Opportunity and Opportunism: Dueling Narratives of Detroit

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September 7, 2014 by The Editor

In some activist and academic communities, the contemporary use of Native American/First Nations imagery is measured on a scale that judges it as ‘appropriate’ on the one hand and ‘appropriation’ on the other. ‘Appropriate’ means respectful, historically accurate and usually, but not necessarily always, emanating from Native American artists, writers, and entrepreneurs.  ‘Appropriation’ is when people such as musicians, artists, designers, and sports team owners render images of Native American culture, for their own profit, which decontextualize and trivialize aboriginal identity while claiming to speak on its behalf (see for example Dan Synder and the Redskins controversy and the Inukt line of clothing and housewares by designer Natalie Benarroch.)

Who conveys culture and history, and how, is under increasing scrutiny through the power of social media. Parisian auctioneers who fence sacred Native American objects no longer exist in an anonymous world of super-rich collectors; music stars are no longer able to flaunt Indian headdresses as mere costumery without criticism.

Furthermore, we are in an era when multiculturalism has succeeded in doing little more than further marginalizing already marginalized groups. Cultures that have long been excluded from the modern projects of governing and economic development are forced to defend their right to exist on their own terms in the face of pressures to conform. Creoles, Cajuns, Métis, French Canadians, Native Americans, Amish, hunters, the rural are among the traditional North American cultures that are fodder for reality TV. They must assert themselves or risk being written out of history.

The ‘Appropriate vs. Appropriation’ scale of measure has a corollary in the writing of Detroit’s history and culture which I call ‘Opportunity vs. Opportunism.’ It relates to the exploitation of Detroit’s struggles and history in ways that attempt to direct the local narrative instead of respecting it. It is the process by which people, frequently non-Detroiters, make the story of this living city about themselves or about their art or their careers without regard to its own history and the 700,000 people who still call it home.

‘Opportunity’ is when local residents commit themselves to building on Detroit’s history as a great city. An example of this is Encore Détroit, which promotes the French history of the city with events drawing on French North American cultural forms. Another example is the Detroit Drunken Historical Society, which sponsors events that tell the story of Detroit from multiple perspectives. Both are small grassroots efforts building pride in community.

An example of ‘opportunism’ is the ‘ruin porn’ that made Detroit the world-famous poster-city of urban decay. A blighted city became almost overnight an art project predicated on its despair. Opportunism is found in the writing of history – something seen even in the 19th century. The Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society produced volumes of research telling the story of the Anglo-American “pioneers” who they claimed built Detroit. In so doing they connected themselves to the French explorers who first landed there, while eliminating the voyageurs and habitants who they routinely disparaged as dirty, lazy, and lacking in intelligence.

Opportunism vs. Opportunity is found in dueling dissertations published in recent years. One scholar tells the story of 18th-century Detroit as a settlement dominated by métis fur trade networks, while the other portrays it as an inherently French colony, where French cultural norms were not only dominant, but where Indians and métis traders were never central to local life at all. One is an opportunity to tell the story of Detroit, including the integral presence of non-European cultures; the other alleviates the modern historian from the burden of stepping outside historical orthodoxy.

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Skin Trade, Then and Now” places Detroit’s modern violence problem at the origins of Detroit itself, with a mythical gunshot and the fur trade (to quote the opening line, “Detroit owes its existence to millions of dead mammals…”) The author attempts to trace the “yearning” that she claims has always driven Detroit,  understanding its renaissance through her own experience of weight loss and the removal of 40 pounds of her own skin.

It is a remarkable appropriation of the city’s French history, used to demonstrate one woman’s struggle with obesity. It is, on both the part of the author and The Atlantic Monthly, an excellent example of the opportunism that afflicts Detroit through narratives centering on its plight but that have little to do with the city itself.

“The Skin Trade, Then and Now” treats the history of Detroit much like the creative director of Inukt appropriated First Nations culture: as fodder for personal ambitions. The same could be said for Dan Snyder who seems to regard himself as a true hero to Native Americans in rejecting criticism of the Redskins “tradition”; and of Manuel Moroun a modern-day bridge baron attempting to eliminate a pathway to a brighter future in Detroit because he could. In their own ways, large and small, they diminish the cultures of others by taking away our stories and demanding to tell it themselves, akin to greedily collecting all the tolls or by putting sacred images up for sale.

The bright side of this is that sometimes these moments of opportunism and appropriation wake us from our slumber. Sometimes they serve to remind us to be vigilant in remembering to tell our own stories. They remind us that we live in free societies where “nothing’s sacred” and it takes but a moment to lose what is precious.

Ownership of histories that we have a personal stake in is often mistaken for anger; ownership of our cultural expression is casually dismissed by ‘culture makers’ (ie designers and musicians) as a failure of the imagination, the failure to look beyond provincial ideas. Those are flimsy excuses, not unlike the paternalism of early Detroit Anglo-American ‘pioneers.’ For those of us involved in writing, living, and creating within our own cultures, claiming ownership of them is our most potent tool. With ownership we break the cycles of appropriation and opportunism that have the power to diminish what we hold true and valuable.

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One thought on “Opportunity and Opportunism: Dueling Narratives of Detroit

  1. Michelle LaLonde says:

    I would have written one line as “It is a remarkable–and not in a good way–appropriation of the city’s French history…for someone not even from Michigan.” In a conversation with the author before the article was finished, I tried to explain to her that, although the settlement was founded to facilitate the fur trade, most of the people who lived there were also farmers. She was quite dismissive of those claims, in spite of suggestions to read some of the source documents like the 1763 census/inventory in LaJeunneuse.

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