I is for Indian Dances

If you want to get up close and personal with cultural appropriation in Canada, there is no better place to start than your kid’s piano book. It turns out that these seemingly innocuous volumes just happen to be where we teach our children how to take and corrupt the songs of others, in particular the songs of Indigenous peoples. Many of my kids’ piano books contain at least one if not more “Indian”-type dances. These songs are inevitably based on a strong, repetitive and simplistic beat. A beat that is not easily forgotten.

Browner (1995) argues that you can ask “almost any person on the street to reproduce an ‘Indian’ beat, and they will reply with BAH-bum-bum-bum, the rhythm that defines Native music for the dominant society, and simultaneously depicts the ‘primitive’ nature of Indians” (p.5). My daughter’s piano books are rife with exactly these types of songs and rhythms.

But, there is very little, if any, “Indian” in these songs. They are not composed by Indigenous composers. They are not attributed to particular First Nations. They are an “imagined Native music” (Browner, p.5) that has developed its own agency and has come to “displace the real” (Browner, p.5). These songs that my daughter plunks out at the piano are stereotypical musical depictions of Indigenous peoples that have “no referent within Native music, no ‘truth beneath them'” (Browner, p.5).

And yet, this is what we teach our children.

I was thinking about this as the topic of cultural appropriation once again dominated the Canadian news these past weeks. In an opinion piece called, “Winning the Appropriation Prize” Write Magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki took the troubling and somewhat baffling stance of not “believing in” cultural appropriation. As if theft is a tooth fairy.

Niedzviecki went on to encourage cultural appropriation and even went so far as to suggest that there should be an award for doing so. He was subsequently challenged by Indigenous authors and members of the Writers’ Union of Canada. The Union promptly issued a statement apologizing for the piece and announcing Niedzviecki’s resignation. But it did not end there. Shortly thereafter, a number of high-ranking members of the Canadian media, all White folk, took to Twitter to pledge support and in many cases money for a Niedzviecki-inspired appropriation prize.

Susan Scafidi, a law professor and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols etc. It’s more likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects” (as cited in Nittle, 2017).

Jesse Wente on cultural appropriation controversy

Indigenous reporter and critic, Jesse Wente, reiterated the importance of this historical context when trying to understand cultural appropriation. “We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized, it is the very foundation of what Canada is built on. And not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of all things Indigenous: our lives, our land” (as cited in CBC, 2017).

So when my daughter pounds out “Indian War Dance” on the piano, it is not an isolated event but instead bolsters and reproduces hundreds of years of colonialism.

To quote Browner (1995): “To use Indian music is not simply a musical choice. It is a political statement” (p. 2).

Karen Tsang, a mother and writer, wrote a thread on Twitter about how appropriation is “incubated” in our education system (14 May 2017). She wrote about how her own children were taught in school to reproduce Indigenous art forms. She remembers herself as a student play acting a Potlatch and how there was no context for the activity, no mention of the Potlatch being sacred, outlawed or criminalized.

“We just ‘played Indian'” (14 May 2017).

This reductive understanding of the Potlatch is just one example of what Calderón (2006) has called a “flattened epistemology”, a way of knowing and understanding the world that is one-dimensional and divorced from an organic community. This “flattened epistemology” is used in schools to teach students “routine ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and understanding things that preclude critical engagement with oppressive practices” (Calderon, p. 79). By presenting Indigenous cultures to students as these flat, isolated, bits and pieces without context, students are denied the opportunity to learn about the richness and complexity of Indigenous nations and their complicated relationships with Canada. They are denied the opportunity to engage critically with concepts of artistic ownership and cultural appropriation.

As a student in school, I too was taught to copy and appropriate Indigenous peoples’ art. I have vivid memories of sewing button blankets and making Haida masks. Now my own children do the same, making headdresses and playing “Indian” dances. Generation after generation, we keep learning and teaching cultural appropriation in a vicious circle with “teachers without accurate/appropriate knowledge passing down what they learned and liked when they were kids” (Tsang, 14 May 2017).

These lessons result in something far removed from actual Indigenous art and far removed from any sort of ethical, relational process for learning about it. Perhaps ’cultural perversion’ is a better term than ’cultural appropriation’. The fake displaces the real. The BAH-bum-bum-bum of the “Indian War Dance” makes the rounds again, generation after generation, leaving little space for any other understanding of Indigenous music. With this as our inheritance, is it any wonder that we are celebrating an appropriation prize?

Is this not what we have been training for?

Unsurprisingly, these issues are found not only in isolated living rooms around the nation as children plunk away at the piano, but also on the big stage. To celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, the Canadian Opera Company revived Harry Somers’s opera, Louis Riel which tells the story of the Red River Rebellion and of the Métis leader’s ultimate trial and execution. One of the opera’s most famous arias, “Kuyus” is sung in Cree by Riel’s wife to their baby. However, the melody is not Cree at all, but rather a sacred mourning song called “Song of Skateen” which belongs to the Nisg̱a’a.

There are multiple difficulties with this arrangement. For starters, the Nisg̱a’a homeland is in the Nass River valley of northwestern British Columbia, far away from the events of the Métis uprising. Furthermore, the “Song of Skateen” is a sacred song with a specific purpose. It is only to be sung at appropriate times by those holding hereditary rights to it. To sing a mourning song such as this one out of the proper context is considered by the Nisg̱a’a to be a legal offence (Canadian Opera Company, 2017). In Canadian law, there are similar artistic protections. There is a long legal history of songs being considered property and being protected through copyright law. However, these protections have never been afforded to Indigenous music that is collectively owned, unless it is recorded and distributed for profit (Browner, 1995, p. 2). In this time of reconciliation, Dylan Robinson, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts at Queen’s University argues that “creative repatriation” is essential (as cited in Canadian Opera Company, 2017).

It is telling then that the “Song of Skateen” was still performed out of context and in contradiction to Nisg̱a’a law as part of Canada’s 150 celebrations.

Canada’s sesquicentennial has provided many such revelatory moments. In Ottawa a new playground was unveiled at Mooney’s Bay as part of our national celebrations. Each of the 13 play structures represents a different region of the country. There are multi-coloured totem poles, a wagon, a Wild West storefront and a Viking ship among others. Hayden King tweeted: “After climbing on the totem poles, kids can pretend to circle the wagons. Cowboys and Indians has never been so convenient!” (20 May 2017).

The mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, responded on Twitter: “The people who love it are the thousands of kids who have been playing on it for weeks! Glad we said no to naysauers [sic] and accepted this gift!” (20 May 2017). Twitter users were quick to point out that children enjoy playing on many different types of play structures, not only those that promote playacting colonial violence and promoting stereotypes. “This sh– right here is how we as white people are taught to be disrespectful. We’re introduced to other cultures as literal play things” (SophiaRune, 20 May 2017).

These experiences of climbing fake totem poles, of blithely role-playing a Potlatch, of performing “Indian War Dance” on piano all teach our children the same basic lessons: a disrespect for the cultures of others and a disregard for the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.  And these lessons manifest themselves years later in grown men and women unashamedly celebrating an appropriation prize.

But what to do?

I wish I could say that I stopped my daughter from playing “Indian War Dance”, from practicing this ugliness. But I didn’t. I decided instead to use it as a teaching opportunity. I talked to my daughter about stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

But it is only now as I write this, that I realize it was the wrong decision. It is only after reading Browner’s work that I have come to realize the insidious nature of this “Indian beat”, how it comes to inhabit our imaginations, how it develops into habits of appropriation.

But at this point, I cannot take that beat back; I can only work to replace it. Next weekend there is a Pow Wow that we will attend as a family and the beat of the host drum will hopefully give us a new rhythm, something more authentic, more real, more relational to work with.


Browner, T. (1995). Transposing Cultures: The Appropriations of Native North American Musics 1890-1990. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Michigan, USA.

Calderón, D. (2006). One-Dimensionality and Whiteness. Policy Futures in Education. 4(1), 73-82.

Canadian Opera Company. (2017). DIALOGUE ON USE OF INDIGENOUS SONGS IN CANADIAN COMPOSITIONS HOSTED BY COC. [Media Release]. Retrieved from: http://files.coc.ca/pdfs/PressRelease/1617pressreleases/COC%20Release%20-%20Louis%20Riel%20-%20Meeting%20on%20Indigenous%20Music%20Canadian%20Compositions%20-%20FINAL.pdf

CBC. (2017, May 15). An emotional Jesse Wente on the ‘remarkable arrogance’ of an appropriation prize. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/jesse-wente-appropriation-prize-1.4115293

Cooper, M. (2017, April 19). Canada Turns 150, but a Silent Chorus Isn’t Celebrating. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/arts/music/canada-turns-150-but-a-silent-chorus-isnt-celebrating.html?_r=0

King, Hayden (Hayden_King). “After climbing on the totem poles, kids can pretend to circle the wagons. Cowboys and Indians has never been so convenient!” 20 May 2017, 12:09 pm. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/Hayden_King/status/865977698178531329

Niedzviecki, H. (2017). Winning the Appropriation Prize. Writer: The Magazine of The Writer’s Union of Canada. 45(1), 8.

Nittle, N. (2017, February 7). What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is it Wrong?.  Thought Co. Retrieved from: https://www.thoughtco.com/cultural-appropriation-and-why-iits-wrong-2834561

Rune, Sofia (sofiarune). “This shit right here is how we as white people are taught to be disrespectful. We’re introduced to other cultures as literal play things.” 20 May 2017, 4:41pm. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/sofiarune/status/866046226386612228

Tsang, Karen (yeepoa). “I’ve been thinking a lot about appropriation and how it is incubated in our education system. #appropriationprize” 14 May 2017, 11:00pm. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/yeepoa/status/863967359433822208

Tsang, Karen (yeepoa). “I remember doing something around a fake fire. Nobody spoke of the Potlatch being sacred, outlawed, criminalized. We just ‘played Indian’.” 14 May 2017, 11:06pm. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/yeepoa/status/863968741993750529

Tsang, Karen (yeepoa). “Vicious circle. No context, teacher without accurate/appropriate knowledge passing down what they learned and like when they were kids.” 14 May 2017, 11:15pm. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/yeepoa/status/863971033727942656

Watson, Jim (JimWatsonOttawa). “The people who love it are the thousands of kids who have been playing on it for weeks! Glad we said no to naysauers and accepted this gift!” 20 May 2017, 2:09pm. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/JimWatsonOttawa/status/866008089392279552


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