The blog I’m writing today is a bit heavier than some of the ones I’ve drafted in the past, so bear with me as we go through it.
As the idea guy behind a comic called Smaller Totems, which involves magical stuffed animals and a sentient dreamcatcher, I am painfully aware of the pitfalls of cultural appropriation, not only of traditions and artifacts, but of concepts and language. Because of this, I want to take the time to explain myself, and hopefully through transparency reveal my own ignorance, respect, and intention around the possible appropriations in the comic.
Now, because I’m the writer and textual storyteller of this comic, and we haven’t delved too deeply into the actual metaphysics of the setting, as opposed to the understanding the Totems have of their own nature (which is always going to be limited and a traditional interpretation as created by older Totems passing down knowledge nad lore to younger Totems), I’m going to try and have this be a “Part 1″ of the discussion, and we’ll have “Part 2″ once more of the metaphysics has been revealed, and nothing I’m saying will wind up being a spoiler.
First off, are you familiar with the concept of cultural appropriation?
If you aren’t, you probably ought to be: it goes on all the time, and sometimes it can cause people pain.
I included the wiki link at the top of the blog post, if you want to get familiar with it.
Here are a few words from a Native American who was interviewed for an article in Jezebel.
Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota):
“There isn’t just one Native American culture. There are hundreds. And there are millions of Native people. And we’re being ignored. We’re being told that we don’t have rights over how we are represented in mainstream America. We are being told that we should ‘get over it’ – but the people who are saying this don’t even know what the issues are. When people know of us only as a ‘costume,’ or something you dress up as for Halloween or for a music video, then you stop thinking of us as people, and this is incredibly dangerous because everyday we fight for the basic human right to live our own lives without outsiders determining our fate or defining our identities.”
This is a great article, which goes into a lot of depth about the ways cultural appropriation takes place, and the reasons it is roundly seen as a negative by those appropriated from.
Also, this piece from Huffington Post also touches on the topic.
So, all that said, lets come back to Totems. I realize that the popularization of concepts belonging to the cultures of indigenous peoples has been something of a problem in Western culture for a long time: anthropologists and explorers would bring back tales and ethnographic information from other peoples, which would then be popularized for profit and propaganda, and hungrily consumed by an audience seeking escapism and a sense of the exotic. In the case of Smaller Totems, I have fixed my reference system to the pop culture notion of a “totem”, as I understand it, as opposed to the Ojibwe-based, more culturally accurate notion of a totem.
In my experience, when people have used the word totem, and this usage has ranged from people who feel some sort of kinship or understanding with a type of animal, to a person who relates to Native American culture and feels totems are an accessible, personal way to relate to those cultures, what they mean is an animal spirit or animal essence (whatever the hell that means- a variety of conversation topics for another blog post) which in some way interacts with humans, and sometimes has a personality that provides aid or guidance. I think most people who have encountered the pop culture notion of a totem understand that it has a more nuanced and complex Native American origin, and may even understand that other peoples in the world have totem-analogs… but most of them seem to deal with the concept on a very surface, very non-nuanced level. That is the level the reference to “totems” in our comic is functioning on… as far as we’ve gotten into the story.
Likewise, when we deal with the dreamcatcher, another appropriated artifact/concept from Ojibwe culture, we are referring to the extremely white-washed, arts-and-crafts community version of the original dreamcatcher, which is (to my understanding) a ritually produced artifact, only to be used at certain times and under certain conditions.
And I get that this is tricky- I’m referencing a nuance-free, culturally appropriated version of an artifact lifted from its traditional context, and using it to tell fantasy stories. I may be furthering cultural appropriation by doing this, despite my desire to avoid that. Potentially guilty as charged. However, what I am also doing, is trying to call out the difference between the mass-produced pop culture consumable known as a “dreamcatcher”, with its watered down story of catching and/or eating nightmares as they work their way to a sleeping person… and the traditional Ojibwe artifact and culture story. Other people have written more knowledgeably on the topic, so… here is a link to a dreamcatcher specific piece on cultural appropriation.
All this to say… I want the readers of Smaller Totems to know that I am in no way intending to imply that, within the world of Smaller Totems, the Totems or the Catcher are empowered by, or governed by, the same forces that would be at work in the setting which apply to actual Ojibwe (or other cultures) totems or dreamcatchers. What you are seeing is a beast of an entirely different culture, and while there may be conceptual resonance (in the setting) between the original cultural phenomenon and the manifestations/characters we deal with in the story… an Ojibwe in my setting would look at the Catcher and look at the Totems at work and say, very correctly “None of this has anything to do with totems or dreamcatchers in our culture, where these artifacts, spirits, and ideas actually come from.”
Hopefully, by acknowledging that the comic itself is a 2nd order, self-confessed cultural conceptual appropriation, and that even within the setting itself the names and cultural resonances would be acknowledged as forms of cultural appropriation by people concerned about it within the setting, we at least draw enough attention to this very real problem to not *contribute* further to it.
I’ll write more on the topic once we have our metaphysical system revealed a bit more in the story.
As always, any sort of comment, thought, question, or challenge… is very welcome. 🙂
Enjoy the new Installment material, and we’ll see you again next week!