Looking for Dignity

So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Bob Dylan

Through The Lens of Dignity: Cultural appropriation. Cultural commodification. Cultural empathy. Cultural reconciliation.

This week Write magazine’s Hal Niedzviecki has resigned in the wake of an uproar triggered by his encouragement to writers to explore “the lives of people who aren’t like you.”

Jonathan Kay wades in via Twitter lamenting “the mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let Identity-politics fundamentalists run riot. Sad and shameful.” And, then he, too, quits his job; Kay was editor at Walrus magazine.

Reaction from indigenous artists and writers in Canada and their white allies is swift. The language of war pervasive. Dr. Alika Lafontaine, a friend, and well-respected healthcare voice in Alberta, takes to social media to denounce the power imbalance: “He [Jonathan Kay] now has a bully pulpit to push forward his position, while it takes an army of Indigenous writers to balance the narrative.”

This debate unfolds in the shadow of the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their efforts to shine light on common ground among indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.

Canada, calling itself the home of pluralism and cultural diversity, must face this polarization and identity-based conflict.

We have choices. We can continue to deepen the divides, or worse, we can choose to play polite on the very values that define us. Neither option is appealing. So, as Bob Dylan said “I wonder what it’s going to take?”  How do we allow cultural expression to evolve, with sensitivity and respect? Over generations, this learning-from and responding-to the derived influences of other cultures has stimulated richness, appreciation and brilliance. Think Joseph Conrad, Marc Chagall, Alexis de Tocqueville, Bela Bartok, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan.

In fact, it’s Bob Dylan who pollinated my thinking on how to tackle this cultural conundrum we find ourselves in. In his song, “Dignity”, Dylan shares the story of his quest to find the elusive quality of dignity, in himself and others. The lyrics are a powerful reminder of how– even in the most well-meaning attempts to build bridges between people, places and issues—we choose to sacrifice dignity and to propagate humiliation instead, turning ourselves or others into victims, or less-than- human objects.

Near the end of the song, Dylan scoffs at the notion of finding images of positive dignity: “Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed/Dignity never been photographed”. Thank you, Bob Dylan. These very lines triggered a powerful response in this rookie photographer. I’ve set out on my own quest: I’m looking to find dignity in a human face. We know what the absence of dignity looks like, and feels like; lack of dignity is obvious and the feeling is gut wrenching.  Conversely, I wonder, what the presence of dignity looks like and how does it feel? Can we learn to recognize and to build dignity in ourselves and in others?

And, perhaps, our ability to talk about cultural appropriation, cultural commodification and cultural empathy could be enhanced if we tried to view the world through the lens of dignity. First Nations often speak of respect. While mutual respect is the aspiration, recognizing dignity in ourselves and in others may be a necessary first step in that journey. We’re born with dignity; we’re not born with respect. Respect isn’t innate; it’s earned, through our actions, it is seen.

Nelson Mandela and Michael J. Fox, two people rich in the experience of dignity, remind us to hold onto it: “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered,” warns Fox.

I’ve had the privilege to experience diversity in culture not only in our beautiful country but around the world. And I have some questions about the dignity of what I have seen.

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This didgeridoo player in Sydney, Australia, performing for the crowds along the quay and selling his CDs, caught my full attention. I stopped, not just to listen to the soulful sounds but to ponder the dignity of this situation. It was complex. Was this indigenous musician turning his culture into a commodity (and what was my role in that)? Or maybe it was simply wonderful that this young man derived pleasure and income from a culturally-attuned source.

I found myself queasy about taking my sons to visit villages of long-necked tribes in rural Thailand, conflicted between exposing them to new cultures and the idea that we played a role in perpetuating harmful cultural traditions that erode dignity. I find that I scorn fashion models who expropriate First Nations’ feather head-dresses.

But the lines in this sand are faint and the winds continue to blow across them. We are clumsy in our attempts to show respect and to honour the dignity of all cultures in this increasingly connected world.

Later in this same trip to Australia, I had the opportunity to visit “Australia’s No. 1 Aboriginal Culture Centre” in Katoomba, where the Waradah dance troupe entertained tourists. This young woman, below, was one of the Aboriginal performers, and while her performance was professional, and much appreciated, my mind continued to churn about the dignity of this cultural commodification. Certainly, there was dignity in the fact that she wanted to share her culture with outsiders, and that I wanted to learn more about her culture. But there was also an uneasiness. How could I really be sure how this young woman felt about her role? The same questions could be asked of the hula dancers in Hawaii, and of thousands of others who share their culture with others as part of their livelihood.

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There have been times in my life where I was certain that I was in that moment sharing culture, and dignity was present.  On reflection, I can see that the difference was a knowing; by having a personal relationship with the person of another culture and a reciprocal understanding of our expectations and motives, it was easy for both us to hold our dignity.

cropped-cropped-img_00381.jpgIn this photo, I’m holding a microphone for First Nations Elder Blair Thomas. Together, we’re officiating at a wedding ceremony for mutual friends in Calgary, traditional Blackfoot territory in Treaty 7 area. Dignity is palpable. We are both aware of the spirituality of this moment, and of the connections across cultures and faith.

In this discussion, I also consider the work of Janice Tanton, a professional artist at her studio in the Banff Centre, also Treaty 7 territory.  Not First Nations by birth, Janice has been adopted by Elder Tom Crane Bear of the Siksika Nation, and has been given the Blackfoot name, Iniskim-Aki, Buffalo Stone Woman.

March 2017 3 006In her canvas, “Honour of the Crown”, Janice renders a stack of blankets, including several iconic Hudson’s Bay blankets, topped with a crown, piled on a buffalo robe and human skulls. A raven sits perched atop the crown.

Janice’s art is exceptional. She is among Canada’s most promising artists.

Janice is also a friend, and she’s invited me to view this canvas in her studio. My reaction is raw. I feel sharp stabs of guilt, shivers of shame, and the heavy weight of accountability. I wonder, can some good come out of wallowing in this pain?

Looking at this through the lens of dignity is daunting. Is Janice’s work forcing me to see how we have stripped away the dignity of First Nations peoples generationally? Or, is she trying to strip away my dignity, and the dignity of all colonialists?

Janice’s response? “My role as the author of this work is to present for consideration, symbolic imagery to which the viewer can bring their own experience, reflect and consider their own narrative within this piece and to act as a catalyst for deep conversation.”

Okay, I wonder.  I see how I feel about the past but  what about the possibility of shoring up dignity…of present-day, living and breathing First Nations people…colonialists…or anyone? I’ve been following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work closely in Canada, and understand the need for public vindication, public acknowledgement of the suffering by First Nations’ generations as a way to dignify that suffering. Their final report is explicit: “For [reconciliation] to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.” Janice’s painting certainly witnesses and dignifies that pain.

But, surely, there can be more. Reconciliation can’t just look backwards. We must also set the stage for a shared future. As the Commission’s report says: “Reconciliation must inspire Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples to transform Canadian society so that our children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace, and prosperity on these lands we now share.”

I accept that art is not all about beauty and aesthetics. Art is sometimes meant to be provocative. Yet it does not escape my notice that, in this photo, Janice’s face and body hold dignity. In spite of the complexities—being a non-indigenous woman adopted by a First Nations Elder, and standing in the space between those two peoples—Janice has a conviction of her role, her voice and her message. There is great dignity in that.

Emily Carr (1871-1945) is arguably Canada’s most recognized female artist, and decades ago, like Janice, she chose to stand in the space between European immigrants to Canada and the First Nations communities. Carr’s commitment to depicting the raw magnificence of both nature and the First Nations peoples in her art is obvious to anyone who has seen her works, or listened to her words:

“We may not believe in totems, but we believe in our country; and if we approach our work as the Indian did with his singleness of purpose and determination to strive for the big thing that means Canada herself, and not hamper ourselves by wondering if our things will sell, or if they will please the public or bring us popularity or fame, but busy ourselves by trying to get near to the heart of things, however crude our work may be, it is liable to more sincere and genuine.” Emily Carr, Modern and Indian Art (1929)


Notwithstanding the sincerity with which she honoured the dignity of First Nations peoples, Carr’s depiction of West Coast indigenous culture has been criticized by some as cultural appropriation. The Vancouver Art Gallery curates several of Carr’s works, and comments on their website: “Her depiction of abandoned and decaying poles and villages increasingly devoid of human life imparted the impression of a dying culture. From today’s perspective, this well-intended but naive approach to documenting the negative impact of colonialism is problematic, playing a part in the “construction of the imaginary Indian,” and is subject to the same criticism directed at any of her contemporaries who engaged in cultural appropriation.”

In my imagination, I see Emily Carr standing beside her nearly finished canvas in 1931—“Big Raven”—arms crossed, shoulders squared, her face exuding great personal dignity—irrespective of her critics, then, or now.

Where to from here?

From today’s perspective, is the operative word here “reconciliation”? A process of acknowledgment that harm has been done, apologizing and re-friending.  We have not always been good friends to our First Nations people, their culture has been appropriated – or seized as the word means, and they are understandably wary.  As we who have been in the privileged culture recognize this, we too are sensitized and this can be a messy place to be.

As I said, I’m no longer satisfied with continued divisiveness or polite indifference.  In the absence of running a continuum between collapsing and aggressing on these issues (appropriation, commodification, reconciliation) we come to composure.  Composure is that still point of dignity, where sensitivity and respect are applied and not just idealized.  It’s time for conversation, for understanding and for the end of the repeating cycle of offending and defending that’s been happening since first contact.  This means the need for conversation, for listening, for relationship.  The effect of original cultural assumptions, the original misinterpretation of inequality – colonists didn’t see the dignity of the First People and over time this belief has been transferred.  Patience will be  necessary as people re-claim their dignity on both sides – recognizing undignified behavior and dignity lost is painful and pain can be ugly.

What’s happening in our media and social media is not conversation, it is debate and reconciliation is not an outcome of debate.  Debates lead to winners and losers and if we have learned anything I am hoping that we can see that if there is a loser we all lose and there is no dignity in that.




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