An excerpt from Pulling Together: Foundations Guide by Kory Wilson
Although the situation is improving, far too many Canadians do not know the histories, cultures, or current issues facing Indigenous Peoples. There are many reasons for this:
- Years of government policies have worked to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into mainstream Canadian society.
- Reserves have isolated First Nations people from Canadian society.
- Very little is taught about the true history of Canada and Indigenous Peoples.
- Film, television, and media often perpetuate Indigenous stereotypes.
In order to ensure that there is understanding, respect, and appreciation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, both need to meet, work together, and learn about each other. Otherwise, non-Indigenous people may learn about Indigenous Peoples only from the news and other sources. Usually what people know, or think they know, comes from the images and characters they see or read about in movies, TV shows, magazines, books, and news reports.
Stereotypes do great harm. Whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, you will often hear negative stereotypes about Indigenous Peoples, but you might not always have enough information to see past the stereotypes and see past the racism to find the truth.
The Canadian school system has contributed to these stereotypes, as very little is taught about Indigenous Peoples and their real history. This is changing. For example, the Province of British Columbia has mandated the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge and history across the K–12 curriculum.
Indigenous stories and histories in the mainstream media have normally been told from a non-Indigenous point of view. This can lead to misunderstandings that can harm the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
The Hollywood film industry has made millions from telling stories about “cowboys and Indians.” In TV shows and movies, Indigenous characters are often played by non-Indigenous people and the representations of Indigenous Peoples are rarely accurate. Instead, filmmakers use stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples.
Negative stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples are still widespread in sports, though there is a growing movement to replace team names and mascots that perpetuate the stereotypes.
Overcoming the stereotypes
Indigenous people work in the media – in newspapers, radio, book publishing, film, web journalism, and television. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) is a cable television network in Canada that produces and broadcasts programs by and for Indigenous Peoples. These films and TV shows can help break down some of the negative stereotypes.
For non-Indigenous Canadians, the visible and positive presence of Indigenous Peoples in the media is a real alternative to stereotypes. Real people, places, and cultures are much more complex than stereotypes.
Getting to know Indigenous Peoples and learning about their real history and contemporary reality will help to break down negative stereotypes and can heal some of the damage. Many people are now working to ensure that future generations of children in Canada will receive more complete and accurate views of Indigenous Peoples and a more truthful account of Canadian history in their education.
The term microaggressions is sometimes used to describe the insults, dismissals, or casual degradations a dominant culture inflicts on a marginalized group of people. Often they are a form of unintended discrimination, but one that has the same effect as willful discrimination. Usually perpetrators intend no offence and are unaware they are causing harm. Generally, they are well-meaning and consider themselves to be unprejudiced.
Many Indigenous people experience microaggressions on a regular basis. They are often statements that:
- repeat or affirm stereotypes about Indigenous Peoples or subtly demean them
- position the dominant non-Indigenous culture as normal and the Indigenous culture as abnormal
- express disapproval of or discomfort with Indigenous Peoples
- assume all Indigenous Peoples are the same
- minimize the existence of discrimination against Indigenous Peoples
- deny the perpetrator’s own bias toward Indigenous Peoples
- minimize real conflict between the Indigenous Peoples and the dominant non-Indigenous culture
People who experience microaggressions may feel anger, frustration, or exhaustion from feeling that they must “represent” their group or suppress their own cultural expression and beliefs.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of culturally significant items by someone from another culture. During this process the original meaning is usually lost or distorted.
Pop culture has a history of using Indigenous symbols to sell fashion. Traditional Indigenous clothing with deep spiritual significance is marketed as “cute,” “sexy,” or “cool.”
Cultural appropriation is offensive when someone from a dominant culture exploits the cultural and intellectual property of a marginalized group of people, and even more so when the dominant culture has outlawed many of the cultural items that are now being marketed.