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Colonialism, Classics, and Cultural Compliments

Still from Matt Keay's 2015 documentary on Deanna Kasokeo's adaptation of the Antigone. Still from Matt Keay's 2015 documentary on Deanna Kasokeo's adaptation of the Antigone.
Still from Matt Keay's 2015 documentary on Deanna Kasokeo's adaptation of the Antigone, Matt Keay 2015.
Original source page for this image, The Nation Archives: Our Annual Rundown of the Films of the First Peoples' Festival (2015), by Jesse B. Staniforth.

Cultural appropriation is a non-trivial problem, especially where there are members of a colonizing culture who have been taught from their earliest days that they are entitled to take what they like and do what they like with it. This leads to such appalling absurdities as people who think they are white insisting that their affinity and what they consider respect for Indigenous cultures makes them no less than a member of whatever culture or cultures have sparked their interest. Since they are often better off economically and unlikely to be punished for such acts as learning to speak Indigenous languages and making Indigenous-styled crafts and clothing, they can easily fool themselves into thinking they are better at the Indigenous culture than actual Indigenous people. They feel they have put in the time and the labour, so they deserve to be recognized for all that work, and furthermore, they have been trained not only to presumed entitlement but presumed authority. They are taught that they must assuredly know better than Indigenous people how to be Indigenous, because they have studied all the non-Indigenous writings about the Indigenous peoples they are interested in. Deep and abiding interest is no bad thing, but this deadly combination of entitlement, authority, and arrogance is. More people who think they are white are catching themselves at this and actively shifting to working in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, which is truly constructive and respectful, though the numbers are still all too small for the moment. So with all that said, people may certainly wonder about the alternatives. I actually find this a bit of a strange question, because the truth is, humans work out cultural compliments all the time. The question is who gets complimented instead of expropriated.

There seems to be a broad assumption in academia if not beyond that Indigenous peoples could have no interest in the field sometimes called "classics" and sometimes called "greek and roman studies." After all, "classics" has long been the credentialing degree of choice for upper class twit males who are expected to go into a promising job where they don't have to get their hands to dirty, such as running colonial outposts or capitalist enterprises. Its ties to marking out the modern era's novi homines from others of "non-noble birth" and from the "aristocrats" are still impossible to miss. So it might seem logical to expect that Indigenous access to such training as studying ancient greek and roman literature and ruins can provide would be limited until very recently, and that Indigenous people wouldn't be too interested in learning about how and why colonizers think the way they do. This is nonsense. There is plenty of Indigenous reason to develop more than a nodding acquaintance with how oppressors learn to rationalize what they are doing. On finding out the uncanny parallels between the ways Indigenous cultures have been treated by people who think they are white and the ways ancient romans treated ancient greek cultures and peoples, Indigenous scholars and artists come away with a lot to think about. Learning about how the british in particular have treated ancient greek monuments and archaeological sites alongside their descendants today and views of their cultures over time can be quite headspinning. I can vouch for that from personal experience.

This is finally where cultural complimenting comes in. An instance of compliment rather than appropriation is one where the person endeavouring to compliment doesn't try to elide the origins of what they are complimenting. Nor do they seek to separate it from the original creators, or dig into cultural stories and materials that the original creators did not seek to share. The compliment doesn't claim to do the original "better" or "more accurately" or "more authentically." Rather the point of the compliment is to say, "your story speaks to us too, thank you for sharing it." I think we can agree that this is hard to achieve in the present circumstances of late stage capitalism. Still, it's not impossible, and it so happens that Cree playwright Deanna Kasokeo did just that in her adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone into a Cree twenty-first century context.

Summaries don't do any story or play justice, and certainly not one as complex and sourced in as different a culture as Antigone. Sophocles wrote and participated in producing the play with an all-male cast to an all-male audience in athens during the the fourth century BCE. In this period athens was rich and a growing imperial power, riding on the strength of a huge navy and silver mines worked by slaves in the region to its north. It wasn't the best time or place to be a woman, a slave, or even a metic, that is a resident foreigner, male or female. Aristocratic women were ideally expected to stay at home, locked away in the women's part of the house, strictly enjoined from participation in public life. Perikles, who is so often extolled as a great leader, spent a great deal of effort to restrict the only public outlet left to greek women in athens, lamentation at funerals. The titular character of the play is a young aristocratic woman of the royal family of thebes, who is determined to bury her brother, whose corpse her uncle the king has explicitly banned from being buried because he considers the brother a traitor to the city. The play explores more or less directly questions about clashes between duty to family and coercive authority. Classicists like to argue over whether there are implicit considerations about the role of women as public actors. The play is a tragedy, so of course, all the main characters whom we are expected to feel sympathy with die. Or at least, that is a modern interpretation. Classicists argue over whether that is also what ancient greeks in athens would have said about it. A more neutral way to put it is, ancient greek tragedies have their problems resolved by the deaths of the main characters.

Movie poster image from the greek adaptation of the Antigone directed by Yorgos Javellas and starring Irene Pappas and Maro Kontou. Movie poster image from the greek adaptation of the Antigone directed by Yorgos Javellas and starring Irene Pappas and Maro Kontou.
Movie poster image from the greek adaptation of the Antigone directed by Yorgos Javellas and starring Irene Pappas and Maro Kontou. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons, 2017.

The key aspect that speaks across time and cultural differences is the clash between family duty and coercive authority, and especially the element of resistance to coercive authority. It is easy to miss that the original play is also about what constitutes a good king, performed in a period when athens was officially ruled "democratically," by votes taken by all the male citizens, yet at that time was a de facto dictatorship run by Perikles. There are plenty of uncomfortable questions that are still germane today, especially in light of the new exemplars of demagoguery making their way into significant power positions in shaky democracies. I should also note that new adaptations don't necessarily follow Sophocles' original ending, either. At the end of the 1961 greek film, the king exiles himself from thebes, which is certainly not in the original. Kasokeo's adaptation, like many of its predecessors and no doubt its original, has proved controversial.

First performed in 1998 to considerable acclaim, a production of Kasokeo's adaptation went on tour, including a performance at Poundmaker reserve northwest of saskatoon in 2011. Which, to Kasokeo and director Floyd Favel's great surprise was banned by the band council heedless of the fact that the adaptation with the theban king rendered as a corrupt band council chief was not a response to or reflection of the current band leadership. It hardly could have been since they were not in power when Kasekeo wrote the adaptation or when it was first performed. The attempted ban did not succeed, and the performance went ahead.

Kasokeo is not the only Indigenous scholar and artist who has engaged more deeply with ancient greek materials to think through Indigenous questions and challenges, nor is she the only one to find herself in the middle of a controversy as a result. In the late 1980s and early 1990s in the united states, Indigenous historians Barbara Alice Mann and Donald Grinde among others ruffled many non-Indigenous scholars by pulling together and republicizing the evidence for Haudenosaunee influence on the structure of the early united states government and many of its early rhetorical and visual elements. This did not sit at all well with those committed to the notion that the early framers never so much as peeked at Indigenous modes of governance, and therefore had to have looked for examples in republican rome and Periklean-era athens. More recently, Craig Arthur Williams of the university of illinois at champaign centre for translation studies has been locating and studying greek and latin texts written by early Indigenous scholars, especially from the 17th and 18th centuries. Their texts are often associated with religious instruction and the expectation from their instructors that they would join the ranks of missionaries busy working to disrupt and destroy Indigenous cultures across the americas. What these early Indigenous scholars actually did with their newfound skills did not necessarily match their preceptors' hopes.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:36