In half a dozen cities across the country beginning in April, Heritage Canada will be meeting with native people worried about the appropriation of traditional art and symbols.
Given the general fascination with stuff aboriginal, these meetings will no doubt help establish clearer ground rules than the wobbly ones now in place. I thought about this recently after being invited to give a keynote for a London, England, conference baldly called Marketing Native North America.
Preparing for it recalled an early experience of my own. I'd recently left the Curve Lake Reserve in search of higher education and cable television, and was nervously but eagerly trying to make my way in Toronto. I concocted an entrepreneurial plan with a cousin of mine.
We began making some simple walking staffs - basically metre-long painted sticks with a few feathers and paint slapped on them. Nothing awe-inspiring, but functionally pseudo-Ojibway.
I took them into the city and peddled them to some of the students at the college I attended, netting a decent 40 per cent profit. It was then that I discovered two very important facts about the merchandising of native "art," the first being that a lot of people will buy something if it appears to be an artifact of someone else's culture.
One woman asked me to say a brief Ojibway prayer over the walking stick she was buying. Not being completely fluent in Ojibway, I counted from one to 10. Hey, she was happy. I was happy. Welcome to the world of effective promotion and sales.
The second thing I learned was that the marketplace can be fickle. I quickly saturated the market, and our walking staffs joined the club of pet rocks, bell-bottoms and mullets.
Artistic creation, in its various forms, is a very popular native pastime. From a very early age, I was steeped in it. My reserve hosts the Whetung Ojibway Centre. My mother used to work there, and as a kid I did odd jobs there as well.
Surrounding me in that building were a plethora of art forms, from Arctic soapstone carvings to paintings by Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Roy Thomas and others. I was barely into my teens when it become obvious to me that our small community of maybe 800, two hours by car from anything very interesting, was a magnet for people from all over the world.
In my formative years I met Germans, Italians, Japanese and a veritable cornucopia of international identities, all of whom travelled to our community to look at the art and buy T-shirts, cheap tomahawks and maybe some turquoise jewellery.
First Nations art was the proverbial well-kept secret slowly leaking out to the world like air from a tire. In the years since, it's become a major international growth business in both good and bad terms.
I attended the opening of a West Coast art exhibit in Cologne, Germany. Think beer, schnitzel and totem poles. More recently, in Australia - in a discount store in a suburb of Brisbane, to be exact - I was hunting for, of all things, a spatula (I try to collect culturally based kitchen utensils whenever I travel) and came across, tucked in a dusty corner, a rack of one of the most internationally marketed symbols of aboriginal culture.
I am, of course, referring to the ubiquitous dream catcher, perhaps the best example of aboriginal marketing gone mad. I have seen these supposed symbols of our spirituality everywhere from Germany to South Africa, from Italy to Australia. The little gizmos I found Down Under were made in China. There's a belief amongst our people that if you cut one into five pieces, when you wake up in the morning there will be five more whole, complete dream catchers. That's the only way to explain the sheer volume of them.
When people assume that art has universal application, they tend to forget that even the universe has finite borders. As a result, many cultural trap doors and pits of moral quicksand permeate the aboriginal marketing landscape. For example, a winery in BC commissioned a non-native artist to design the label for a new bottle. The design he came up with had an Inukshuk figure - the stone man erected by the Inuit as a trail marker or to mark a food cache.
It raised some concerns in the native community, among them the impropriety of such an image on a bottle of wine, given the effect alcohol has had on our communities.
Within the First Nations, artistic trade is as ancient as the people. The famous wampum belts of the Iroquois confederacy and the Algonquin Nation were made from quahog shells, saltwater clams found along the eastern shores of the continent several hundred miles from the Ontario/Quebec border. That was a substantial distance back in those days. Getting hold of these shells would have been like enjoying a meal of saltwater shrimp in Switzerland several thousand years ago.
More than just things were traded amongst the first North Americans. The Iroquois have a social dance called the Alligator Dance, and, trust me, the Great Lakes are noticeably lacking in alligators and crocodiles. The dance had been traded, adopted from their Tuscarora cousins further down the American continent, where alligators were a little more common.
Now, admittedly, I know very little about the contemporary merchandising of native art. I'm just a writer. And whether what I write is art or not has been debated for years. But I do know native theatre and its plans of worldwide conquest. I think of Tomson Highway and his play The Rez Sisters, which has been put on in many parts of the world, including Japan. Whenever I feel my world has gotten too intense and I need a surreal break, I try to picture this production and its cast of seven Japanese actresses playing Crees. And I bet you, somewhere on that set there was probably a dream catcher.
Perhaps most amusing from my own personal perspective was a production of play of mine called The Baby Blues. It's a powwow comedy. Picture this: one day I get a call from a gentleman with an unusual accent who says he loves my play. He says he's very interested in producing it. I say, "Great. Fabulous. Send me the cheque." He then says, "But first you'll have to help me translate it."
"Translate it into what?" I ask.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm phoning from the University of Venice, Italy."
I can't help wondering why. It's a play about an aging fancy dancer who's spent most of his life believing in three things: dancing, partying and chasing girls. He's not a very deep fellow, a bit moth-eaten. I'm wondering, why does this man want to produce my play that's basically about a man who hates responsibility, a very shallow and selfish man? "I think it's something Italians can relate to," he says.
So eventually he ends up producing the play, god bless him. The man sends me a videotape of the production. Picture it if you can: A theatre, or more accurately a "teatro," I believe it's called, on the canals of Venice. I see on my VCR the actual production. The actors are in costumes no doubt designed by someone who's probably never seen a native person, let alone been to a powwow. And the actors are Italian, for obvious reasons, a bunch of Venetians running back and forth across the stage yelling, "Il pow-wowa!"
Now, if that's not the essence of international aboriginal marketing, I don't know what is.