North American ideals of politesse demand that those who misuse aspects of others’ cultures be immediately corrected. When Pharrell wore a headdress on the cover of Elle, or when Gwen Stefani sported the same in one of her videos, they were swiftly shamed on social media. Monika Siebert, an English professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia whose work focuses on contemporary American literature and American Indian literature and film, has been a longtime opponent of this kind of appropriation. But as she argues in her most recent book, Indians Playing Indian, there’s a danger in being too simplistic in our opposition.
SCOPE: Can you talk a bit about why you chose to address this topic?
MONIKA SIEBERT: There actually is a story, kind of like an origin story, to this book, and the story is [about] going to the cinema to see Atanarjuat. It came out in 2001, and it became an internationally well-known and acclaimed film. [It featured] Indigenous language, an Indigenous production company, and so on. I was really perplexed by a particular feature of the film. Why make a film about the prehistoric Inuit [that] so easily lends itself to a perception on the part of mainstream society that would reproduce some of the stereotypes about Indian primitivism and savagery? Why meticulously edit any sign of modernity from this film? [There are] ongoing colonial legacies with the contentious issues of land rights both in the United States and Canada. But the film shunned these topics, and instead offers this kind of beautifully packaged, pre-colonial snippet of authentic Indigeneity. Atanarjuat seems to reconfirm [stereotypes] contemporary artists spend a lot of time debunking: This perception that Indians belong to the past, and they have disappeared, vanished. The film was so much about Inuit specificity. How did that happen to something that set out to be specifically non-Canadian, to be Inuit? Why was it so quickly and broadly and anonymously acclaimed as a Canadian film?
You coin the term “multicultural misrecognition” to refer to what mainstream media calls cultural appropriation. Can you elaborate?
I think the concept of cultural appropriation is very useful, and it has been useful historically to deal with one particular problem. But it also serves to exasperate the trouble that I’m interested in, which is the practice of mistaking Indigenous peoples for a cultural minority.
What multiculturalists trained us to do well is to recognize instances of cultural appropriation and refuse them. And that’s good. I absolutely agree with this. But I think that if cultural appropriation is our fundamental category for thinking about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the settlers in Canada and the U.S., then it’s a problem.
By misrecognizing them as cultural minorities, on par with other American minority groups, and thus obscuring their unique status as citizens of sovereign nations, a status recognized in the practice of treaty making with European and American governments from the seventeenth century until 1871.
How did Indigenous art and political experience become important to you as an academic?
I came [to the U.S.] from Poland to study American literature. But when I came here, I started learning about American Indian writers. When I was leaving grad school I realized that they did not fit any sort of model that I’d been studying. They are not a cultural minority. They did not immigrate here. They are colonized. So, being a contrarian all my life, I became interested and thought to understand what this country is, I have to start with the Indigenous peoples. I’m not an ethnographer. I cannot speak on behalf of Indigenous nations—I would never claim that. The politics of identity are complicated in the field, and I think it’s important that American Indigenous programs are run by American Indian academics. What I can do is play a settler immigrant reader who takes up the challenge of contemporary Indian art and directs it at settler readers, and kind of chips away at that to return to the political understanding of Indigenous identities.
How are Indigenous artists pushing back against the erasure of their political histories?
In general, by evoking their political, rather than cultural, histories. For example, the curators at [the National Museum of the American Indian] in Washington D.C. in the inaugural exhibitions have stressed the history of treaty making, and reframed some of the well-known Indian stereotypes in the context of Indigenous political sovereignty. For example, the Mohawk steelworkers’ migrations from Canada to [New York City], usually seen as Mohawk adaptations to North American modernity, are reframed as their exercise of their right to free movement across the U.S.-Canadian border as a result of the provisions of the Jay Treaty which, in 1794, recognized the fact that this border cut right across Mohawk national territories, effectively dividing them between two separate colonial nations.
What do settler populations need to be doing better?
The very existence of what Indigenous legal scholars refer to as prior inherent sovereignty—that is a legal status of Indigenous nations as entities with political identity, self-governance, and control over concrete territories, before contact with European settlers, and recognized after contact via a practice of treaty negotiations. The treaties negotiated with Indigenous nations [in the U.S.] are still binding legal documents. The fact that entitlements pertaining to contemporary federally recognized Indian nations or tribes in the United States are not “Indian welfare” but a form of payment for the Indigenous territories ceded to the U.S. Federally-recognized tribes or indigenous nations have access to all rights and entitlements that stem from historic treaties (contemporary forms of such entitlements usually are federal funds for health care and education on reservations, some narrowly-defined tax exemptions, ability to pursue reclamation of human remains and cultural artifacts currently in the hands of American museums, right to conduct gaming operations).
One of the state but not federally-recognized Indian tribes in Virginia, the Pamunkey, [have been] awaiting a decision on their federal recognition, which they have been seeking for 35 years. The press coverage of that decision acutely reveals the misunderstanding on the part of general public of what such recognition entitles, and why it should be granted or denied.
You say it’s important to use language like sovereign nations or First Nations rather than First Americans or Native Americans. Why?
Expressions such as Native Americans and First Americans equate Indigenous peoples to other minority groups comprising North American multicultural democracies. In the United States, American Indians insist on their fundamental difference from other cultural minority groups, a difference recognized by the US federal Indian policy, which understands indigeneity as a political identity, a status of citizenship (or tribal enrollment) in federally-recognized historic sovereign nations. Such phrases remake peoples who understand themselves as Indigenous to the continent into immigrants (as in First Americans).
How does all of this apply to other parts of the world?
The treaty negotiation practice was unique to North America during the colonial period. When it finally emerged as an internationally-recognized political entity after the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States continued the practice of treating with Indigenous nations until 1871, signing more than 350 treaties during that period. Canada, too, on behalf of the British Crown, signed treaties with First Nations, but numbering considerably less. By contrast, the Spanish crown did not practice treating with Indigenous nations in South America. New Zealand has one, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Australia, however, was considered “terra nullius,” or land belonging to nobody, by the colonizing British who did not recognize the Aboriginal inhabitants, and did not sign treaties with them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.