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Appropriation may not matter to you, but it does to me: Paradis

Critics of cultural appropriation remain wilfully ignorant of what it means, writes Danielle Paradis.

A piece by 'The Picasso of the North' Norval Morrisseau.

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A piece by 'The Picasso of the North' Norval Morrisseau.

As an Indigenous writer, I spend a lot of time hearing white people talk about me.

This past week it was about the right of other people to tell Indigenous stories.

It started with an article in The Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine, which stirred up a quarterly debate: appropriation versus appreciation.

Hal Niedzviecki, the now-former editor of the mag, penned a piece saying he didn’t believe in the concept of cultural appropriation. Cue the anger, cue the backlash.

The TWUC issued an apology, and predictably, after Niedzviecki resigned, the scandal sheets came out in force.

The old white guard of Canadian journalism, including Jonathan Kay, who has now resigned from The Walrus, rallied against what they consider liberalism and identity politics run amok.

Whenever this happens, the lack of diversity in media is usually the root cause.

Critics of cultural appropriation remain wilfully ignorant of what it means.

As writer Ijeoma Oluo so eloquently puts it, “Cultural appropriation is the misuse of a group’s art and culture by someone with the power to redefine that art and, in the process, divorce it from the people who originally created it.”

For example, when painter Amanda PL was alleged to have borrowed heavily from the Anishinabe painter Norval Morrisseau. Her Toronto exhibit was cancelled. When PL and other non-Indigenous artists take inspiration from Indigenous people they often erase the historical context of the art.

The first time I witnessed cultural appropriation it was a First Nations elder wearing a Métis scarf. To wear a Métis sash without respecting our unique identity from First Nations is to erase our culture — something that the government has already tried.

But when the appropriation conversation occurs in the snowdrift that is Canadian media, it becomes mostly white people scolding other white people.

Relying on mainstream media sources means most Canadians end up with a limited perspective on our diverse country — and on this very debate.

People who are unable to distinguish between First Nations, Métis and Inuit leap to the defence of our cultural heritage but they would be unable to tell you the differences between these groups.

For many it may seem like no big deal to be inspired by other cultures. If all things were equal that would be true.

Cultural appropriation wouldn’t exist in a world where people listened to one another. But we don’t live in that world.

Until Indigenous people reclaim the ability to relay our own experiences in media, there’s going to be backlash when someone else tries to tell the story.

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