Friday, March 12, 2010

When Recreations go Wrong

Ok, I realize that sometimes when historic recreations are done the main idea is for the participants to have some fun. The people in costume are there to add some colour to an event. If those in attendance come away with a few ideas about the history which is on display so much the better. For the most part I can readily accept this. Heck, I even have a couple of historic costumes which I have been known to trot out for special events. Recreations can play a very important role in fostering community pride as well as teaching people about their heritage.

Living in Annapolis Royal, I also know that this is a community with a long history of historical recreations. I have seen pictures, videos and scripts chronicling over 100 years of pageants, recreations, plays and memorials. Most of the time I look quite contentedly at the archival material. Every once in a while, I come across an image like today's photograph which makes me cringe.

On the face of it, this is a very simple image. It is a postcard depicting a group of men playing the role of Champlain, Poutrincourt and their men at the Port Royal Habitation. The group are gathered in the Community Room and having an Order of Good Cheer celebration. What could be more of a Port Royal / Annapolis Royal event than an Order of Good Cheer celebration? It all seems like good times and some fairly innocent fun. While the costumes are far too clean for a group who initiated a social club in part to stave off the ill effects of scurvy, this is not my problem. Nor is the fact that there are some rather cherubic celebrants when the group should be showing signs of malnourishment. Being rather cherubic myself, I really cannot find fault. What makes me cringe are the two very caucasian looking Mi'kmaq relegated to a spot on the floor in the corner of the room. There they sit wearing some form of Willie Nelson style wig with a feathered headdress from a cowboy movie.

For the most part, this is an issue of how history is interpreted today as opposed to how it was interpreted in the 1940s or 1950s when this picture was taken. Even if they were not doing so consciously, the group in the picture are clearly celebrating the European presence while assigning the Mi'Kmaq to a supporting role. Like the pictures I have seen of local men in black-face, I do not believe that this was necessarily done out of malice. At its best, I would like to believe that it was done out of a lack of cultural understanding and a lack of appreciation for the historic roles of the participants.

The Mi'kmaw Sagmo Membertou and his people would have been treated as guests by the French in 1607. While the French did not think of them as equals, on the same note, the Mi'Kmaq did not think of the French as equals. As the French knew, without the help of the Mi'Kmaq, they would not have survived their first winters on the shores of the Bay of Fundy. These were not people to be relegated to a space on the floor while the French celebrated. When they were invited, the Mi'Kmaq would have been a central part of the festivities. Portraying them as mere supporting players does little justice to the story or the people.

Sadly, recreations of this sort end up doing more harm than good. If recreations are to be anything more than colour, the participants should have an understanding of the story they are telling. These events must be approached with cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness.

All for now,

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