bailey macabre

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how museums contribute to the consumption of culture

My partner and I recently visited the island for a quick anniversary getaway. We had to kill some time in Victoria, so we decided to go to the Royal BC Museum. After leaving, I couldn’t help but think of how museums contribute to the consumption of culture.

We looked at the exhibits and walked through the totem poles, surrounded by tourists taking photos. I walked into what I anticipated to be their replica longhouse, but it just ended up being a strange room with a fake campfire and some carpeting. Half-totem poles filled the room and there was a hole in the wall you could look through to see… someone had left a cast iron pan and some construction equipment inside.

We journeyed to the settler side – I don’t know what to call it, the European side? There was much more effort put into their replica of the back half of George Vancouver’s boat (which made me very uncomfortable being inside of), their gold-mining installation and their replica settlement-town. There was also a temporary installation about the Mayans, which was full of curious spectators taking photos of artefacts and reading about Mayan history.

The experience was really strange for me. I felt uneasy the whole time, and as we left, walking through the gift shop and looking at all of the little Indigenous trinkets for sale, it hit me.

Settlers actively consume Indigenous culture and history, buying dream catchers and white sage to the point of near-extinction, without actually caring about Indigenous people at all. There exists a romanticism of historical Indigenous culture and traditions, yet when it comes to the present day struggles Indigenous people face, we receive no understanding. The Snotty Nose Rez Kids lyric: “You don’t love us like you say you do” kept popping into my head.

I looked at tea-towels with Haida artwork of killer whales and sea otters, silver spoons with eagles carved into them, decks of playing cards with totem poles on the back, and couldn’t help but consider who they are made for. Needless to say, I don’t think the majority of people purchasing the gifts from these types of shops are Indigenous.

I see cabins with Indigenous style murals painted on the walls, and travellers who photograph our totem poles and want to sleep in our tipis. I see white people calling themselves shamans and sages and burning sage and buying moccasins.

Do you know what else I see? I see so many of our people struggling to survive. I see the fallout of settler-colonialism and how it still affects us to this day. I see promises being made and broken by a government that uses us as nothing more than leverage. I see the comments on news articles about our struggles and people telling us to get over it, and that it all happened “so long ago”. I see the polls where more than half of Canadians think we’d be better off if we just assimilated.

Unfortunately, I also see the stuff white people don’t *want* me to see, because I am coded enough to be mistaken as one of them. I see them calling us slurs, making fun of us, cracking racist jokes about us. I used to quietly stomach it without speaking out against it, but I thank the Creator I am not who I used to be.

The historical Native is an easier image to stomach because it helps push the narrative that our colonization happened in the past. By looking at ancient arrow-heads and how we caught salmon, black and white photos of our ancestors and our traditional way of doing things, it is easier for people to believe we *needed* colonization. The Royal BC museum was perhaps an even graver example, stationing the Indigenous instalment and the colonial instalment next to each other, almost as if to compare. Without directly saying anything, there is an undercurrent of Ethnocentrism that trickles throughout the two sides of the museum. On the one hand you have traditions that were labelled primitive by our colonizers, and on the other you have a replica town with little shops and hotels you can walk through. It almost feels like goading.

The topic of the museum in general may be something I return to in the future, but for now, I need to reiterate my main point.

If you’re a settler and you’re actively consuming our culture, the least you can do is respect the living, breathing descendents of those whose artifacts you photograph. Perhaps you could listen to the struggles we face currently, many of which are the direct result of the arrival of your ancestors. Maybe you could question your opinions of living, breathing native folx instead of romanticising a past that was stolen from us. And maybe, just maybe you could take the time to educate yourself about the present state of our people, and listen to our voices. We are not a commodity. We are not historical. We are not dead. We are here. Colonialism hasn’t erased us yet, and by the looks of it, we aren’t going anywhere, either.

– – –

If you want to continue to purchase Indigenous items for yourself, friends, or family members, please consider buying items from reputable sources rather than from places who sell knock-offs and replicas without the assistance of or contribution to our people. Furthermore, consider supporting independent Indigenous artists rather than purchasing something that is replicating or romanticising. There are so many talented indigenous artists that are working with traditional mediums but bringing a modern flair to what they do.

Twitter and Instagram are fantastic resources to find beaders, carvers, weavers, and independent Indigenous artists of all types. If you want to make bulk purchases, there are a few companies that work with Indigenous artists to ensure the authenticity of the items being sold.

originally published on, 2019, written by bailey macabre

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