Monday, February 15, 2016

On Appropriation

I'm teaching First Nations in Canada this semester, and it's a bit of a challenge for me. I spent 7 years in school studying philosophy and social sciences - all from a western European point of view, so I feel confident teaching those subjects from that perspective, but I know little more about First Nations than what I've read in the paper and a few books (by John Ralston Saul and Charlie Angus). I have a general sense of the history, but I'm not up on the specifics of the treaties and the various groups that I feel I need to learn to do an adequate job. The last time I took a history course was when I was in grade ten. It'll be a busy semester, and I'll only be teaching it this once during a department transition.

The course is actually called Current Aboriginal Issues in Canada, but we looked at some articles on the first day that criticize the name, so I've changed the official title for our purposes. There's no history in the course description, but I can't imagine diving into current issues without looking at the background to each issue first, so I've added in some historical research, major tribes, languages, and locations circa 1490 to today (with a bit from 10000 BCE to 1490).

We started by looking at some stereotypes seen in media, and jumped on the "tribute" to the First Nations in the front hall of our very own school. A wooden figure was gifted to the school by graduates about 20 years ago, and it stays regardless some concerns with it. Here's what the description of it says:
"This statue is a compilation of various First Nations of Turtle Island. The breastplate, made of bone and bead is most commonly worn by the northern and central plains Nations such as the Lakota and Dakota people. They are often referred to by their language group, the Sioux. Likewise, the scalp lock seen here is not a Mohawk, but a "Pariki" or "horn." Pawnee is a derivation of Pariki and this Nation is found in the central plains and Oklahoma regions." 
First of all, when is creating an amalgamation of many different people ever a act of honour? To create something emblematic of my family, I'd make something that showed our similarities, or, if I wanted to show one interesting thing from each member, I'd make sure not leave anyone out.  Here three groups have to stand in for many different tribes. It's also curious that the depiction is of peoples far south of here rather than in honour of people of our region. The whole display make it seem like this is a foreign, alien group, so my class created our own version of an amalgamation of Europeans. We titled it, "Is This What Respect Looks Like?" and taped it right beside the statue, but it was quickly removed. Apparently it's offensive to stereotype people like that.

Our school teams are called "Raiders," and our school used to have a horribly offensive First Nations mascot which was pretty recently changed to a pirate. I don't understand why we're so married to "Raiders" though. A nearby school changed their teams from the Marauders to the Mustangs, so it's possible to change names. But not for us. At the time of finally letting go of the images, I suggested, if we must be Raiders, that we have a raccoon as a mascot. They raid things! I didn't win enough support. And, of course, shortly after the mascot change, Somali pirates started attacking ships in the Indian Ocean. Are we supposed to be encouraging the bravery and tenacity of pirates in our sports teams? It's not something I really understand at all.

I tried to embrace the change like a good stoic and get people on board to celebrate talk like a pirate day, but that didn't take off either. If we're going to do it, then can't we have some fun with it? Apparently I don't have much clout in these parts. But back to the course.

I decided to have students do a novel study which they'll present in a month. Because it's not an English class, they don't have to write a report on the novel; they're free to present in any way they like. Since it's sometimes hard for kids to think outside the box, I figured I'd read a book and present it in a non-essay format myself. I barrelled through Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse, then yesterday I painted a summary of the gut-wrenching book about an Ojibway boy's life, and I used art from a variety of Ojibway artists as inspiration for the depiction. But the whole time I wondered if I was in appropriation territory.

It made for a disjointed composition that doesn't work artistically - it's a weird mix of flattened images on a landscape - but it's useful to start a discussion on the story as it mirrors the painful clash of cultures. I interspersed quotations through select scenes to summarize the essence of the text. There's a little piece of it below to give you a sense of it, but I'm won't share more online.

I sourced the artists I imitated right on the painting, Norval Morrisseau, Jim Oskineegish, William Monague, Simone McLeod, and Christian Morrisseau, and I'll likely be painting over it after the course is over. I'd ditch it entirely except it got my 11-year-old daughter asking lots of questions. She had no idea about the residential schools and wondered why it's not taught in regular classes. She knows all about the holocaust because they all read Hana's Suitcase, but they read nothing about this Canadian holocaust. My piece is clearly effective as a way of teaching some of the issues in the story.

But even with the citations, it still feels a little wrong. In art classes we were often encouraged to copy the masters to get a feel for how to paint in a certain style. My house is full of my copies of Picasso, Matisse, and Rousseau. I obviously can't afford the originals, and I prefer paint on canvas to prints, and they're just for my purposes. I painted Three Musicians full size on my basement wall after seeing it for the first time. I don't feel any guilt over that. But it's not the same as copying a Morrisseau.

And I looked at student projects done in the past years of the course: pipes, longhouses, dream catchers, medicine wheels.... That really doesn't feel right. It's fun for kids to create, but...

Part of it is shocking ignorance. Some of the creations are re-creating something of honour as if it's a toy. Without intimate knowledge of the background and meaning behind artifacts, it's too easy to inadvertently offend. It's like if someone created a marker of our culture, but accidentally got the flag upside-down. It would be offensive to Canadians regardless the intention.

The goal is to amplify the voice of people who have been marginalized, to tell their stories without speaking for them. That can be tricky for a white teacher. Years ago I considered teaching The History of Mary Prince, but I was taken to task in an online forum for being a white girl who dares to teach a black story. So it went untaught. That's not the optimal solution either.

Perhaps it's best if I just supply the original material, add in some field trips and guest speakers, and summarize as little as possible.

So, why did I even paint the piece with a bit of the style of some Ojibway artists? I could have just depicted the scenes in my own style, but I wanted to add the flavour of the culture within the piece. I haven't studied the iconography the way I have with Byzantine art, for instance, but I did research each of the artists and where they're from to ensure they have a connection to the storyline. But I'll keep that final product within a small circle of my six students where we can discuss my internal struggle as well.

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