The controversy concerning what’s called cultural appropriation has taken a strange new twist.
Complaints about this newly-invented crime have typically involved Indigenous artists complaining that a non-Indigenous person has appropriated something from them.
But now a group of Inuit claims a fellow Indigenous artist has culturally appropriated the throat-singing they say belongs to them alone as part of their birthright. In fact, the Inuit group, which includes the well-known artist Tanya Tagaq, threatened to boycott the Indigenous Music Awards if Cree singer Connie LeGrande was allowed to perform her throat-singing act.
Given that cultural appropriation is recently invented and has no real historical roots – or even any rational reason to exist – it’s a bit hard to define. It will suffice to define it as the belief that if you’re born into a certain racial or cultural group, your DNA entitles you to ownership of the cultural accoutrements that one of your ancestors created or invented.
So the belief by the Inuit group that an ancestor invented throat-singing would give them the exclusive right to practise this art. The only way a person from a different group, such as LeGrande, could throat-sing would be with the Inuit group’s permission – probably requiring compensation.
This belief in cultural appropriation seems to be confined in Canada to Indigenous groups. Other groups seem content to borrow from each other without fees or permission-seeking ceremonies.
Just about every cultural practice, artwork or basic habit of a group was probably borrowed, appropriated or evolved from someone else’s practice.
Where, for example, did the Inuit get throat-singing?
In all probability, from their Siberian predecessors. The Inuit were among the last of the Indigenous groups to arrive in what is now Canada. Inuit ancestors came from Siberia over the Bering land bridge before melting glaciers separated Siberia from Alaska. DNA tests show Inuit to be most closely related to eastern Mongolian people – more closely than to other North American Indigenous people, in fact.
The Tuvans, an eastern Mongolian people, have been practising throat-singing since antiquity. Some of us have heard Tuvan throat-singers at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Not only do the Tuvan resemble the Inuit, their ancient throat-singing resembles Inuit throat-singing remarkably.
So, in all probability, the Inuit brought the throat-singing tradition with them from their ancient Siberian past. In other words, they culturally appropriated it.
All tribes and cultures have been appropriating from one another since the beginning of time. And isn’t that what we all do?
I recently listened to a lecture about cultural appropriation by an Indigenous man who was dressed in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. The man was a Protestant. He didn’t see the irony.
Christianity is a perfect example of cultural appropriation. Christians were Jews who simply took Judaism and appropriated a few parts from Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and many other influences.
Cultural appropriation is how people learn. We take and keep the most useful information we come across, and then pass it on to our children. Teachers use information obtained from Polish scientists, Arab mathematicians, Scottish geologists and so on. Those Polish, Arab and Scottish thinkers don’t demand permission or cash for what they created. They used their creative abilities to contribute to human progress. This has always been the case. Greeks took from Indians. Romans took from Greeks. Another word for cultural appropriation is history.
Canada is a perfect example of cultural appropriation – each culture taking the best parts from the others and moulding the result into something called Canadian.
So my advice to the aggrieved throat-singing group is this: feel free to use that modern sound system (created by British inventor Lee de Forest), wear your best dress (perhaps from a French designer), have your band play their Stratocaster guitars (designed by Leo Fender) and when you win your award, feel free to appropriate the language of your choice to give your acceptance speech.
You won’t be required to ask permission or pay for any of these creations you culturally appropriated from the people and cultures that created these wondrous things.
Just be equally generous with your gifts.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.