The Cultural Appropriating Throat Singers

Commentary, Culture Wars, Brian Giesbrecht

The controversy concerning what is called “cultural appropriation” has taken a strange new twist. Although past complaints about this newly invented crime have typically involved Indigenous artists or writers complaining that a non-Indigenous person has appropriated something from them, in the case of a group of Inuit throat-singers, the claim is that a fellow Indigenous artist has culturally appropriated the throat-singing they say belongs to them – and only to them – as part of their birthright. In fact, the Inuit group, which includes the well known artist, Tanya Tagaq, threatened to boycott the Indigenous Music Awards if Cree singer, Connie LeGrande, was allowed to perform her throat-singing act.

Regardless of how this dispute is resolved, it might be useful to define what “cultural appropriation” is – or is not – before going any further. Given that it is a concept that has been recently invented, and has no real historical roots – or even any rational reason to exist – it is a bit hard to define. Perhaps it will suffice to define it as the belief that if you are born into a certain racial or cultural group, your DNA at birth entitles you to ownership of the cultural accoutrements that one of your ancestors has created, or invented. So, the belief by the Inuit group that an ancestor invented throat singing would give them the exclusive right to practise this art. The only way a person from a different group, such as Ms. LeGrande’s Cree group, could throat sing would be with the Takaq group’s permission – probably requiring compensation. This belief in “cultural appropriation” seems to be confined in Canada to Indigenous groups. Other groups seem content to borrow one from the other without fees or permission seeking ceremonies.

There are so many problems with this “cultural appropriation” notion that it is difficult to know where to start, but perhaps a useful place might be to note that just about every cultural practise, artwork – or indeed anything a group currently does – was probably originally borrowed or appropriated from someone else.

Take throat-singing, for example. Where did the Inuit get it? In all probability, from their Siberian predecessors. The Inuit were among the last of the Indigenous groups to arrive in present day Canada. Far back in the mists of time, Inuit ancestors came from Siberia over what is called the Bering land bridge, before melting glaciers separated Siberia from Alaska. The ancestors of the Inuit were isolated in “Beringia” – between Siberia and what was the gigantic chunk of ice that was then Canada – before they migrated from what is now Alaska to northern Canada. DNA tests show Inuit to be most closely related to Eastern Mongolian people – more closely than to other North American Indigenous people in fact.

Which brings us back to throat-singing. The Tuvans are Eastern Mongolian people who have been practicing throat-singing since antiquity. Some of us have had the experience of hearing Tuvan throat-singers at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Not only do the Tuvan people physically resemble Inuit people, their ancient throat singing resembles Inuit throat-singing remarkably. (I know this because I have watched the remarkable Tanya Tagaq perform.) So, in all probability, the Inuit brought the throat singing tradition with them from their ancient Siberian past. In other words, they probably culturally appropriated it from their earlier mother culture.

And where did the Tuvan get it? The tradition probably goes so far back that it cannot be ascertained when it originated. Perhaps it extends all the way back to our common ancestors in Africa. The point is that all tribes and cultures have been “culturally appropriating” from one another since the beginning of time.

And isn’t that what we all do? I listened to a lecture about cultural appropriation by an Indigenous man who was dressed in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He didn’t appear to see the irony. That man was a Protestant. Again, he didn’t see the irony.

But wait – not only did Indigenous people “culturally appropriate” western religion, isn’t Christianity itself a perfect example of cultural appropriation? After all, the early Christians were Jews who simply “appropriated” Judaism, and added a few parts. For that matter, didn’t the Jews do the same? Their religion is made up of Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and many other bits. They took the best parts, and left the parts that didn’t fit.

And on a larger scale, isn’t “cultural appropriation” how people learn? Doesn’t everybody take and keep the most useful information that they come across, and don’t they then pass this on to their children? Teachers use information obtained from Polish scientists, Arab mathematicians, Scottish geologists, and so on. Those Polish, Arab and Scottish thinkers don’t demand permission or cash for what they created. They used their creative abilities to contribute gratis to human progress. This has always been the case. Greeks took from Indians. Romans took from Greeks. Another word for “cultural appropriation” is “history”.

And isn’t Canada itself a perfect example of cultural appropriation- each culture taking the best parts from the others, and moulding the result into something called “Canadian”? Don’t the Irish, Indigenous, Chinese and other contributions as a whole give us our unique identity and culture?

So, my advice to the aggrieved throat-singing group is this: Feel free to use that modern sound system (invented by British inventor, Lee de Forest in 1912), wear your best designer dress (perhaps French designer, Jeanne Lanvin), have your band play their Stratocasters (designed by Leo Fender in 1954), and when you win your award feel free to appropriate the language of your choice in which to give your acceptance speech. You will not be required to ask permission, or to pay for any of these creations you are “culturally appropriating” from the people and cultures that have created these wondrous things.

And be equally generous with your gifts.