22 The Craftsmanship and Ownership of Indigenous Art

Marley McLean

The discussion around the craftsmanship and ownership of Indigenous art and cultural pieces and the decolonization of our art institutions is one that is still very relevant, and I wanted to further delve into understanding the impact that appropriation and distribution of these cultural pieces has on Indigenous livelihood and perception. To begin with, I thought about how most tourist shops in Canada sell little items with Indigenous references. Dreamcatchers, Inukshuks, totem poles, and other items are often sold under the pretense of being quintessential “Canadian” souvenirs. What many people fail to understand is how Canada, as a Eurocentric country, basically absorbed the Indigenous culture via stealing and oppression. As reviewed in class, the Canadian government did things like banning potlatches, important Indigenous gatherings involving group politics, and confiscated any gifts people would bring to these events. These items were then displayed – and still are displayed- in museums and made copies of to sell as little gifts in stores. In other circumstances, stores sell dreamcatchers without understanding the spiritual and cultural importance behind them, specifically to the Ojibwe peoples. These examples are demonstrations of appropriation, but what I want to further examine is this impact on the Indigenous communities and businesses.

A series of articles on The Discourse, a journalism website focused on representing underprivileged voices, did a series of articles on this topic. One of these articles investigated 40 tourist shops and around 260 individual items, all of which were marketed as Indigenous items. Roughly 60% had no information on who made the items, and when the reporters followed up with companies about their sources, one third ignored them entirely, while other businesses refused to answer clearly or said they did not work with the Indigenous community at all and thought what they were doing was fine. In the end, only 25% of stores exclusively sold authentic items and worked with Indigenous creators.1 One artist interviewed in the article, Shain Jackson, discussed how Indigenous culture uses art specifically as a way to pass down history, and the knockoffs being produced are disingenuous and done only as a way to market off of the perceived “mysticism” of Indigenous culture, thus taking control of their own narrative away from Indigenous people.

These reproductions also do financial harm to the authentic market for Indigenous artists. Another article in the same series details how Indigenous artists in the business feel they can’t compete with cheaper labour and cheaper items, when their work uses long-standing tradition and genuine materials, along with having cultural significance. Many sellers instead choose to look the other way due to price, because pieces produced by underpaid labour are cheaper. Jackson was interviewed in this article as well, stating that the issue isn’t with the workers, but the producers and corporations who pit underpaid, desperate workers against the people whose culture they are using to make trinkets and toys.2 The issue again boils down to people in positions of power, whether it be government forces or wealthy businesses, taking pieces of culture from those who are disenfranchised and marketing off their art for less money, simultaneously taking away control of their images and taking away control of a market that should belong to them.

1 Francesca Fionda,”Fake Indigenous Art is a Real Problem in Vancouver Stores”. The Discourse, May 22, 2019. https://thediscourse.ca/urban-nation/fake-art-investigation
2 Wawmeesh Hamilton, “How can we compete with cheap fake art from overseas, Indigenous business owners ask?”. The Discourse, June 10, 2019. https://thediscourse.ca/urban-nation/how-business-compete


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Art in Revolution: Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture Copyright © 2022 by Marley McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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