B.C. school panned for having white people in headdresses tell indigenous stories

Performers with Sun.Ergos at Fort Nelson Secondary School on April 24.
Performers with Sun.Ergos at Fort Nelson Secondary School on April 24. Facebook/Fort Nelson Secondary School

Fort Nelson Secondary School is standing by its decision to invite two white performers in headdresses to tell indigenous stories, despite objections from a local First Nation and elsewhere.

Sun.Ergos, a two-man theatre and dance company based out of Priddis, Alta., performed at the school on April 24.

VIDEO SLIDESHOW: Cultural appropriation and First Nations culture

The company, which features actor Robert Greenwood (who claims indigenous heritage) and dancer Dana Luebke, performs cultural shows that are based on stories from various cultures, including First Nations.

Wearing headdresses and clothing made of deerskin and moosehide, they performed two shows based on indigenous stories in Fort Nelson: “Coyote’s World,” a “humourous study of some tricksters in Native legends,” and “Legends, Stories from the Buffalo Hunters,” which is based on indigenous tales from Alberta.

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The clothes were just one aspect of the show that people objected to when photos from the performance were posted to Facebook on Friday:

Screengrab of a Facebook post that Fort Nelson Secondary School put up on its page on April 28, 2017.
Screengrab of a Facebook post that Fort Nelson Secondary School put up on its page on April 28, 2017. Facebook/Fort Nelson Secondary School

“The stories of Indigenous people should be told by Indigenous people, not people dressed up as ‘Indians,'” said commenter Renee Lomen.

“This is a terrible display of racism and colonialism,” said Darryl Leroux, another commenter.

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) also weighed in, saying, “Wow – not good.”

Fort Nelson Secondary School.
Fort Nelson Secondary School. Facebook/Fort Nelson Secondary School

Fort Nelson First Nation acting chief Sharleen Gale called the show “culturally inappropriate” in an interview with Global News.

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She said some parents brought their concerns to the First Nation after their children, who attend the school, were distressed by the performance.

“They brought it forward that they felt it was [a] misrepresentation of our culture, and our community,” Gale said.

READ MORE: Osheaga bans headdresses; why wearing them is ‘cultural ignorance’

Gale also expressed dismay that the school district didn’t contact the First Nation to tell their own stories.

“We as a First Nation have always been open and willing to tell our story to anyone that asks,” she said.

“We just feel it’s very disappointing that the school district didn’t reach out to us personally.”

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Sun.Ergos’ performance was “not in any way intended to replace learning about local culture,” Fort Nelson School District superintendent Diana Samchuck told Global News.

“The presentation was meant to be part of a broader national indigenous storytelling experience and we felt badly that some people took offence and are disturbed by it,” she said.

Fort Nelson secondary principal Mark Theobald said in a Saturday letter that the school has offered many opportunities to learn about indigenous culture — some of which have involved Fort Nelson First Nation members.

READ MORE: Janet Gretzky under fire for ‘Aboriginal’ headdress photo

But Sun.Ergos’ presentation also came amid broader concern about artistic appropriation of indigenous culture.

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Toronto’s Visions Gallery recently cancelled an exhibition by Amanda PL, a non-indigenous artist who has courted controversy by practicing a style made popular by late Anishinaabe painter Norval Morisseau, The Beach Mirror reported.

People wearing headdresses as music festival fashion has also become an issue.

Sun.Ergos performs at Fort Nelson Secondary School on April 24, 2017.
Sun.Ergos performs at Fort Nelson Secondary School on April 24, 2017. Facebook/Fort Nelson Secondary School

Sun.Ergos performers Robert Greenwood and Dana Luebke had just returned home to Alberta after an approximately 14-hour drive when Global News reached them on Friday, they said.

“We’re both very upset to hear this,” Greenwood said of the Facebook comments.

“We would be a lot less frustrated, a lot less upset if this woman had seen the performance and said, you did this and this, face to face,” Luebke said.

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The pair explained that they have been performing indigenous legends for over 30 years and have always had permission to tell the stories of cultures such as the Blackfoot and the Cree.

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They fashioned authentic replicas of indigenous clothing based on photos of a sundance that took place on the land of Alberta’s Siksika Nation — again, with permission, they said.

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“We’ve gone to great lengths to understand cultures and people and what’s important to them, what their needs are and how we can help,” Luebke said.

Sun.Ergos said in a letter that it “stand[s] behind our work and actions,” and that “all that we do and create is done in dialogue with communities from which these stories come.”

Gale said the Fort Nelson First Nation hopes to reconnect with the school district and to “work with them to provide more accurate and appropriate stories about our history and experiences.”