Written for Daily Hive by Francesca Fionda, an investigative journalist at The Discourse, a community-funded journalism outlet reimagining the community newspaper to better represent Canada’s diversity.
Dreamcatchers, inukshuks, mini totem poles and other Indigenous-themed souvenirs fill tourist shops across Vancouver. But a Discourse investigation reveals that three quarters of these shops appear to be selling some knock-offs, produced without any collaboration with Indigenous people.
The Discourse visited 40 tourist shops in Gastown, on Robson Street, in Chinatown, and on Granville Island over three months, catalogued more than 260 items and traced as many of their origins as they could find — then published their findings online.
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The findings don’t surprise Shain Jackson, a Coast Salish artist who has run Spirit Works Limited for the last 12 years. His company employs up to 10 Indigenous people making traditional cultural pieces like bentwood boxes and wooden jewelry for sale in tourist hotspots like Gastown and Granville Island. He says the cost of imitation Indigenous-themed souvenirs siphoning profit out of the tourism market goes beyond lost wages to authentic Indigenous artists; it goes to the heart of the art’s significance.
Indigenous art, Jackson told The Discourse, is like a blueprint of his culture. It’s how laws and history have been passed down for thousands of years, and it’s the only hard copy of their oral traditions.
Imitation products, in contrast, are copied without an understanding of their significance and “if you don’t understand what it means and you try and copy it,” he says, “it’s losing its meaning.”
So how can you tell if a product is an authentic Indigenous souvenir? Here are three questions to get you started.
- Does the product have a label crediting an artist and/or their nation? The first thing to look for is a label that credits an artist and/or nation. That’s a good sign the company is either working directly with an Indigenous artist to design the item, or purchased their design and is now paying the artist royalties.
- Can store staff tell you more about the product and how the artist is paid?
- Does the company or artist have more information online? What does the company website tell you about its practices?
Educating the public is key to competing with inauthentic items in this souvenir market, say many artists and stores committed to selling genuine products. From the companies that manufacture the products, to the stores that sell them, to the consumers who buy them — people need to learn how to recognize authentic pieces and support Indigenous artists and the genuine cultural expressions they share.
“It would be nice to make out — to be able to not just eke by as an Indigenous company — but to actually make a good living, to actually prosper,” Jackson told The Discourse. Hopefully, that’ll come someday, he added.
This story is part of a series investigating fake Indigenous art first published by The Discourse, a community-funded journalism outlet reimagining the community newspaper to better represent our country’s diversity.