Friday 20 June 2014

Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions: Be Careful How You "Honour"!

Continuing with my series leading up National Aboriginal Day on June 21....

If you haven't had a chance to read the previous installments of this series, please do. The first one looked at historical preconceptions of the First Nations in Canada, most notably the "myth of the Noble Savage". The second one took those ideas a step further by examining how the stereotypes we hold today fell under a similar model. Finally, and most recently, the third post looked at different terminologies one could use in Canada to refer to the First Nations in a respectful manner.

This time, I'm weighing in on what I really could call a "trending" issue: the debate surrounding the appropriation of First Nations symbols and designs in fashion, art, etc.

But before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I, Kita Inoru, am NOT a person of First Nations descent. What this means is that the perspective and the opinions that I express here are solely my own. If there is anyone here who is of First Nations descent and/or is directly affected by the issues discussed in this series, please feel free to shed further light on them in the Comments, and please be patient with me in regards to any errors I might make. Thanks!

Cultural appropriation, at its bare basics, is simply the act of one culture taking something from another. Sounds simple, doesn't it? It would be if we weren't involving something that's inherently complex: people. People with histories, values, and feelings. What this means is that the act of cultural appropriation is NEVER simple, and there is always going to be a risk of causing offense.

Well, in recent years, offense has been caused by appropriation - numerous times. I've seen a number of different cultures being affected by this, and may return to some other examples in the future, but for the purposes of this particular blog series, I'll be focusing on the appropriation of First Nations motifs in particular.

I'm sure, for instance, that many of you would have seen photos from 2012 when a Victoria's Secret model appeared on the runway in a bikini, turquoise jewellery, and a Plains First Nations headdress that stretched all the way down to the floor.

The famous (or infamous?) Victoria's Secret Fashion Show ensemble (c. Getty Images, photographer uncredited)
Immediately, there was an outcry that the use of a Plains First Nations feathered headdress (wapaha) was racist and disrespectful to First Nations people. I have found several reasons cited for this:

1. The wapaha is a sacred object for Plains First Nations peoples, worn only by distinguished tribe and band members who had earned the privilege through service to their communities. Historically, it was the equivalent of a WWI or WWII war medal today. (On a side note: the vast majority of the time, the wapaha is, in fact, worn by men, but since there are First Nations communities where women could act as chiefs, I dare not say that is an absolute rule.)

A genuine First Nations headdress, for the sake of comparison: Sitting Bull's wapaha in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada (Photo by Kita Inoru)
2. In a day and age when many First Nations women have been victims of sexual harassment and assault and many cases still go unreported, unsolved, etc., it is tasteless to show a fashion ensemble that combines something inherently sexy (a Victoria's Secret bikini) with elements of First Nations cultures.

3. It perpetuates a historical stereotype of First Nations peoples as subservient (particularly sexually) to European colonizers and their descendents. It also promotes a stereotypical conception of the First Nations as stuck in a historical mode of dress (refer back to my "Noble Savage" posts for more).

While the middle argument would be specific to instances where non-First Nations people wear the wapaha while in somewhat compromising positions (ex. photo shoots where models wear the wapaha while wearing little clothing - if any), the first and last also appear in instances when people wear First Nations headdresses simply as fashion accessories. For example, the same outcry happens when images surface of partygoers dressed up as "Native Americans" for Halloween or young people attending indie music and film festivals wearing miniaturized versions of the wapaha. I have also seen the same for First Nations designs making it into "tribal" or "ethnic" clothing sold in major chain stores, dreamcatchers showing up in "inappropriate" places (ex. as bellybutton piercings), etc.

(Note: I don't want to point fingers at any individual people here, so if you really want to know, Google it - I'm not showing pics!)

The main reason why cultural appropriation can cause offense is that it speaks directly into a power dynamic. Historically - and, arguably, even nowadays - First Nations peoples have been marginalized by the very societies and lands they call home. They have endured centuries of being pushed aside, both literally (ex. being forced off their ancestral lands to make way for European immigrants) and figuratively (ex. having elements of their traditional practices - language, religious ceremonies, social customs, etc. - banned in order to force them to assimilate into Euro-American culture). For many First Nations people, then, for whom the scars are still very recent and fresh, the appropriation of their sacred symbols and designs feels like the final straw: "You've taken our people's land, you've forbidden our ancestors from practicing their cultures such that we now have to fight an uphill battle just to learn them, and now you want to just treat what little we have left as an "exotic" fashion trend? No - not gonna happen!"

Personally, I think that any anger and resentment that is felt by First Nations people is justified. However, as someone who is "outside" of the debate, so to speak, and simply an observer, I do think that both parties - the offending and the offended - have some things to learn if this is to be resolved in a positive manner. Again, these are solely my own opinions, but here are some tips that I hope will be helpful in the long run.

Personally, I am someone who would rather give people the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. While there are definitely instances where appropriators are deliberately offensive (either to make a racist statement, or just to be trolls taking advantage of controversy for the sake of publicity), I am of the opinion that there are still many cases where no offense was actually intended.

Now, I know some people say that intention shouldn't factor in here - that appropriation is always racist, plain and simple. But I disagree. Imagine, if you will, that you were approached by a complete stranger who said that something you were doing was "racist" - would you know what you did wrong, and why it was wrong? Not necessarily, I reckon. This is where we come back to my previous discussions on the "Noble" element of the "Noble Savage" myth: "But...but how am I disrespecting you? I think First Nations culture is great, and your art is beautiful - how can I possibly be racist for trying to show my appreciation?"

So, let us say that that's you. You really DO care about First Nations peoples and their cultures, and you are drawn to their aesthetics and want to show that somehow. What can you do?

Three words: Do your homework.

The way I see it, if you love a people and its culture, taking the time to learn more about them should be an enjoyable situation. In today's day and age, with the ready availability of resources out there on the Internet, it's not all that hard to research what is considered "okay" by First Nations people re: the use of their art and culture and what is not. For example, there are websites like Beyond Buckskin, that offer blog posts and articles laying out what sort of First Nations fashion design is acceptable and what is offensive. Actually, that is one that I particularly recommend, because it also features a directory of First Nations artists and designers who produce clothing, accessories, etc. that is both visually appealing and culturally sensitive.

Anishnawbek porcupine quillwork boxes featuring Mickey Mouse and the logo from Canada's 1967 Centennial celebrations, now in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario. I do not know if these pieces was made for sale to a non-First Nations market, but if so, they would be the type of thing that is okay to buy and display, since it was made by a First Nations artist aware of their culture. (Photos by Kita Inoru)
Another option, if you are so blessed, is to talk your choices through with someone who is of First Nations descent. Now, I will say very frankly that this is a bit of a risky endeavour. Remember: there is no singular "First Nations" voice or identity: everyone is an individual. What that means is that what's okay with one person may not be to another.

So what if you happen to be in a situation like that and are called out for cultural appropriation? Here are some things you can do:

1. Take it graciously as a further opportunity to learn - getting defensive only belittles the person who is calling you out. Apologize for any offense you might have caused, and ask sincerely how you can do better. Again, if you do actually want to honour First Nations peoples and their cultures, I don't think anyone will fault you for that - it's all a matter of how you do it, so take the chance now to find out.

2. It's not just a matter of freedom of expression. Yes, if you choose to use this as your defence, I daresay that no-one could really rebut that. But here's a saying that I think will help: everything is possible, but not everything is beneficial. Remember, you are under no obligation TO appropriate something from another culture - no one's forcing you at gunpoint to wear a wapaha to Coachella. Freedom of expression is not simply about doing or saying whatever you want - it's also about learning how to utilize and exercise that freedom in a way that is actually constructive to others. So if you know that something is going to be offensive, why do it?

3. Because cultural appropriation implies a asymmetrical power dynamic, not every instance of borrowing really counts. This is in response to one argument I've seen: "If I can't wear a headdress, then you can't wear jeans and a T-shirt either. That's you appropriating my culture!" Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Why? A) because wearing jeans and a T-shirt is not perpetuating a caricature or stereotype (it's so common around the world now to be practically neutral); and B) if it is, it's one that reflects the same Eurocentric hegemony that makes the appropriation of First Nations cultures offensive in the first place.

Finally, I do want to give a quick word to those who have been the offended party in this. I've seen many cases, especially on Pinterest, where it feels almost like people are talking behind each other's backs: posting images of appropriation and making very angry (and very profane) comments. Now, this may be just me, but it does come across as rather petty at times - and also sparks the offender into the natural human response of getting defensive rather than calming down and listening.

This is why my biggest tip for people who are First Nations or who care about First Nations issues is to encourage you to offer counterexamples. Don't just say to someone, "What you're doing is offensive and racist," but offer an example of what CAN be done instead.

Again, as far as I'm concerned, it's all about creating a positive learning environment for all parties, so that those of us out there who aren't First Nations can truly honour those of us who are.


Young, James O. “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 63.2 (2005): 135-146. Print. 
Image Credits
All images (c) their original creators, as indicated (if known) in the captions

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Catch-22s of First Nations Depictions: What's In A Name?

Continuing with my series leading up National Aboriginal Day on June 21....

If you haven't had a chance to read the previous installments of this series, please do. The first one looked at historical preconceptions of the First Nations in Canada, most notably the "myth of the Noble Savage". The second one took those ideas a step further by examining how the stereotypes we hold today fell under a similar model.

So now that the stereotypes - both good and bad - have been established, the next broad subject I would like to look at, which will encompass the remaining posts in this series, is some practical ways that someone can approach their cultures, histories, and identities in a respectful manner.

But before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I, Kita Inoru, am NOT a person of First Nations descent. What this means is that the perspective and the opinions that I express here are solely my own. If there is anyone here who is of First Nations descent and/or is directly affected by the issues discussed in this series, please feel free to shed further light on them in the Comments, and please be patient with me in regards to any errors I might make. Thanks!

What better place to start in discussing how to address First Nations issues with respect than, well, actual terms of address? I am speaking here of all the various names and terms people use to refer to the First Nations. Over the years, both acceptable and offensive terms have emerged - and some things that were once acceptable now might no longer be. For someone from the outside looking in, it can get very confusing: how do I talk about the First Nations while A) preserving some element of historical/contextual accuracy, and B) not offending anybody?

I will say, first of all, that the explanations I give here are, to the best of my knowledge, distinctly Canadian. First Nations communities in the United States are distinctive from those in Canada and, because of that, a different set of conventions has evolved on both sides of the border.

1. Indian and its derivatives (ex. Native American Indian, NDN, etc.)

This term is one where the use does vary between Canada and the United States. I think the story is familiar to many of us from our elementary school days: Columbus mistook his arriving in the Americas as having found a western ocean route to the Orient, and wound up calling the indigenous peoples that he found "Indians", after which point the name stuck.

In Canada, at least, the term "Indian", in reference to the First Nations, is seen as very offensive. From childhood, we are told again and again, "Don't say 'Indian' - they're not from India." Where the sense of offense comes from is not entirely clear - my theory is that there is something of the name that simply smacks of colonialism and imperialism and Eurocentric views, so it's just been phased out over the years here. Because of that, I will confess that, as a Canadian, I've found American First Nations people's use of the term "Native American Indian" or the abbreviated "NDN" as a form of self-address has always caught me off guard. I end up thinking, " isn't offensive?" and that ends up confusing me quite a good deal.

However, regardless of its use in other parts of the world, the term "Indian" in Canada is seen as offensive in referring to the First Nations with two notable exceptions. The first is when one is actually making a historical reference, such as when quoting from a historical text or when wanting to consciously point out that the term was used in the past for negative purposes (ex. when speaking of the "Indian residential schools"). The second is when referring to the Department of Indian Affairs: the government board that deals with the First Nations and their needs in Canada. The name of the department now appears antiquated and politically incorrect to many Canadians, but until it is actually changed, there's little choice but to call it what it is.

2. Native Peoples/Americans/Canadians

Generally speaking, this is seen as an acceptable, albeit somewhat neutral term. You're not winning any brownie points with it, but no-one's going to get upset either, as this is probably the most common name used in everyday discourse and parlance.

I have seen some people express concerns: "Everyone born in Canada is a 'native' Canadian, so this can't refer specifically to the First Nations, can it?" Well...yes, and no. For the most part, I have yet to see any actual confusion result from the use of the term "Native Canadian" (note that, in writing, the upper- and lower-case 'n' makes all the difference) - and if something does arise, it's usually sorted out readily enough through looking at the context.

3. Red Indians, Redskins, etc.

This one goes without saying - it's definitely seen as offensive in both Canada and the United States. The reasons why are things that I don't necessarily want to unpack here, but the simplest answer would be that it's associated with straight-up racism based on physical appearance. Also, if you didn't know that these terms were offensive before, you'd probably know now with all the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins and their right to use the name and its associated logo. For more on how First Nations people see this issue, watch the video below:

Personally - and this is very much my own opinion here - I make one exception to this. The only people I've actually seen and heard using these terms in reference to the First Nations were more elderly folks who, among other things, still refer to Germany as "West Germany". In that case, I think it's possible to cut them a little bit of slack, as I think this comes less from racism and more from force of habit.

4. Aboriginal, Indigenous, or First Peoples

In Canada, these are the "official" terms that are used. I know that I've been using the term "First Nations" all this time, but "Aboriginal" and "Indigenous peoples" make up an even broader category: the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis. The unfortunate thing is that the word "Aboriginal" does make one think of the primitive, so outside of official or academic discourse, it's not used all that often.

Nowadays, there is a slow, but gradual, shift to the term "First Peoples" instead. I think that will take some time to catch on, though, as there is still the risk of mistake the phrase "First Peoples" as a reference to an earlier state of human evolution - not what anyone's intending here!

5. First Nations

For the majority of Canada's First Peoples, this is the term that is used and has gained the most acceptability and respectability in recent years. It's an acknowledgement of two core facts about the Native peoples in Canada: A) that they were here "first" (i.e. prior to Europeans); and B) that they are not a singular ethnicity/culture/etc., but are actually incredibly diverse in and of themselves.

This map of the First Nations languages spoken in Canada and the United States gives at least some idea as to how diverse they actually are.
6. Inuit vs. Eskimo

Now for one that, once again, differs in terms of acceptability between Canada and the United States. In Canada, the word "Eskimo" is outright offensive - it's on par with using the term "Indians" in reference to the First Nations. How this was taught to me as a kid was that the word "Eskimo" originated as a derogatory term used to refer to the Inuit in Canada's Arctic, and that it literally means "eaters of raw meat" - trust me, that will spur enough children's innate "ick" factor to warn them off using the term ever again.

However, the term "Eskimo" is not only acceptable in the United States, but is a term of self-address. The reason for this is that, as with the First Nations, the Native peoples in the Arctic regions are incredibly diverse. The Yu'pik in Alaska, for instance, see themselves as ethnically and culturally distinct from Canada's Inuit, and the term "Eskimo" is used in reference to the Yu'pik as an acknowledgement of this difference. But, in Canada, that still doesn't work - you'll need to contextualize what you are saying in order to get away with using the word "Eskimo" here.

7. Métis

The Métis have been relatively late in receiving recognition from the Canadian government as one of the First Peoples. Historically, the term refers to people who were descended from First Nations women and French(-Canadian) and Scottish(-Canadian) fur traders. This term is now an acceptable form of self-address, and has replaced the earlier "Half-breed". No need to say why that ended up being seen as offensive, I reckon!

However, a word of caution: I am of the opinion that we shouldn't start patting ourselves on the backs for using "Métis" anytime soon. Why? Because the word "Métis" is - literally - the French word for "half-breed". Am I saying that we shouldn't use "Métis", then? No. It has, after all, become a form of self-address. But I urge you to at least be conscious of what you are really saying when you use it - don't let a pretty-sounding "foreign" word give you a false sense of security.

8. Specific Nations' Names

Again, this is generally acceptable. Each Nation in Canada has a distinctive culture, language, and name; and it is perfectly all right to use those terms. However, once again, it is important to realize that there is, in fact, a great deal of complexity here. Not all the names that have become common parlance were self-determined by the First Nations peoples they refer to - a bit of research reveals that many of these names originated from descriptors used by European settlers, or even derogatory terms used by rival Nations.

So now it is not unusual to see multiple terms referring to the same group of people: one that has become common usage historically (and is retained for understandability), and a self-determined name from the Nation in question. Examples for this would be Iroquois vs. Haudenosaunee; Huron vs. Wyandot/Wendat; Nootka vs Nuu-chah-nulth, Ojibway vs. Anishnaabe; etc. The older terms are still seen as "okay", but it is worth learning some of the more prominent self-chosen names now in use.

So there you have it: some of the more common words used to refer to the First Peoples in Canada and an explanation as to which ones are acceptable or offensive, and why. Of course, this is not a comprehensive list, by any means. But I hope it sheds at least some light on what might otherwise be a rather complex subject.

In the next installment of this series, I will continue to examine how one could approach and engage with First Nations cultures in a respectful manner, particularly when it comes to fashion and aesthetics. When is "borrowing" an element of First Nations culture okay - and when is it not?

Image Credits

Map of First Nations languages (c) ish_ishwar on Wikimedia Commons, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions: The "Noble Savage" Today

Continuing with my series leading up National Aboriginal Day on June 21....

Last time, my focus was on the popular conception of the "Noble Savage" and the various stereotypes of First Nations peoples that myth generated historically. If you haven't had a chance to read that, please do: 

This time, my focus is shifting more towards the present day. While the exact myth of the "Noble Savage" as previously discussed does not hold much water anymore, I think that it has not so much disappeared as evolved. Even now, many Canadians continue to see the First Nations as either "Noble" or "Savage", albeit under different names.

But before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I, Kita Inoru, am NOT a person of First Nations descent. What this means is that the perspective and the opinions that I express here are solely my own. If there is anyone here who is of First Nations descent and/or is directly affected by the issues discussed in this series, please feel free to shed further light on them in the Comments, and please be patient with me in regards to any errors I might make. Thanks!

Recall from the previous installment in this series that I have grouped historical stereotypes of First Nations peoples under two main categories: the "Noble" and the "Savage". For the most part, they could easily be thought of in terms of positive and negative characteristics: those that make us think of the First Nations as "noble", and those that make us think of them as "savage".

First Nations dancer in regalia, from the Vancouver First Nations Exhibition on June 23. 2008 (Photo by Philippe Giabbanelli)
So how does that work nowadays, in the 21st century? Surely, outside of Hollywood depictions, artwork, and historical re-enactments, people don't still believe that the First Nations are simple hunter-gatherers who feel the ever-pressing encroachment of the "white man" and, at times, resort to violence to push them back. This is, after all, the 21st century! A time of advanced technology, greater tolerance, and a better appreciation of the cultural diversity in Canada.

Actually, about that....

True, the actual details and trappings of the myth of the "Noble Savage" are well known to be just that: myth. Canada's First Nations have a sufficiently active presence in society and culture for that to be immediately apparent. However, that is not to say that the core distinctive divide in the stereotypes no longer exists. The details might vary, but the heart is still there. Canada's First Nations are still associated with a host of both positive and negative stereotypes. And while positive stereotypes might be "better" than negative ones, it's hard to tell which set of the two really wins out at any given moment.

The First Nations as "Noble"

"Noble" stereotypes attached to today's First Nations peoples abound. These traits, in my opinion, are the ones that tend to lead people to express some deep sense of admiration for Native peoples and their cultures. I do want to say that while there is a great deal of fact in these stereotypes - and that they are certainly positive ones - that the danger here comes in automatically assuming that all First Nations people are going to fit these traits. Individuals are what they are, and that's not going to change.

1. The First Nations as "Earth Stewards"

 This one is probably the first one that will come to most people's minds: the idea that First Nations people are innately environmentalists who preach being "at one" with nature. It's the image that we see in the popular "Indian Prophecy" message that has shown up on a number of Internet memes and inspiration posters: "Only after the last tree has been cut down; only after the last river has been poisoned; only after the last fish has been caught; only then will you find that money cannot be eaten." The point of this message is that the First Nations are seen as staunch protectors of the wilderness and natural environment - and are, because of that, morally superior to those who seek to simply exploit Canada's natural resources for monetary gain.

The one-year anniversary event for Idle No More in a shopping centre in Burnaby, British Columbia. (Photo by Eviatar Bach)
Those who are aware of, say, the recent Idle No More movement and other First Nations incentives to curb the oil sands, fracking, etc., can see that there is a foundation of truth to this. However, things get a bit more complicated when we combine this with another major "Noble" stereotype:

2. The First Nations as Spiritualists and Animists

This one, I think, is best summed up in what was my own first exposure to First Nations peoples growing up: Disney's Pocahontas. Many of us would be familiar with the major musical number from the film, "Colours of the Wind". Well, if so, you may recall this line: "But I know every rock and tree and creature / Has a life, has a spirit, has a name". It's the image that makes First Nations spirituality so appealing to people who are seeking something outside of the stricter regimentation of many established religions. So think of things like the recent obsession with totem animals, dreamcatchers, sweat lodges, Native ceremonies, etc.

In a way, this particular aspect of the "Noble" is focused on the idea that the First Nations peoples possess a wisdom and moral strength that the rest of the world (especially those of Caucasian descent) have somehow lost. However, if that is the case, then one must be careful not to run too far with that idea - or one risks going from the "Noble" into the "Savage".

The First Nations as "Savage"

Now, the word "Savage" can carry a few different meanings. It obviously bears a very strong negative connotation either way, but there are two particular ways where I think the First Nations are still perceived as "Savage", even in the present day.

1. The First Nations as Primitives

This, I will confess, can very easily come out of a lack of exposure. When historical and/or stereotypical images are maintained and continue to be disseminated, it's inevitable that we will have a significant group of people for which that is their ONLY encounter with the First Nations at all. It's because of that that there is, out there, a stereotypical image that people have of Canada's First Nations people: that they are hardcore traditionalists and always appear in feathers and paint.

First Nations dancers in regalia at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics (Photo by Voice of America)
The problem here is that this assumes that First Nations cultures are static and have not changed over the years, with the further - darker - implication that they will forever wish to dwell in the past and will not or cannot "modernize". That can take us into very dangerous territory, as it's that exact type of thinking that led to many of the discriminatory policies towards the First Nations peoples throughout Canada's history, such as the Indian Residential Schools.

Also, the logic behind that stereotype is flawed in and of itself: all cultures evolve and do not lose their authenticity for doing so. Even as far back as the 18th century, many First Nations peoples who traded with Europeans were adapting to new ideas and practices: wearing shirts and trade cloth rather than skins, using muskets rather than bows and arrows, etc. The cowboy movies that show otherwise are just that: movies. But that's the image that persists in people's minds even to this day.

Finally, and quite possibly worst of all:

2. The First Nations as Corrupt

The actual form that this takes varies substantially. But it's one of the most common conceptions of the First Nations in the 21st century. Here, I am speaking of anything associated with alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity, domestic violence, suicide, sexual harassment and name it, it's there. Most of this gets pinned on to the First Nations communities that are still on the reservations. And while there is abject poverty in many of the reservations that do, statistically, contribute to these problems, just blowing off the First Nations as being "like that" isn't going to help.

On top of that, the old belief that the First Nations were "lazy" still persists to this day. Whereas historically, the stereotype came out of a lower emphasis on agriculture in many First Nations cultures, it now stems from the popular conception that First Nations reserves simply rely on substantial government handouts that are paid for by hardworking taxpayers, and that the poverty that is readily apparent comes from corrupt chiefs and elders pocketing all the funds for their own personal use. Quite a wide brush to paint an entire group, in my opinion!

I will admit that I myself do not have the statistical knowledge to know whether there is any truth to this belief. But I am also unwilling to gamble on the chance of its veracity to use it to automatically justify a refusal to intervene for innocent people and/or communities who are actually in need.

In conclusion, then, the historical concepts of Canada's First Nations as "Noble Savages" does still persist to at least some extent today in the 21st century. For the remainder of this series, then, I will be turning my focus to some practical ways that non-First Nations people like myself could show respect and/or support for the First Nations and their current needs and issues.

Image Credits

All images (c) their original creators as indicated in the captions, and are used here under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

Sunday 15 June 2014

Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions: The "Noble Savage" in History

This coming Saturday, June 21, 2014, is not just the Summer Solstice here in Canada. It is also called National Aboriginal Day, and is a time set aside to honour and acknowledge Canada's various indigenous peoples: the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis. So in this week leading up to National Aboriginal Day, I will be writing up a series of blog posts pertaining to the First Nations peoples in Canada: I've got four posts planned so far, but may do more if circumstances and inspiration permit.

There are a lot of things I can choose to focus on for this series, but I have settled on one broader theme: "Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions" refers to the times and contexts in which simplistic means of interacting with the First Nations peoples and their cultures simply fall apart. They are about the stereotypes and common images that have become predominant in how Canadians have come to perceive our First Nations - some more successfully and appropriately so than others.

Before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I, Kita Inoru, am NOT a person of First Nations descent. What this means is that the perspective and the opinions that I express here are solely my own. If there is anyone here who is of First Nations descent and/or is directly affected by the issues discussed in this series, please feel free to shed further light on them in the Comments, and please be patient with me in regards to any errors I might make. Thanks!

My discussion, then, begins with what is probably among the oldest and most iconic images that we have of the First Nations peoples in Canada: the Noble Savage.

"Eeh-tow-wées-ka-zeet, He Who Has Eyes Behind Him (also known as Broken Arm), a Foremost Brave" by George Catlin (1832)
The concept of the Noble Savage goes back hundreds of years. Arguably going back even to the Roman historian Tacitus and his description of the Germanic tribes the Romans encountered in battle, the first known use of the actual phrase in English dates from 1672 in John Dryden's The Conquest of Granada. However, the concept - if not the phrasing - is most commonly associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau; in his A Discourse on Inequality, he argues that mankind began in a primitive State of Nature that, while lacking government and technology, was far happier than the class system that evolved out of "civilization". For Rousseau, one of the main objects of his focus was the First Nations in North America, who he saw as having persisted in the State of Nature that he saw as the ideal for humankind.

For the most part, the Noble Savage is simply that: a "Savage" who exhibits "Noble" characteristics. However, I find that that does not show the sheer complexity in terms of how the First Nations have been perceived either historically or in the present day. The way, then, that I would like to examine this concept is to break it down into two main groups of characteristics: those that are "Noble", and those that are "Savage".

Detail showing an Iroquoian warrior in "The Death of General Wolfe" by Benjamin West (1770). This is now one of the most iconic representations of the Noble Savage in 18th century artwork.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, in artwork depicting the First Nations peoples, there is a certain nobility infused into the image. The Native is shown in a calm, almost stoic, pose: quietly contemplating either the surrounding events in the painting (as seen in Benjamin West's "The Death of General Wolfe") or the viewer (as seen in George Catlin's many portraits of First Nations people). He or she is usually shown wearing some sort of traditional dress or regalia: feathers, buckskins, paint, etc. Sometimes, the image is one of the Natives taking part in a traditional, pre-European-contact, way of life: hunting or fishing are common depictions. All in all, the image is one that shows the First Nations as people at one with the wilderness: content to stay that way for all eternity, but now having to face the encroaching European settlers that spell their inevitable downfall. The First Nations as "Noble" become romanticized tragic heroes for Europeans to contemplate, but not to help.

Conversely, and concurrently, there is the image of the "Savage". This is the concept of the First Nations as hardened warriors who raid European settlements, scalping, enslaving, and killing the inhabitants. It is the image that looms large in the French Jesuits missionaries' descriptions of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in their wars with the neighbouring Wendat (Huron) and Algonquian peoples; in the many stories of "Indian captives" that sprung up during the Seven Years War (aka the French and Indian War, for those in the States); in the whispered tales of dread at the discovery that the British were enlisting the Iroquois on their side during the American Revolutionary War.

"Incident in Cherry Valley - Fate of Jane Wells" by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887), engraved by Thomas Phillibrown (1856). Jane Wells is pleading for her life, and a man attempts to protect her from an Indian who is about to kill her. House behind them is being burned by Loyalists and Indians led by Major Walter Butler and Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, Cherry Valley, New York.
For all that the First Nations were romanticized in history, the underlying fear and dread that European settlers in North America had of them never vanished entirely. Not only was there a conception that the First Nations were dangerously violent and unreceptive to "proper" rules of warfare, but the fact that many had societies structured entirely differently from the familiar Judeo-Christian model convinced many settlers that they were simply not to be trusted. In the case of Canada in particular, the Algonquian peoples were seen as lazy for their hunter-gatherer, semi-nomadic lifestyle (i.e. they were lazy because they did not farm the land and make full use of it as per God's command); inversely the Iroquoian peoples, who did til the land, were seen as barbaric in their torture of war captives, and backward in their matriarchal approach to leadership (i.e. the fact that women were often in charge meant both that they were insubordinate and that the men were weak).

It is the intersecting of the two sides of the coin - the "Noble" and the "Savage" - that reveals the unstable ground upon which European settlers in North America found themselves in trying to define the First Nations around and among them. However, regardless of whether the "Noble" or the "Savage" predominated in popular perception, the conclusion was the same. The settlers believed that the First Nations could not run the show for themselves anymore, but must be guided into a "better" way of life: either more "advanced" (in the case of the "Noble"), or more "civilized/moral" (in the case of the "Savage").

That may be the history, but the story itself does not end here. Stay tuned for the next installment of "Catch-22s in First Nations Depictions" to see how the duality of the "Noble Savage" has become manifest in today's societal views of the First Nations in Canada.


Bickham, Troy. Savages within the Empire: Representations of American Indians in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Godesky, John. "'The Savages are Truly Noble'". The Anthropik Network, 10 May 2007. Web. 15 June 2014.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. Trans. Maurice Cranston. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984. Print.

Image Credits

All historical artworks (c) Their original creators as indicated in the captions, found via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Celebrating Diversity: Canada during the FIFA World Cup

Chances are, you know that Thursday, June 12, 2014, is the first day of the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, which is being hosted by Brazil. I know that for a number of my readers, it'll be a time of anticipation. Soccer (or football, if that's what you call it) is an international sport, and many countries around the world have potential to claim the title of FIFA World Cup champion.

On that note, quick shout-out to those of you who are from countries that have teams playing in the World Cup. I know that there are at least American, Australian, and English readers out there - and quite possibly many more.

I have had a chance to go to England not too long ago, and I could definitely sense the beginnings of World Cup fever. In souvenir stores, jerseys and memorabilia related to the English national team were prominently on display - goods that promoted opposing teams, not so much. And I daresay the same could be said in many other parts of the world right now.

But not Canada.

See, Canada's men's soccer team only ever participated in the FIFA World Cup once: in 1986, and lost every single one of its games. Since then, Canada's tried for entry every single time the World Cup comes around, to no avail: we don't even get past the Qualifiers.

(Note: the WOMEN'S team is another story - Canada has not only participated numerous times there, but does really well for itself!)

So it's not likely, come Thursday and the days following, to see much by way of Canadian flags on cars, fans walking down the street in red-and-white or maple-leaf facepaint, cheering on Canada's teams or its players, etc. The one exception here would be on Canada Day itself, since July 1 does overlap with the tournament. But I digress. The point here is that without a national team or identity to cheer for, Canadians are, in fact, quite free to cheer for whomever they so choose during the FIFA World Cup.

And, boy, do they ever!

I'd show you pictures if I had any. But, I don't. So you'll have to use your imaginations. Just the other day, in a shopping mall parking lot in Toronto, Ontario, I saw a car decorated with an English flag parked right next to one with a Portuguese flag. A week ago, I went out to see a musical downtown, and found a car festooned with Greek flags in the parking lot there. Even among those I know, people are choosing to support different teams: this person says Spain, that person says Brazil, a third person says Argentina. I remember seeing the streets erupt into celebration when Italy won the 2006 FIFA World Cup; and watched the 2010 Final with a Spanish flag in one hand, and a Dutch flag in the other, and loudly cheering for both. And you know what? No one cared that I did.

Growing up in such an ethnically diverse place as the city of Toronto, it's no wonder that even though Canada is not immediately known for its soccer skills (again, with the very important exception of our women's team), there are fans of literally every participating nation in the World Cup just walking the streets here. It's a time of celebration here, where people, just for a moment, revel in the many different peoples and cultures that make up Canada's urban centres. And, on a quick concluding note, now's a really good time for all you Canadians out there to shape up on your flag recognition skills. The next chance won't come around for another four years, it looks like!


FIFA, "FIFA World Cup Statistics for Canada"., n.d. Web. 11 June 2014.

Friday 6 June 2014

Juno Beach: Canada's Pride of World War II

Today, on June 6, 2014, there are people all across the world who are stopping to reflect upon D-Day and the assault on Normandy. Seventy years ago today, a joint British, American, and Canadian force worked to push back the German forces that were posted on the beaches of Normandy, in northwestern France. Their success that day is now remembered as a significant turning point in the War: the opening of a western front from which point the Allies could force the Germans back to their own borders. It's an event that's so well known that it has been immortalized in song and film several times ever since.

John Wayne in the 1962 film The Longest Day
That's a rather older example, and not all that familiar to those in my generation, I daresay. But what about this one?

Screenshot of the Normandy landing from Saving Private Ryan.
The point is that D-Day has become associated with two things, primarily: Allied determination, and extreme bloodshed. Doubtless it was a bloody, hard-fought battle: just the immense scale of the operation should give that away. Five beaches were attacked by the Allies on June 6, 1944. From west to east, these beaches were code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.

Hollywood, being what it is, has tended to focus on the two beaches that were tasked to the American forces: Utah and Omaha (it is the latter that is shown in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, for instance). The British were focused on Gold and Sword. That left Juno to the Canadians - and it has been a great source of national pride ever since.

Canada was heavily involved in the fighting during both WWI and WWII. As a nation and military force, Canada does not hold the same level of prestige as Britain, the United States, France, Germany, etc. In both cases, it is because the Canadian efforts have been seen as joint efforts with others. In WWI, Canada was a dominion of the British Empire, and did not even hold sufficient right to declare war on its own: once Britain was in, Canada was in, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. As for WWII, although Canada had attained enough international clout to issue its own declaration of war and handle its own international affairs, it was still popularly conceived as "British".

Lance-Bombardier Walter Cooper, 14th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery (R.C.A.), aboard a Landing Ship Tank counting out 105mm. shells which will be fired on D-Day. Southampton, England, 4 June 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Frank L. Dubervill)

What this means is that like the other Commonwealth nations (ex. Australia and New Zealand), Canadians have taken particular responsibility in remembering their own achievements from WWI and WWII. For Canadians, then, we then sought out instances where our soldiers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to create something significant not just to our own history, but to the wars' progression overall. In WWI, that lot fell to Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 2917); and in WWII, although the credit could be more diversely distributed, most of the emphasis has fallen upon Juno Beach.

Infantrymen of The Highland Light Infantry of Canada aboard LCI(L) 306 of the 2nd Canadian (262nd RN) Flotilla en route to France on D-Day, 6 June 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Gilbert Alexander Milne)
 Why Juno Beach? Because there was, in fact, a Canadian distinction involved. It's something that many Canadian schoolchildren know, and it's reiterated year after year on Remembrance Day (November 11) and also on the anniversary of D-Day itself: the Canadian troops were the first to reach their assigned goal out of all the Allied divisions involved, and - because of that - were able to penetrate further into German-occupied France than any of the others on that day.

Now, I'm not a military historian. I can't tell you the hows of Canada's victory at Juno Beach, or why the Canadians were the first to achieve success. There are plenty of books, websites, etc. addressing that issue, I reckon. All I want to do is give the Canadian troops that took part in D-Day their proper recognition. Hollywood might give us the American story, but D-Day was a joint effort - without each force involved doing its part, the offensive as a whole may not have succeeded.

And I think, for Canada, seventy years later, that's what matters most.

Three "D-Day originals" of the Regina Rifle Regiment who landed in France on 6 June 1944. Ghent, Belgium, 8 November 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Donald I. Grant)
Private C.L. Jewell of The North Nova Scotia Highlanders, who wears a "D-Day" beard, Normandy, France, 22 June 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Ken Bell)

Rifleman R.A. Marshall, Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, pointing out a hole in his helmet made by a German sniper's bullet on D-Day. Bretteville-Orgueilleuse, France, 20 June 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Frank L. Dubervill)
Oh! One more thing. There is, in fact, a film out there focused on the Canadians at Juno Beach: Storming Juno. Based directly off the experiences of three actual soldiers who took part, it does a great job of making the story relatable while keeping the history accurate. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. Here's the trailer, just for starters.

Image Credits

Screenshot from The Longest Day (c) 20th Century Fox

Screenshot from Saving Private Ryan (c) Amblin Entertainment

Map of Normandy Beaches (c) HMSO (Her Majesty's Stationary Office) and the National Archives (UK)

All photos of Canadian forces in 1944 (c) Library and Archives Canada

Wednesday 4 June 2014

The Story in My Mind - How It All Began

I have mentioned, in my "About Me" page here, that I would like to go into writing historical fiction someday. I've already had a Pinterest board devoted to the subject for some time, and now I think it's high time I started saying a bit more about it here.

FYI: If you want to see the Pinterest board, it's right here:

So what do I have of it so far? To be honest, not much. I've got ideas for characters, for plot, for themes and settings, etc. but still lack a number of things that a lot of aspiring authors, I daresay, would already have worked out prior to sharing anything. A working title, for instance, would be bloody useful right about now, as would a clear decision on whether this will be a single piece or a series.

However, one thing that I think my story has that others might not is an earlier version. A previous practice run, if you will, before I decided to actually attempt any sort of formal publishing. It was, in fact, a piece of fanfiction for Axis Powers Hetalia (read: a manga/anime where the characters are all personified nations). At the time, I was working on an entire series titled Sous la Rose (French for "Under the Rose"), that would focus on Canada's history from the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 onwards. In the first installment, After the Conqueror, I focused on the remainder of the Seven Years War; meanwhile, in its sequel, Brother of Absalom, I picked up from 1763 onwards, dealing with first the political issues in both the Thirteen Colonies and Canada that brought on the American Revolutionary War, and then moving on to that war itself. While my focus, since this was fanfiction, was on the official Hetalia characters in question (Matthew Williams - Canada; Alfred F. Jones - America; Arthur Kirkland - England; and Francis Bonnefoy - France), I did something few Hetalia fanfiction authors had done at the time. I gave significant roles to human OCs (i.e. characters of my own creation that were not personified nations): namely, one Charles Arsenault.

An illustration for Brother of Absalom that was drawn for me by one of my readers: ScarletteDiscord on deviantART ( She drew the lineart, while I coloured it. In this, you could see Matthew and Charles.
(FYI: If, coincidentally, you have read those stories before and are going, "Wait - the author's name wasn't Kita Inoru!", you're right. It wasn't. But I'm not plagiarizing either - I was just using another name at the time.)

Well then, you ask, where is it? Can we see it? See, my earlier version of the story no longer exists. When, back in 2012, I became concerned that I wouldn't have the time to finish it, I opted for deleting all the online accounts where I had had it:, deviantART, etc. In my mind, I'd rather destroy my work than leave my audience hanging in the false expectation that I would continue it. I'm sure, in hindsight, that I disappointed many people in doing this, but I saw it as the necessary thing to be done. And I'd be lying if I said it wasn't painful for me as well.

So why am I saying all this? Well, because, as life would have it, Monsieur Arsenault here was not having it. Nor were the other human OCs I had created. Even after I'd stopped writing, their stories still persisted in my mind - and, more importantly, they were evolving. "What if," they asked me, "there were no national personifications? What if the focus was on *us*? What would have happened?"

A situation to which, I'm sure, a lot of authors can relate.

And that's where I am now. Trying to figure that all out and write it down for you all to see. The changes, as it turns out, have been astounding: the characters have taken drastically different paths than they did in my earlier Sous la Rose stories. Some now live where they had died, and new faces have joined the cast. It's been a lot of fun just thinking it out so far, and I invite you now to join me as I delve into the world of 18th century Quebec to see what these guys (and girls!) have to say. :)