Nations people. Nor are Disney movies, or romance novels. Very few portrayals of First Nations people created by non First Nations people are very accurate at all. They either haven't done proper research, or have deliberately changed history despite knowledge to the contrary to fit their storytelling needs.

”But stereotypes have a basis in truth!”

But where does that “truth” come from?

What source?
What data?
Why are these stereotypes “true?”

If all the negative information you hear about victims comes from the people committing the crime, can you really be so sure that that information is accurate? It's like asking a schoolyard bully why all his victims should be punched, or asking a man accused of rape, “Well, why do you think did she deserved to be raped?”

Of course they are going to give justification for bad behaviour. Especially if it is going to relieve them of accountability. That is not to say that First Nations people never commit crimes, and don't have serious issues with homelessness, alcoholism, sex trade and poverty. But you need to first question the source of your data that says, “All Indians are drunks. I know because I saw a bunch of them on the reserve.”

Where does the data for that stereotype come from? Is it rational or irrational? Many times a stereotype is seen as an amusing quirk of a group of people, when in reality it can be a symptom of a much larger issue, one that is ingrained into society so deeply that the cause behind it is not immediately apparent without thorough research.

For example, we can look briefly at the issue of alcoholism amongst First Nations people. Why do they appear to be drunks? There are several important factors:

Genetic Metabolism
Alcohol is an introduced substance. Although Europeans have been drinking wine, beer and other spirits for thousands of years, First Nations people did not consume alcohol until it was introduced by settlers. Their bodies were not and are not prepared to handle alcohol, and the result is an inability to process it. Few people know that most of the world is genetically lactose intolerant. The ability to properly digest milk is a mutation that pertains mostly to Europe, and then North America through travel. Much of  populations in Asia and Africa are entirely lactose intolerant due to a cultural history of not drinking milk, therefore the body did not need to develop the enzymes needed to digest it.
On another note, though, a reverse introduction to addiction happened when Europeans were introduced to tobacco, which First Nations people were generally not addicted to. It is partly genetic, partly cultural on both sides.(15)

Alcohol became medicine
When your land is being taken from you and burned to make farms, when your spouse is dead from disease, your children are being beaten far away from you and you have no possessions left to sell to put food on the table, you'd want to comfort yourself in any way possible as well. Alcohol became medicine for hurt. And alcoholism is simply dependance on that medicine. Because poverty and abuse are generational diseases, being passed down from parent to child, so was the cure to these problems. Parents had no other way to deal with depression, illness, loss or any of the others things far out of their control. They drank, and their children drink.(15)

We see that often in modern times, other forms of medicine, such as psychiatry, family counselling, prescription medication and therapy are unavailable to many First Nations communities, either through physical distance, economic impossibility or legal prohibition. Is that something to make fun of? Is that a cultural quirk? When we see images or stories of Irish people heavily drinking, is it seen with the same attitude as First Nations people drinking? Why?

Why is it funny and charming when those fightin' Irish get roiling drunk and have a big brawl set to fiddle music, or when people pretend to be related to the Irish on St Patrick's day, but First Nations people deserve ridicule and mockery for the devastating effects of alcohol on their communities?

This is not even mentioning the plain fact that many First Nations people don't drink at all.

It is vital to understand where the stereotypes come from, not only from the bias of the people who perpetuate them, but the data and rationale behind the statistics themselves. Only then, perhaps, may we choose to make an informed decision on whether we want to continue portraying people a certain way, or whether we choose to look past the symptoms to identify the greater problems lying underneath.

Now, let's change pace and watch a couple videos. The first one is a parody of the current trend of appropriating First nations culture into fashion.…

This video cleverly mocks those who seek to profit from cultures they are not familiar with as part of hipster fashion. It exaggerates the extent to which designers would go for the sake of comedy, but is a clear reflection of current social and marketing trends.

Now, let's look at some footage of the original Peter Pan movie. Keep in mind that this is not a parody or “ironic”. This is how people actually saw First Nations culture. How far apart are the parody and the “real” video? Is this a problem?…

It is this warping of history, either through ignorance or deliberate creative mishandling that distorts and skews the average person's perception of First Nations people. If everything being told about them is a creative liberty, how will they know the truth? Who will educate them? What happens when the inaccurate stereotype is more common and more published than the truth?

This is why taking creative liberties with real people's history, especially a people who have been treated extremely badly in the past can upset viewers, and lead them to call such art racist. This is why saying “Native Inspired” can be just as insulting as calling it “Native”. The romanticized lie is often more popular than the harsh and uncomfortable truth.

Regarding truth, we should also take a look at the matter of detailed truth vs generalization.

It is true that there were people in North America and South America before first contact.
It is true that some First nations people wore warbonnets and some lived in tipis. (16)
It is true that the eagle, raven and wolf are important symbols in some First Nations cultures. (17)

But is that really all you need to know?

Judging from that information alone, any art or story made from it would be shallow, and seem “made up”. Not enough detail is present to represent the rich culture and history that existed. These people are real. They are not Tolkien Elves or Warcraft Orcs. We must remember that! They are not some exotic, extinct tribe of savages that have gone the wayside of evolution. Their stories and symbols and history are not free for our taking, even if we want to do so in what we think is a respectful and reverent way. It is vital to inform ourselves and ask permission before going straight ahead and making “Indian Inspired Art”.

So what's wrong with generalizations? Aside from being shallow, they misrepresent how diverse First Nations culture really is, and how far back the history goes. Let's have a quick rundown of just a few of the cultures that existed before first contact. (Remember what we talked about before, how Canada and America are imposed nations? That's because nations already existed before they did) These cultures are then divided into nations, when are then divided by individual tribes or groups of tribes.

On the very northeast coast of Canada, including Quebec and Labrador, you have the Inuit(18):
There were also the Beothuk, but those people were hunted to extinction by white settlers. They and their culture are gone forever.

For information on each tribe, please see the link (19) in the Further Reading section below.

On the eastern coasts, including Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI: the Miq'Maq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy

On the mainland in the east, in areas around Quebec and Ontario:
The Abenaki tribe, The Algonquin tribe, The Attikamek tribe, The Eastern Cree, The Huron tribe, The Inuit, The Maliseet, The Micmac tribe, The Mohawk tribe, The Montagnais, The Naskapi, The Ojibway, The Algonquin, The Cree, The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribes, The Huron, The Ojibwe, The Ottawa, The Neutral, Petun, and Wenro tribes

In Manitoba:

The Assiniboine, The Chipewyan (Dene), The Cree, The Dakota Sioux, The Ojibway


The Assiniboine, The Chipewyan (Dene), The Plains Cree, The Dakota Sioux, The Gros Ventre,  The Ojibway


The Beaver Nation (Dene Zaa), The Blackfoot Nation (Siksika, Piikani and Kainai), The Chipewyan Nation (Dene Suline), The Cree Nation, The Sioux Nation (Dakota), The Ojibwe Nation (Anishinaabe), The Sarcee Nation (Tsuu T'ina), The Slavey Nation (Dene Tha'), The Stoney Nation (Nakoda/Assiniboine)

The Yukon Territories and Northwest Territories:

The Chipewyan (Dene), The Dogrib, The Gwich'in, The Han, The Hare, The Inuit, The Kaska, The Slavey

In British Columbia alone, we have an enormously diverse First Nations peoples, mainly due to fair weather and abundant food.

The Babine-Wetsuweten, The Beaver Tribe, The Bella Coola, The Carrier Tribe, The Chilcotin, The Comox, The Cowichan, The Cree, The Gitksan, The Haida, The Haisla, The Halkomelem, The Heiltsuk, The Kaska, The Klallam, The Kutenai, The Kwakiutl, The Lillooet, The Makah, The Nisga'a, The Nuuchahnulth (Nootka), The Okanagan, The Sechelt, The Sekani, The Shuswap, The Slavey, The Squamish, The Sto:lo, The Straits Salish (Saanich & Sooke), The Tahltan, The Thompson, The Tlingit, The Tsetsauts, The Tsimshian

This is only Canada. I have not even started on all the tribes in the United states, nor the existence of Metis, or mixed-race First Nations. (20)

Looking at that enormous list, could you see any of the figures in any of this art belonging to any of those tribes? Why or why not? If you can't, is that a good thing?

But wouldn't it be better to generalize? You avoid copyright infringement!

But what are you replacing this so-called infringement with? Can you even copyright a culture? Inaccuracy? Romanticized history? A lack of teachable material? That's where we really need to study when we look at homogenized art and how it portrays First Nations people. Is it good that artists paint them as one giant mono-culture that wears leather loincloths and hunts the buffalo? Are we forgetting or wilfully ignoring the very real and very painful genocide(21) that happened? Is it respectful of tribe identity and copyright to swap in and out various bits of other cultures at your whim?

Another point to take into account is the sheer loss of accurate history overall. Because there are very few written records of First Nations history due to the cultures mainly being of oral traditions, historians (who are usually white) have chosen to catalogue and document First Nations peoples as they see fit. Accurate history was not recorded in the past, and what we know now and are taught in schools conflicts with what traditional First Nations stories tell. When the people in power who are bullying have the chance to rewrite history, what do you think they are going to do? Admit how wrong they were or try to cover it up and brush it away? It is not a conspiracy theory to say that countries often gloss over and sweep under the carpet their nastier moments. Sure, you can build monuments in parks and call something “National X Awareness Month” but when laws are created and signed in secret to keep minorities from gaining power, that's where the real damage is done. Land treaties have been broken or totally ignored, people have been forcibly evicted, forcibly sterilized(22), or worse. They had their children abducted and placed into residential schools which then raped and physically abused those children and buried them secretly when they died of malnutrition and tuberculosis.

The stories that come from residential schools(23) in Canada are beyond horrifying. In 1884, the Government of Canada and its white Ministers of Indian Affairs mandated that all Indian children under the age of 16 must attend residential school in order to eventually assimilate all First Nations people into White society. The popular phrase was, “Killing the Indian to save the man.” It was thought that First Nations people weren't beyond “saving” into Christianity, but they needed to be taught by whites how to live “properly”. This was a thinly veiled political lie pushed forth by government to further their advancement and claim to First Nations territory. There was never a true ideal of having First Nations people assimilated. To goal was to exterminate them.

Governance of these residential schools was outsourced to religious organizations, including the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United and Presbyterian churches. It was assumed that the children would be forcibly taught white culture and customs while being routinely shamed for being Indian and taught how to hate anything to do with First Nations culture. This teaching would then seep into First Nations communities and be taught to the next generation, while traditional teachings were slowly eroded away and forgotten. Part of the major damage that residential schools did to First Nations communities was replacing healthy coping mechanisms with unhealthy ones. Traditional communities has ways to deal with grief and loss. But those methods that kept the people so strong were made illegal by practice, while children in residential schools were introduced to alcohol and violence as coping mechanisms for pain. These children faced ongoing physical, sexual, mental, emotional and spiritual abuses, and yet this practice went on for generations, each generation of children being abducted, placed into overcrowded and abusive schools with the promise to help “assimilate” them into white culture. After leaving, few of the children could read or write English beyond a grade 3 level, much less find a well-paying job. This practice went on until the last residential school closed in 1996.


We had the Internet already.

In the public high school I went to, we were taught, as per required curriculum, the holocaust of WWII. And yet there is no federal, nor provincial requirement to teach the history of over 50,000 children who died in the residential school system.

This is not to say that all artists who create false or “inspired” art of First Nations people are deliberately participating in a conspiracy act. All I am saying is that we already have government officials in both countries trying to minimize and negate First Nations efforts to gain back the power they lost. It certainly doesn't help when people create false and romanticized images of real history. It draws attention away from the real issues and sugar-coats them into non-importance.

We cannot afford to forget or deny what has happened. It is too important to our continued survival as human beings.

Although the last image contains many previously discussed issues, such as whitewashing, cultural homogenization, romanticizing, improper use of sacred symbols and gender items, I wanted to also point out that this, and the other pictures before it are very technically well-done.

The skill required to make such images is immense, and the mastery of medium is present in each piece. Though the subject matter is hurtful, I want to again state that each artist here has talent and creativity, and I hope that in the future they will use that creativity to create better and better art.

Now that we have discussed Why is it such a big deal? Why can't we just leave it alone? Let's talk about what to do with these images themselves.

I, personally, am not asking for the images to be removed. I have no authority to remove them, and can only state my personal opinions and requests here.

My request is that each artist acknowledge the issues that their piece has, and reads further into why these things are so hurtful. I request that these artists make a statement of apology, and help to educate others on how to avoid cultural appropriation and racism in art. Please share and continue the discussion of art, race and history. It is an important one. I am not looking to start drama or accuse people of crimes. I am trying to enact social change through discussion, observation and research.

I do not ask for these pieces to be removed. I believe they are important teaching tools. I request that the artists keep these pieces available for viewing as examples for other viewers who want to understand what honest mistakes look like.

These are not crimes. They are merely mistakes.

From the past, to the present, and on to the future.

How do I avoid Cultural Appropriation in my art?

The obvious answer, similar to “Just Google it” is “Do research, duh.” But we all know that answer isn't very helpful. Some people literally don't know where to start, or haven't ever done a large research project before. It can seem daunting to have hundreds of books, websites and articles to sift through, but I've tried to make some humorous comics to help you get started.

If you are confronted by someone saying that your art has appropriated something, or is racist, even if they are not of that minority:


Yes, it hurts when someone says something negative about what we create, especially when we put many long hours into it. We want our work to be appreciated and enjoyed, not lauded as disrespectful. But someone may be telling you this as a favour to you. Maybe walking around in swastika-print pants isn't such a good idea in a Jewish neighbourhood. Even if you had no idea what that symbol meant. Someone may trying to correct you about your ignorance, and it would be a good idea to at least listen to their view, if not follow their advice. Some people will try to be polite. Some will be offended and react rudely according to how much they feel offended by your actions. You have to understand that just because you had good intentions, doesn't always mean you're not hurting someone inadvertently.

That is the first step in deconstructing and moving away from White Privilege.(25)

When you leap to immediate, irrational defence of your work, no matter how hurtful it is, you make yourself look foolish. It takes a tough person to admit that they are wrong and to look at their work from an outsider's perspective. We all need to learn this skill. It is vital for getting along in a global community.(26)

We need to understand what what we know of a culture is not always what others know of a culture. And, unfortunately, when it comes to history and real people, there are right and wrong answers. It's not just a matter of opinion.

Never assume that you know everything about a culture. Even if you are of that culture! The experience, wisdom and knowledge of others will help you piece together a broader and more diverse mosaic of information. Assumptions are boring! Stereotypes are boring! Get creative and delve deep, showing your viewers that you have something unique and new to present to them about a culture they may not know too much about.

Understand the role that history and culture play in the context of your creative work. What makes sense to you may not make sense to someone else. What seems cute and exotic to you may appear completely silly and inaccurate to someone else. At worst, it will be offensive to them. Either way, you will look ignorant. I think everyone is pretty equal in not wanting to look like a complete fool.

However, this is not to say that some objects / cultures / ideas are so special that they are above criticism / reinterpretation / imaginative use, but simply that you must tread carefully, and you must understand when you are using a potentially offensive symbol or piece. If you still choose to add that piece to your work because you feel it is vital, that is your choice, and you must be prepared for the backlash associated with incorporating that idea. And trust me, if you use a hot-button issue like war bonnets, the angry comments will fly at you.

Does this mean I can't ever use feathers or facial markings on my OC or design?

No. This is not a limit on creativity. It is about building understanding and developing a sensitivity towards others, where certain symbols may be regarded as hurtful, or personal property. Where does that line end? I am not the person to define that. All I ask, and really, all anyone can ask is that you educate yourself before you decide to make something “Native American Inspired” rather than after people start calling you names. It saves everyone a lot of hurt and trouble. Cultural Appropriation hurts both ways.

You get attacked and hurt by many different people at once for doing something ignorant.

The people who are hurt by Cultural Appropriation feel like they have to deal with yet another naked girl in a headdress and they have to restart all of their explanations and arguments and shout themselves red in the face to be understood and heard.

It's like being punched once all over your body by many different people vs. being punched on the same bruise over and over and over. In both cases, it just hurts. A lot.

Do you see the difference between these two pictures?

Ember Glow the fire fairy by WeirdWondrous NATIVE by davidvelezfotografia

One piece uses feathers and face paint, but does not associate it with being “tribal”, “savage” or “native-inspired”. The other says so right on the photo. The second one makes the association that face paint = native, despite having little or nothing to do with anything about the First Nations.

How about these two:

Mature Content

Native American Woman by rplatt
painted face by claralenore

Aside from the problem of hyper-sexualization again, we have major assumptions made about what people wore, how they looked and how they behaved. It makes assumptions about gender roles and is an extremely stereotypical portrayal of what the artist assumes a “Native Woman” is like. The other piece makes no mention of “Look how awesome my tribal war-paint is!” It's simply a face covered in paint, without trying to attach any deeper significance than that. You can have face-paint. You can have feathers. But don't try to emulate a culture you don't understand or will misrepresent.

You say that when I don't know something, I should ask. Who do I ask? What if they say no?

What I am advising is seeking out knowledge before continuing. It may not be a living person, it may be a book or museum that provides the necessary information you're looking for. If you are seeking out the advice or opinion of a real person, look for someone who is not just of that culture, but has studied it and is familiar with history and cultural meaning. Seek multiple references to expand your base of knowledge. If the sources that you seek out keep returning your idea as a “no”, you need to seriously think about whether to move forward. If you get bad reactions popping up everywhere about your idea for swastika-print pants, you need to think about what the general reaction will be if you decide to go ahead. Will doing it anyway get you the reaction you want? Or will it only garner you some major   hate from a lot of people?

Racism is never retro-cool. “Hey, remember when those old-timey movies used blackface characters? Wasn't that so insulting? We should bring that back to be ironic!” Please. Don't. It was painful, insulting, and diminishing then, and it is painful, insulting and diminishing now. Don't romanticize racism. Don't try to make it “Like they did in the olden days” Because back then, unless you were white and male, you were at a serious disadvantage in most of the world.

Understand when one stereotype is just as bad as the next. Don't try to make it a sliding scale. Don't try to justify racism when someone calls you out on it. Don't say, “But stereotypes have a basis in truth!” Don't try to minimize the experiences of those who have lived through the very disadvantages that your art (deliberately or inadvertently) promotes. Don't say “I'm part Black / Native / Asian, and I think it's ok,” especially when you have not lived in an area or time period in which these issues of discrimination are prominent. When you benefit from White Privilege, you do not get to speak for those who do not benefit, even if you share a bit of blood.(26)

Some gay people are comfortable with others saying “fag” or “that's so gay”. Some disabled people are comfortable with others saying “retarded”. But does that give a privileged person (someone who is not of that minority) free range to say it? Does it give you, as a person of a minority, the right to declare that, “Well, I'm X, and I'm ok with it,” that others of that minority should also be ok with hurtful slurs or stereotypes just because you are? Who gets to define what someone should and shouldn't be offended by?

It's ok to be wrong. It's ok to make mistakes. Everyone does. Nobody knows everything. No one will think less of you if you admit to making a mistake and owning up to it. They will probably give you some major props. However, people might also also see you as being petulant and selfish if you dig in your heels and try to defend identifiably racist art. Just let it go. Learn from it. Move on.

To prevent cultural appropriation and racism in art in the future, just use logic. Read. Discover. Ask questions. Ask someone from that culture. Think about how you would want your family, history and culture to be treated by a young artist from another place. Think about how you would want your life to be written or drawn. With grace and respect, or with ignorance and assumption?

With that new lens, I hope we can view art with un-racist eyes and create new works worthy of talk and admiration. Please do continue on the discussion of Cultural Appropriation, as I have barely scratched the surface, and there is much more to be learned!

Further Reading: These links are not meant to be scholarly citations. They are meant to be easily read and accessible by all ages and reading levels. To those who would criticize me for citing more simplistic sources, I have included a few scholarly articles and books after these links. I hope anyone with an interest in First Nations culture, or critical race theory will seek information from below. As well, many of the links below contain good links within to get you started.

(1) What is Cultural Appropriation? fuckyeahradicalliterature.tumb…
Why is Cultural Appropriation wrong?…
(2) What is a warbonnet?…
(3) Who are Two-Spirit people?…
(4) L'Oreal criticized for whitewashing Beyonce in ad:
(5) What is Indian Status?…
(A)  Information on the Indian Act…
(6)  More information on the Indian Act…
(7) Aboriginal Peoples of Canada…
(8) What is an Indian Reservation?…
(9) The Coast Salish territory is but one area split in half by Canada and the US:
(10) Haudenosaunee passports:…
(11) Regarding First Nations people, Stereotypes and American Colonialism:…

(12) An article about rape of First Nations women in the US…
(13) Canadian statistics on violent crime against First nations women…
(14) information on violent crime against first nations women…
(15) Information on First Nations people and alcohol addiction
There are some good references within this link
(16) Who are the Plains tribes?…
(17) Some information on spiritual symbols…
(18) Who are the Inuit?…
(19) This is a wonderful site with detailed information and links on many, many tribes, not just in North America, but around the world.
This geographical map gives a good idea of the tribal divisions based on climate and location.…
(20) Who are the Metis?…
(21) Smallpox Blankets show evidence of intentional bio-warfare:…
(22) An article on Forced Sterilization:…
(23) Residential Schools………
(24) Understanding the arguments used to suppress and deny minority activism
(25) What is White Privilege?…
An open letter to all appropriators…
(26) Even professional publications sometimes leap to irrational defence of their work, despite its obvious hurtful and ignorant imagery…

Blogs I like: nativeappropriations.blogspot.……

For more information on Hollywood's exploitation of First Nations culture you can watch the full film of Reel Injun online

The film discusses, among other things, white actors playing First Nations roles, and the deeper message of American colonization behind the old ideas of “Cowboys and Indians”. I highly recommend watching it.

Here are some more advanced reading material for anyone interested in study at a university level

Social work treatment : interlocking theoretical approaches
Turner, Francis J. (Francis Joseph)
Oxford University Press, USA, c2011.

Cultivating Canada : reconciliation through the lens of cultural diversity
Mathur, Ashok

The Oxford handbook of genocide studies
Bloxham, Donald.
Oxford University Press, 2010.

A statistical profile on the health of First Nations in Canada : self-rated health and selected conditions, 2002 to 2005
Canada. Health Canada.
Health Canada, c2009.

The Sage handbook of race and ethnic studies
Solomos, John.
SAGE, c2010.

Cultural theory : an introduction
Smith, Philip (Philip Daniel),
Blackwell, c2009.
© 2011 - 2023 RobynRose
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PhiliptheThief's avatar

Who cares if you're "native" or not. It's just feathers or deerskins or whatever. Indians don't have exclusive rights to that.