The Commodification of Indigenous Culture

Earlier this week, my blog partner Jessica wrote about the difference between an enthusiasm for another culture and fetishizing it. By fetishizing, I take her to mean having a view of the culture that is superficial and false and reduces the culture to another brand to sell. To illustrate this meaning, I can think of no better example than the prevailing views about indigenous cultures of North America — those who in Canada we call the First Nations. In their case, the commodification has become almost mainstream.

In the current political climate, to talk about Black culture might seem more timely. However, in Canada, the First Nations occupy some of the position as Afro-Americans in the United States. Moreover, the First Nation’s situation is something I know firsthand. Knowing many First Nations artists and supporting their work, I have heard these misguided views I am pointing at again and again (and also the mingled anger and laughter of the First Nations themselves, since there is no shortage of European ethnics to tell them what to think about their culture).

For one thing, many people are surprised that there are more than one First Nations culture. In the minds of many, the traditional culture stretches from Florida to Alaska. It is like assuming that everyone from Ireland to Russia shares the same culture. The truth is that there have been hundreds of First Nations culture, ranging from nomads to city states and even empires. Those cultures that survive today are united chiefly by their treatment by the European settler governments, who for several centuries have done their best to eradicate and assimilate them.

The imagined pseudo-culture is a grab-bag of traits and customs. The tipis of the plains mingle with the totems of the Pacific Northwest. Everyone wears feathered bonnets and build sweat lodges, and decorate their dwellings with dream-catchers. Everything is all very spiritual — much more so than in modern industrial society, as one potential buyer told a local carver who drives a pickup, lives in a suburban house, and earns most of his income from his online store. It is apparently a deeply romantic place, especially in Germany, where thousands of fans of Karl May’s early twentieth century novels gather to spend a few weeks camping in tipis and calling each other by what they imagine are First Nation names.

This pseudo-culture is so powerfully entrenched in our minds that the modern reality is mostly ignored. Nothing is said of the poverty that many First Nations face. If we think at all, most of us imagine that the First Nations people who survive live on reserves and are dying out, when the reality is that three-quarters are urban, and the birth rate is among the highest of any ethnic groups in North America. Tell them that First Nations like the Nisga-a and the Navajo are self-governing, or that other hereditary chiefs are enough of a power to start country-wide protests, as the Wet’suwet’en of northern British Columbia did, and none of it makes an impression. The pseudo-culture claims our imagination more than the reality.

The pseudo-culture is especially strong when it comes to art. The best-known art among the northern First Nations of British Columbia is known as formline, a semi-abstract library of shapes and traditions that is often compared to Celtic knotwork. Often, it depicts family crests, although the art sold to the general public is more likely to depict stories from the traditional mythologies that are not owned by a particular family.

In its complexity, formline is regarded as one of the great arts of the world. Yet many of us, historically beginning with visiting surrealists and anthropologists, regard it as a primitive art form. Never mind that modern formline draw inspiration from Maori, New Guinea and South America, as well as from the minority cultures of China and Japan. Tourists on the streets of Vancouver see no difference between formline masterpieces and a carving done by an unskilled homeless person sitting in a doorway, except that the homeless person’s is much cheaper. Tourists are also easy marks for “artifakes” carved in Indonesia that are made of mahogany rather than cedar or alder, and mostly imitate formline with no understanding.

Instead, the pseudo-culture imposes its own meanings and standards. Countless gift shops sell pewter pendants and earring with a tag attached that assigns a characteristic to the animal depicted. Wolves, for instance, might be said to symbolize ferocity, or bears tenacity. Among those about to marry, rings or bracelets with pairs of hummingbirds are popular. I have often heard customers in shops natter on about this symbolism as they make their choices, although the entire system originated almost entirely in the minds of copywriters looking for a way to move more marketing.

Meanwhile, amid all this misguided imagining, the true cultures and reality of the First Nations are mostly ignored. A few writers, like Eden Robinson — who is First Nations herself — depict modern First Nations lives but such works are rare. Moreover, in any sort of fantasy, the pseudo-culture prevails. I have seen fantasies, for example, in which the giants of the Cherokees are conflated with the Sasquatch of modern Northwest Coast lore, although all the two have in common is height. Similarly, the Wendigo spirit of the eastern Woodlands is placed in Oregon, or the skinturners of the Pueblo legends in New York. It’s all the same culture, the reasoning seems to be, so why would the details matter.

After decades of genocide and neglect, this pseudo-culture is a final insult. After being nearly eradicated, now that the cultures are reviving, they are made into commodities — that, is, when they are not erased altogether in fantasy, or replaced by homo erectus, or orcs and trolls.

But in addition, reaching for the pseudo-culture should be deeply embarrassing to any writer. To do so, is to brand yourself superficial, if not actually racist. And, perhaps most importantly, it is to chose the trivial over the richness of the true traditions. Any writer who fetishes another culture in this way should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

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