Vancouver Olympics knit themselves a controversy

The 2010 winter Olympics, which begin about four months from now, will be held in Vancouver, B.C.

The local Olympic organizers have been working very hard to obtain the support of B.C.’s First Nation communities. The potential exists for international controversy because nearly the entire province is subject to unresolved First Nation land claims. (There are 203 First Nations in B.C., mostly quite small; fewer than 20 of them have treaties.)

Oops! The organizers have managed to offend the Cowichan nations by producing an Olympic sweater for Canada’s athletes to wear. According to the Cowichan, the sweater is a knock-off:

Authentic Cowichan Sweaters are produced by Canada’s West Coast Salish Natives in the Cowichan Valley. […]

No two sweaters are alike. The fleeces come in natural colors and shades of brown, black and white. As the black sheep matures, the wool changes from brown to gray with aging, like human hair. All of the dark shades in ‘Genuine Cowichan’ sweaters come from this unique black sheep and are not dyed. For over one hundred years Salish women have been knitting clothes and blankets for their families. The wool is carefully carded to prevent damage to the fibers and is still hand spun. The sweaters are hand-knitted with this pure, un-dyed, virgin wool. The natural oils are left in the wool of the authentic Cowichan Sweater to retain the water-resistant qualities of wool. […]

This is a gift that has been presented to royalty and heads of state.

2010 winter Olympics sweaterHere’s a photo of the offending sweater, modelled by one of Canada’s athletes. The geometric designs and the moose are typical of a Cowichan sweater. The Cowichan say that the colours are also typical of their designs (although the red is surely an exception).

Also relevant:  in 2005, Premier Gordon Campbell presented an authentic Cowichan sweater, adorned with the Olympic rings, to IOC president Jacques Rogge. It’s relevant because it establishes a pre-existing relationship between the Cowichan sweater and the 2010 winter games.

I don’t know whether the Olympic organizers, or The Bay, intended that anyone would mistake their sweater for a Cowichan. But it’s certainly true that corporations are not above the exploitation of traditional handiwork in pursuit of profit. (The sweaters may be worn by the athletes, but you can bet they’ll also be for sale at The Bay.)

This instance of transformation of a traditional practice offends me. In western terminology, we might label it “appropriation of culture”. It’s colonialism in a contemporary form.

“What would happen if Cowichan started marketing an Olympic lookalike sweater in response?” Hinkley wondered. “I imagine they would be all over us, spouting ‘trademark’ and ‘patent’ and all of this.” She asks anyone who feels snubbed by the Bay’s choice of sweater to wear their Cowichan sweater to Olympic events.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Carla
    Mar 11, 2010 @ 23:38:17


    Silly Question.

    Can you purchase this sweater online? Does The Bay sell this Sweater?


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