Many English-speaking cultures were not always English-speaking. When Europeans first settled in America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, large populations of indigenous peoples with their own cultures and languages already populated these vast lands. Many indigenous peoples believe their land was stolen by the European settlers, and that they have been oppressed and marginalized over the centuries. In the past, violent battles were fought and terrible acts committed. Today, cultural conflicts continue. In this article, read about some of the well known but also the lesser-known facts about modern-day culture clashes.
By Charlotte Mountford
Maori People, New Zealand
Best KnownNew Zealanders generally have a great respect for their indigenous Maori culture and promote it globally. For example, the New Zealand rugby team, the ‘All Blacks’, dances the terrifying Maori ‘Haka’ before each match begins to intimidate members of the opposite side – an awesome spectacle.
The New Zealand government has a reputation for good relations with its Maori population, yet there have been issues over land rights from the start, and despite positive economic advances in recent years, the Maori tend to appear in the lower percentiles in most health and education statistics.
In the past, there has been upset over Maori art, particularly after it became popular for white people, or ‘Pakehas’, to imitate the traditional Ta moko permanent skin markings of the Maori. The Ta moko skin designs are deemed spiritual, and they are a sign of status and bravery for the Maori. Traditionally done with a chisel rather than a needle, surviving one of these tattoos was not always guaranteed.
Celebrities were not safe from criticism either. When Robbie Williams had his Ta moko tattoo done, a Maori leader argued he had stolen the intellectual property of the tribe, adding that these imitation tattoos are not given the proper respect that should be afforded an authentic Ta moko design.
Fashion also proved a hot topic when in 2007 Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway collection included Ta moko themed designs and patterns. While some praised this sort of international attention as a means of showcasing Maori art to the world, others condemned the show for devaluing the sacred nature of Ta moko designs.
Above: A Māori chief of the late 18th century featured with customary Tā moko tattoos. Below: The New Zealand Rugby team, the All Blacks, performs the Māori ‘Haka’ dance before each match.
Aboriginal People, Australia
The Aboriginals are Australia’s indigenous people, and historically they are thought to have had a rougher ride than the Maoris; the Aboriginals’ interactions with white settlers were often violent and cruel. Among these interactions, most famous are the ‘stolen generations,’ when, in the 1960s, the Australian government ‘stole’ many Aboriginal children away from their families, placing them in western institutions. The aim was to integrate Aboriginal children into modern society, but the plan backfired. Instead, the result was a lack of cultural identity, depression and crime among these Aboriginal children. Today, this effort is widely recognised as a mistake, and the government of Australia has since formally apologized. Despite the obvious distress it caused to many, some ‘stolen’ Aboriginal children say, “at least we learned to read and write properly.”
Poverty, substance abuse and alcoholism are sadly rife amongst Aboriginal communities. Petrol sniffing became such an issue in 2005 that a new low-aromatic petrol was distributed to try and combat the problematic trend. In 2007, child abuse reports were so bad in the Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territories, the government staged an emergency intervention, sending soldiers and placing a ban on alcohol.
Pictured above: Australian Aborigine
Australians are proud of their aboriginal heritage, its culture and art. Yet again, native art and culture has provoked controversy. Scandal came about in 2010 when Aboriginal elders accused Russia’s ice skaters, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, of causing serious cultural offense. The skaters had adopted an Aboriginal-themed dance and indigenous costumes in the Original Dance category at the Vancouver Winter Olympic games. While many saw the ice skaters’ dance as a celebration of native art, Aboriginal councils saw it as “stealing Aboriginal culture, and yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited.”
First Nations People, Canada
The indigenous people of Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis are referred to as ‘First Nations’. Although not without conflict, early interactions between European settlers and the native populations were mostly peaceful, and this peace has largely continued to the present day.
The First Nations people have had a strong influence on the national culture and identity of modern Canada. Just by walking into the arrivals gate at Vancouver airport, this influence becomes apparent – totem poles and native art abound.
Yet, just as in the other countries, there is tension among the native and colonial cultures. The First Nations people have higher rates of unemployment, crime and bad health. On June 29th 2007, First Nations groups held countrywide protests aimed at ending their poverty.
The indigenous peoples of Canada featured greatly in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The Inuit’s native symbol became the logo for the games, and native art formed much of the Olympic merchandising. However, there was anger by First Nations over many of the “authentic native products” having been made in China.
Furthermore, tensions mounted when just before the 2010 Olympic Games, Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, turned against the Games’ organizers. “I don’t think it’s proper for me to stand there and hold hands with government officials and be part of the misrepresentation of the well-being of our people,” Phillip suddenly announced. (Up until that point he had been in support of the Games.) “The fact that the government is spending $3 billion to stage the Winter Olympics is merely exacerbating the frustration and anger felt by our (First Nations) communities as they continue to be told that there is no money in the pot to address their situations, which, as you are fully aware, are of a most desperate nature.”
The First Nations people have had a strong influence on the national culture and art of Canada.
Native American People, USA
Native Americans were once called ‘Red Indians’ by European settlers. This term is now seen as offensive, and in a 1995 US Census Bureau survey, many Native Americans stated that they prefer to be called ‘American Indians’ or simply ‘Indians.’ Although Native Americans in the United States have been allowed to vote since the 1920s, in comparison to the First Nations of Canada who couldn’t vote until the 1960s, the history of these peoples has been violent and difficult, with the European colonization of the Americas resulting in centuries of conflict. Most of the controversy around American Indians today centers around land ownership. There are also high rates of alcoholism and crime in many of the native communities.
Famous and celebrated American Indians include Pocahontas, who was a Virginia Indian chief’s daughter, and John Bennett Herrington, a US astronaut.
US sports teams such as the Braves and the Redskins have been accused of generating negative stereotypes of Indian people because their mascots and logos depict native traditions and rituals. High schools in Oregon have also come under fire from American Indian activists for having mascots such as ‘the Warrior,’ which depict the bust of an Indian with full traditional headdress.
Though many want these mascots to be removed, there was massive protest from local communities in favor of keeping their mascots rooted in 120 years of tradition. Schools claimed “our mascot symbolizes the attributes of a Warrior, that are held in high esteem, bravery, honesty, hard work and commitment. That’s why we use them.” Yet a woman who works with Native American kids said, “The (Indian) students who attended these schools despised the mascots across the board. They were embarrassed by it, they wanted it changed.”
Left: The famous Lakota war chief, Sitting Bull, 1885. Right: Florida State University’s mascot, Chief Osceloa. Center: Logo of the professional American football team, the Washington Redskins