Catastrophic Love: A Response to the Cultural Appropriation of Indigenous cultures

The article, An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses discusses the cultural appropriation of Canadian Plain’s culture when non-natives where the headdress of Canada’s Plains peoples. The author, who calls herself, âpihtawikosisân uses comparisons of restricted symbols such as a Bachelor’s degree and military medals to highlight that certain items in any social culture cannot be possessed by just anyone, and as such are restricted. She states that “headdresses are restricted items” and have to be earned through a strict criteria. Thus when non-indigenous people wear the headdress it is an act of offensive cultural appropriation.

To me, cultural appropriation occurs when the most dominant or powerful culture or group takes possession of elements of a foreign and less powerful culture without invitation. When we look at the cultural appropriation of elements indigenous culture it is clear that this cultural appropriation has its roots in settler colonialism. The cultural appropriation of indigenous culture is part of the larger narrative of settlers stealing indigenous lands and systematically raiding and erasing indigenous cultures. This settler colonialism in North America that resulted in the genocide of millions of indigenous peoples in Canada is a notable catastrophe in Canadian history. In the instance of another North American catastrophe, slavery, Rev. Dr. Cornel West describes the social justice work of abolitionists and civil rights activists that was a response to this particular instance of colonialism as ‘catastrophic love’. Catastrophic love can be described as the beauty and work that arises as a response to world catastrophes (Baxter Justice is Love Made Public). According to West the fight for justice in response to catastrophe is a public form of compassion and love in that, “justice is what love looks like in public” (Baxter Justice is Love Made Public).

The idea of catastrophe and catastrophic love can also be applied to the genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples in Canada and the countless Canadian indigenous struggles for justice that have occurred in response. The justice that indigenous peoples in Canada seek by staging protests, creating social movements, and seeking legal action may be labelled as catastrophic love. As I write this at “Queen’s University” on stolen traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe land I wonder about the love/methods of justice that indigenous peoples such as the author of this article in her patient explanations have shown towards non-indigenous peoples, including myself. What kind of love has been shown to indigenous peoples by us in return?

Examples of responses to the actions of justice seeking activists can be found in the comments of the article that display the wider patterns of love or lack of it present in Canadian society. Comments range from praise of the author for sharing her knowledge of how cultural symbols should be used, to accusations of hypocrisy and comparisons of red face to people dressing up as priests. These comments raise important questions about whether one can ‘appropriate’ a culture that one is a part of (not possible) and questions of the sense of majority entitlement of some when they feel they should have the dominant voice when it comes to matters of a culture that is not their own. These questions can only be answered by looking at responses to catastrophe, the power dynamics between different cultures and looking at how cultures assimilate.

To date, the majority of modern Canadian society have responded to the catastrophe and catastrophic love of indigenous activists with a continued lack of love. For example, when indigenous cultures are reduced to “princess”, “squaw” and other stereotypes is a lack of love. How we culturally appropriate in mass symbols (e.g. the ‘Indian princess’ costumes bought every Canadian Halloween to represent indigenous peoples) of indigenous cultures is a lack of love. Our lack of love in the form of cultural appropriation continues in our representations of indigenous peoples in the media when white actors in films become “one with nature” and take on without a full authentic understanding restricted traditions and mannerisms of an indigenous group (i.e. John Dunbar played by Kevin Cosner in Dances with Wolves, Jake in Avatar). These examples of modern cultural appropriation are a continued pattern of the reductionism of indigenous peoples to negative and false stereotypes.

These patterns of cultural appropriation are not harmless. The appropriation and reduction of indigenous cultures is a way of using cultural hegemony to oppress indigenous peoples. Though Canada prides itself on multiculturalism and the historical advancement of Canada, our pressure on indigenous peoples to assimilate into Canadian culture when we pressure them for example to abandon certain lands and seek jobs that we think are more modern is an example of anglo-conformity and contradictory to Canada’s multicultural mandate. Cultural appropriation in this vein when it represents indigenous peoples as temporarily fixed in the past (e.g. in the media depictions of indigenous peoples) or represents many indigenous groups as one synonymous culture is another hegemonic method of oppressing indigenous peoples. These patterns of cultural hegemony and appropriation that we participate is really part of how we reduce and essentially disappear (#HowWeDisappear) indigenous peoples in Canada and worldwide.

The article by âpihtawikosisân is a presentation of the social justice and love for the public that arises out of catastrophe. Her action of trying to educate majority Canadian society and assist in our unlearning of negative indigenous stereotypes and the assumption that we have a right to parts of indigenous culture whether restricted (headdresses, indigenous facial markings) or unrestricted (moccasins, indigenous art) is the type of response to violent catastrophe that Rev. Dr. West spoke of. This article shows that cultural appropriation has ramifications and that our actions of consuming other cultures needs to be taken up at all times with the utmost respect.

All in all, how we show love to the indigenous activists in return for the love they show when they seek justice in the public sphere is through as the writer states, real celebration of the culture by accessing the unrestricted parts of their culture. The act of showing love to and seeking justice for the indigenous peoples of Canada, our fellow Canadian citizens is not just the responsibility of Canadian policy. We as Canadian citizens need to assure the rights of fellow citizens because as surely as writers such as âpihtawikosisân share their knowledge and search for justice and love with us, we must love them in kind.


4 thoughts on “Catastrophic Love: A Response to the Cultural Appropriation of Indigenous cultures

  1. You touched on many important ideas and factors that come with cultural appropriation, but seem to have lost me on the way. I am confused with what your overall message is. Are you trying to say that if we do not show love for others, others will not love us? If so, what does that really have to do with the presentation of white actors pretending to be something they are not in the media? I know the answers to these questions but I think your post could have been much stronger if you narrowed it down and focused on one aspect of cultural appropriation. It is very interesting to think of the meaning behind West’s statement of “justice is what love looks like in public,” as it relates directly to what I got as your underlying meaning, but I am still very confused about majority of the other things mentioned within this blog post.


    1. I found that there was a lot of information in this post and that it was very informative. That being said I think that all that information took away from the point a little bit too much. As I was reading I found myself thinking about many different problems on not the problem that was on hand. I do like that you finished with a solution for the problem. However, I think that the solution could have had a little bit more of an explanation. I think this blog would have been more effective if it was more direct.


    2. This article is rich: there is a lot of research done, and as a result many insights are presented. I would suggest slightly restructuring the text to make the point clear, as it sometimes circles back to previous points regarding the author of the article in question.
      I would also like to see you touch a bit more on the point of “real celebration instead of appropriation” that the author talks about in the article, as well as the section about “living together in harmony”, which offers some solutions as well as opening up to the possibility of making mistakes regarding cultural appropriation without intending to. This understanding echoes well with the quote “justice is what love looks like in public”, in my opinion.


  2. Overall, this review was very informative and touched on many different topics and ideas. An idea that I particularly agreed with and found interesting was how we culturally appropriate in mass symbols, using the example of the ‘Indian Princess’ halloween costume. However, I do agree with comments brought up by both nkabs and choustoo. I found that the review did not have a clear point, and that perhaps too many ideas were thrown into the mix, distracting from the main idea. I found myself hopping from point to point rather than having a clear understanding of your ideas as I read through the review. A solution to this could be discussing and linking together three main ideas, it would make the review much easier to follow.


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