For decades fashion magazines, Television advertisements and music videos have been exploiting the traditions of various cultures in order to make money. In turn, these singular representations perpetuate stereotypes and minimize vast cultures as singular monolithic ideas.
The purpose of the following document is to discuss what effects this has on the Indigenous community in Canada and how it may translate to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
key terms: cultural appropriation, power relations, white privilege
The Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Edmonton Eskimos and Moose Jaw Warriors are just a few on a long list of racist names used as ‘entertainment.’ Sports is one of many institutions in North America that profits from monolithic and stereotypical caricatures of First Nations People(s) and, “[w]ith over 614 First Nations communities in Canada it is hardly fair to take a generic symbol and apply it to a diverse populous.” Similarly, fashion has been at the forefront of this epidemic with models and songstresses donning the traditional war bonnet in magazines, on the catwalk and in music videos. The images seen in the media are often used to justify the hyper sexualization and objectification of Aboriginal women, and in turn binaries are created devaluing First Nations traditions as a whole. Furthermore, these limited portrayals give the rest of the world a watered down version of vast cultures.
The cultural appropriation of Indigenous traditions, particularly through fashion, serves to mentally colonize First Nations women; and minority groups overall. As a result, the stereotypes surrounding this marginalized group of people continue to degrade and debase them and hold them back in society. The purpose of the following essay is to outline the effects of cultural appropriation in society and distinguish between appreciation and appropriation. As a student of Indigenous Studies I am seeking to understand the connection, if any, between the cultural appropriation of Indigenous traditions into mainstream fashion and the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. I have hypothesized that there is a direct correlation between the over simplified and sensationalized typecast of First Nations people(s) and the degradation of human life as a result.
On March 16, 2014 the University of Regina Cheer Team came under fire when they posted a ‘Cowboy and Indian’ themed picture on Facebook and Twitter. Within hours of being put up, the picture was taken down. An official apology was issued by the President of the University, Vianne Timmons, as well as the coaching staff and students involved in the incident. In her official statement, Timmons stated, “that the team was part of a social event Friday evening that included ‘culturally inappropriate themes and costumes.’” Both the comments made by Timmons, as well as the theme of the event begs the question, if you know it is culturally inappropriate, then why do it? As a result of their actions, the team as well as coaching staff have been directed to attend cultural sensitivity training. The actions of the team as well as the online backlash that came after the photo was taken down are clear examples of the lack of awareness in the province of Saskatchewan surrounding issues facing First Nations people(s) and struggles shows the relevance of such a study. Upon researching this topic I found a myriad of books that focus on power relations and cultural appropriation in general terms, however, I was unable to find more than 3 journal articles that focus on this particular subject, nor did any of them link cultural appropriation and specifically fashion to missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Though the exchange of culture seems to be a natural phenomenon that has enriched our world, it is impossible to ignore the underlying damage that it can cause. However, the idea behind the term cultural appropriation is not quite universal as many have a difficult time accepting
[t]he word “appropriation”… has lately become a rhetorical weapon in the hands of intellectuals claiming to speak for minority rights. Its power derives, oddly, from its very irrationality. In my experience, people hearing of it for the first time cannot believe that anyone would put forward so ludicrous an idea: even the most modest education in cultural history teaches us that art of all kinds has depended on the kissing of cultures.
What is wrong with cultural appropriation?
According to the Oxford dictionary, appropriation refers to the “making of a private property…; taking as one’s own use.” This does not present the same problematic connotation as the term cultural appropriation; as it simply refers to borrowing ideas from one group, and in turn used to create something new. There are many examples of this throughout the world including in various genres of music, dance and art. One example of appropriation is a dessert called ‘baklava’ which has been claimed by both Turkey and Greece. Since its conception, many cultures and traditions have added different flavours and ingredients to suit the tastes of a particular region. As demonstrated, the influence of one culture on another is somewhat inevitable and is not always negative. However, when a dominant group takes intellectual and physical property of a subversive group it becomes problematic. “In other words, the taking of the song does not lead to a corresponding deprivation of the appropriated groups in the same way as it would if tangible objects were involved.”
On the other hand, cultural appropriation has been defined as, “taking – from a culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowing;” and ties into the issue of power relations and the subjugation of a dominant group over a subordinate one. So, if sharing recipes does not constitute theft by a dominant group over a subordinate one, then what does? “The stereotypes and binary positioning’s of both the enlightened helper and the subjugated other only “work” if colonized peoples are offered as cultural artifacts devoid of politics and agency.”
Fashion as a Tool of Oppression
Fashion is an interesting niche in society. For instance, the way an individual dresses has the power to determine their position in the public arena. An expensive, well-tailored suit, for example, usually translates as a financially successful corporate leader, or another position of stature and prominence. Conversely, those who choose to express themselves through a stylistic subculture, such as ‘punk’ or ‘grunge,’ are less likely to hold such positions; although it is not unheard of. The meaning and power that is given to fashion ultimately comes from the end user: us. What is unclear, however, is how to determine the line between where appreciation ends and appropriation begins? From harem pants to tattoo’s and body piercing, it is hard to decipher the limit between fashion and fun and of the oversimplification of a whole nation; or in terms of topic of this paper, many nations. In his book, Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, James O. Young states that the line between borrowing and theft is in how the item is used regardless of whether it is tangible such as art, or intangible as in relating to music, style or ideas. Young’s stance is that as long as you are not using something out of context, then it is ok.  In other words, wearing feather earrings or mukluk’s made by First Nations artists would not be considered cultural appropriation, whereas a Victoria’s Secret model donning a war bonnet dressed in suede underwear on the cat walk would be. However, his concept may become easily misconstrued, as in the case of the University of Regina Cheer Team, who, “did not know better.”  From reading the comments section that directly follows the Cheer Teams story it is clear that people are confused about what is permissible and off limits. A conversation surrounding this should be taken further in order to clearly define for all the meaning and implications of cultural appropriation.
The most notorious way a culture is appropriated is through the Halloween costume. You are likely to see various watered down ideas of a culture at virtually any Halloween party you attend. For the most part, people do not see a problem with this. In their eyes, they are just having fun, being sexy or celebrating a culture. However, it must be made clear that the difference in dressing up as a nurse as opposed to dressing up as a First Nations person is that one represents a chosen occupation while the other represents a culture and the so called identity of a particular group, First Nations people(s). These monolithic portrayals of vast cultures lead to the dehumanizing of Indigenous women. Furthermore, in simply conceiving their actions as a jest, they are not looking at the deeper implications involved. In the mocking gestures that often accompany the costumes, groups of people are dehumanized and subsequently viewed as inferior. “As a consequence, those images foster cultural attitudes that encourage sexual, physical, verbal or psychological violence against Indigenous women.”
Every year various cultures are stripped of their dignity, traditions and richness in lieu of singular stereotypes all in the name of money by the businesses that create these foolish costumes. As curiously demonstrated by the University of Regina Cheer team, dressing up is not specifically tied to Halloween.
In addition to Halloween it is not uncommon to see musicians and models dressed in cultural wear in order to make a statement. In the 2012 video entitled, Ride, Lana del Ray also dons a traditional war bonnet. The theme in the video and song is freedom; and the way she is dressed is a way of asserting her disassociation with the cultural norms and practices in the United States. Specifically, she is seeking freedom from following gender norms such as getting married and having children; or societal norms such as attaining a job. This is unfortunately not the only example within the mainstream media. From the simplistic way the war bonnet has been presented in the media, it seems to represent freedom and wildness. Especially when it is worn in a sexual way, it seems to represent women’s need to be tamed and dominated. In this way it becomes sexually demeaning, and may create unconscious negative stereotypes about First Nations women. This theory has been compellingly demonstrated in books such as I thought Pocahontas was a Movie, and Iskwewak–kah’ Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak.
Effects on First Nations women in Canada
For many living in North America, and even around the world, understanding of First Nations culture and their struggle is very limited. One reason for this is the minimal or lack of representation in the media. In the rare instances that they are seen in magazine ads, women for example, will be scantily dressed and there seems to be a sense of wildness or as stated before freedom. Conversely, men are virtually never in the media, however, the representation of them in the news is almost always negative; as there are rarely stories about an aboriginal male doing something positive for the community. These binaries serve to perpetuate the stereotypes held by many.
The dualistic views that the media’s audience is fed, work to dehumanize First Nations women. As a result, “images like the romantic Indian princess, the easy squaw, and the hopeless suffering victim are constructed to distort the reality of Indigenous women and justify social, political, economic and spiritual oppression.” “Playing” at being “Indian” in turn trivialises the vast cultural traditions and history of an entire people.
As previously stated, the sexually demeaning way that First Nations women are often depicted serves to dehumanize them. Through having been objectified, they are no longer seen as human beings. They in fact become objects to be manipulated and used in any way an abuser sees fit. In his book Gender Advertisements, sociologist Erving Goffman is said to have proven a direct link between the violent and sexually explicit images we see in advertising and rape. In police interviews, rapists said that their victim profile almost always resembled specific images that can be seen in magazine ads and television commercials.
The Double Edge Sword
Cultures continually feed off one another and grow in richness. As previously stated, the influence of one culture on another culture is inevitable; especially in the current global context. This is not necessarily a problem. As noted in a scholarly journal by Marianna Bicskei,
most cultural appropriation neither interferes with the interests of individual members of cultures nor damages cultures, if appropriate requirements regarding time and place of cultural appropriation are respected. The suggestion is to be ‘as respectful as possible’, to avoid ‘unnecessary offence’ and ‘to be sensitive to the plight of minority cultures’
As various cultural traditions have become increasingly popular in fashion over the last five or more years, it has become increasingly important to understand the difference between sharing of beauty and the exploitation and complete disregard for the struggles of subordinate groups by the dominant, privileged group. It is specifically imperative to note the difference between wearing a feather hair extension and dressing up from head to toe in a stereotypically Indian costume. Furthermore, there are positive outcomes to this issue which may be that with a demand for mukluks and moccasins, for example, a demand could positively affect the market value of these items as well an increase in support for local businesses. In addition to this, as traditional items become popular the invisible will become visible. In other words, an unspoken norm, for example, First Nations binaries, can be brought to the surface and made visible. When unspoken truths are brought out they can be addressed.
Every culture has borrowed from other traditions in different ways, sometimes thoughtfully and other times unwittingly. In our ever changing, mixed, global village, hints of past tradition and culture surround us. Moreover, appreciation and borrowing from a culture is very different from the appropriation of a culture.
Although the U of R Cheer Team’s actions were completely inappropriate I think that what they have done is commence a dialogue about this issue. Their actions are a symptom of something much more insidious in our community and that is a lack of knowledge concerning First Nations history, culture and presence. It is a chance for us as a community to learn. This is an issue that has been swept under the rug and it seems to be difficult to discuss. The actions of the girls should be seen as a positive step towards creating a safe and open dialogue where specific issues, such as those addressed in this paper may be spoken about. Furthermore, I hope that the cultural sensitivity training the Cheer Team has been advised to attend will include a discussion on power relations and white privilege. The lack of information surrounding First Nations issues and history is truly sad and ominous. All Canadian citizens should have a fair understanding of the struggle of the Indigenous population. The pictures and actions of these young women are completely inappropriate and they must be made to realise that a culture is not a costume.
Finally, it must be recognized that the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women can be directly linked to the issue of the cultural appropriation of First Nations traditions in mainstream fashion. It is my recommendation that further studies be conducted and more emphasis and stronger funding be made available to the various organizations that support these awareness campaigns.