A thousand years ago, I wrote a play titled Dead White Writer on the Floor.
In it, six familiar native stereotypes – all created by non-Native writers – wander across the stage pondering the point of their creation. Perhaps many of these settler writers merely wanted to explore “the lives of people who aren’t like you,” in the words of Hal Niedzviecki, the former editor of Write, the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine.
That logic might explain The Lone Ranger’s buddy Tonto, with his inability to process personal pronouns. Or Disney’s Pocahontas, with her stunningly tended hair and ability to be best friends with raccoons and hummingbirds.
In his editorial, Niedzviecki struggles to explain the logic of letting non-Native writers broaden their horizons by, once again, colonizing everything that can be seen to those same horizons. I think that puts the ‘colon’ in colonize.
Little does he know, the finalists for his metaphorical Appropriation Award have been around for as long as the rivers have flowed and the grass has grown – authors such as John Richardson (Wacousta), Michael Blake (Dances With Wolves), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (The Song of Hiawatha), W. P. Kinsella (the Hobbema stories) and George Ryga (The Ecstasy of Rita Joe), just to name a few.
Could it simply be that non-Native writers have run out of things to write about? How sad.
In the past few months, there has been a burst of interest in exploring the Aboriginal voice. Personally, I find it interesting how it’s the arts that have been the frontlines of this discussion.
Last week, my girlfriend and I went to see the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Louis Riel. At the end of the evening, I found myself ruminating on the symbolism of what I had seen and how, in its own way, it reflected the state of Native/non-Native relationships. Oddly enough, it had nothing to do with the actual opera.
Upon receiving our tickets, we proceeded to our seats. We were surprised to see them already settled by white women. How Indigenously appropriate. After muttering to ourselves, “Not again,” we managed to gain control of what was legally and morally ours and got comfortable for the evening.
As the show started, Cole Alvis, an Indigenous cast member of the show and a former executive director of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, came out to address the audience, informing them the production was taking place on the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples.
When he finished, a loud voice from what sounded like an older – I assume non-Native – woman suddenly erupted from the audience: “I didn’t understand a word you just said.” So much for the cultured, respectful reputation of opera crowds. Possibly the first case of Aboriginal opera heckling.
What a perfect snapshot these incidents are, given recent debates.
Created 50 years ago for Canada’s centennial, an opera with a central character in the development of Métis identity was noticeable for its lack of Aboriginal representation. Director Peter Hinton tried to address that in the play’s remount, but with questionable success. Still, the presence of so many First Nation and Métis performers on stage was a political statement in itself.
It also harkened back to one of Riel’s most famous statements: “My people will sleep for one hundred years and, when they awake, it will be the artists who give them back their souls.” And there’s been a lot of soul searching lately.
Just last week, a Toronto art gallery cancelled an exhibit by a non-Native artist named Amanda PL, whose work borrowed heavily from the style of Norval Morrisseau and other Woodlands-style artists. The gallery was unaware the artist was non-Native; the artist seemed unaware she was dipping her big toe in a sea of cultural controversy. Once again, it sparked a heated discussion over what is Indigenous art and what isn’t.
Many people of non-Native background may find this reaction odd. I have heard variations of “Don’t people copy other people’s artistic creations all the time?” Or “If I want to do a painting in a cubist style, am I insulting Pablo Picasso?”
For Native people, art and culture are not separate. The art of the West Coast carver is inseparable from their heritage. Same with Inuit sculpture and Cree beading. Anything that infringes upon our art can be considered a direct threat to our culture. So understandably, Indigenous people react.
The charge is cultural appropriation. For us it’s a matter of cultural preservation. I don’t think it’s that difficult a concept. Or maybe something is lost in the translation.
One of these days, I really do have to write An Idiot’s Guide to Native Arts. Maybe it will be taught in university fine arts programs – and available in opera house lobbies and writing magazine offices.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright, author and former Western Writer-in-Residence, 2007-08, who lives on the Curve Lake First Nation in Central Ontario. This column first appeared in The Globe and Mail. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.