Cover: Photo: Stephan Jacob

Indigenous Culture and the Custom of Thievery

“Borrowing” Indigenous cultural items impacts Indigenous peoples worldwide.

One of Canada’s design leaders, Mark Rutledge CGD, spoke in Victoria on November 21, 2019 about how the “borrowing” of Indigenous cultural items is impacting Indigenous peoples worldwide.

Rutledge’s presentation, “Indigenous Design: Beyond Medicine Wheels, Ox Carts and Inukshuks,” tackled the question of why designers, writers and other communication specialists should think twice about using cultural and spiritual symbols in their work.

President of the Graphic Designers of Canada, Rutledge is a proud Ojibwa from the Little Grand Rapids First Nation who lives and works in Whitehorse, Yukon on the traditional territories of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta'an Kwäch'än Council. He acknowledges the difficulties that non-Indigenous people may have in recognizing how the use or mimicking of distinctive cultural items and artwork can affect Indigenous communities, diminishing significance, and supporting stereotyping.

Many practices find inspiration from a diversity of sources. Rutledge recognizes that cultural appreciation and exchange are vital in today’s multifarious world, but he encourages caution and reflection. “When non-Indigenous people use and manipulate our culture without permission, regardless of intent, and then call the work their own, the cycle of harm to Indigenous communities is perpetuated.” says Rutledge.

Typically, culture is appropriated by members of a group with greater privilege or power for the purposes of profit. It’s the reason Rutledge continues to encourage discussion about how to avoid appropriating cultural identity elements. He’s seen many examples over the years — from Victoria’s Secret headdresses on fashion runways to sports teams dubbed the Washington Red Skins.

Mark Rutledge is currently the lead designer of a 100 per cent Indigenous-owned web services company. The firm works in website design, custom software, design and branding, and digital communications for Indigenous groups and their allies across Turtle Island (the Indigenous term for “North America”). They use technology for social, economic and cultural initiatives to achieve better outcomes for Indigenous people.

The chapter is donating proceeds from the event to the GDC scholarship fund named after Rutledge’s mother, Cheryl Lynn Rutledge, to encourage Northern Indigenous youth to purse a design career. “I keep moving forward for youth,” says Rutledge, “taking with me their spark of potential because that ember can become the fire of creativity and opportunity for future generations.”

The event was produced by a team of volunteers from GDC Vancouver Island Chapter, and more than 70 guests attended.