Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Guest Post by Mi'kmaq Mama: Fashion Divides. Fashion Unites.

Back in March I wrote a post on cultural appropriation in the yoga world, specifically regarding First Nations fashion. That post was the result of inner musings, twitter convos and a fabulous conversation with Mi'kmaq Mama over coffee last fall.

As today is Beltane: a time of peace, spirituality and new beginnings, I'm very excited to share a thought provoking and heartfelt post by Mi'kmaq Mama on cultural appropriation and the recent hipster (and yoga) fashion trends. I thank her for sharing her knowledge and perspective and hope you enjoy her post as much as I did.

Fashion Divides. Fashion Unites.
You walk into a clothing store and you see it – the perfect outfit. It’s the right color, style and shape to complement your skin tone and body type. You describe the design to your friend as rustic and tribal. “It’s even outlined with fringe. Fringe is in this year!” You anticipate her reaction to be full of excitement. After all, she’s Mi’kmaq so wouldn’t she be excited you are wearing this type of clothing? Your friend pauses, not sure how to react.

Cultural appropriation is the borrowing of materials from another culture. I would argue that it is in fact the stealing of ideas from another culture, taken without permission nor understanding of its significance. 

What if a clothing designer spotted the Pope’s mitre (ceremonial headdress) and thought, “Hey! That looks neat!” Or eyed a Jewish man’s kippa (head covering) and said to themselves “that’s cool!” Then, without talking to anyone from the Catholic or Jewish faiths about the significance of each headdress or covering, decided to design a trendy and fashionable version for everyone to wear? What if that happened? If you are Catholic how would you feel? … If you are Jewish how would you feel? … about everyone wearing something of religious meaning, honor and respect, as a fashion fade? What would you think if Victoria Secret models walked down the runway wearing a mitre or kippa while they modeled lingerie? Outraged, I’m sure. Indigenous people were outraged to see a lingerie model adorned with an Indigenous headdress walk the run way in Nov 2012.

I know what you are thinking, “but my yoga outfit only has fringes, fringes aren’t culturally significant.” Or “but my shirt has a tribal motif, that’s not sacred.” How do you know that? Let’s consider for a moment the message you send to anyone with Aboriginal heritage when you wear mass produced clothing made in a foreign country, by foreign workers, created by foreign designers who have no connections to or business relationship with an Aboriginal community or organization. 

As someone of Aboriginal heritage, the message is clear: “I think your cultural designs look cool, so I’m going to wear them while it’s still a fashion trend. I assume your culture was consulted, otherwise they wouldn’t sell clothing like this, right?” My response, “since when was it cool to look like a member of an oppressed and marginalize group in society? … to proclaim that your parents and grandparents were stolen and beaten in residential school, that governments are committing genocide against your people disguised as legislation, and that your identity requires permission from those who have committed these crimes.

“Hold on! That’s not what I meant,” you respectfully protest. What you were hoping to communicate through the clothing was a sense of unity and shared pride in the respect for our cultural ways. There are better ways to do that. Let’s figure this out together. Here are some suggestions:
  1. Purchase clothing from authentically Aboriginal owned business. There are many Aboriginal designers and clothing retailers around. Honor their hard work and dedication by purchasing their products, even if it means spending more money. (Lisa's note: this applies to aboriginal artists: I just discovered a mindblowing Canadian First Nations DJ group of electronic powwow: "A Tribe Called Red"- check them out!). Examples: "Beyond Buckskin" and "National Aboriginal Fashion Week".

  2. Look for companies who honestly partner with, I mean truly consult and partner with, an Aboriginal artist, community, or organization. Product labels will acknowledge and give credit to all their partners for their contributions. Look for information about how the Aboriginal community was involved.

  3. When you purchase items such as dream catchers, jewelry, crafts, etc. please check the label. Ensure it was made by an authentic Aboriginal artist. Be smart. If you are looking at this item in a Dollar Store, or department store, chances are the artist was not Aboriginal, right? Be a wise shopper, not a cheap one. If such items can only be purchased by visiting a First Nation community, then by all means do so - it is a journey worth taking.
Remember! Settlers survived in this new country they “discovered” not because they had the skills and knowledge to do so, but because the local Indigenous people were kind, compassionate, and friendly. And we continue to be that way.

Honor our legacy past and present.

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