Simogyet Malii, the chief negotiator for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, makes a powerful assertion that the recent cultural appropriation debate belies a deeper arrogation. First Peoples cultural forms are expressions of their relationship to their lands and waters and are inseparable from their traditional laws. He draws our attention to the fact that the significant ‘appropriation’ “isn’t happening in art galleries or on the pages of high-minded magazines. This is happening on our lands and in the courts and legislatures, and it has to stop.”
A case in point is how the Lax Kw’alaams Band Council is seeking to deny or, to extend the analogy, ‘appropriate’ the ancestral authority of hereditary chief Simogyet Yahaan, of the Gitwilgyoots in connection with and PETRONAS/ Pacific NorthWest LNG project on Lelu island. The Band Council has launched a legal challenge to Yahaan’s locus standi to repersent his tribe and protect its territory. Simogyet Malii notes that this assertion by the Council is unprecedented and that, “It challenges the respect for aboriginal law and authority, and undermines any possible reconciliation between Canada and aboriginal peoples.”
There is clear preceedant, in Federal Court of Appeal decions, that the Crown is obliged to properly consult First Nations in connection development projects on uceded lands under their jurisdiction and the technical question at stake here is quite simply, who should the Crown rightly consult – ancestral hereditary chiefs or the Band Council that derives its authority from colonial legislation. The Gitwilgyoots and the Gitanyow who believe they too have a right to be consulted do to impacts of this project on the Salmon ecology and consequently on their economy has brought a request for Jucial review in this matter to the Federal Court in Vancouver . Yahaan has said , “The … council deemed they could go out and take tribal territory and use it at their own discretion for oil and gas. Their only jurisdiction is on reserves. Outside that jurisdiction belongs to the tribes.”
The Band Council’s apolication to the courts to have Yahaan declared persona non grata in this manner is, rightly or wrongly, an attempt to circumvent this important questoin of jurisdiction and right adewuate consultation. Simogyet Malii’s explication of the depths of ‘cultural’ apprioriation seems briliant to me but it must be an obvious fact to the First Peoples with whom reconciliation is acknowledged in the formalities of state, but the continued aporopriation and exoloitation of whose sacred and material possesions is ongoing.
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?