On Thin Ice: Two Russians Skate off the Reservation

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2010

Russian figure-skaters Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who have been favorites to win gold medals at next month’s Vancouver Olympics, thought they had found an admirably multicultural theme for their ice-dancing routine–an homage to aboriginal peoples. In it, they leap and dance and spin to a hip-hoppy track of sampled didgeridoo sounds while wearing loincloths over bodysuits painted with pseudotribal designs.

They have now learned the hard way that the politics of multiculturalism are tricky: The pair were denounced last week by Australian Aboriginal activists who don’t like outsiders dabbling in their traditions. Bev Manton, chairwoman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, declared the skaters had co-opted “a foreign culture, and used [it] inappropriately.”

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But the Aborigines’ complaint goes far beyond the assertion that the skaters’ routine is corny or crass. The more serious accusation here is that the Russians are infringing on the cultural property of Aborigines. “We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture,” said Sol Bellear, a member of the Aboriginal Land Council. “It is yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited.” Ms. Manton said the performance is “not acceptable to Aboriginal people” because it is “offensive.”

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Aboriginal activists met earlier this week to weigh their options and decided that the Russian ice-dancing routine “while offensive to Aboriginal people, is not illegal.” That’s a relief–though we can expect the Russian pair to be treated as cultural criminals at the Olympics nonetheless. Which is a shame, because even as we celebrate the great multiplicity and variety of cultures in the world, there is a case to be made that we all share in them.

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