We first raised our concerns over the totem pole class gift proposal in an email, and we thank you for your response, as well as your openness to discussion. In that spirit, we have decided to respond through an open letter in order to facilitate public dialogue about cultural appropriation and the lack of awareness about Indigenous peoples on our campus.
As we wrote in our email, we welcome the idea of a class gift celebrating the first five generations of Sciences Po Reims. We also welcome your desire to raise awareness about Indigenous peoples’ ongoing situations and cultures. We do not believe, however, that a totem pole will serve this cause. Neither will a placard explaining the innocence of our intentions.
We are not asking you to limit our campus to the colonizers’ experience, but we all take part in and benefit from that experience by default. Before we can claim to extend our representation to the Indigenous experience, we must recognize this and make efforts to understand their cultures in a respectful manner.
There are many different ways to raise awareness about Indigenous issues. Asking a French artist to design a sculpture resembling Indigenous totem poles from the Pacific Northwest, with the use of symbols from nations that have oppressed the very people you claim to defend, is not a culturally sensitive way to do this. Creating interest and respect for Indigenous cultures can be done without altering the symbolic value of their cultural objects. Organizing a lecture series about the intersectionality and variety of Indigenous experiences, exhibiting works (such as totem poles) of Indigenous artists, or advocating for the creation of courses dedicated to the study of Indigenous cultures and societies are all better ways of countering our collective lack of awareness.
Once it became apparent that this issue was creating tensions within the student body, the vote should have been postponed so that students could read more about cultural appropriation and why it is problematic, in order to stimulate a more educated discussion and decision. Nevertheless, we hope it is not too late to encourage such a step now. We also recognize that we cannot personally speak for Indigenous peoples. Therefore, we recommend this article explaining the problems of appropriation from their point of view: Appropriation of the Totem Pole by Robin R. Gray, available on the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage website.
You are right in saying that Sciences Po Reims should aim to reflect the entirety of the North American continent. We should leave our campus with increased awareness and understanding of Indigenous cultures and experiences. But appropriating Indigenous cultural objects, even if well-intentioned, sorely contradicts this aim.
Katherine Chou, Marina Najjar, Victoria Pullen, Floriane Poncet, Anaïs Coulon, Bénédicte Léger
Gray’s article can be found here : http://www.sfu.ca/ipinch/outputs/blog/appropriation-month-first-nation-totem-poles