Two kinds of “folk”

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In Germany, white people’s romanticized conceptions of North American Aboriginal peoples hold such power that middle-class German citizens attempt, at great expense, to emulate their customs. They attend elaborate “pow-wows,” dress up in ornate, buckskin costumes and learn Aboriginal languages.

The Canadian white man also has his (indeed, her) fantasies, but as face-to-face colonizers of Aboriginal peoples, our fantasies are a little more “multicultural,” a little more complicated: We attend folk festivals.

For many years, the Winnipeg Folk Festival (WFF) campground at Bird’s Hill Park enjoyed among its thousand smaller tents a giant teepee. Whatever its other functions, it provided an attractive place for partying white kids to smoke weed. Ah, back to the garden. If only that garden were really ours.

Cultural appropriation appears in other ungainly manifestations, like white girls wearing (east) Indian bindis–and, as my best friend Krishna is fond of stating, “the keffiyeh is certainly the new ‘short brim’ anarchist cap.” Perhaps most insulting is that these props of white “freedom” are appropriated as easily–and in the same spirit–as South Padre Island-style spring-break accoutrements like breast “pasties.”

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Equally disturbing are the more official forms of window dressing, like featuring a few Aboriginal musicians, despite a near total lack of Aboriginal festival-goers. While this year’s festival did feature an Aboriginal host (one out of four), representation among musicians was worse than usual; out of 74 main acts profiled in the program, only superb Metis singer-songwriter Ted Longbottom might qualify as an “Aboriginal act.” Indeed, Aboriginal people from the Russian Republic of Tuva enjoyed equal representation to Aboriginal people from Canada: one act each.

All in all, a rather poor performance for a festival located in Winnipeg, the “Aboriginal Capital of Canada.”

For a white fella like me–born, raised and living on stolen land, a regular festival-goer for so many years–these issues involve much questioning. And indeed–embarrassingly–white navel-gazing.

Well, whaddya gonna do? From where I sit, it seems that maybe white and Aboriginal people see “folk” in different ways. On the white side, a multicultural shopping excursion, with endless opportunities to spend lots of dollars on overpriced treats. Not that Aboriginal people don’t spend their dollars on music festivals–check out any countrymusic festival and you’ll see lots of Aboriginal folks. Perhaps they attend such events cause they’re just plain fun (duh!), unlike supposedly “multicultural” events organized by white people where they are consistently made to feel like one of the event’s many cultural consumables.

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Back in the nineties, I attended the North Country Fair, a small folk festival near Joussard, Alberta. Besides the white hippies who moved to Joussard back in the sixties, and besides the mostly white folks who made the four-hour drive from Edmonton or beyond, many of the attendees were members of four nearby First Nations and Indian Bands. That festival somehow seemed to have something for everyone. The music wasn’t “multicultural”–it was mostly local, whether that meant Aboriginal or otherwise. Yet, the experience was somehow appreciably more culturally diverse than that offered by Winnipeg’s festival. I’m not saying that festival didn’t have its own problems, but probably someone from the WFF should take a closer look at the North Country Fair.

Let’s end with this: Multiculturalism is a white-derived federal policy–so, maybe that’s why, perhaps paradoxically, “multicultural” events become white events by default.