On cultural appropriation and havens

July 4, 2017

I remember the first time I saw an Indian on TV. It was the character of Little Bear in the 1995 movie Indian in the Cupboard. He said he was Haudenosaunee, like me, only he was Onondaga, not Tuscarora. In the movie, Little Bear sang a social song, built a longhouse, fought and eventually befriended a cowboy that referred to him as a “redskin,” a “savage,” an “Injun,” and accused him of scalping people in their sleep. Though Little Bear was sympathetically portrayed—as much as that is possible when embodying the stereotype of the noble savage—he was without question ignorant. Little Bear didn’t know what outside was, and couldn’t recognize that nine-year-old Omri was a child. The cowboy, Boone, had no such issues.

This is what I saw of my people in the media, and even though that representation didn’t feel right to me, it was all my siblings and I had. It’s difficult to think about that now: a flawed film made by non-Indigenous people, based on a flawed book by a non-Indigenous author, was how I learned about myself. I’m sure it was also how non-Indigenous kids learned about my people—and by pan-Indian extension all Indigenous peoples. We were simple. We were redskins, savages, Injuns. We were extinct, a relic of the distant past.

As much as I loved it as a child, The Indian in the Cupboard was cultural appropriation. But instead of thinking about it as such, perhaps we should pull away from that term—“appropriation”—which critics tend to pounce on as a “freedom of speech” issue, and instead refer to the act as “cultural misrepresentation and miseducation,” which is far more accurate. Indian in the Cupboard mixed a lazy, inaccurate version of my people’s culture and history with lazy, inaccurate stereotypes to reinforce our dehuminzation before a large public audience. Though that film is works of fiction, it still has an educational effect, particularly when no actual Haudenosaunee people are around to debunk inaccuracies for viewers.

And that, really, is the heart of the problem: marginalized people don’t have a platform to represent themselves to the public, so the public must instead rely on largely inaccurate, stereotypical myths that are offered as uncontestable facts. The public then takes those “facts” and recycles them over and over until they no longer know where they originally learned them. This is how discrimination sustains itself, in an endless loop of ignorance propelled by cultural misrepresentation and miseducation. After all, if newspaper editors, book publishers and film executives have themselves learned false information about other cultures, how are they going to recognize when they’re peddling the same inaccuracies? And, more importantly, who is going to hold them to account? Particularly when most media and arts industries are still overwhelmingly run and operated by straight, white people with no immediate stake in representations of marginalized people?

It’s interesting to consider those who want to frame the discussion of cultural appropriation—or cultural misrepresentation and miseducation—as one of free speech. These people don’t seem to understand what free speech actually is. Instead of confronting the free speech of others, instead of facing the ramifications of their decision to willfully propagate cultural misrepresentation and miseducation, they’d prefer to claim their intellectual laziness is “free speech”; that those holding them to account and imploring them to do better are “silencing” them. What these people want is not freedom but delusion—a safe haven from criticism and accountability, from hard questions and harder answers.

But, as James Baldwin wrote, “Havens are high-priced. The price exacted of the haven-dweller is that he contrive to delude himself into believing that he has found a haven.” Even if these people find their delusory havens, it doesn’t change the societal and political impact of cultural misrepresentation and miseducation. It doesn’t stop films and books like Indian in the Cupboard from teaching more generations of children the same stereotypes and inaccuracies that have kept us from seeing one another as fully human for so long. It doesn’t stop those same children from becoming adults that spread those same falsehoods in the form of newspaper or magazine editorials, films, books, and online articles with click-bait titles.

It’s time we stopped thinking so much about our rights and instead focused on our responsibilities. We’re currently creating the world our children and grandchildren will grow up in, which means both our action and our inaction carries immense weight. Every one of us needs to decide: are you going to make future generations proud, ensuring their education isn’t the same inaccurate one you were given, continuing the cycle of unconscious discrimination and inequality? Or are you going to stick your head in the sand and make future generations’ work harder? Ultimately, that decision is your responsibility. There is no haven from that.

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. Her writing has been widely published, most recently receiving a National Magazine Award.

This article was published in the July/August 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.