Reflections on Commodification

By Solen Roth

When I was a teenager, I was a competitive cross-country skier. One day, I came 1st in a race, and received a trophy (to be kept in the club's ski cabin) and a pewter necklace (that I could take home with me). The necklace was engraved with a First Nations design, in Northwest Coast style.


Though the material aspects of the necklace make it evident that it is mass-produced, for many years this fact had not crossed my mind. I cherished this object as if it were unique in its kind. It formed a part of the images and material objects that referenced "Aboriginal cultures" in the very generic sense the expression took for me at the time.

Over ten years later, I was living in Vancouver, in my first year in the PhD anthropology program and was beginning to define my PhD research topic. I walked into a gift shop and found an entire shelf of necklaces of the very same design as mine. Had this happened a few years prior, I would probably have felt betrayed by my own feelings towards the "impostor" object.

But having started my reflection on Native giftware through my PhD, I was excited at the discovery as it allowed me to understand firsthand how singular values can be attached to an object that exists in multiple identical copies. Along with this excitement came the feeling that my owning such an object was a marker of my "non-Aboriginality," as if such objects could only be valued in this way by outsiders to the culture it referenced.

A few weeks ago, as I was spending time at the 2010 Aboriginal Pavilion (one of the pavilions set up in Vancouver during the Olympic Games), my encounter with an Aboriginal man wearing a pewter necklace made by the same company and with the same design as mine, has helped me think myself out of this assumption.

This story, as anecdotal as it is, has been helpful to me in thinking about the relationship between value and seriality and what it means in terms of the debates surrounding the commoditization of culture. It allows for a more nuanced view of what these objects do for Aboriginal individuals, cultures and perspectives.

Such a story in no way calls for an a-critical view of the Native Northwest Coast giftware industry, but it helps think past some of the assumptions that inform some of the discourses about it.


For more, read Solen's Ph.D. thesis on The Native Northwest Coast Artware Industry, completed in 2013

Photograph courtesy of Solen Roth.