Interpretive Storytelling and the Problem of Appropriation

“Can I tell this story?”

As an interpretive planner and writer, I find I’m hearing this question more and more often: how do we Settlers know when a story is appropriate for us to tell? How do we know if we have the right to tell it? When is interpretive storytelling a form of cultural appropriation?

It’s a good question, and in some ways it’s a complicated one. But I think you can begin to answer it by holding to a single principle:

Tell “we” stories. It’s that simple.

We tell the stories of our own cultures. We recount our own histories. We don’t tell other cultures’ stories for them—whether they be Indigenous, Black, Asian, Queer, or other cultures.

Fort Battleford Saskatchewan
Fort Battleford, Saskatchewan

And right now, here’s the most important thing: Settlers must find the courage to tell the “we” stories of settler colonialism—and take responsibility for them.

Here, I define Settlers as those who benefit directly from the privileges of settler-colonialism (yes I’m looking mostly at you, fellow White interpreters. You and I are dining out on the privileges of colonialism every single day.) Can Settlers recount history without appropriating another culture? Of course. You can and you must. Here are some potential settler-colonial “we” themes (and please note the active voice):

  • Settler-colonists arrived and we seized this continent without invitation, without assent, and often without meaningful treaties.
  • Settler-colonists established residential schools as a conscious act of cultural genocide.
  • Settler-colonists introduced a fur trade economy that was rife with violence and duplicity.
  • We signed treaties in bad faith and in some cases broke those treaties before the ink was dry.

I could go on and on. There are so many interpretive themes that we have been afraid to broach, we Settlers. We’re not awfully fond of seeing this ugly side of ourselves, are we? And that might be why I sometimes hear interpreters say, “I can’t tell the Residential School story. That’s an Indigenous story.”

Sorry, total copout.

Go back to the principle. Tell “we” stories. Is the Residential School story ours to tell? Yes, as long as we stick to the “we” stories. We set up the schools, we empowered the clergy to oppress and abuse Indigenous youth, we turned a blind eye to violence, and so on. Those are the “we” stories, and they’re yours to tell. In fact, you have a responsibility to tell them.

Now, as a Settler, it’s not your job to talk about what it was like to be on the receiving end of residential schools, or the fur trade, or land seizure. Those are not your stories. To get the Indigenous point of view, you hand your platform to Indigenous interpreters and storytellers.

Indigenous People have the right to tell their “we” stories, on their terms and in their own time. Our job is to be quiet and listen.

OK, but putting the crushing weight of colonial history aside for a moment, can I tell a simple Indigenous story at my nature program if I have permission?

Sure you can, as long as it is informed permission from a local Indigenous person who is able to speak for their community (not just somebody you saw on Youtube). And be prepared to earn that story by building trust. Nobody—from any culture—owes you a story because you’re an earnest and well-meaning interpreter. Never forget that.

And before you ask permission, stop and ask yourself why you want to tell that Indigenous story. What are your intentions? Are they constructive? Here’s what I mean: sometimes we tell, say, stories of Indigenous land use or medicines to advance a mythic image of Indigeneity that is not necessarily appropriate. Sometimes we tell happy, harmonious Indigenous stories to assuage White guilt and paint a picture of Indigenous/Colonial history that is neither complete nor accurate. Sometimes we are prone to casting a fawning White gaze on what looks to us like a romantic, noble, or idyllic culture. Sometimes we cherry pick happy Indigenous (Black, Asian, Queer) stories purely for the comfort and reassurance of White visitors.

Right now, these are not helpful reasons to tell those stories.

When in doubt, tell “we” stories. By all means, if you are a Settler like me, speak courageously to your fellow Settlers about our colonial past (and present.) It’s time we settlers did a little truth telling of our own. Land theft, residential schools, violence, systemic racism, and broken treaties: we’re not going to get anywhere until we own that shit. Let’s get started.

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Posted in ethics, Planning, Visitor Experience.

One Comment

  1. Courage and responsibility counteracts copout. This is a very timely comment and critical for interpreters to grasp as we must move forward with truth and reconciliation efforts. Don, your concept of ‘we’ stories is so apt and easy to grasp.

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