Think before you buy “Indigenous” artwork in tourist shops this summer

Counterfeit Indigenous crafts are more common than we think

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

With the crisp, vibrant hues that briefly come out for the summer months, it’s little wonder that Vancouver holds such appeal for tourists and locals alike. And if there’s one activity that exists in abundance here, it’s shopping. Many of us may feel the pull to purchase symbols of the places we live in or visit. But consumers should think twice about what they purchase, especially when it comes to picking out Indigenous artwork.

Tourist stores and hotspots abound with iconic Canadiana. Think splashes of red everywhere as you peruse flags, hockey paraphernalia, beavers, polar bears, orcas, and maple in every type of consumable conceivable. And let’s not forget the massive quantities of Indigenous symbols and motifs displayed in shop windows and shelves as if to proudly say, “This is us! This is ours!”

But before picking up that $10 resin totem pole at a brightly lit junk shop in Gastown, customers should be aware that much of the Indigenous art sold in Vancouver’s souvenir shops is, in fact, fake. The Discourse reports that a solid three-quarters of Vancourver’s tourist shops sell counterfeit Indigenous artwork. That is to say, they sell pieces that are produced without verifiable connection to any Indigenous artist, let alone one who is paid for their work or designs.

There is perhaps an argument to be made that not every consumer is interested in authenticity. Maybe the cheap keychain with the stylized Haida orca painted on it has its own charm and appeal. But there are a few problems with this reasoning.

As a multi-part investigation by Discourse writer Francesca Fionda shows, the flood of cheap knock-offs eats into the market of actual Indigenous artists trying to make a living. Furthermore, as the artists Fionda interviews point out, appropriating Indigenous symbols and motifs erodes the meaning and cultural significance behind them.

Of course, there is something to be said about how fake Indigenous artwork, divorced as they are from the history and people they supposedly come from, are cheaply repackaged as part of the “Canadian” identity. Selling counterfeit Indigenous art as Canadiana adds to the erroneous mythology of Canada being one single cohesive, cooperative nation — all to earn a quick buck.

It’s important to keep in mind that Indigenous art is not Canada, and is not Canada’s — at least not as a possession of the settler state. It’s a part of the history of the nation, yes, but it has a history stretching far before that as well. If the settler state considers reconciliation with any measure of seriousness, it must be respectful of that history and mindful that it does not condone industries that cynically seek to profit from Indigenous peoples.

If you have family visiting from out of town this summer and they want to bring home a little piece of Canada, please do your best to check that any Indigenous art that is purchased has legitimate ties to an Indigenous artist. If that can’t be done, perhaps it’s best to settle for a red toque and some maple syrup.