Image: 7 Cash is King, copyright by Niranjan Rajah. Preparatory image for photographic work developed from an original illustration by Gord Hill.
With the 150th birthday of Canada approaching this weekend and with the various recent Department of Justice filings of charges in the United States implicating Malaysian crown business practices, it seems apt to reflect on the relations of my two nations. The cogent event here is the looming but contested arrival of Malaysian Oil and Gas giant PETRONAS on Lelu island in the Canadian province of British Columbia. This meeting of hegemonies takes place on land that is technically unceded and therefore under the authority of traditional Chieftains of the indigenous peoples of the land in Question. Two such groups , the Gitanyow of the Gitxsan nation and the Gitwilgyoots of the Tshimshian nation, have filed lawsuits and are seeking a judicial review of the Federal Government’s approval of the Petronas led LNG project on the basis of inadequate consultation with their respective authorities. Lelu island lies within traditional Gitwilgyoots territory.
In a counter measure the elected Lax Kw’alaams Band band council in northern British Columbia, and PETRONAS subsidiary, Pacific NorthWest LNG, made representations at the Federal court earlier in the present month of June 2017, seeking to deny the ancestral authority of Simogyet Yahaan, of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe of the Tsimshian peoples. In other words the purported hereditary chief’s standing is being questioned by the elected chiefs. As an immigrant to these shores from Malaysia, a nation that is embroiled in the mother of all financial and political controversies, I find it both tragic and ironic that this attempted usurpation is being carried out by the natives themselves, under the auspices of the exemplar of Malaysian corporate prowess.
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?
Gord Hill is a Warrior with a pen.This is an image he uses to address the nexus economic and legal realities of native Canada. He addresses the goal of the state to assimilate Indigenous peoples, via the conversion of reserve lands to private property under the pretext of creating economic self-sufficiency. ‘Self-government’ agreements come with development contracts and treaty agreements remove the natives from the ambit of the Indian Act and change their reserve lands to private property.
This is a reposting of my post from Dec 1 2015