I think it is valuable for us as documentary makers to dig deeply into the idea of cultural appropriation. We are both creators and users of culture and it behooves us to think about what we are doing when we create our works.
First and foremost, I want to acknowledge that, although I am about to seriously question the legitimacy of treating culture as property and the idea that interacting with culture artistically requires free, prior, informed consent, by endorsing UNDRIP, our First Nations have stated clearly that they expect both of these things as part of reconciliation. And thus, I believe it is incumbent on me and and anyone else who wishes to see reconciliation to respect these wishes, even if we disagree with them. I believe that respect overrides purity of principle.
I will start by critiquing the idea that it is useful or valid to think of culture as property, even communal property. The idea of property — of ownership — is most fundamentally a right to exclude others. It is the right to control that piece of property to the exclusion of anyone else. The idea of culture is opposed to this: Culture is, at its most basic, simply the act of sharing within a group. But the act of sharing is fundamentally opposed to the idea of exclusion. If one person claims to own a part of culture for themselves, it ceases to be culture because it is no longer shared. Culture cannot be property — the moment someone claims it as theirs, they destroy it as culture.
Things work differently at the level of community. In some sense, a group can “own” a piece of culture because membership within that cultural group is determined by how much they share within that group. To some extent, a cultural group is defined by the things that they share with other members, to the exclusion of anyone else. Thus, cultural appropriation is a threat because it threatens the identity of the group. But “property” is the wrong analogy here. In the case of physical property, it is easy to exclude others because physical things must exist in one place and time, and thus it makes sense that only one person can have it, but culture is not like this. Culture is like an idea: When you share it, it spreads and gets bigger and more powerful. When you share an idea, it does not leave your mind and reappear in someone else’s; it is present in both minds. Culture is also like this, if you share it with someone outside your group, you expand the group to include that person. Cultural appropriation is not theft — the original culture is expanded, not lost when it is shared outside the group. Cultural appropriation is a threat because it dilutes the identity of the original group, not because the group is losing anything.
The real issue behind cultural appropriation is a loss of autonomy, not a loss of culture. Thus, a central concern is consent — prior, free and informed. It’s quite understandable that a group under threat would want to control how its culture gets shared, and requiring consent is a mechanism for doing this. It’s also unrealistic. It’s unrealistic because of how culture spreads: one person shares with another person, who shares it again, and again, and again. Culture is viral, it inevitably expands geometrically, and it is inherently uncontrollable. Moreover, attempting to control it — attempting to treat it as property — can have some quite adverse effects.
Those effects include prejudice and xenophobia, and, more directly relevant for us as filmmakers, censorship and loss of freedom to comment on and critique anything to do with the culture. The problem is that claiming ownership of culture misunderstands how a group identity is created. A cultural group is not defined by the external cultural artifacts that they are sharing; it is defined simply by the fact that the group is sharing things with each other. A strong cultural group is constantly generating culture in many different ways, and that culture is constantly fluid and evolving. But, if instead, the group becomes identified not with itself, but with certain cultural artifacts of its past, we quickly end up with prejudice. What is prejudice if not the misidentification of a group with some of its most salient external attributes? Identifying first nations as “the people who wear feather headdresses” is racist, but that doesn’t mean that feather headdresses don’t play a cultural role or have history within (some) first nations. It just means that first nations aren’t exclusively defined by that particular culture, any more than they are defined by any of their other culture. First nations *create* their culture, and because they keep creating it, they continue to be first nations. And that is true regardless of what happens to their past culture, or who else makes use of it. By asserting ownership of culture, our First Nations are at risk of creating too strong an association of the group with their cultural artifacts, and the end result is likely to be prejudice and a fragile group identity, not a strong culture.
Cultural appropriation is sometimes regarded as an issue of consent. But, by framing the issue this way — of who gets to control access to culture — we perpetuate the victimhood of our first nations by assuming that their culture is so fragile that it will collapse if it is not rigidly prevented from leaking out into the wider world. This is true whether we are first nations ourselves, or outsiders who are trying to respect our first nations. Either way, the idea of consent gives the illusion that culture can be controlled, and when that illusion is broken, victimization is the result. The reality is that culture spreads wildly and uncontrollably. Popular ideas and popular art, wherever they originate, spread because they are powerful, and they do so without regard for cultural boundaries. Consent is an attractive illusion because it appears to offer a way to protect the oppressed, but, ultimately, it cannot offer the protection it promises. In reality, it is an attempt — an understandable one given our collective history — at enforcing cultural purity, and that should worry us.
That idea that a group such as a First Nation can consent (freely or otherwise) to how others interact with, talk about, or view their culture is a fiction, and because it is a fiction it is dangerous. It is a fiction because — really — how can anyone control what others think of them? The art of trying to do so is called PR, and as media makers, I hope we are all intimately aware of what PR can and can’t do. I also hope it is obvious how dangerous it could be to view PR through a moral lens. Can you imagine if, say, Monsanto could legitimately claim that they were entitled to consent before Marie-Monique Robin made The World According to Monsanto? Could CitizenFour have been made if Edward Snowden has asked for the NSA’s consent before he made public their inner secrets? Obviously, neither Monsanto nor the NSA are a cultural group, and thus to consider them in terms of “cultural appropriation” is strange, but the principle not so different. Whether it’s Monsanto or a First Nation, it’s a bad idea to grant any group a moral right of consent to how they are viewed.
How then should we, as non-First Nations, view cultural appropriation? I come back to the idea of respect. Using First Nations culture without asking is rude. Using it to make broad statements about First Nations without consulting them (and making sure you understand the culture you are using) is insulting. It may not be morally wrong to do these things, but there is a social cost to be paid just the same.
Sometimes, there are good reasons to ignore social niceties — sometimes outside criticism is legitimate, and it needs to be made without asking. But, when we criticize, we need to recognize that that affects our relationship, and, for the criticism to be effective, an open and trusting relationship needs to exist before the criticism is made. Right now, that relationship with our First Nations is tenuous, so we need to be extra cautious in how we make criticism. At the same time, sometimes we use First Nations culture in ignorance, or sometimes their culture has expanded into greater Canadian culture and it’s not clear where the line is. In those cases, I think it’s polite to ask forgiveness (since offense may have been taken), but I also think it’s reasonable to expect some flexibility from our First Nations here: We live together, and our cultures are going to blur a bit.
It’s not the end of the world if I, as a person without First Nations heritage, eat some bannock and call it skookum. I think it’s unlikely, but perhaps my doing that without permission will insult someone. If it does, it’s incumbent on me as a human being to recognize that and make amends — even though I believe there is no cause for insult. To build a relationship, someone has to reach out first, and if we are too worried about principles and being right, nobody will reach out. That’s what Reconciliation is: A relationship between those of us whose families came here from elsewhere, and those with whom we share this land.
Documentaries, Respect, and Cultural Appropriation by Devonavar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.