Our Featured Image is a coffee mug that I’ve had for years. I took the picture myself out on my balcony.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but my father worked Indigenous Affairs back when it was called DIAND (Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development). He travelled at lot as part of his duties, which meant that he frequently came across various works of art that he would buy as gifts for my sister and I for when he returned home. These items ranged from slightly kitschy (I recently found a mini-totem pole in a box in the garage that seems a bit dubious) to some genuinely cool soap stone carvings (which I am still looking for today).
This coffee mug falls somewhere in the latter category. Although at first glance it might seem like the former. And that’s where things can get interesting.
Let me explain.
I don’t remember the specific occasion when I received the mug, but a bit of research based on the text on the bottom shows that it was made by a company called Native Northwest. They’re a company that partners with (mostly) West Coast First Nations artists to create clothing, kitchen wares, and other items for sale. The artist who made this particular design is Corey W. Moraes, a Tsimshian artist who is still around today, although he does not appear to be working with Native Northwest.
So the image on the mug is Mr Moraes’ interpretation of Raven, done in a West Coast tradition. Raven is a spiritual figure in numerous First Nations’ traditions, and the style seen here is similar to many other West Coast Nations. Although it’s possible for some specific portrayals of Raven to be considered sacred (and thus inappropriate for a coffee mug), Raven as a figure in general is not.
So this is a First Nations artist, creating his own portrayal of a traditional figure, which he then elected to render as a coffee mug for general sale. So it is not cultural appropriation. Which is a bit of a relief, because I genuinely loved this coffee mug and was overjoyed when I recently re-discovered it after moving.
This little discussion I’m presenting here is meant to illustrate a larger set of issues in Canada, as well as Indigenous cultures throughout the world. It is part of a debate that’s been an ongoing within the Indigenous community and Indigenous artists. Who owns art? The artist? Their community or nation? How can it be presented? How can it be sold? What if it’s sold to someone who then decides to modify it? What if that person isn’t a member of the originating community or even Indigenous?
As far as I’ve been able to follow the debate, there’s been some generalized agreement on some issues. You’re allowed to interpret and portray your own culture as you with, and if the resulting work is entirely your own, then you can present it, distribute and market it as you see fit. While many Indigenous people might debate the issue of marketing ‘traditional‘ art, so long as the artist is portraying their own heritage, the question becomes one of what you should or shouldn’t do, rather than what you can and cannot.
By ‘your culture‘ it’s generally accepted that the artist in question not only needs to be Indigenous but should also but from the Nation or region they’re portraying. In this case, the artist is from the West Coast, so it’s cool that he took a traditional image and reworked it. If the person had been from say, a Mi’kmaq artist (from Eastern Canada, where there’s a very different artistic tradition) then that could be a problem. You don’t go appropriating someone else’s culture, even if you’re both First Nations.
Things get more complicated when you start to consider the fact that there are numerous artistic traditions even within any given Nation and furthermore, the historical record is often incomplete. Especially when you move beyond what could be called “modern traditional art” (as in art created in the present day based off of your Nation’s traditions) versus “recreation of traditional art” (as in art that attempts to recreate or carry on specific art forms from the past). This can include music, dances, clothing, costumes/regalia, even tattoos that not only have huge cultural significance but can also be religiously important as well.
***Please note: These categories aren’t formal ones. I’m using descriptive terms as best I can to distinguish two concepts. If there’s formal terms for what I’m talking about here, please let me know.***
A good place to see traditional art being recreated is on the Powwow circuit, where First Nations artists, musicians and dancers will work to recreate the original versions of specific art forms.
***It’s an interesting thing to note that pretty much any website promoting Pow Wows will have a sub-section explaining the etiquette for non-Indigenous visitors. While parts of the Pow Wows are competitions and a show, other parts are sacred and important and must be respected. Visitors are welcome, but never forget that you’re a guest.***
So the concept of ‘Traditional Clothing‘ gets filtered into a couple of categories. You got modern clothing that’s made and decorated according to traditional art forms that are re-interpreted by modern artists. Then you got traditional clothing that is clothing made in modern times that is intended to re-create specific regalia from the past. And within this latter category you would then have regalia intended for competition and performance, and regalia with specific sacred connotations.
I know I’m sounding like a broken record here, but these are concepts that are very important to understand, and which historically us ‘white’ people have had a lot of trouble understanding.
Case in point, these photos illustrate a recent and really blatant case of cultural appropriation. The picture on the left is of an Inuit shaman taken in around 1920 while the image on the right in a modern sweater that ‘inspired‘ by Indigenous artwork, created by a European designing firm Kokon To Zai (KTZ) and sold at ‘white’ owned stores including CNTRBND and Nordstrom. Not only was it blatant plagiarism, but the original design wasn’t just a random traditional Inuit parka, but a unique design made by a specific shaman as he approached the later years of his life.
Among the Inuit there’s a tradition where a shaman, as they grow old, will design and make a very personal coat or parka, decorated with particular symbols and designs. While there are certain materials and colours that are common, the design is meant to be unique to the particular shaman, with two people from the same region at the same time period liable to produce very different work.
Part of the reason we know all this is because the picture on the left is not just of a random Inuk shaman, but is of a shaman named Ava, a known individual who has direct descendants who are alive today. (see link article above) So the KTZ designer didn’t just rip off a design. He ripped off a specific design that is not only meant to be sacred to the Inuit, but was the unique work of a particular Inuk shaman. Who has living descendants. Who were really not impressed.
I’m bringing all this up because of a two word phrase that’s going to come up in the next part of the deconstruction: ‘Native Costumes.’ This is a term that’s not only potentially loaded but also very broad and hard to define.
It’s something that’s the subject of all kinds of ongoing conversations, and it’s something that you need to be specific about. Otherwise you end up with all kinds of sketchy outcomes.
What I’m saying is, we’re going to some weird places with next week’s deconstruction post.
 Just a reminder for non-Canadians. The word ‘Indian‘ in common usage is an outdated term that is frequently treated as a racial slur. However, the word still has legal force in Canada as category of persons with specific rights defined by various Treaties and Laws. At the time that my Dad worked there, DIAND was the official legal name of the Department.
 Things get a bit complicated here. Native Northwest is predominantly a Coast Salish company, but Corey Moraes is a Tsimshian artist. Coast Salish (or Coastal Salish, or just Salish) is kind of umbrella term for over a dozen West Coast First Nations in the region around southern-British Columbia. Although the nations are all unique, they are united by a common language group and a number of cultural and artistic traditions. The Tsimshian are a West Coast Nation found further to the north, and part of a separate language and culture group which include the Nisga’a and the Haida. Although these are separate nations from separate traditions, modern expressions of their culture and artwork has seen a lot of cross-pollination, especially during the ‘Haida Renaissance’ of the mid-20th Century.
 For anyone who might dismiss a decorated coffee cup as crass, I’d just like to point out that decorating dishes and cups has been a human custom in every part of the world since we discovered pottery. These days, we put ancient pots, vases, and amphorae on display in museums, but when they were made they were meant to be used. People ate and drank out of those priceless artifacts back in the day.
 To their credit, CNTRBND and Nordstrom both pulled the sweaters from their shelves as soon as the family raised the issue. The designer KTZ apologized, and is (apparently) off the legal hook because the image is old enough to technically(?) make the design public domain. This strikes me as a case of using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit.