Over the past month I have been made aware of three clear acts of racist misappropriation of Native American imagery here in Aotearoa. This is not new, we know that, but it is rare to have so many examples here in such a short period of time. All of those actions were engaged directly and raised critical issues about the deep lack of understanding or awareness of the insidious nature of cultural misappropriation.
Around a month ago a Māori woman student indicated that the Waikato Law Students Association was have an event within which a section was themed ‘Cowboys and Indians’, after complaints this was changed to a theme that it is said related to the University colours ‘I See Red’ and explanation for the initial theme seems to never have been given. The question must be asked how a Law Students Association who should, theoretically at least, have some understanding of oppression and cultural misappropriation and commodification of Indigenous representation, can in 2014 be still advocating a theme of ‘Cowboys and Indians’.
Then over the last week one of the largest festivals in this country Rhythm and Vines promoted an poster of two young women with costume shop type ‘Native Headdresses’ as a part of promoting the festival. This quickly received a challenging response and within a day the festival organisers removed the image and apologised on twitter.
“We sincerely apologise for the image used and any offence this may have caused. The use of this image was inappropriate and has been removed,” Rhythm and Vines
The challenge to Rhythm and Vines saw a shift in thinking by the organisers and without doubt provided a learning to those involved in the promotion about the need to have more awareness about such issues. The quick removal of the image is a clear indication of that acknowledgement by the organisers and was affirmed by many as a result.
Some have commented that such responses are over the top or question how such actions can or are offensive. Put simply they are offensive because (i) they denigrate sacred symbols and sacred ways of being; (ii) they maintain colonial representations of Native Peoples as ‘savage’ (iii) they reproduce notions that Indigenous cultural symbols and taonga (our treasures) are open and available for anyone who desires them with little or no awareness of their significance. Those are three simple reasons for why such actions are offensive and there are many others.
http://www.bluecorncomics.com/wannabes.htm provides a wide range of analysis of the issue of cultural appropriation of Native American taonga and images and the increasing phenomena of ‘wannabes’ :
In Z Magazine, December 1990, Janet McCloud (Tulalip) explained the basic problem with wannabes:
First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game….Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they’re medicine people. And they’ll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for fifty bucks. It’s not only wrong, its obscene. Indians don’t sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.
In his book Red Earth, White Lies, Vine Deloria, Jr. discussed why Americans wish they could be Indians:
They are discontented with their society, their government, their religion, and everything around them and nothing is more appealing than to cast aside all inhibitions and stride back into the wilderness, or at least a wilderness theme park, seeking the nobility of the wily savage who once physically fought civilization and now, symbolically at least, is prepared to do it again.
Critiques and challenges to such racist appropriation has been consistently voiced by Indigenous Peoples for generations however continued ignorance and cultural arrogance continues. This week Stephanie Key, the daughter of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, added her offensive imagery to the many other racist representations through her representation of a image described by the New Zealand Herald as follows:
“But already one of the pop-art style self-portraits — Key wearing an elaborate pink, feathered, war headdress, lacy pink knickers and a pink modesty star over her nipple — has been criticised for being culturally inappropriate.”
A more appropriate description would be that Stephanie Key has indulged her white privilege with soft porn imagery that not only misappropriates Native American imagery and taonga but which demeans and defiles the sacredness of both the Headdress and the Pipe.
These representations and acts of misappropriation are grounded in colonial thinking of Native and Indigenous Peoples more broadly as the ‘savage’ other’. They are racist and ignorant. They highlight white privilege and the ongoing assumption that anything is available to their use and abuse. This is not art. This self indulgent white racist appropriation. The fact that it comes from such a privileged place such as the daughter of the Prime Minister of this country makes it more disgusting.
This is not the first time such arrogance has shown itself by children of white men in power. Christina Fallin, the daughter of the Governor of Oklahoma also used a Headdress to promote herself and her band. This was also responded to directly by a range of commentators. On the Native Appropriations site an open letter to Fallin was penned that informed her of the history of Oklahoma, where Andrew Jackson enforced the Indian Removal Act which brought about genocidal, ethnocidal actions against the Cherokee and many other Native nations around the country:
“Cause here’s the thing. There is nothing about this that is “innocent” or “respectful.”
Let me tell you a story. I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Though I’ve never lived in Oklahoma, I have a lot of family there, and claim it as one of my “homes,” because that’s where my community is based. But here’s the thing: my tribe is not there by chance or by choice, my tribe, and the vast majority of the other Natives peoples in Oklahoma, are there by force and by trauma. In 1830, the US government and Andrew Jackson passed something called the “Indian Removal Act,” which resulted in the removal of thousands and thousands of Native peoples from their homelands in the southeast. You know where those Native peoples were forced to march? Oklahoma. Though it was referred to as “Indian Territory” then. So all that “Native American culture” you’ve been able to come in contact with? It’s thanks to violence, colonialism, and genocidal policies. It’s not an innocent cultural exchange.” (http://nativeappropriations.com/2014/03/dear-christina-fallin.html)
The decontextualisation racism against Indigenous Peoples is what enables such arrogant acts of cultural misappropriation. The removal of taonga, of sacred symbols, of Indigenous representation from an understanding of the historical and cultural context serves only to privilege those in power who believe they have a fundamental colonial white supremacist right to take from our people whatever and whenever they deemed necessary. The implications and the outcome of such colonial imperialist thinking is the ongoing perpetuation of racist oppressive acts against Indigenous Peoples.
“Notice the words I keep using here? Forcibly, stripped, prohibited, assimilated. This is not a happy history. This is a history marked by violence and by trauma. So while you may feel “eternally grateful” for your exposure to our cultures, you’re deliberately ignoring your own history if you think your donning of a headdress is “innocent.” Let’s fast forward to 2014. Now “tribal trends” are totally “in.” You can walk into any store in the mall and see “Native” imagery everywhere. As a Native person, when I look at them, I can’t help but remember the not-so-distant past when my people weren’t allowed, by law, to wear these things. It’s such a constant reminder of the colonial power structures still in place. Back in the day, white people had the power to take away our culture, and now they have the power to wear it however they see fit. These are our images, our cultural symbols, yet we are completely powerless to have control over them. It may seem extreme, but the best way I can say it is that your wearing of the headdress is an act of violence that continues the pain of colonization. “Please forgive us if we innocently adorn ourselves with your beautiful things.” The privilege and violence of that statement astounds me. “Please forgive us if we innocently use your beautiful land,” “Please forgive us if we innocently educate your beautiful children,” “Please forgive us if we innocently sexualize your beautiful women.” These actions are not benign.” ((http://nativeappropriations.com/2014/03/dear-christina-fallin.html)
The online discussions provided on sites such as Native Appropriations provide much depth of analysis and are both challenging and informing. It is not difficult for anyone to access such critique if they chose to do so. Clearly those in such privileged positions such as Christina Fallin and Stephanie Key do not see that to be necessary. They clearly do not see that there is need for them to be informed about the cultures that they steal from or denigrate. Their positions of privilege assume a place of dominance for them over Indigenous cultures. So they appropriate and they abuse with no concern for the impact. And there is an impact. Racism has a devastating impact. Racism kills our spirit, our souls, our hearts. Racism also kills our friends, our families, our relations. The perpetuation of racist acts of misappropriation is one part of a wider system of ethnocide that impacts upon Indigenous Peoples minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day… and has so for generations.
For more information please read the following blogs and sites:
An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses
But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?