Tipis on Mars: Considering Canada’s Cultural Appropriation Controversy Through Futures Studies

Upon learning of Hal Niedzviecki’s appalling Write op-ed introducing a special issue of Indigenous writing (in which he exhorted his fellow [presumably non-Indigenous] authors to appropriate other cultures for their own writing), I immediately recognized that the controversy had implications for my own work. At the end of this month, at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences conference of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) I will deliver a paper based on my recent article “Seeing the Forest for the Trees on Mars: Locating the Ideology of the Library of the Future” which was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship. The paper relies heavily on Niedzviecki’s 2015 book, Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future  for its analysis, but in light of the controversy, and as a non-Indigenous librarian responsible for Indigenous Studies collections and services, I felt my use of his writings was now rendered problematic to say the least.

My concerns only deepened in the following days as many leading voices in Canadian journalism (including Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of CBC’s “The National”) tweeted their support for Niedzvecki, and even pledged their own money to fund an actual “cultural appropriation prize.”  Niedzvecki, to his credit, disavowed this Twitter campaign on his Facebook page, writing, “calls for an actual ‘appropriation prize’ are extremely unhelpful. They do not represent me in any way.” On CBC’s The Current, Niedzviecki also apologized, admitting,

I invited Indigenous writers into my house, so to speak, and I insulted them and I absolutely apologize for that. I didn’t mean to insult them. That wasn’t my intention at all. But I did. I offended them. And I have had to think a lot about why that happened and how that happened.

Nevertheless, Niedzviecki’s op-ed unleashed a cultural firestorm that will surely be recognized for years to come as a turning point in Canadian letters. The negative reaction to his words was – to all but himself apparently – unsurprisingly swift, particularly from several of the Indigenous contributors to the special Write  issue itself. Niedzviecki was called out online for his ignorance in treating the issue of cultural appropriation so glibly, when for Indigenous peoples — who have endured not just cultural genocide but have had their cultures both belittled and casually strip-mined by non-Indigenous artists, writers and designers for aesthetic or fashion statements – it is a matter of their very survival. As Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibwe) argued in the Globe and Mail,

For native people, art and culture are not separate. The art of the West Coast carver is inseparable from their heritage. Same with Inuit sculpture and Cree beading. Anything that infringes upon our art can be considered a direct threat to our culture. So understandably, Indigenous people react. The charge is cultural appropriation. For us it’s a matter of cultural preservation.

The fallout from the Twitter campaign was if anything even more fierce and compelling. Shree Paradkar, writing in the Toronto Star argued that we all need to care about cultural appropriation calling it a “medium of oppression.” While some (mostly white) critics bemoaned the debate as a PC-run-amok attack on freedom of expression, Scaachi Koul writing at Buzzfeed condemned the conflation of literary imagination with appropriation:

I can’t believe I have to f****** say this, but no one, in the history of writing books, has ever suggested that white people are not allowed to write thoughtful portrayals of Indigenous people or people of colour, namely in fiction. Frankly, we encourage it. …Abstaining from cultural appropriation wouldn’t stop you from writing thoughtfully about people who aren’t white. It does, however, stop you from ripping off people of colour, or pretending like you understand their stories intimately. It does preclude you from taking a culture that was never yours to begin with — a culture that might have made the lives of the people born with it harder in white Canada, or might mean they don’t get the same opportunities and privileges — and turning a profit.

Write contributor Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora) stressed that the elite class claiming  the right to “free speech”  in the matter were deliberately ignoring the brutal context of Canada’s suppression of Indigenous people:

[F]orgetting context is a privilege far too readily indulged in by many white politicians, writers, editors and people. They don’t have to live with the knowledge that this country was built through the systemic genocide of their ancestors — because it wasn’t…They don’t live with its intergenerational trauma the way we do. They never will.

Veteran journalist and teacher Andrew Mitrovica was equally outraged, saying that these journalists had “besmirched their work, reputations and cultural heritage, and made it plain to future generations of Indigenous and minority journalists where [their] allegiance lies.” At times, the response was also heartbreaking. Indigenous critic Jesse Wente (Ojibwe) blasted the “remarkable arrogance” of the journalists tweeting their support, and broke down in tears saying,

These things can’t happen again. This absorbs so much energy, it causes so much pain in our community, to have to re-argue for our value as human beings, on our own land? In a foreign language as I do to you now, one that was imposed on us? Please. What are we talking about in 2017…If anything this proves our strength as a community and our endurance. Don’t mistake my emotion here, or my civility anywhere, as weakness. This is our strength, this is me being in touch with my ancestors and feeling them sitting beside me. I hope to never do this again.

As the scale of this national debate expanded, I felt a particular and urgent need — and responsibility — to address this controversy, before I could presume to privilege Niedzviecki’s ideas in a scholarly forum. To do this, I would like to use several theories from futures studies that Niedzviecki would have been wise to have included in Trees on Mars.

In my essay and upcoming conference paper, my use of Niedzviecki’s Trees on Mars focuses largely on his discourse analysis in the fields of education and economics; that, in his view, our culture’s anxiety-ridden obsession with the future is all about the individualized (rather than collective) goal of shaping, owning and seizing the future through “disruptive” entrepreneurial innovation, with the concomitant belief that we must do away with anything that impedes access to the future.

While I noted in my CJAL article similarities between this discourse and much of the LIS literature regarding the “library of the future,” what struck me as a major blind spot on the part of Niedzviecki was that never once does he use the term neoliberalism when so much of what he discusses is clearly consistent with this ideology. Since writing the piece I have further come to realize that he also appears to have embarked on his inquiries without the necessary theoretical grounding in futures studies itself, with the result that he was unable to sufficiently situate his analysis — or, more significantly, recognize the implications it should have had for his editorship of the Indigenous issue of Write.

For example, futures studies scholar Barbara Adam  writing in the journal Twenty-First Century Society observes that our ethics towards the future are fundamentally dependent on our metaphysical worldview: that if the future is “owned” and set in motion by the gods or ancestors, then we are compelled to act responsibly towards it. However, in the secular modern world,

we assume to own the future. The future, we say, is ours to take and shape. We treat it as a resource for our use in the present. As such we plan, forge and transform the future to our will and desire. It means we see ourselves as owners, producers and managers of an open future, which we shape to our designs and intentions (112).

Further, Adam and sociologist Chris Groves in their book Future Matters note that the acts of shaping, making and owning the future by necessity means that one is also invariably taking it from someone else, and therefore requires an ethical stance (88). It also changes the very nature of the future, emptying it of content and precedent, where exchange value is paramount:

The underlying principle of the pervasive change is to replace contextuality and embeddedness with decontextualised and disembedded relations in order to create a world of pure potential that is subject to human design and where anything is possible (55).

Another futurist,  Islamic scholar Ziaudden Sardar recognizes this as a colonizing force in much of the futures studies discourse, which he sees as inherently Eurocentric, masculine and technologically deterministic. “The future is defined in the image of the West” he writes. “There is an [sic] built-in western momentum that is taking us towards a single, determined future” (182).

For someone who devoted so many pages in Trees on Mars to critiquing a discourse of owning and seizing, Niedzviecki was stunningly oblivious to how appropriation also a form of taking. As Kate Taylor observed in the Globe and Mail,

Niedzviecki [is] guilty of the same kind of privileged creative assumption: that there’s a vast sea of images, ideas, stories and experiences out there and imaginative voyagers should be encouraged to pluck from it whatever flotsam they please. 

When Niedzviecki wrote that there was “nothing preventing us…from incorporating a culture’s myths, legends oral histories and sacred practices into our own works” he was essentially stating that the sacred knowledges of the world’s Indigenous peoples can be treated, as Adam and Groves put it, “as a resource for our use in the present [to] transform…to our will and desire [and] shape to our designs and intentions…as a realm of pure potential.” Indigenous knowledge, literature and culture may be reduced to its exchange value, stripped of context and embeddedness, and placed in whatever context may be imagined for it — tipis on Mars, if you will. That this appropriation would be at the hands of unfettered non-Indigenous writers with no relationship to such knowledge can only accelerate what Sardar calls the “built-in western momentum” of monocultural, colonized thought.

Yet, such efforts at disembeddedness run contrary to the very essence of Indigenous knowledge. At a Walrus magazine event over the weekend in Surrey, lawyer and Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar Alan Mills (Anishinaabe) affirmed this view, saying:

No one can appropriate my stories,…Not because I’m an Indigenous man; because of Indigenous law. You have no relationship with my stories. They’re of my relatives – humans, animals, plants, spirits; all alive. They’re not part of an intellectual commons just waiting to be brought to life by your particular unique imagination. To be able to tell the story is a beautiful gift and if it is given to you, it’s because it is already known that you will be grateful, that you will reciprocate.

Mr. Niedzviecki’s epistemological shortsightedness in both Trees on Mars and his Write op-ed was that he was relying on his own “particular unique imagination.” Had he read deeper into theories of futures studies before he wrote an entire book about it, he might have gained some pretty clear insights into his own positioning as a non-Indigenous creator with power over others, and the jarring irreconcilability of his notions regarding appropriation and the vitality of Indigenous writing. That much of Canada`s literary and journalistic intelligentsia followed his misguided call so enthusiastically reveals the extent to which they are profoundly steeped in colonial values and culture, and suggests that the pathway to our country`s own reconciled future will require very different cultural leadership.


On Wednesday May 17th the Globe and Mail  reported that a crowd funded literary prize for emerging Indigenous writers launched in response to the cultural appropriation controversy had raised more than $30,000.

On the same day, it was also announced that Steve Ladurantaye had been “reassigned” from his responsibilities at “The National.”

Literature Cited

Adam, B. (June 01, 2008). Future matters: futures known, created and minded. Twenty-first Century Society, 3, 2, 111-116.

Adam, B., & Groves, C. (2007). Future matters: Action, knowledge, ethics. Leiden: Brill.

Sardar, Z. (April 01, 2010). The Namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight—What’s in a name?. Futures, 42, 3, 177-184.