This past weekend has been difficult for many and I am no exception to this. The Freedom Convoy made it's way through my community and onward to Ottawa. Once there, this group was reported on by many bystanders for waving symbols of racism, openly breaking laws and bylaws, and mocked First Nation drummers and singers by chanting and banging drums. While I won't get into the problems of this movement, or why it's not okay to support social action taken in support of racism, I do want to discuss something I come across often in my different fields of work.
Cultural appropriation is not respectful practice. Imitation is not always a form of flattery.
Time and time again, I find myself in specific training around funerals or end-of-life practices and these trainings are facilitated by white death workers. I am always shocked at the ease with which these practitioners culturally appropriate ceremonies to offer in their private practices.
As a First Nations-mixed woman with white privilege, I am particularly sensitive and aware of the importance of positionality and community recognition. It is common for me to provide proof and verification of my community connections with the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation and this is something anyone who IS actually First Nations, Inuit, and Metis has the ability to grasp.
In death work, many of my peers find no problem with smudging, carrying sacred items and practicing their own version of cultural ceremonies. I've heard the decision to use these traditions validated and quantified by white practitioners in all sorts of ways.
The most common justifications are:
1. I learned these from an Elder/Teacher who gave me permission to use these practices. Elder/Teacher has passed on and claims are not verifiable.
2. It's okay, I have Indigenous ancestry.
3. I only do it for people at end-of-life, when it brings great comfort.
The reality is that these justifications are massive red flags of cultural appropriation. For each of these harmful end-of-life care providers, there are as many working to center voices of Black, Indigenous, People of Color in ways that are meaningful and impactful. By speaking out against these moments of cultural appropriation, they are practicing allyship in an important form. Cultural appreciation is practiced by allies who insist on an actual First Nations spiritual practitioner or end-of-life doula being engaged and compensated for their knowledge, time and travel.
Here are some helpful strategies when practicing allyship around end-of-life care. These tips are widely applicable to many situations and I am always happy to engage in discussions that promote and center the good steps taken by allies looking to do better.
1. Hire a First Nations, Metis, or Inuit death doula, counsellor, cultural practitioner to facilitate healing, ceremonies, and rituals like talking circles, smudging with traditional medicines, or drumming and singing. Blackbird Medicines is comprised of numerous First Nations spiritual practitioners, teachers, helpers, singers and drummers. We are always happy to provide these services and have many options available, regardless of cultural background and will ensure your end-of-life arrangements are respectful and appropriate.
2. Ask for community references from the Indigenous community. A letter from a federally recognized First Nation or Friendship Center are great. Blackbird Medicines offers genealogical services at an affordable cost for people who are seeking information on their background and will provide a letter of support regarding validated genealogical claims.
3. Ask for genealogical background. A general and vague association with a single or many communities is a red flag. Blackbird Medicines offers genealogical services at an affordable cost for people who are seeking information on their background and will provide a letter of support regarding validated genealogical claims.
If you need additional resources, please don't hesitate to reach out. We can all use help to do better when moving forward.
My pen name is Chrystal Waban and I am a member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation.