Monday, October 26, 2015

"Plagium," root of "plagiarism," is the Latin word for kidnapping

Giacomo Gastaldi's 1556 map of "Canada," Library and Archives Canada, NMC 52408
If it can’t be owned, it can’t be stolen. This is a belief that reflects the values system many Indigenous peoples live in. The thing about this belief is that it can only be enacted if all parties hold it to be true. If land can’t be owned, how is it the colonizing forces believed they purchased so much of this country from First Nations? Differing values systems create gaps in communication that seem, at times, impossible to bridge.

With such vastly differing world views, the Indigenous peoples and the colonizers could hardly see one another for looking. Settlers brought with them a cognitive imperialism that disallowed them, in many cases, to adapt before death struck. They saw an unmanageable wilderness where peoples such as the Abenaki and the Haudenosaunee had highly sustainable agricultural systems in place. Those peoples who did not plant cultivated and hunted, working with the land and waters, not seeking to “improve” them for commerce, as was the European way.

As Olive Dickason cites in her The Myth of the Savage, these ways of living were equated with uncivilized practices. “They do not believe that land belongs to individuals, any more than does the light of the sun. They only labour and cultivate enough to provide for sustenance…” (Antoine de Montchrestien, Traicté) This, written as a criticism. Dickason goes on to note that Montchrestien believes Indigenous peoples have hope at becoming decent humans if they were to learn to live more like Europeans.

West coast nations have intricate systems of story keeping. I’m not of a West coast nation, but I know this to be true. It is believed stories belong to certain clans and/or families, to be told only in certain ways and by certain people at particular times of year and in specific locations. Many Indigenous peoples have protocol around storytelling. Words have power. Some are not even spoken off-season, out of respect for the power they have.

If it can’t be copyrighted, it can’t be plagiarized. I know this to be a fact, yet the burnt dry ache I feel in my spirit tells me this isn’t right.

I live in awe of many colleagues and their gifts with stories. Cliff Cardinal wields energy through words in a completely surprising and provocative way. Donna Michelle St. Bernard can stop me cold with the briefest of phrases. Judith Thompson conjures souls straight off the page because of the magic in her telling. MacIvor can break your heart with a sharp self-cruelty disguised as a witticism. I count myself lucky to be in the same field as such living greats. In spite of this admiration, I would never deliberately take story from anyone.

Yes, people and our interactions inspire. History inspires. Other works of art inspire. “Inspire” also means to inhale, and art is the breath of life for so many of us. Dickason’s work also taught me that the Amassalik Inuit root word for “to breathe” is the same as that used for “make poetry.” (Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times.) Those of us who knew the late great Zaccheus Jackson heard him say “poetry saved my life.” He meant this literally. For me, my writing is my return to my ancestors, my own declaration of survival and promises to those yet to come.

There was a time when our arts were disallowed. We Indigenous peoples of “Canada” were banned from practicing our dances, storytelling and ceremonies. We kept right on doing them. Many evolved due to secret practice. Some were lost. How can we measure the impact of that loss? We can’t. We honour it by carrying on with creation.

For all of these truths I write this now, to ask all who partake in or facilitate creation groups of any kind - playwriting units, collective creation projects, reading committees for any given decision making process - to look one another in the eye and acknowledge that it is not a good or kind thing to take from somebody else’s labour and twist it into something you possess.

This is happening to me right now. A former friend and colleague, who I once cared for and have always supported, is taking a story from me and grinding it into a thing they will claim. I don’t want to identify the person, and so I choose “they” for their anonymity. This person might argue that my play is inspired by real history, and so it is fair game. This person said, with many witnesses present, that they had never heard of this history prior to reading my play, almost ten years ago. This person has stated that their project’s description might seem similar to mine, but it is nothing like it. I have been told by several people now that they have seen, heard of or read the actual text and that they were alarmed by its extreme similarity.

This hardship is unresolvable. I’ve done what I can to try to have a conversation of accountability with this person. They have soundly declined. I don’t have the resources this person has to try to fight, legally, for what I have invested love and labour in. I suspect the law wouldn’t be on my side anyway, not that I consider the law any viable measure for ethical practice. I simply know this act of taking is low.

I expect there is a lesson in it that the world has tried to teach me more gently, but because it bypassed me at the time, it’s back and it is snarling. For now, the good that can come of it is consideration by you, gentle reader, to take a simple moment to acknowledge one another when we are in that vulnerable place - the place where a title is followed by “a work in progress by…” Let’s promise each other that we won’t take the heart of a work from someone who is still cradling it in her hands, working to breathe as much of her life into it as she can spare. 

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