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Cultural appropriation and Aboriginal literature.

In Canada, in the 1990's, Aboriginal writers are a growing and vibrant population. But it wasn't always this way. In fact, in order to read about Aboriginal people you had to use books that weren't written by Aboriginal people. Usually written by anthropologists, missionaries or adventurers, these books depicted Aboriginal people with varying levels of accuracy. The major concern was that, no matter how sympathetic these writers may have been, they could not be completely accurate because of the biases they may have developed over the years.

This is commonly known as "cultural appropriation" or "appropriation of voice" when someone of one culture writers about another. It concerned a lot of Aboriginal people about the mistaken information or lies written about them.

"It is a problem in the Native community," said James Dempsey, director of the School of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. "Native people should be allowed to explain who and what they are (because) we're talking about a group that has been consciously attempted to be assimilated (and) their identity has either been suppressed or ignored."

It's only been in the past 25 years has there been an active revitalization of Aboriginal writers writing about themselves and expressing themselves in their own voices.

"I think the most important thing for a non-Native writer to do when they write about Native issues is to have respect -- respect means research and talking to the people," said Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, an Anishinabe author and storyteller from Wiarton, Ont.

"I can see non-Native writers doing that in the field of journalism, but when it comes to literature it's a dicey situation because we all grow up with certain biases, and if we accept or reject those biases, it always shows up in our writing."

Neither Keeshig-Tobias, nor any other Aboriginal writer, would advocate denying the right of any writer to use Aboriginal themes and characters. If those characters, situations or scenarios were highly inaccurate, then Keeshig-Tobias feels that the writer should be held accountable for that.

"One of the reasons I'm a culture worker is to educate non-Natives about the stereotypes and disinformation that is put out by non-Aboriginal writers. It's done a great deal of harm," she said. "I get really tired of doing it because we end up doing a lot of that work a very little of our own work."

It then, raises the question of whether or not a non-Aboriginal writer can write about Aboriginal themes accurately or with enough sensitivity. This is a problem that Scott Anderson faces all the time. As editor of Quill & Quire, a magazine for the writers, librarians, editors, book sellers and publishers in Canada, Anderson is careful when he encounters books written by a writer not of the culture he is writing about. At the same time, he knows that fiction has different rules that make appropriation of voice necessary.

"Writers appropriate voices all the time. You're creating a number a voices in fiction, you're filling someones shoes and if you want to create a character unlike you, whether that person is black, white, Native or Asian, I don't see the problem. It's fiction. That's what fiction is to me, appropriation of a voice other than their own," he said. "I think if a writer can write honestly I don't see that as appropriation of voice. The writer either succeeds at it or doesn't. They should be evaluated on how they do it."

Beth Cut Hand, the acting department head of Indigenous and academic studies at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology in Merritt, B.C., agreed with Anderson. She cited two examples of non-Aboriginal writers and their different approaches to their subjects: Tony Hillerman, who writes mystery novels set on the Navajo Nation, that sometimes step into the realm of spirituality, and W.P. Kinsella, whose stories set on the Ermineskin First Nation caused an uproar. Hillerman won an award from the Navajo Nation for his books, whereas Kinsella was critically slammed by Aboriginal critics.

"I don't think we could paint with such a broad brush," said Cut Hand. Ironically, "we actually have Kinsella to thank for an increased awareness and sensitivity to a First Nation voice."

But Dempsey pointed out that just because a writer isn't from that culture doesn't mean their observations and conclusions should be dismissed.

"Sometimes a truth comes from someone who knows nothing about you -- an outsider," said Dempsey.

Keeshig-Tobias, however, feels that it's time for some non-Aboriginal writers to step aside.

"I appreciate the work of Rudy Weibe and M.T. Kelly because they were very, very respectful and they were the only things going. But they must realize there comes a time for them to step back," she said. "I believe that the reason that they're doing this is to foster and promote a greater understanding of Aboriginal people and their histories. They can't do that forever and ever because it (becomes) the same old missionary situation."

Cut Hand remembers that the issue of appropriation arose from a feeling that First Nations writers were being ignored, but now feels this issue is "getting old."

"I don't support that idea of censoring each others voices. It gets too oppressive," said Cut Hand. "It's got to the point that a lot of good people won't talk to First Nations people. We've got to break down those barriers. The whole movement about appropriation made a lot non-Native writers sensitive about what they were writing about. But I think there's a point if you push it too far, you push them away."
COPYRIGHT 1997 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Williams, Kenneth
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Words:925
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