McGill students discuss cultural appropriation and colonialism
Halloween, you think of it as harmless fun a lot of times, people are getting dressed and they’re having a good time [...] but for people of color, it can be a stressful time, and [the fact is] that it’s not acknowledged,” said Carlee Loft, a fourth year psychology student at McGill University, the SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner, and a Kanien'kehá:ka with roots in Kahnawake and Akwesasne.
A panel discussion held on McGill Campus—which is located on unceded, Kanien'kehá:ka traditional territory—on October 30th, called, “Decolonizing Halloween: Culture Vultures and Us” aimed to address this issue and discuss the broader themes of colonialism, cultural appropriation, and racism. The event was co-sponsored by the McGill Indigenous Student Alliance (ISA) and the McGill Black Student’s Network (BSN). The panel was moderated by Kelsa Fuerguson, a Métis student from the ISA, and featured panelists Carlee Loft (described above), as well as Denzel Sutherland-Wilson, a third year anthropology student and member of the Gitxsan nation, and Christelle Tessono, a second-year Political Science student and VP Political of the BSN.
In Canada, and much of North America, October is marked by Halloween celebrations: Advertisements for colorful costumes pervade the media and invitations to themed parties flood social network feeds. Yet, despite the ostensible festiveness and humor of the holiday, it can be an occasion wrought with racism and insensitive attitudes which can make some minorities feel marginalized or unsafe. While the discussion, and even the definition, of cultural appropriation is complex and nuanced, it must be understood that when people dress up in replicas or perversions of traditional garments of different cultures—from an “Indian chief” costume to a Pocahontas dress—they misrepresent and undermine the long-held tradition and symbolism behind the clothing (1). Furthermore, by altering and using other people’s culture for their own purpose, they implicitly take ownership over it. Recently, this idea has reached mainstream consciousness, with articles being written and seminars being held to help guide people from unintentionally perpetuating misrepresentation and appropriation of other’s cultures (2). These ideas were discussed during the panel.
“You probably already know this, but regalia is very important in our culture,” said Sutherland-Wilson. “It only comes out for special things, like a headdress [...] I’ve seen family members who are chiefs wear it two or three times in my life, I’ve seen more white people dressed in headdresses and stuff. There’s a real power when it comes out, it’s important.”
Loft shared a similar experience. She explained that in some cases, it is a rare opportunity for Indigenous individuals to wear their own cultural regalia, especially for those who are more disconnected from their communities.
“I’ve had family members who are gifted feathers at graduation,” she said. “I’m hoping to get mine at the end of this year! It’s something that really really matters [...] it’s something that’s tied inherently to identity, and to see someone put it on as a joke [...] when I wouldn’t feel comfortable with regalia even at an event within my own community [... and might] feel like ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be the one wearing this,’ is insane to me.”
However, the issue goes far beyond offensive costumes: Cultural appropriation is a symptom of colonialism. While the Canadian education curriculum covers colonization in terms of land and political power, it rarely scratches the surface of the impact colonialism can have on the destruction of Indigenous people’s culture or delve into the attempts of settlers to establish their ways of life as the universal norm while simultaneously taking ownership of Indigenous traditions. Far from a historical event, this is a trend that continues to this day, rearing its head in the form of cultural appropriation, racism, and exploitation. One Indigenous writer, Laura Kooji, wrote in a column to the Hamilton Spectator, “We cannot separate cultural appropriation from the core principles that have shaped and sharpened the weapons of colonization and the constructs of power that are at play at this moment [...] Ultimately, in light of 500 years of colonial violence, you don't get to explain to anyone how you are entitled to use, redefine and profit from everything you see.” (3) At the panel, Tessono raised similar point when asked about the connection between colonialism and Halloween.
“To me what is so colonial about Halloween is [that] it is representative of the relationship between white people and [...generally] the people who have been racialized [or have a] history with colonialism,” Tessono said. “Having people disguise themselves as Native Americans, why would you want to do that? Don’t you understand your positionality within history, but also presently?”
For many, Halloween serves as an unwelcome reminder that these harmful colonial actions and thoughts are widespread and even accepted in modern society. When moderator Fuerguson asked the audience whether they have seen culturally appropriating costumes being sold or worn, every hand in the room went up. Much more than just a quantitative indication of how pervasive the issue is on campus, each of these hands potentially represents a story of someone who was made to feel uncomfortable or marginalized at what was supposed to be an otherwise friendly gathering. Sutherland-Wilson shared his own story.
“One time I’ve had a friend at a party who was wearing like a native woman costume,” he said. “I kind of thought about it for a moment and walked up to her and asked, ‘Are you pocahontas or just a generic Indian?” I was kind of surprised she actually answered, ‘Oh I’m just a generic Indian.’ I don’t think she realized I was Native [I don’t know…] I had no idea what to say [...] so I just like left, like I’m not gonna start an argument with someone.”
For those who want to respectfully celebrate and experience another culture, the key lies in understanding the difference between consensual cultural exchange and cultural appropriation (4). The panel was in agreement that a productive cultural exchange is only possible when people consent to trading or sharing parts of their culture, such as a traditional garment, on their own terms, without the involvement of third parties which misrepresent or exploit them for profit. For example, McGill’s First People’s House hosts an annual Pow Wow, where Indigenous people share a joyful, traditional celebration with the McGill community, with artisan vendors who sell genuine regalia. Loft encourages students to engage in occasions such as this if they wish to truly honor Indigenous culture and facilitate mutual understanding and support.
“I’ve had friends ask me this when the Pow Wow happens here, ‘Can I buy [those] earrings [you’re wearing]?’,” said Loft. “And I’m like, ‘Yes! Please do, these vendors [are] making money off this [...] this is part of their life, you are in some tiny way supporting them being able to live a life where they are expressing themselves through their own cultural traditions and that’s awesome!”
Blagrove, Kadia. "Your Guide to Avoiding Cultural Appropriation." Huffington Post . August 30, 2016. Accessed November 09, 2017.
Kooji, Laura. "Back to our roots: Colonialism and cultural appropriation." The Hamilton Spectator . May 26, 2017. Accessed November 09, 2017. https://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/7335268-back-to-our-roots-colonialism-and-cultural-appropriation/.
Paling, Emma . ""I Am Not A Costume" Reminds People To Choose Halloween Outfits Respectfully." Huffington Post. October 16, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/10/16/i-am-not-a-costume-aboriginal-halloween_n_12514638.html.
Uwujaren, Jarune. "The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation." Everyday Feminism. November 23, 2016. Accessed November 09, 2017. https://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/.