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Yes, cultural appropriation can happen within the Indigenous community and yes, we should be debating it

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The Arnaqquasaaq Collective – a collective of Inuit women artists – charged that Cree artist Cikwes specifically targeted and took fellow artist Tanya Tagaq’s style of practice. (Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press)

For decades, Indigenous artists and arts administrators have worked tirelessly to make room for and hold up Indigenous creativity. So, it is difficult — or at least uncomfortable — to say anything that might tarnish that work in any regard. But, this year’s Indigenous Music Awards (IMAs), held Friday in Winnipeg, presented challenges that both Indigenous and mainstream media found hard to ignore.

This year, a Cree artist’s work was nominated for Best Folk Album. The artist — Connie LeGrande, who performs as Cikwes — characterized some tracks on the album as throat-singing, and it is this claim garnered the attention of musicians in the Inuit music community, several of whom decided to boycott the awards. (The award ended up going to Beatrice Deer for her album “My All To You.”)

As an art form and cultural practice, Inuit throat-singing has been regaining momentum as a direct result of intentional resurgence practices in Inuit communities. Like so many Indigenous cultural practices, throat-singing was suppressed and targeted for annihilation by the machine of colonization.

Yet throat-singing continues to thrive because of the dedication of its practitioners who persist in passing it on. Its origins in the land, language, and stories of Inuit people are a testament to its place as a vital practice in Inuit social, political, and artistic life. As such, how and with whom the practice is shared is subject to careful scrutiny.

International attention

The Arnaqquasaaq Collective – a collective of Inuit women artists – presented the IMAs with a letter outlining their concerns about a non-Inuk performing and profiting off of their craft.

The letter outlined a critical political analysis of intra-Indigenous appropriation: both that LeGrande specifically targeted and took fellow artist Tanya Tagaq’s style of practice and that LeGrande further claimed to have been given permission and rights to do so.It also laid bare the human and emotional impact the nomination had on Inuit singers.

In spite of this, the IMAs stood by the nomination (as did the Cree artist) and subsequent media/communication between the Collective and the IMAs became an issue reported on internationally in the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. As an Indigenous (non-Inuit) musician, I held my breath and tried to navigate the tides.

I can appreciate how nerve wracking it is to watch internal conflicts play out in real time in a public forum. The media is neither gentle nor kind when it comes to reporting on conflict. The Inuit artists who spoke out on this issue were characterized as “bringing us back a few steps” – as though dissent should be taken to be inherently regressive.

Infighting amongst Indigenous peoples is a compelling and easy thing to write about: it reinforces stereotypes of dysfunction and disorganization we’ve had to deal with since contact.

Because Indigenous peoples have been under scrutiny for so long (it is impossible to list all of the negative stereotypes and clichés we’ve had to endure), it can feel like a betrayal to be publicly called out (or even, called in) by other Indigenous peoples.

To be clear, I side with Inuit artists on this issue. I think it is both possible and common for appropriation to occur between and amongst Indigenous peoples and nations. However, I also appreciate that a sentiment of solidarity exists among Indigenous people all over the world, not just within Canada.

Despite varied and vast differences between diverse Indigenous nations, when we meet each other, there is a tangible and deserved shared triumph and pride in being survivors of our nations and creators of our destinies. I can see how this sense of shared Indigeneity might obscure (rightly or wrongly) our unique and distinct qualities.

You only have to look to the phrase “Indigenous peoples” to see how our pluralistic and dynamic existences have been reduced to a singular cause: “Indigenous.” Yet, we know that “Indigenous” can’t quite capture what it means to come from our specific nations, our specific homes.

‘Strategic essentialism’

Indian philosopher and theorist Gayatri Spivak refers to the tactic of collectively adopting the main characteristic of a group as “strategic essentialism.” She highlights the practical effectiveness of using a collective identifier to achieve specific political goals.

However, she has also noted its limitations in terms of being adequately representative or reflective of real peoples and communities, cautioning that the use of strategic essentialism should only be an interim measure toward a more expansive liberation.

In her essay “Demanding More of Ourselves: Indigenous Incivility,” Cree/Gitxsan scholar and philosopher Val Napoleon discusses the need for high level thoughtfulness, power analysis, and weighted critiques balanced with civility when it comes to discussions about pan-Indigeneity.

On one hand, this call to action is intuitive and almost self-evident: of course civil society requires critical engagement. On the other hand, the shift from strategic essentialism to healthy diversity is a daunting leap.

The case of the Indigenous Music Awards and the cultural appropriation of Inuit throat-singing highlights for Indigenous communities the challenges that lie ahead regarding the revitalization of our political institutions.

When the communal sign of “Indigenous” is shed to make room for Inuit, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Nuu’chah’lnuth, or any of the multitudes of nations on Turtle Island, how do we renegotiate power and decision-making? How do we make room for healthy debate and disagreement? What are the rules of engagement? As different communities begin the hard work of restoring traditional law, the answers to these questions will begin to emerge. But, that process won’t be easy or fast.

I support Inuit musicians in this dispute, especially in their call for a more fulsome conversation. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand the position of the IMAs; it just means I have come to expect transparent and engaged political processes within our communities, especially at an international level.

I believe the reasonableness and integrity of Inuit musicians in this debate is an important marker of a fundamental aspect of self-determination: the willingness to engage in messy conversations with thoughtfulness, civility, and creativity.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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