August 24, 2014

Cultural appropriation of totem poles

Appropriation (?) of the Month: First Nation Totem Poles

By Robin R. R. Gray[T]he appropriation of totem poles in the market economy occurred at the same time that government agents and others who were eager to exploit Indigenous vulnerability were confiscating First Nations cultural heritage. Between 1884 and 1951, the Potlatch Ban in Canada created the conditions to support the mass expropriation of First Nations cultural heritage, and this is how many totem poles became displaced from their origins and confined in places like museums across the world. This is the first major appropriation of totem poles—taking the creations of the ancestors out of their contexts to be sold and scattered across the landscape in museums, in parks, in world fairs and in major tourist areas in spite of Indigenous peoples basic human rights. In fact, there was a rush to acquire as many tangible Indigenous artifacts because racist theories of human development suggested that somehow our people were destined to disappear into extinction. Thus, totem poles came to be associated with primitive and universal Indigeneity.

Meanwhile, in true paradoxical fashion, the image of the totem pole was being appropriated by the state as a signifier of Canadian-ness and the task of achieving this level of image making was accomplished mainly through the mass-production of miniature totem poles for the tourist art market. Thus, while Northwest Coast First Nations were being penalized for practicing their so-called “backward” cultures, non-Indigenous peoples were commodifying their cultural heritage, like the totem pole, for monetary gain. In so doing, the totem pole has been taken out of context through displacement, through the Western curatorial practice of preservation and through the misrepresentation of its image as a symbol of primitive and universal Indigeneity or as an icon of Canadian identity. When anything is taken out of context, misrepresentation is bound to occur. No people know this more than Indigenous peoples.
"Low man on totem pole"

What about the phrase "low man on the totem pole"?Over the past half century, the phrase, "low man on the/a totem pole," has been used in an attempt to communicate a sense of disempowerment and hierarchy (image at left). This phrase is especially prevalent in corporate culture, but occurs in everyday talk between friends and peers, and circulates via various media like print, radio, television and online forums. I hear the phrase being used, uncritically, from students and teachers to characters on popular TV shows like Grey's Anatomy or NCIS, for example. In this seemingly innocent everyday utterance, the totem pole has been appropriated to convey information that is unassociated with its origin, meaning or utility. Yet those who use this phrase imply that they “know” totem poles to be vertical columns that organize images in a linear hierarchy. Essentially, non-Indigenous ways of knowing and being have been superimposed upon the totem pole through discourse, thereby redefining totem poles on non-Indigenous terms, and robbing them of their Indigenous meaning and context.

In fact, in one online forum a commenter asks whether it is appropriate or not to use the phrase. Multiple responses arose but they all utilized a linear model for explanation. For example, to avoid being labeled discriminatory many of the anonymous online forum participants simply inverted the linear hierarchy to state that they “heard” that the lowest figure is actually most revered since it is “closest to the land.” Therefore, the commentators insisted, they are actually being “respectful” to a monolithic “Native American culture,” so it is okay to use the phrase, “low man on the/a totem pole.” Yet, following this logic, people would then start saying “high man on the totem pole,” in order to convey what they intended: hierarchy and disempowerment. One must ask, why won’t “lowest rung on the ladder” suffice? Doesn’t this make more sense? Ladders you actually climb, totem poles you don’t.
Comment:  For more on totem poles, see Big Heap Herman in The Munsters and Jeremy Scott's Yellow-Crotch Designs.

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