Thanking God for … ? Historical Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation

By Andrew Nurse

Recently, a friend sent me yet another of those commentaries-cum-news-stories discussing the merits and demerits (although, the piece had precious few of these) of cultural appropriation. In short, the piece decried critics of cultural appropriation, which it treated as something of a leftist fantasy. I, more-or-less, ignored it, not because the issue is unimportant but because I’d become frustrated with the entire discussion.

After all, this is not a new debate. I’m not certain when I first encountered the concept, let alone the term, “cultural appropriation” but I recall discussing it in grad school … and that is getting further into the past than I care to admit. I recall being taken to task by a friend as I was beginning my career for my willingness to allow that there might be something wrong with the “appropriation” of culture. My view was, my friend explained, misplaced “identity politics.” The year I started working here at Mount Allison, a colleague criticized my concerns about the uses to which Indigenous cultures had been put by Settler society as a failure on my part to understand the nature of art and inspiration which, for creative purposes, necessarily drew widely across cultures.

This could be true. I won’t set myself up as an expert on creativity, but over the years my sense of the debate around cultural appropriation is that it has not changed much. There are those who are concerned about the ways in which the cultures of marginalized and colonized peoples have been used and treated by “mainstream” media and Settler society. They see it as part of a set of power relationships that often serve to reinscribe colonialism and marginalization. I’d put myself in this group. On the other hand, there are those who believe that good things come from different forms of inspiration, that the very term “cultural appropriation” is a misnomer, and that contemporary concerns about it are just PC run amuck. Appropriation has, they say, created the art that we all admire today.

What impresses me about this discussion — at least the interventions I’ve read — is that it lacks an historical dimension. I see this as a problem because historians — or, better, historical thinking — has something to contribute to this debate. This is the first in a series of blogs I’m writing about historical perspectives on cultural appropriation. I want to be clear about my objectives and intentions. My goal is not to say the first and last word on appropriation. I don’t think that one blog post (or, a series of them) will resolve a long-standing debate. Nor, am I trying to say that historical perspectives can solve all problems. Instead, what I hope to show is how the tools of historical thinking, analysis, and interpretation can contribute to this discussion and, potentially, move it in a different direction. Finally, my goal is not to be comprehensive. Instead, in each of these blogs I’ll aim for concision, making a few points that strike me as important as opposed to trying to cover all avenues of discussion. If I’ve missed something important … write back and comment on it. Let me start this series, then, by noting three points where I think historical thinking can make a contribution to discussions surrounding cultural appropriation.

First, historians, including some who write for, have been interested in appropriation in some measure as a question of voice. How can I, a student of history might ask, as a modern privileged individual understand the culture, life cycle, choices, values, aspirations of someone from a marginalized group? How can I properly represent their hopes and fears, ideals and concerns? This is a subject to which I will later return, but the point I want to make here is this: I am not arguing that understanding is easy. Historians don’t. Indeed, most historians I know argue precisely the opposite. Those of us who teach at university (or, other venues) spend a great deal of our time warning our students against precisely this problem. Don’t, we say over and over again, assume that people in the past or from marginalized groups or a different background than our own, think and act the way we do. Don’t substitute your voice for theirs and be careful about donning their mantle.

The point is this: from the beginning, the practice of history requires us to be attuned to issues of misappropriation and questions of voice, self, and other. A failure to pay attention to these matters, I’m guessing the vast majority of historians will say, is a recipe for bad history. A first element of historical thinking that is important, then, is that simplified perspectives are intensely problematic and run the risk of mystifying (as opposed to illuminating) the subject at hand. One begins not from a perspective of certainty but from the opposite. Instead of assuming we know precisely what other voices are saying or the views and aesthetics expressed through other cultures, we should begin with a far more modest position and consider the limits of the position from which we speak, write, act, transcribe, represent, or create.

Second, an historical perspective on cultural appropriation also suggests that we begin by asking a standard historical question: why are we discussing this issue right now? After all, as Canadian historians have long noted, explorers, traders, missionaries, and other settlers have long collected and used Indigenous cultures, a point explained by Olive P. Dickason in her classic work The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas. There are more modern examples. Consider, for instance, the Canadian Folksong and Handicraft Festivals organized by J. Murray Gibbon and Marius Barbeau in the 1920s. In this instance, there were no broad discussions in the public sphere as to the merits of appropriation because of the character and nature of cultural authority. Quite simply those who might have raised concerns (and, there is some evidence the people had concerns) did not have access to the public sphere in order to articulate their views. The result was that debate was limited and – for the most part – non-existent.

This highlights the degree to which today’s society is different. It allows us to see, as it were, change over time. Looked at in this way, concern over cultural appropriation is not a leftist fantasy but a product of changing power relations, activism against colonialism, and the articulation of new voices in the public sphere. Said differently, it is a product of changing conceptions of society, voice, and creativity.

Third, the tools of historical thinking can highlight how artists, poets, museums, the media, universities, and other institutions are caught up in — perhaps even inextricably linked to — historical processes even while these institutions may not be aware of the connections that frame their worlds. In other words, there is an important institutional context that links artists, intellectuals, media, etc., to other cultural, social, political, and economic processes. We recognize and explore these kinds of links in the past on both a national and transnational scale. Drawing out such connections in the present might help clarify why art, music, spectacle, and novels are matters of concern and how they fit into broader cultural formations.

I strongly suspect that the debate over cultural appropriation will not go away. Indeed, perhaps it shouldn’t. There are a variety of reasons for this and I don’t have the space here to address them. As we think about this debate, however, we often begin with ethical considerations. These are important. But, beginning with an historical perspective — perhaps one that raises issues similar to those I’ve just noted above — does not displace ethics. Instead, it can allow for a different light on the same matter and, after all, is that not what good history seeks to do?

Andrew Nurse is a professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University

4 thoughts on “Thanking God for … ? Historical Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation

  1. Robert LeBlanc

    Hello, can you point to some sources about contemporary concerns with cultural appropriation regarding the Gibbon-Barbeau folk festivals? I’m intrigued. Thanks!

  2. Andrew Nurse

    Robert, I can and I am actually working on a piece on this right now. Why don’t you write me via email: and I can pass along some information to you.

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