The Crucible of Art: Indigenous Writers and Cultural Appropriation

The Crucible of Art: Indigenous Writers and Cultural Appropriation

Posted on June 8 by Alexandra Shimo in News
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Unless you’ve spent the past few weeks living in an internet-free cave in Afghanistan, you are probably aware of the “cultural appropriation prize” fiasco. In short, attempting to explain the expansive creativity of contemporary indigenous writers, Write magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki suggested a learned ability to appropriate. “Buffeted by history and circumstance,” he wrote, indigenous writers must borrow and engage with cultures not their own, and “so often must write from what they don’t know.” As a joke, he suggested a “cultural appropriation prize.”

Niedzviecki’s off-colour quip became real when journalist and telecom executive Ken Whyte put up the money in a tweet for an actual cultural appropriation prize, and several other prominent (middle-aged white) journalists followed suit. The backlash was heated and swift. In response, The Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay tweeted “the mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let Identity-politics fundamentalists run riot. Sad & shameful.” Both Kay and Niedzviecki subsequently resigned.

Much ink has been spilled on whether or not Kay or Niedzviecki should have resigned, and in the furor, those who actually have something interesting and important to say about Niedzviecki’s original question have been sidelined. Why has indigenous writing exploded? What accounts for the creativity and depth of the genre? And what can we, as both indigenous and non-indigenous persons, learn from the evolution? As Write’s editor, Niedzviecki’s job was to spotlight those indigenous writers commissioned by the magazine to bravely grapple with these questions. I don’t want to summarize what they said because if there is anything to be learned from the controversy, it’s that generalizations, especially by non-indigenous people about indigenous persons, are reductive and pointless.

But reading the indigenous authors who contributed to the magazine—including Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Louise Bernice Halfe, Alicia Elliott, Gord Grisenthwaite, Joshua Whitehead and Shannon Webb-Campbell—it’s hard not to see that what makes their prose alive and essential is the antithesis of cultural appropriation. Their authenticity is lived. “Losing myself in moments of dark (and arguably) inappropriate humour saved me from drowning in the stresses of working the crisis line and sharing my home and life with high-intensity foster children,” explains Grisenthwaite, a member of the Lytton First Nation.

Facing racism, poverty, intergenerational trauma and the many other challenges of being an indigenous writer today, writing offers a lifeline. If you’ve been through a smidgen of what Tuscarora author Alicia Elliott has endured and found the time to write while caring for a bipolar mother, mothering a four-year-old, and working shifts in a minimum wage job, then your motivation must go beyond borrowing. It’s about survival. It’s about truth. Or to quote Elliott, it’s about being seen. “When I read Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love…it was the first time, I, as an Indigenous woman, read the work of another Indigenous woman. It was such an intimate and personally revelatory moment—as if she had reached out from the pages, lifted my face and smiled. She can see me, I thought. She can see me. I was twenty-five years old.”

Is it ironic that writers offering perceptive and poignant explorations of how they overcame the historic, political, economic, structural, and racial factors that rendered them invisible, would again become unseen? Perhaps. But if history is any guide, indigenous writers will find a way to turn this marginalization into a crucible of art.

Alexandra Shimo

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014
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Alexandra Shimo

Alexandra Shimo is a broadcaster and former editor at Maclean’s. An award-winning journalist, she is the co-author of Up Ghost River, winner of the CBC Bookie and Speaker’s Book Awards for non-fiction. She lives in Toronto.