On Cultural Appropriation
Let’s talk about cultural appropriation — because it’s that time of year again. Every Halloween, without fail, we see culturally offensive costumes and the like surface. It brings about some difficult but necessary conversations — not just about costume attire, but also about Sarjesa and our teas.
Cultural appropriation has always been a big point of tension for me, as the founder. There is a fine line between acting as an accomplice and profiting on someone else’s story, identity, knowledge — cultural inheritance. As a mixed race Indo-Caribbean woman, I have sensitivities around cultural appropriation in my own community, and try to situate myself always as being a Non-Indigenous settler with an intersecting legacy of oppression.
The tea started as a class project for an Indigenous studies course (facilitated by Dr. Renae Watchman), where we were asked to bring resistance into our everyday experience. Over the course, we learned about different moments of activism and read amazing books. The tea started as a way of educating Non-Indigenous communities about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. I purchased locally grown ingredients from my aunty, and hand stitched together teabags. Each tea bag had a paper sachet which included a statistic about violence towards Indigenous women and girls.The box featured “Still Dancing” by Jonathan Labillois — a painting that honours the missing women and girls, and hangs in the Native Women’s Shelter in Montreal. I reached out to Jonathan Labillois before including his work in my school project, because it’s always important to ask.
I connected with two Elders who live in Kainai — the amazing Raymond and Greta. My mom and I made the two hour drive to visit them, and spent time sharing stories and drinking the most amazing tea I’ve ever had. Walking into their home, you could feel the love and smell the mint that was drying. I thought the relationship would be one where I paid them to teach me about herbs, a student teacher relationship. Little did I know, this family would become just as important to me as my own family.
There was never a question about who we would donate funds to — the Awo Taan Healing Lodge was the natural choice. The work the organization does, the kind and inspiring team, and the story and intention behind every piece of the shelter has always blown me away. As a 20-something-hot-head, the community at Awo Taan has taught me a lot about cultivating practices of restorative justice and healing for whole families not just individuals.
Before we piloted, there were things that had to be changed. I couldn’t physically sew together enough teabags or print enough sachets for it to be a viable business. We moved, instead, to a loose leaf tea - featuring our original blend of peppermint, rose, and sage. In order to be respectful of the wishes of the families of the women in the painting “Still Dancing,” we commissioned a piece by Jonathan for our labels. Our very first market was in -25 degree celsius weather. Despite the fact that I almost froze to a metal outhouse seat, I was happy as a clam.
After winning a substantial grant and award, we were able to work with a design team to return to our original box idea — rebranding under the name Sarjesa, and launching a full product line in December of 2017. Throughout this, we were overwhelmed by an amazingly supportive community including members of Walking With Our Sisters, small business owners, and suppliers.
The roots of our metaphorical mint plant deepened, and we continued to grow. We began working with local farms to source ingredients — farms that welcomed Elders to their properties to bless and put medicine down for the land. It has always been important to me that Sarjesa finds a balance between knowing and following protocols and traditional ecological practices, without selling traditional knowledge. None of our packaging contains details of the stories or teachings shared with us — as this is the legacy of the communities we work with. We can be informed by these processes, but I’ve always felt like it’s not our right to disseminate this knowledge. Additionally, we don’t discuss the specific cases of MMIWG, as these are also not our stories to share. Instead, we choose to highlight community members who are willing to share their photos and stories on our website and through our social media.
As we grew, and began to work with more communities and tea growers overseas, we realized the violence towards Indigenous women is a problem that transcends borders, colors, and communities. As we began to incorporate new ingredients and new communities into our processes, we launched two more flavours of tea featuring dancers from other communities (art by Hugo Dubon and Natalie Lynem). We took our cues from the Awo Taan Healing Lodge, which is grounded in Indigenous frameworks and teachings - but open to all women. Our goal became about bringing different communities together in respectful solidarity, to find ways of overcoming violence towards women. We chose to target our efforts on domestic violence.
Since then, so much has changed. We’ve travelled all over Canada — and learned about so many different plants for many different people. We also traveled to Hawai’i where we got to learn from the Kanaka Maoli community, and tried Mamaki tea for the first time.
Taking a step closer to the original Sarjesa vision — we now have biodegradable tea bags (and no, they are not hand stitched by me - but maybe we will return to paper sachets in future, who knows!) We are also working to develop our key documents for sourcing directly from community — testing it out in the summer of 2020. Overharvesting is a big issue, especially when using plants that have medicinal stories attached to them. As such, we’ve been playing around with restorative agriculture. This is, in addition to our community donation, another way we are hoping to cultivate some economic benefit for the communities we work with.
So that’s it, the basics of our story (sans the complicated parts — like how I learned to work a teabagging machine etc).
It’s not a perfect fit, and it’s messy. We try really hard to ground our efforts in community, and we talk to a lot of people. It’s not easy — and there aren’t really a ton of great role models when it comes to allyship and accomplicity. It’s a long learning curve, one that will probably last a lifetime. I’m so grateful when people ask me about cultural appropriation - because it gives me the opportunity to say that I don’t have all the answers, and that we are still learning. Keep asking these sorts of important questions, because they help keep businesses (which are really just a collection of people and systems) accountable and helps us to imagine better and more radical ways to do better and be better.
PS - my direct email is email@example.com and we are ALWAYS open to hearing from you about what we can be doing better.