Shift Happens: Cultural appropriation won’t win your business any fans

Never a good look, cultural appropriation won't win your business any fans

Credit: Alyssa Hirose

Never a good look

Perhaps because it’s so widespread that it simply seems normal, cultural appropriation is poorly understood

Your company has rebranded with a colourful new logo. However, after incorporating the design into all of your materials, you get a call from a First Nations academic who says you’ve ripped off traditional West Coast Indigenous symbolism. What should you do?

Besides stopping the odd puck, Vancouver Canucks goaltender Braden Holtby spent time in the penalty box last December—figuratively speaking. His infraction? It was all about his new mask. Brightly coloured and adorned with a ferocious thunderbird, the Indigenous-inspired face shield evoked B.C.’s history and essence. In short, it was a stunning piece of art attached to a strong sense of place.

But there was a problem. The mask’s “creator,” David Gunnarsson, is a Swedish artist. By incorporating both the thunderbird and traditional Coast Salish formline art, it was, critics said, yet another case of cultural appropriation.

Perhaps because it’s so widespread that it simply seems normal, cultural appropriation is poorly understood. In B.C.’s business community, though, there are signs that the practice may be waning. “I believe people are becoming more and more aware that it’s potentially not advantageous from a business perspective to riff on an Indigenous design,” says lawyer Vanessa Udy, who specializes exclusively in First Nations legal matters with Victoria-based Woodward & Co. “But it does happen.”

In a too-tight nutshell, cultural appropriation is the commodification or misuse of one group’s traditional ideas, symbols or creations by a more powerful or dominant society. Not everyone buys into the concept, and some continue to make rolled-eyes arguments dismissing its impact—”all cultures borrow from other cultures” being perhaps the most common. But appropriation differs from, say, the kind of sharing that naturally occurs when different but relatively equal groups interact over time.

For one, there’s a power imbalance between the originator and usurper groups. A demeaning, diminishing or exploitative element is also often part of the equation. From Paul Simon’s lifting of South African musical forms on his seminal Graceland album to Pharrell Williams, who posed in a traditional Indigenous headdress on the cover of Elle‘s U.K. edition, appropriation is a longstanding issue. (Sometimes it can boomerang with extraordinary force: Michelle Latimer, director of the acclaimed documentary Inconvenient Indian, recently stepped away from the Aboriginal-themed CBC TV series Trickster after her self-proclaimed ties to the Kitigan Zibi Indigenous community in Quebec were challenged.)

So what to do? In B.C., there’s no real legal remedy. “If it was a design that was copied from an artist who is living or died less than 50 years ago, copyright laws can be invoked,” Udy says. But collectively held traditions, no matter how closely associated with a particular group, don’t qualify, she adds. “Unfortunately, there isn’t much [recourse] in Canadian copyright law, especially if we’re talking about imagery that has been around for thousands of years.”

However, the fact that businesses will likely avoid court for lifting that rockin’ design doesn’t mean there won’t be repercussions. For the 2010 Winter Olympics, Hudson’s Bay Co. looked into commissioning the Duncan-based Cowichan Tribes to produce their distinctive sweaters as a commemorative item. All good, right?

But the traditional handmade garments couldn’t be made quickly enough in the volume HBC wanted, so the company sold knockoffs. Facing a torrent of bad PR, the Bay struck an agreement with the band and sold a limited number of genuine Cowichan sweaters at a separate in-store kiosk during the Games. (Retailers keep selling derivatives, rendering this small victory a bit pyrrhic.)

But back to Braden Holtby. To his credit, the goalie quickly apologized for his misstep and commissioned Luke Marston, a Stz’uminus artist, to come up with a new design based on a Coast Salish legend. It’s a stunning and respectful homage to a time-honoured art, and to the original First Nations inhabitants of the unceded land we all call home.

It’s also the right thing to do. Go, Canuck.

(Not intended as legal advice.)