The line between cultural appropriation and appreciation is thin, but some things just can’t be argued. Cultural appropriation is a highly contested issue, and yet again we see another example of this with the Inuit people. The Inuit are a people living in the North, whose clothing consists of parkas, which we have known and worn here in the U.S. But, this designer Koko Ton Zai has come under fire for selling a parka that copies almost exactly the parka created by Salome Awa’s family to protect an Inuit shaman. When places side by side, it’s clear that the Zai’s piece is a replica of a stolen idea.
Again, we wear parka type jackets here in the cool weather, but this is taking inspiration from the Inuit people, who wore parkas made of animal pelt. Here, the designer is pawning off a design that is culturally and spiritually significant to the Nunavut family, to be sold as a commodity. Now, photos of Ava’s great grandfather wearing this parka are available, so it’s not this secret design that’s hard to get a hold of. What many designers do is search for “unknown” or “insiginifant” cultures to pawn off, so it’s less likely that they will get caught for stealing work. It didn’t work in this case.
The parka was featured in a runway show, and then sold to an online Canadian retailer, who quickly pulled the almost $1000 dollar sweater off of their site after it was revealed that their design was stolen. This is one reaction, while Koko will continue to do this because it’s now a matter of money and power, and indigenous people often don’t win these battles.
There are, of course, two sides to this as well. Many people argue, as well as KTZ, that they are trying to show the fashion world the beauty and work that goes into indigenous clothing. A quick scan through the comments section reveals many people who feel that the famiily should be “lucky” that their work is being reproduced, and that they should have mass produced it if they’re angry that a profit is being made. This is where things are misguided here again in terms of appreciation versus appropriation. I commend any artists and designers who try to bring light to lesser known indigenous tribes’ work and craftsmanship. But, this is NOT the way to do it. If they were really “appreciating” these people like they claim to, they would have asked permission to reproduce this work. If the family refused, they had no right to go forward and use this to make a profit. If the family did happen to agree for some reason, they should have been granted a portion of the proftits. None of this happened. And in this case as well, it’s not about the Nunavut family making money off of their family members work; Ava and her sister noted several times in the article that the piece was created to protect the wearer, and was a sacred piece that holds meaning to be preserved, not duplicated and sold at an obnoxiously high price.
People look for inspiration everywhere, so the idea of originality is high contested nowadays. It’s hard to create a “tribal” print that hasn’t been done before, for example. So, when a designer suddenly comes up with an idea for a piece, that happens to replicate another indigenous piece almost exactly, it should be questioned. These fashion designers are in such a place where they can make decisions about what to create and mass produce. They don’t have to worry about the consequences in general because it’s a game of money. This family is a group of small people, in a small community, who is not going to receive any justice in this. They can get angry and voice their frustration and disappointment with KTZ, but he will continue to get praise from many for “bringing attention” to this group of indigenous people and their work, and for that the Nunavut are supposed to be thankful?
This is the same narrative that so many people have battled with. Culture is something to be appreciated ans shared among people, but it is not something to capitalize on and exploit. We can’t have a culture and system in where we want to appreciate indigenous people and their work, while at the same time white washing the work entirely and offering no context for the work itself other than calling it “tribal inspired.” We’ve got a long way to go if this is still considered fair game. If a family and culture considers something to be valuable and important to them, why is it so hard to listen to that and recognize that? What is the issue with just stepping back and looking elsewhere for “inspiration’ when in reality it’s lazy copying of meaningful pieces?