Dear young Indigenous writers, I owe you an apology

I’m an Indigenous journalist who wasn’t offended by the cultural “appropriation prize.” Here’s why.

As a young Indigenous journalist myself, I was supposed to be outraged by the cultural “appropriation prize” controversy. I was supposed to be offended by a group of powerful white journalists at the head of major newsrooms across Canada, pledging money to encourage the theft of Indigenous stories. But I wasn’t. And it’s taken me over a month to figure out why.

At first I thought maybe I was naive and didn’t fully understand what the cultural appropriation debate was all about. But even after reading up on the issue and reading the reaction of some of our country’s top Indigenous writers and thinkers, my lack of rage was unwavering. So I kept quiet. When asked about the issue, I just sort of shrugged it off. I wondered, am I being a bad Native? Am I missing something here?  

And then it hit me. I’ve been culturally appropriating myself. And I’ve been culturally appropriating you: my fellow Indigenous storytellers.

“I’ve been culturally appropriating you: my fellow Indigenous storytellers.”

I am Indigenous, yes. My mother comes from the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northwestern British Columbia. She’s also Irish. My father was Chinese and French. And I think there’s German mixed in there somewhere. My point is, I’ve mainly identified myself as an Indigenous journalist and it’s helped me further my career. But it makes me wonder if I’ve been as authentic as I can be, and if I have a right to be offended.

I know this debate has been going on for a month but I can’t stop thinking about it. This has arguably been the largest debate we’ve ever had in Canada around appropriation of Indigenous stories. The questions it brings up for me are still racing through my mind.

Is it okay for me to write from the Indigenous perspective if I also come from immigrants and colonizers? That’s what confuses me about this whole cultural appropriation debate. Am I stealing stories from you and myself? And is that okay? Does my Indigenous blood give me more of a right than white people to tell Indigenous stories, or less of a right than Indigenous writers who are not mixed-race?

After some internal reflection, I believe it comes down to respect and authenticity. I’ve used my Indigenous side to my personal benefit, but I also have deep respect for what that part of me represents. I point to a tattoo I have on my upper right arm. It’s a frog design which represents my clan crest. But before I got the tattoo, I had to learn the oral history behind the frog crest. I had to get permission from a clan elder. I had to follow protocol. Our stories are sacred and I treat them as such.

That’s where I believe the journalists who supported the “appropriation prize” went wrong. I don’t know about you but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with non-Indigenous journalists writing about Indigenous issues. I’m all for cross-cultural learning. But those journalists showed me that they don’t respect Indigenous voices. They don’t respect the sacredness of Indigenous stories. They showed me that Indigenous stories to them are just another issue to debate and be pompous about.

But I’m still not offended. Putting aside my own internal conflict over my mixed-race identity, I just don’t care what a bunch of tone-deaf white journalists have to say about Indigenous stories. I don’t feel the need to argue about who has the right to write what. I just write. That’s it.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t offended by something that was so hurtful to so many Indigenous people. I respect all of the Indigenous thinkers and writers who have spoken out against the “appropriation prize.” Hell, I even respect the experience of the journalists who pledged money for it, even if their actions proved they’re grasping on to an industry that is slowly but surely outgrowing them.

In my opinion, it’s time to move on and forgive them. Even if they haven’t learned their lesson, their antics were never a threat to your ability to have an impact through this craft anyway. Focus on you. Your stories. Your voice. And focus on the voices in the edition of Write Magazine that started this whole debate.

“Don’t believe the narrative that anybody in this industry has the power to steal your stories.”

Young Indigenous writers: Don’t believe the narrative that anybody in this industry has the power to steal your stories or silence your voice. They don’t. Let them believe this is about free speech. Let them think they can write your story better than you can. Let them try to write about the multigenerational impacts of complex trauma and come up shallow because that shit isn’t burning in their core the way it burns in yours. Let noise be noise.

There are more people in this industry that want to see you succeed than not. As much as reconciliation can feel like nothing more than a buzzword sometimes, there are people in positions of power and influence who genuinely believe in its importance. Put yourself out there and they’ll find you. Take advantage of the opportunities that have unfortunately come at the expense of your ancestors’ pain.

It’s Canada’s 150th birthday this weekend. And as much of a reminder, it is of colonial oppression, I see it as an opportunity to leave our mark on the country’s narrative. And I can’t wait to see what each of you does next. [end]

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