It’s been approximately 19 years since the official closure of Canada’s Residential School System (RSS), but even today our Indigenous peoples continue to fall subject to forced assimilation into Western culture (AN). The Western school system presents an “us” and “them” construct, implementing epistemic racism into Canada’s education by placing Indigenous people as inferior and reinforcing the dominance of Western knowledge. Through the absence of proper education on Indigenous history, non-natives in Canadian society take away the importance of Aboriginal heritage through cultural appropriation.
According to Hookimaw-Witt the only significant difference between residential schooling and current Aboriginal education is that children are no longer displaced from their homes to attend (160). Canadian education is taught to its residents through Western practices, creating a “lack of exposure” to Aboriginal culture, leaving non-natives without the proper knowledge necessary to understand the Aboriginal culture devalued by the RSS (Hookimaw-Witt 162). To improve the impact of Indigenous methodology, the majority of influence needs to come from Canadian Aboriginal people when shaping the curriculum. By continuing to study Indigenous culture, we broaden our knowledge on their history, and learn how to improve the quality of their communities presently. This form of nation-building by refining the quality of Indigenous influence on education will lead to a better understanding between the two unique cultures, and the reconciliation of Canadian society.
Cultural appropriation occurs because of a lack of exposure the Western education system provides non-natives regarding Aboriginal culture. Non-natives lack the knowledge of what is appropriate to adapt from Indigenous culture, and what aspects should be preserved. The article “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses” addresses the disrespect non-natives wearing headdresses brings to Aboriginal society (Apihtawikosisan). The author explains that just as Western culture has restricted wearing specific symbols unless earned by the individual, wearing headdresses is restricted to only men of Aboriginal descent who have earned the right to do so (Apihtawikosisan). Wearing headdresses as a non-native as well as creating artwork with this cultural fallacy are equally as disrespectful and are seen as mockery (Apihtawikosisan). The purpose of this letter is to inform the non-native community of the disrespect they display by thinking they have the right to redefine this symbol themselves. By broadening non-native’s knowledge of Indigenous methodologies, this appropriation can be avoided through education.
An example of historical ignorance through a form of cultural appropriation is displayed in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production “Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation.” This piece was meant to reflect on the trauma caused by the Residential School System, and “serve as a further testament to healing” inspired by stories told by survivors (Harris). The piece attempts to make the audience feel as though they are part of the story themselves, Indigenous or not (Harris). The reviews of this ballet, and possibly the purpose the contributors had in mind themselves differ from this goal. Two of the primary reviews of this piece focus on the aesthetic elements instead of the importance behind its creation. A review by Holly Harris for the Winnipeg Free Press disregards the message of this piece, and superficially criticizes the plot for “overshadowing the choreography” (Harris). She continues to disapprove of the ambiguity of the plotline, complaining about the “four-page plot synopsis” provided to educate about the history of the RSS (Harris). In Robert Enright’s review, he praises the routine for “not allowing the story to overwhelm the dance,” or become “too dramatic.” Theatrics are necessary to completely depict the story of the RSS and by suppressing the “dramatics,” important traumas of the experience are left in the past. Author of “Going Home Star” Joseph Boyden talks about the irony of using European style dance to reflect on Aboriginal culture, but emphasizes that “ballet cuts right to the heart of what is most beautiful physically in humanity, and what’s most beautiful in terms of story and how do I interpret this story.” These statements create question about the intentions of the piece. Is there anything truly beautiful about the labor the RSS has caused Canada’s Indigenous people? If the purpose of this piece was to tell the story of Aboriginals in Canada, is the most impactful way to hide the horrors and bring out what is simply more beautiful?
Without the purpose of education and reconciliation, the ballet would take aspects of Aboriginal history, and use it for the purpose of entertainment and art rather than education. The reviews mentioned appear to reassure the use of cultural appropriation because they encourage taking the elements of the story being told that are easy to understand and visually pleasing, rather than the raw story of torment the RSS had inflicted upon Canada’s Indigenous society. The lack of influence Aboriginal Canadians have on Western education is a contributing factor of the cultural appropriation they experience. There is a great importance placed on the nation-building of Indigenous society after the Residential School System had forced assimilation resulting in their loss of control, traditions, heritage and other devastating damages. Through proper education and striving towards equality in Canada’s multicultural society, the cultural appropriation of Aboriginal customs can be minimized.
Anishinabek Nation (AN). “About Indian Residential Schools.” Indian Residential Schools Commemoration Project. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. http://www.anishinabek.ca/irscp/irscp-about-residential.asp.
Apihtawikosisan. “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses.” Apihtawikosisan. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. http://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/01/the-dos-donts-maybes-i-dont-knows-of-cultural-appropriation/.
“Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation.” Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet. n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
Enright, Robert. “Going Home Star: Robert Enright’s review.” Online video clip. CBC Player. CBC News, 2 Oct. 2014. Web. Mar 9. 2015.
Harris, Holly. “Going Home Star a turning point in RWB repertoire.” Winnipeg Free Press. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/arts-and-life/entertainment/arts/Going-Home-Star-a-turning-point-in-RWB-repertoire-277923622.html.
Hookimaw-Witt, Jacqueline. “Any Changes since Residential School?” Canadian Journal of Native Education 22(2) (1998): 159-70. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.