If you’ve ever walked around Vancouver’s Gastown area, you’ve surely come across the many art galleries and souvenir shops scattered along the streets.
Venture into these trendy tourist spots, and you’ll find beautiful, handmade artwork — often done in a style recognizable from many indigenous cultures. According to The PretendantsA new documentary from emotional eyes, These stores cost the domestic industry more than a billion dollars a year.
Of course, as consumers, many of us assume that these pieces of art are authentic. That is, we are told and believe that so-called Aboriginal art is created by Aboriginal artists.
But more and more, it is being revealed that a large part of this so-called authentic indigenous art is not made by indigenous people. Instead, it has been created by non-Indigenous individuals and businesses that have adopted Indigenous identities and aesthetics. Often referred to as “Pretendians” by those involved in the issue.
Among other pitfalls, pretenders profit from people’s desire for indigenous cultures and items. You might think this is a rare problem, but it actually happens all the time.
An investigation by journalist Francesca Fionda, an expert on film, found that 75 percent of Gastown’s 40 shops appear to be selling unauthenticated art.
This phenomenon of pretentiousness in art raises some important questions: How do we tell what is “real” versus what is “fake”? Can we ensure that indigenous people are not being made to compete against non-indigenous people in a market that should be accessible to them? And how big of a problem is it really?
Such questions are that The Pretendants, hosted by Indigenous author and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, seeks to explore. And as the preponderance of pretenders seems to be growing, it’s important that we take these findings seriously.
Determining what is real and what (or who) is fake
Outside of the art world, many non-Indigenous people are also adopting Aboriginal identities. Perhaps you’ve seen headlines about it online and in the news: prominent university professors, filmmakers, writers and others who have made a living from their so-called “indigenous perspective.”
There are dozens of respected and often highly decorated individuals who cannot substantiate their claims to specific Aboriginal communities, who have outright lied about their family history, or who base their claims on a single, very distant Aboriginal relative.
inside The Pretendants, Taylor Ardoch travels to the Algonquin First Nation, which describes itself as “an Anishnabek community located on the Madawaska, Mississippi, and Rideau watersheds.” Ardock is not a federally recognized First Nation and, more importantly, says many Algonquin voices and communities It is not Algonquin at all.
There is much to discuss about Ardoch – not least that there seem to be very few checks and balances to consider them members of a community. In the documentary, Anishinaabe professor Weldon Coburn says that, for some time, all you have to do is fill out a self-declaration form on Ardoch’s website.
Many feel that this lack of criteria makes the Ardok community a way for pretenders to legitimize their dubious identity claims. This can become a particularly worrisome situation when communities like Ardoch involve themselves in important politics and policy-making decisions such as treaty negotiations, as Coburn says they did in the late 1990s.
At the same time, it is important to hear warnings from indigenous peoples who worry that we rely too easily on conditions such as official recognition to be considered “real” indigenous people or groups. These voices remind us that Indigenous citizenship and identity are often complex and do not fit neatly into checklists we seek to ascertain who we truly are. We should not take these concerns lightly.
So, as you can see, the issue is complex – and it seems to have reached a boiling point.
Who determines whether someone is indigenous?
Many Canadian institutions have no processes or standards to separate Aboriginal people from claimants. And instead of any formal process, some people have taken it upon themselves to fill those gaps.
we saw coverage A university recruitment committee is rejecting an indigenous job candidate for not producing certain documentation to prove his status — despite his real identity and community ties. In other cases, social media accounts have been created (often anonymously) to expose people falsely claiming Aboriginal identity.
So this brings us to another part of the conversation: how do we deal with the Pretendian problem?
Often, this question is debated among tribal communities. People ask: How do we decide who is or isn’t, and who gets to make that decision? Can there be any standard way of knowing when our communities and races differ from each other? Is social media the right place for this conversation about identity? If not, where and how should we have them? How do we benefit from having this discussion, and who falls through the cracks?
There is no clear answer – but there must be many conversations
When it comes to these questions, there seems to be no consensus — even as the pressure for answers grows and more people realize just how involved they are in pretend conversations.
But whether you’re a consumer questioning the authenticity of the Gastown industry, a hiring manager responsible for bringing Indigenous candidates to your workplace, or part of an Indigenous community navigating these conversations, Drew Hayden Taylor Hope to be able to give you some insight.
Importantly, I say insights, not answers. A single documentary cannot possibly answer all the mnemonic questions raised by the Pretendian incident. However, since it appears that the Pretendians aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, we should assume that speculation about how to move forward won’t either — or that Indigenous identity is too important to ignore even in this complex world. As long as this is the case, we will need conversations like this The Pretendants want to stay
watch The Pretendants on Passionate Eye.