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Canada's ReMatriate Movement Takes on Fashion’s Indigenous Cultural Appropriation

"It's hard to ignore what harm there is in presenting the identity of indigenous women as hypersexual, passive beings."

by Meagan Wohlberg
05 May 2015, 4:00am

Ta'une (Kelly Edzerza-Bapty) is Tahltan of the Stikine River and Headwaters, and is one of only three indigenous women to complete the Master of Architecture program at University of British Columbia.

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

From fluorescent feathered headdresses at indie-pop festivals to Urban Outfitters "smudge kits," to runway fashion shows like Dsquared2's offensive "Dsquaw" line, racist knockoffs that appropriate indigenous art, culture, and identities have become a common controversy across North America in recent months.

While on the surface it may seem that the objection lies in the obvious issue of cultural and intellectual property theft, it's the robbery of indigenous peoples' right to represent themselves that's actually at stake, according to activists behind a new campaign to reclaim the visual representations of indigenous women and culture.

"It's taking away our ability to even authentically represent our own cultures," said Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, an intern architect from the Tahltan Nation in northern BC and one of the founders of ReMatriate, a photographic campaign that provides a drastically different image of indigenous women than the stereotypical tropes found in popular culture.

Angela Code is Sayisi Dene from northern Manitoba.

ReMatriate is the response to those stereotypes, said Clair Anderson, a Taku River Tlingit lawyer living in Whitehorse, who is also part of the movement, which is meant to put indigenous women back in control of the way they are represented and to honor the respected traditional roles indigenous women held before colonization.

Since launching on social media earlier this year, the campaign has attracted over a thousand followers and featured photos of indigenous women engaged in a combination of traditional and contemporary tasks in various locations, fighting the notion of the homogenous "aboriginal."

"We want to step away from being portrayed as monolithic or as historic relics," Anderson said. "We wanted to highlight the fact that we aren't historic figures. We are modern women. Some of us are academics, some of us are lawyers, some of us are architects, and we all continue to practice our culture in different ways, whether it's weaving or dancing or hunting or tanning hides. We just wanted to show the complexity, but also how we've incorporated these traditions into our modern life."

Artist and actor Melaw Nakehk'o, Dehcho Dene from Denendeh (NWT), photographed by Kaska Dena artist Kali Spitzer from Daylu (BC).

Edzerza-Bapty, who is herself featured in photos harvesting wild salmon and receiving her Master of Architecture from the University of British Columbia, said communities are now beginning to bounce back from the impacts of colonization and residential schools, and this bouncing back is facilitated greatly by the regeneration of language and cultural practices.

Though some of those traditional art forms and regalia are meant to be kept sacred, she said others are offered openly for sale to the larger public. Unfortunately, according to Edzerza-Bapty, the appropriation of that work has a cheapening effect on those efforts.

"From an artistic sense, as clever and sophisticated as these big name designers think they're being, to the trained eye of indigenous people, they're extremely remedial and often childlike efforts at creating centuries-old traditional art forms," she said. "It devalues the actual art pieces when you have creations that are kind of gesture-like approaches to the art form. They really take away the value out of authenticity."

Recently, the New York Fashion Week designer behind KTZ said his fall/winter 2015 line—which caused outrage after it was pointed out that the clothes were blatant rip-offs of contemporary indigenous designers—was "a tribute to the primal woman, indigenous to this land, who evolves into a sexualized, empowered being."

Native Appropriations blogger Adrienne Keene wrote that, far from being a tribute, such a description constituted a "mockery and celebration of cultural theft."

However, it's a kind of crime that doesn't offer a lot of legal recourse, according to Anderson.

Sister duo Meghann and Nalaga Avis O'Brien, Haida/Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw artists.

"We can't really turn to intellectual property rights as protections because these art forms have existed in our families or clan systems for multiple generations... and it's gotten to the point now where in copyright laws, it now belongs in the public domain because it's persisted with the one group for over 50 years," she explained.

Anderson said there is a trend in the law when it comes to who it protects and who it excludes. Indigenous people are often left on the outskirts, not just when it comes to intellectual property rights, but on issues of child protection and criminal justice. This is clear when you look at the record high number of indigenous children in care—three times that during the height of residential school—and the more than 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

Apart from infringing on the intellectual property of indigenous peoples, Anderson worries about the ways that inaccurate and offensive representations "trickle" into other areas of society, where indigenous women and girls are vulnerable to violence, both on a personal and systemic level.

"The image of a hypersexualized indigenous woman portrayed by an outsider isn't just one isolated event. It's a pattern," she said.

The death of Cindy Gladue illustrates Anderson's fears. The 36-year-old Cree woman bled to death in 2011 after suffering a fatal wound to her vagina. Her preserved pelvis was then brought into the courtroom as evidence during the trial last month, where the man accused of first degree murder and manslaughter in her death was acquitted after the defense successfully argued the two had engaged in "rough, consensual sex," despite Gladue having been four times the legal blood alcohol level.

"It's hard to just ignore what harm there is in presenting the identity of indigenous women as hypersexual, passive beings," Anderson said. "Because we're not. We're complex, educated, smart, driven women. We're more than just the image that's being portrayed, and that image is actually having harmful effects that are seen in courtrooms and seen in police investigations.

"It's gotten to the point where, while we're able to, we have to voice that we don't consent to this representation, for all the women who weren't able to say that they didn't consent to the way that they were treated. We feel it's an obligation."

The actively unfolding ReMatriate exhibit is available on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr, but with cascading interest in the project, Edzerza-Bapty said it's likely to grow into more types of media and likely a curated photographic exhibition in galleries across Canada.

Regional representatives of the campaign are also being recruited across the continent, with the hopes that participation in panel discussions and media interviews will continue contributing to the public dialogue around cultural appropriation, while simultaneously introducing the public to people and cultures they might never have known existed.

"In BC alone, there are over 200 distinct First Nations, and that says nothing of the number there are in Canada or North America," Edzerza-Bapty said.

"Really what we're trying to capture with this is just the breadth of the number of distinct First Nations cultures that actually exist in this landscape, from the urban indigenous to extremely rural communities. There's a very broad lens through which indigenous people sit. We're not this kind of homogenized or tokenist image. We're from very vast cultures over a massive land base."

Follow Meagan Wohlberg on Twitter.

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