The Legacy of Theft

University students putting up a tipi with the guidance of an elder

University students putting up a tipi with the guidance of an elder

Understanding and conceptualizing appropriation was not an easy job for me. Appropriation doesn’t seem like an easy thing to talk about anywhere, and maybe that’s just the kind of tension to be expected in a country that attempts to embrace multiculturalism. Ultimately my belief is that appropriation is an abstract to universal issues within our social systems, and that if someone is truly wanting to understand appropriation they need to understand the history that underlines that word for that specific culture. Since this is an Indigenous fashion oriented channel, it makes sense to understand what appropriation is in the context of North American Indigenous culture and why it is indeed harmful to Indigenous folks.

Indigenous people were predominantly socialist cultures where the community helped the community, and everyone was given what they needed to survive. With the Blackfoot, they were known to be Bison hunters that would use innovation to procure enough food for the entirety of the year by tricking Bison to jump off of cliffs. Everyone had a place during the Buffalo Jump, and everyone's needs were taken care of. Since the Cold War, North American settler governments have been weary about socialism and communism entering their societies because of fears of big government. Big governments have proven to be destructive and dangerous in the past, and we emphasis this by calling those big governments “dictatorships” or “totalitarian”.

Indigenous people would have a good argument about the merits of the other side of neoliberalism. To Indigenous North Americans, neoliberalism is what communism has been for white folks: a method for the destruction of shared values and efforts of a people. It was in the context of neoliberalism which brought settlers to North America to begin with. They used methods of imperialism imbued with racism and greed because it was during the time of the industrial revolution and the free market was a God send. For the Blackfoot, neoliberalism was particularly damaging because the Bison were wiped out for their furs by these big businesses wanting to sell them across seas. Government in North America have predominantly been unprincipled that were easily influenced by capital, so the big businesses were completely free to do what they wanted. This was supported by Canadian and US governments by them using this as a means for forcing the Blackfoot into using European peasant-like methods of farming and engaging in neoliberalism in the ‘New World’.

This type of understanding of North American political history has me thinking like Kierkegaard's book on “Either Or”: Big government and you’ll regret it, big corporations and you’ll regret that too, big government or big corporations, you will regret it either way! Of course Kierkegaard was talking about marriage, but replacing “marry or don’t marry” with “big government or big corporations” does still validate Kierkegaard’s point, that we’re indeed human and that we shouldn’t berate ourselves because of that. These are simply imperfect systems made by imperfect beings.

I am by no means an absolute hater on neoliberalism but there are a couple things to say on how we view Liberalism and Socialism. First and foremost, ideologies are extremes, they have dials of intensity, and we can adjust them without sacrificing our values and individual efforts. Second, we need to understand that our current establishment can’t work when greed and racism are pillars of that establishment.

Indigenous people have had their entire culture wiped away by white supremacy and the greedy culture surrounding neoliberalism. When Indigenous people today attempt to regain their culture or their sense of distinctiveness, it’s a protest against white supremacy. It’s appropriation when non-Indigenous people attempt to steal parts of Indigenous culture because of the long history of cultural dispossession that occurred by non-Indigenous people. A pure act of reconciliation and appreciation (the opposite of appropriation) is when non-Indigenous folks and especially white folks support and empower Indigenous people and their journey with reconnecting with their roots.

What's The Truth Anyways?

A Lethbridge city project called “PERCEPTION” by KC Adams, 2014

A Lethbridge city project called “PERCEPTION” by KC Adams, 2014

When I joined the Otahpiaaki project I felt a sense of validation for myself and for my Indigenous community. Truth and language has a funny way of offering liberation because it helps us structure the issues we face into tangible ways. When the cholera epidemics were rampant in the 1800's, people were fine with the status quo of the cause being the “smell” (i.e. the false Miasma theory of Cholera); but the issue forced others to take action, to listen to people who were affected, and to find the truth through the means of the scientific method that people were dying, not because of the smell, but because of water contamination and faulty sewage systems. There are rampant epidemics murdering my communities one girl and woman at a time, one addict at a time, one suicide pact or individual at a time. Things could feel pretty hopeless when you grow up thinking that “natives are just lazy”, or that Indigenous people are just so inherently incapable that they need to be reliant on the welfare system but I believe that, just like the Cholera epidemics, there are truths that need to be talked about rather than simply relying on the status quo that stereotypes perpetuate.

A great resource that fills the foundation of my work with Otahpiaaki is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final reports. Within hundreds of pages of the Commission’s report lies truths on the Indigenous struggle with social issues referring to vulnerabilities to leading causes of deaths in adult lives, and the over-representation of Indigenous folks in prison. Why are Indigenous people social deviants in this regard?

The Commission realized that, although uncomfortable, Indigenous people are over-represented in prisons because of violent crimes but the truth of the root causes were becoming clear. Many had committed murder, assault, drug offenses and robbery to name a few. The Commission also realized that they needed to talk to Indigenous offenders where they found rampant parental neglect, family violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, racism from within and outside the schools. It was enlightening to be able to read the stories and court hearings of Indigenous people being heard and their vulnerability being recognized by judges and community members.

In R. v D. M. G., the trial judge remarked on the troubled background of the accused saying, ‘D. M. G. was born in 1965 to parents who had significant substance abuse problems. Her mother was native and had attended the residential school … suffering the effects of dislocation, loss of identity and self esteem. Her father was French Canadian and ostracized by his family because of his relationship with a native. D. M. G felt the sting of racial intolerance at an early age.
— The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Denial of Justice

So this idea of childhood trauma and its relationship with problematic and life threatening behaviours was becoming more and more clear. It’s not a disability being an Indigenous person but there is a spectrum of vulnerability to these social issues for each and every person and it really comes down to each and every person's childhood exposure to abuse or household dysfunction. How we’re structured personally is heavily influenced by our critical developmental years, by the hands of those we have no control over.  New knowledge in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study shows a “strong graded relationship between the breadth of exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults”. That was my key to see where Otahpiaaki could help Indigenous designers and potential designers and artists, by recognizing their talents and helping cultivate a sense of worthiness and empowerment.

Colonialism is inherently rooted in the utter disempowerment of a people because it has always been about taking our lands and our resources and erasing us.
— Elle-Maija Tailfeathers

Joining the Otahpiaaki project gave me a great sense of validation for myself and for my indigenous community because it has helped expose truths that empower me to continue the legacy of resistance to colonization. Otahpiaaki is about resistance because it promotes Indigenous entrepreneurs and continues to support them in the background going forward, it’s resistance because Indigenous people weren’t supposed to be here, neither their culture or their language and yet Otahpiaaki continues to help entrepreneurs who engage with all of those sacred things in their craft.

Oki, niitaniko Iyimakoyiomaahkaa

From Left to right: Spirit River Striped Wolf, Angel Knowlton, Autumn Striped Wolf

From Left to right: Spirit River Striped Wolf, Angel Knowlton, Autumn Striped Wolf

Hello, I’m from the Piikani First Nation which help make up the Niitsitapi (or the Blackfoot Confederacy). My Niitsitapi name is Iyimakoyiomaahkaa which describes a running wolf that has high endurance. At birth my mother named me Spirit River which was inspired by a dream she had about a river spirit: beings that are talked about in Blackfoot legends.

I helped name the Otahpiaaki project in late 2016 when I was working on another project with Elder in the Making where I, along with three other students, created educational materials and lesson plans that educators could utilize in their classrooms. Both projects have helped me learn and grow as a person. Working with Elder in the Making helped me learn more about my own culture (the Blackfoot) and the residential school impact where Otahpiaaki has allowed me to go even deeper into the impact of residential schools.

The trauma of the past has rippled into recent times which many call the “The Legacy” of colonization, but I like to call it the Legacy of Theft, and I have my lived experience as proof of that sentiment. Much like the Blackfoot in olden times, my family had a real knack for traveling around within Blackfoot Territory, depending on what the need was at the time. When my parents were just starting out, they had the typical struggles that Indigenous people face: lack of access to resources.

We started out in a small valley on the reserve with a community of Piikani neighbors. This valley could be found near the Oldman River in southern Alberta that the locals called, and continue to call, “Highbush”. A branch of my family tree, the “Knowltons”, have called this area home for generations and this was my first home after the hospital when I was born in 1993.

Back up a year before my birth, the Ralph Klein Alberta Government answered the calls of struggling white farmers in Southern Alberta where droughts were being experienced. His government began transitioning the, once titled “Oldman River”, to the now “Oldman Dam”. This angered the communities and societies on the Piikani reserve where it was argued that the river was deeply part of the Blackfoot.

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The Oldman River is located in Blackfoot Nation’s territory, something we have always taken as being within our own domain. We all grew up by the river, and that’s how the river has a personal attachment to myself and the people.
— Milton Born with a Tooth

Once protesting seemed futile with the Federal government's support of the dam, Milton, along with my family and other community members, planned to foil the government’s plan to create the dam. Once he and a few tribe members attempted to execute their plans, they were stopped by the RCMP and Milton was arrested. My family was then driven out of the area and at my family’s dismay, our homes were underwater.

Folks who aren’t familiar with Indigenous activity in history will learn, with only a bit of research, that the Indigenous people of North America are, and have always been, resistors of colonization. It’s easy to feel bad for the long lost “dead Indians” and their long lost tipi and ceremonies who had history act upon them, but I have been surrounded by the history of Indigenous activists and leaders who prove the narrative that Indigenous people and culture are alive, that we've acted in history opposed from having history act upon us, and with Otahpiaaki and Reconciliation, Indigenous people will continue to act and thrive in history.