Pretending to be Indigenous or the consequences of cultural appropriation | Polarjournal
Native Americans, Métis and Inuit (here respectively symbolized by a feather, the infinity symbol and an Inuksuk) regularly see their cultural identity appropriated by non-Natives. While the phenomenon is not new – it dates back to the early days of colonization – cases of cultural appropriation are making the headlines more and more often. Image: Statistics Canada

For several years now, cases of cultural and Indigenous identity appropriation have been multiplying in Canada and the United States. This phenomenon is not without consequences and also affects Inuit.

On 27 October, Canadian television CBC News revealed on its show The Fifth Estate that singer Buffy Sainte-Marie could have lied about her origins. A true icon in North America, particularly in Canada where she said she was born, the artist has won numerous prestigious awards, sold millions of albums and toured the world in a career spanning more than 60 years. Claiming Indigenous origins (first Algonquin and Mi’kmaq, then Cree), she has become one of the best-known faces of the Indigenous cause through her activist commitment.

So when CBC revealed a birth certificate attesting that the artist’s biological parents were Americans of Italian and English descent, and that there wasn’t a drop of Indigenous blood in the family, the scandal was to the extent of disappointment and dismay at what appears to be a typical case of cultural appropriation.

This isn’t the first time that a celebrity from the worlds of entertainment and art, as well as academia, has been singled out for his or her alleged Native origins. The phenomenon has even given rise to the term “pretendian”, a contraction of the English words to pretend and Indian, to designate these generally White people who pass themselves off as Indigenous or claim to have Native American, Métis or Inuit origins. A phenomenon little known in our latitudes but whose proportions and repercussions are significant, particularly for Indigenous communities as a whole, including the Inuit who also have had their share of impostors.

The “pretendians” issue has generated a number of reports and documentaries, as well as symposiums and debates. Here, the CBC documentary The Pretendians, produced in 2022. Image: CBC.

While the situation may seem paradoxical – what advantage could a non-Indigenous person possibly gain by taking on an identity that has been and is still subject to discrimination ? -, the benefits are very real whether they are in the form of distinction, recognition, money, rewards, prestige, grants or opportunities.

In 2015, a Russian artist named Zinour Fathoullin was the subject of criticism from the Inuit community. Appearing in an outfit made of sealskin, he had given a performance of drum dancing and throat singing during Calgary’s Aboriginal Awareness Week, provoking many negative comments. In addition to his artistic activities, Fathoullin and his wife offered workshops on elements of Inuit culture, charging $CAN 800 a day (about €540).

More recently, twin sisters from Ontario made headlines after receiving scholarships and grants normally reserved for Inuit. Between 2016 and 2022, the Gill sisters, along with their mother, had fraudulently obtained the status of adopted Inuit children. The organization responsible for reviewing these applications, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), granted them Inuit beneficiary status, giving them access to certain subsidies.

The deception was finally uncovered, and the two sisters, prosecuted with their mother for fraud, should soon appear in court in Iqaluit.

Even if false declarations affecting Inuit communities are rare, the NTI has nevertheless strengthened the registration process, now requiring applicants to provide a detailed birth certificate or, failing that, at least two pieces of evidence (hospital or birth records, court records, adoption documents).

Cultural appropriation can take different forms. Here, the example of Ookpik, the name given to this friendly owl-shaped Inuit handcrafted toy. The object was taken over by the Canadian government in the 1960s to serve as a mascot for a commercial exhibition and Expo 67. Image: HazelAB, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The effects can be devastating for communities. Since the Sainte-Marie affair broke out, many people have spoken out in the media or on social networks, expressing anger, sadness or the impression of having been deceived, or even betrayed. Very strong words to express the same feeling: that of being dispossessed of one’s history and culture and the possibility of telling them, or of being robbed of professional opportunities, recognition or success.

Beyond the illegitimate appropriation of a cultural identity, there’s another issue at stake. By appropriating the identity of Amerindians, Métis or Inuit, the “pretendians” deprive them of the possibility of defining their own identity, at the risk of perpetuating a dominant non-Indigenous speech on the Indigenous people themselves.

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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