While the Canadian media’s indifference to native sensitivities in the context of cultural appropriation is counter to the promised reconciliation between the state and the first nations, this reconciliation may in itself be understood as a Trojan horse when set within a more assertive indigenous analysis. Tamara Starblanket, Co-Chair of the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC) observes that this apparently benign process of reconciliation is, in fact, cause for concern. It is packaged with the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which, Starblanket claims, is ultimately aligned with state interests. This is because the UN only recognizes government approved native organizations and, in effect, affirms the state’s claims to the underlying title to native territories. Reconciliation is the new assimilation.
The determining factor, in this matter of appropriation, is the equity of the transaction. An equitable ‘appropriation’ would, more appropriately, be termed an ‘exchange’. Appropriation is an inequitable exchange under unequal power relations. From the perspective of the proprietors of the appropriated forms, who in fact experience barriers when trying to express these forms themselves in mainstream of the culture industries, such appropriation is felt as is a painful extraction. Of course, as the objects of such relations attain subjecthood and political agency, a more free and easy exchange might become tenable.
In Canada the majority of first peoples have been and remain objects of ongoing exploitative relations. On the cultural front, this legacy of occupation and extraction is epitomized by the national policy of assimilation. Systematic assimilation, deployed intentionally by way of the residential schools and then, at best, carelessly by way of inadequate reserve infrastructure and callous child welfare processes, are unquestionably a form of genocide – a cultural erasure.
For the first peoples of Canada, contemporary cultural appropriation, occurring as it does in this context of assimilation, must surely constitute a second erasure. It is an extraction of precious, newly recovered and barely reconstructed possessions – a double negation! Given the cumulative damage done by assimilation and appropriation, the question for participants of any inclusive community of cultural practice is – how can we begin to negotiate a meaningful exchange?