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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Exploration or Exploitation?

Copyright: irmairma / 123RF Stock Photo

At times this blog can set off a chain reaction. When Anna Williams wrote about childhood reading, I began exploring my fading cranial archive. Anita Jenkins focused my search with her comments on Grey Owl’s cultural appropriation.

I must confess that a lot of the books of my youth would be, in today’s climate, politically incorrect. They were written mainly by European explorers about other civilizations. Narratives on North American Indigenous Peoples were notable. But don’t ask me for titles or authors; memory fails. Unlike the classics cited by Anna and others, these nonfiction accounts have vanished from libraries and second-hand bookstores.

Today, books telling of the lives of minorities likely would be condemned as vehicles for cultural appropriation. White authors would be branded as colonialists and denied funding by the Canada Council for the Arts. However, I believe a case can be made for exempting such accounts.

I can be stirred to empathy for these advocates when art and music, even material for fiction, are at issue. Our house used to have a throw of Navajo pattern purchased at J. C. Penney in Minneapolis; I doubt the designers received their due royalty. This was cheating.

But there are genres where an outsider’s perspective is indispensable. This is the case with nonfiction accounts of other peoples that fall within the ambit of cultural anthropology, the method of my childhood books. The argument that there are now members of minority cultures capable of producing such work overlooks this key point. It takes an outsider to notice what is unusual about a culture and to relay this to an inquiring reader.

When you visit the United Kingdom the first thing you notice as you step outside a Heathrow terminal is that the cars are driving on the “wrong” side of the road. This anomaly is unlikely to be noticed by an Englishman who is not an outsider. Would Samoan writers have found the sexual behaviour of their youth remarkable, as the outsider Margaret Mead did a century ago?

I clearly recall the memoir of an Arctic bush pilot who worked among the Eskimos, as they were then called. He admired their mechanical aptitude. They could fly a single-engine airplane with minimal instruction. When a boat’s motor failed they would dismantle it and replace a broken part with one fashioned from seal bone. These feats stood out for the European witness; an Inuit writer might assume all people could do this.

Thus an outsider, whether traveller or explorer, can provide fascinating insights into another culture. If in an effort to avoid cultural appropriation we rely only on members of a culture to describe it, we could miss a lot.

Most critics of appropriation maintain it amounts to theft from a minority culture by members of the colonial class. In other words, they see it as the exploitation part of the heading above.

But what of exploration? Without it can we ever learn?


Previous post from Wilf Popoff: Wasted Words: Salvaging a Thesis

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9 Comments on “Wasted Words: Exploration or Exploitation?”

  • Thanks for this, Wilf. Your question about royalties not paid on a Navajo design on a throw reminds me of the kinds of questions editors ask. Royalties. Permissions. Copyright. Ownership.

    When the author is a culture and not an individual, where do we go to ask for permission to “quote” or use or even acknowledge the original? Who gets the royalties on a design or a story that has existed for centuries? Who sets the price and the limits on use? Greg Younging has started this conversation with his book, Elements of Indigenous Style. It’s a conversation about and between “publishing” cultures, oral traditions and written, as well as between cultures with different views of who owns a story.

    The very idea of a writer needing an elder’s permission (or even a publisher’s permission) to repeat or use a traditional story, for example, goes against my admittedly 20th century views of the limits of censorship, including self-censorship. I don’t come from a culture that sees the artist’s role as preserving the story and respectfully seeking permission to tell it.

    Artists, almost by definition, are those who challenge the status quo and don’t ask anyone’s permission to tell an old story in a new way. Even a story they don’t “own.”

  • The example of Margaret Mead and the Samoans is perhaps an unfortunate one, because it is generally used as an example of why external observers cannot be trusted. When Samoa produced its first professional anthropologist, the first thing he wrote was a book on how Mead got a lot of things completely wrong. He interviewed the women who had told Mead about Samoan sexual practices and he asked, “who were you talking about” and they said, “Oh we made all that stuff up. It was hilarious. We’d try to outdo each other in seeing what we could make up that she would still believe, but there was no limit. She was so gullible. She’d believe anything.” So, okay, maybe they weren’t being straight with him either, too embarrassed to admit to any of that, but um.

    Good anthropological practice today is to pair local and external practitioners to get BOTH views at once. Not appropriation/exploitation, not the imposition of an external/colonial worldview/ judgment, not naive, not biased, not disrespectful. Most qualitative social science now includes the step of the researcher taking the research back to the subjects and asking, “Is this right? Does this resonate, or have we got it wrong?”

    So I’m good with exploration, but if you want to claim it as science it needs to be validated.

    On the other hand, personal narratives –my adventures in wherever– get to be personal, even if I get it all wrong. That’s then on me, and editors/reviewers can point out I’m an idiot. But that is still an authentic account of what I was thinking at the time (provided one is not falsifying in a deliberate attempt at propaganda.) For example, when Alberta was publishing a bunch of pioneer diaries, we wanted to give readers access to their authentic experiences, but a lot of the material was authentically racist. As in bang head on desk racist. Instead of cutting that stuff out and pretending we were nicer than we really were, or leaving it in and letting readers think the racism was okay or justified in that era, the solution the government and stakeholders went with was to print the diaries as written, but then have extensive preface (that said, ‘hey, watch out for examples of racism as you read through this’) and afterword (‘hey, wasn’t that racism blatant! Are we still that racist today but just know better to say that out loud or have things gotten slightly better? Here are three perspectives on that question as they relate to this diary”) and etc. Not perfect, but better than alternatives.

    Where it get’s trickiest is in fiction. I just sent off a story submission with five characters, none of whom are from my culture. The point of the story was to satirize my own culture, but satire is always iffy territory . . . and did I depict my fictional characters correctly? I don’t know if that’s even possible if you haven’t at least lived in that culture for a while. But on the other hand, if I’m only allowed to write from the POV of an aging white male…then that’s problematic too! I want to include other cultures, other genders, other others in my books because just aging white guys is kind of boring.

    My solution is easy: I write SF. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, and no, that character is not intended to represent a Nigerian, though, if you wanted to cast a Nigerian in the role for the movie, that might work….

    I have no idea how the rest of you are going to manage…though reading Greg Younging seems like a place to start.

    • Mark Grill


      I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughtful, well written, and humorous response, Robert. Your added perspectives helped provide the balance that I felt was lacking in the original post.

      It’s wonderful that so many people are mentioning Gregory Younging’s book these days. I find that inspiring.

    • Wilf Popoff


      I don’t know whom you’re referring to, Robert. The only Samoan anthropologist I’m aware of is the disgraced Unasa L. F. Va who collaborated with the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Mead’s reputation after her death in 1978.

      The scandalous episode is laid out in the American anthropologist Paul Shankman’s 2009 book, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy.

      Shankman exposes Freeman as a fraud and shows that the anthropological community was not taken in by him and always stood by Mead.

  • Anita Jenkins


    Another great post on Editors’ Weekly.

  • “If in an effort to avoid cultural appropriation we rely only on members of a culture to describe it, we could miss a lot.”

    I’m not sure that that only relying on members of a culture to represent their own culture is ever going to be a problem we will see–at least not in Canada. Outsiders have been representing Indigenous Canadian cultures for long enough (and getting it wrong for long enough). I’m happy for the Canada Council to privilege voices that haven’t been heard already a hundred times, and a hundred years, over.

    To quote Raven Davis: “There will always be non-Indigenous people who want to attach themselves to our culture and ways of being because there are so many beautiful aspects that people are drawn to. … What matters is that [appropriation is] removing the voice from another person or culture, selecting specific aspects that seem more personally favourable than others, and manipulating or reinterpreting what’s been removed.” Source:

    • Mark Grill


      Thanks, Letitia. I appreciated your insightful commentary.

  • Mark Grill


    Here’s an apt quote from the very beginning of Chapter 1 (“Why an Indigenous Style Guide?”) in Gregory Younging’s _Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples_:

    “The paramount purpose of literature focusing on a specific cultural group should be to present the culture in a realistic and insightful manner, with the highest possible degree of verisimilitude. However, the body of literature on Indigenous Peoples mostly fails to achieve this standard. The failure has been a long-standing concern of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
    The failure comes from a colonial practice of transmitting ‘information’ about Indigenous Peoples rather than transmitting Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives about themselves. The anthropologist Franz Boas put a name on this perspective in the mid-twentieth century. He called it ethnocentrism, which he recognized as a barrier to cultural understanding. Cultural understanding, he realized, can only be achieved by a ‘perspective from the inside.’ Indigenous and other scholars have since coined other terms for this perspective, such as Eurocentrism, and have written about, for example, the British-centrism of Canada.”

    As members of the dominant settler majority who refer to the culture of the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island as the “minority culture”, we are naturally plagued with a settler-centric perspective. Some of the language you have intentionally chosen to use in your post proves this point, Wilf. For example, you write, “there are now members of minority cultures capable of producing such work,” which is inherently condescending, as you imply that none of those people have been capable of doing so until now, while some (perhaps many?) of the “outsiders”/”explorers” presumably have been. You are essentially stating that the so-called majority culture is the carrier of the intelligence required to properly impart information. The irony is, the members of the dominant culture have been doing it all wrong for centuries, and those about whom they have been writing have been forced undergo the arduous process of correcting all of their mistakes. The former group’s work is being edited by the latter group, if you will.

    Your argument—the kind of argument in which the words “politically correct” or, in this case, “politically incorrect” are so frequently dropped—has been thoroughly debunked over the past decades through the highlighting of the ignorance, sanctimony, and cultural hegemony from which it was conceived and, frankly, I can’t see why you wish to rekindle that debate here. You might as well have given your post the title “The Culture Wars Will Be Over When I’ve Had the Last Word” or “What Happened to the Good Old Days When White Men Weren’t Expected to Feel Ashamed of Anything and Our Perspective Was Always the Right One.”

    I’m a white man, a settler, and I acknowledge and wish to take responsibility for the countless injustices that the so-called “minority cultures”, women, and LGBTQ2S people have had to suffer because of members of my cultural groups by birth (i.e., males, Whites, heterosexuals), including the way in which we have controlled the Narrative, silenced the voices of those who are different from us or who have presented obstacles to our greed and feelings of entitlement, and resisted their attempts to regain their stolen dignity and human rights. And I will continue to speak up every time any member of a dominant cultural group tries to wrest any of the power back from those who have had to fight so long and hard to acquire it.

  • Anita Jenkins


    I have longed for decades to see indigenous people and cultures better understood. Yes, we all need to work very hard on that, for a lot of different reasons.

    I am shocked and disturbed, however, when “speaking up” turns into trolling. It is not at all fair to talk about Wilf Popoff, a good and thoughtful person I have known and admired for years, as “condescending” and as someone who is saying, “What Happened to the Good Old Days When White Men Weren’t Expected to Feel Ashamed of Anything and Our Perspective Was Always the Right One.”

    On this wonderful blog, one of the best things that Editors Canada does, let’s stick to the content and avoid attacking the writers. Leave that to Facebook.

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