The View From Here: Cultural Appropriation


Volodymyr Kish.

Cultural appropriation, or perhaps more accurately, misappropriation, has become a prominent cause for controversy in recent years. The technical definition of this term “is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.” In the U.S. for instance, there has been considerable protest by Native Americans over the seemingly derogatory and demeaning use of native images in team logos and as team mascots. Good examples of this are the logos used by professional sports teams such as the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Washington Redskins, and the Chicago Blackhawks. This usage is viewed by most of the Native American community as disrespectful at best, and racist at worst. And Canada is not guiltless in this matter either. As most Canadians would know, Edmonton’s entry in the Canadian Football League is named the Eskimos.

The cultural appropriation issue is much wider though than just the misuse of names and images by sports teams. A couple of weeks ago, a group of graduating teenagers in Lethbridge Alberta were widely criticized for staging a party where a number of them got dressed and made up in the stereotypical costumes and war paint of western B movie “Indians”. Though some people might view their carousing as “wild redskins” as an innocuous prank, to the indigenous people of Canada who continue to face abysmal treatment in dealing with the Canadian establishment, it was another sign of the low regard and lack of respect they continue to have within Canadian society.

Native groups have been complaining for many years about how much of their art and artifacts, such as totems, dream catchers, headdresses, traditional clothing, carvings and motifs have been copied by non-natives for commercial purposes and sold to tourists and unsuspecting buyers as “genuine native art”. On a historically broader basis, native indigenous Americans can justifiably make the claim, that European colonizers and their descendants not only stole their land, but also much of their history and culture as well. Such behavior is one of the unfortunate side effects of imperialism, wherever it may manifest itself.

I was reminded of this in recent weeks by the widely reported brouhaha that arose when Russian President Putin, during a meeting with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, made mention of how France once had a “Russian” queen, Anne of Kiev, who married the French King Henry I in 1051 AD. This typical Russian appropriation of Ukrainian history, conveniently ignored the fact that in 1051 AD, there was no Russia, no Russians as a distinct ethnic group, and Moscow as well as most of what is now Russia, was an uninhabited wilderness.

The aforementioned Anne was the daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, ruler of the Kyivan Rus Empire, which would eventually evolve into modern day Ukraine. At that time, Kyiv Rus was one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe, and Yaroslav was well attuned and involved in European affairs. As well as marrying one of his daughters to the king of France, he also married two other daughters to the kings of Norway and Hungary.

To be historically accurate, at that time, not only were there no such people as the Russians, but also arguably there were no Ukrainians or Byelorussians either. The Kyiv Rus Empire was to disintegrate during the thirteenth century, and subsequent political events and migrations led to the evolution of the ethnic groups we now know as the Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. The Ukrainians are the direct descendants of those Slavic tribes that continued to live in the heartland centered around Kyiv, and which is now known today as Ukraine.

Of course, the Russians have for centuries been active at rewriting and distorting history to create the impression that the original Rus people were in fact Russians, and that Ukrainians and Byelorussians are just offshoots of the original Russian roots. In the same way, much of the rich Ukrainian legacy of music, dance, folk traditions and art were “appropriated” by the Russians who claimed it as their own.

I am reminded of a visit I once made to a museum in Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk) that had a rich collection of Kozak historical artifacts. I expressed my admiration to one of the museum guides who informed me, to my dismay, that most of the pieces on display were reproductions, as the originals had been shipped off to Moscow or St. Petersburg. It is a sad reality that a veritable treasure trove of Ukrainian historical artifacts is currently residing in museums in Russia, a cynical byproduct of Russian imperialism.

Continuing Russian imperialism not only robs the peoples they victimize of their history and culture, but ironically robs the Russian people themselves of their own genuine history and culture. It is only when they finally mature enough to be able to live with their neighbours in peace, that the Russians will perhaps finally rediscover their own distinct identity and historical truth.