Indigenous Feminism and Cultural Appropriation

by Guest Contributor Jessica Yee

Last year, a friend of mine told me that actress Juliette Lewis started up a band and that their sound was seriously a rockin’.

I was like “Really? Cool!” since I’d always appreciated the versatility Lewis demonstrated in her acting craft with movies like “The Other Sister,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” or even “Old School.”

Off to Google I went searching for her website, when I came up with this image:

Oh no, not again.

Another appropriator.

A quick glance at their website and various other fan photo materials reveals even worse.

So then I typed in the words “racism” and “Juliette Lewis and the Licks” since I know sumbody’s prolly talkin’, and I came up with this open letter crafted online to send to her:

(Sent to the myspace account of Juliette and the Licks, in response to Ms. Lewis’ feathered-headdress-as-rock-and-roll-image.)

Hi Juliette (or if not Juliette, Hi Whomever Is Reading This Message),

Someone recently called to my attention how you use a feathered headdress as a part of your “Rock and roll warrior” image. I checked out your website and myspace – it seems like you’ve been using it pretty extensively, and how other people are imitating it at your concerts.

Heads up – the way that you are using of this symbol, which is a clear (and from the gist of what I read of your comments, intentional) reference to “native americans,” is careless and really pretty disrespectful.

I’m not writing this message to jump on your ass, or pretend like I’m some superior person. I have nothing to gain from that. And this has nothing to do with whether or not I like your work (from what I’ve heard, it sounds reasonably cool – kudos for following a different path).

I’m putting this out there because I can’t complain about anything anyone does if I’m not willing to back it up with some action that seeks to change things. And you should have a chance to learn about what people are saying, and change the behavior and (more importantly) the system that supports it, if you are so inclined.

You’re in a position to be heard by a lot of people, and the image you’re putting out there takes advantage of the painful history of native americans in this country without paying any respect to it. This is problematic in the extreme. (And I say ‘native americans’ specifically because your feathers refer to an idea and not any real tribe or nation, from what I can tell.)

You go, you person out there!

But it’s not like this all isn’t a usual occurrence. We in the Native community have to witness this with every kid who dresses up like Pocahontas on Halloween, or every time we turn on the TV to watch the Redskins, Braves, or Indians play. In fact it’s been going on for so damn long that we’re kinda the only race who it’s still happening to on this extreme, public level, to the point where the fight has basically died down. Or has it?

What I find most interesting though about all this imagery, and in particular Lewis’s choice of dress with her band, is actually coming from my raging feminist point of view. In an attempt to appear strong, raw, and unapologetic, people, and in this case, a woman, feels like she has to appropriate Native culture to a pretty extreme extent in order to do a good job of it.

And, as an Indigenous feminist myself, I’m at a crossroads on how I’m feeling about that, because I’m someone who recognizes that the strong, raw, and unapologetic womaness (or feminism for that matter) that permeates mainstream activist movements, in reality was rooted in Indigenous, matriarchal cultures around the world. (I’m tired of having to justify the matrilineal/matriarchal wording battle folks; women had respected positions of power and significance in leadership roles in lots of our societies, so let’s just stick with the matriarchy one, mkay?)

Although you might never even see any of that coming from many of the public awareness campaigns that exist in our communities to, for instance, stay away from drugs and prevent domestic violence. What I see most often are these docile, gentle images of woman and baby saying “Don’t do this, we’re precious!” which while I truly believe are totally valid and worth having, I’d be lying if I said that it wouldn’t be nice to see some of that brute strength and sheer fighter style representation coming from our own community, with our own women seen doing it.

I can’t always personally relate to these peaceful, calm images when I’m fed-up, can’t contain myself angry or feeling oppressed to the max. It’s actually funny that people still think we’re drunk savages who are so primitive in existence, since clearly from everything I’m saying here, I see the total opposite going on.

So why is it that so many of the women in my community don’t want to associate themselves with these shrill, pro-woman imagery tactics or identification? Is it just something that is factually inaccurate about us? Or is there some sort of gender-based, internalized oppression from White, Western, colonial folks going on?

I think it’s a bit of both.

One click onto the Native American House’s department at the University of Illinois will easily lead you to numerous videos from the 2006 Native Feminisms Without Apology conference. They are a constant inspiration and source of vindication for me, who has long identified as an Indigenous feminist to the chagrin of many naysayers, who think I’m just buying into “whitey’s” game and tell me rather vocally that “we don’t need feminism.”

(From the website):

The purpose of the conference was to explore the development of Native feminist thought in the United States and Canada.

Because relatively little has been published by Native women on feminist theory, the scholarly and activist public tends to over-simplify Native women activists’ theories about feminism, the struggle against sexism both within Native communities and the society at large, and the importance of working in coalition with non-Native women.

This seminar provided a groundbreaking opportunity for indigenous women to develop indigenous feminist theory and politics, and centered around questions such as: What is specific about indigenous articulations of feminism? How do these articulations vary among indigenous communities?; Many indigenous nations have instituted gender-discriminatory policies in the name of “tradition.” What do pro-sovereignty, indigenous feminists interventions into these policies look like?; How can critiques of gender oppression and violence be made central to anti-colonial, pro-sovereignty analysis and politics?

While the language of the conference was exceptionally academic (and obviously so since it was being hosted and participated by universities) the ideas and messages that came out of it were quite clear: gender has always been part of the discussion in many of our communities, and our women didn’t take things sitting down.

“Where are your women?” This is what we used to say to the Europeans when they came over to broker manipulative deals for our lands and resources, since it was totally out of order for women not to be present or be disallowed to even make these kinds of major decisions themselves.

Indeed, we are coming from this foundational being of firm woman power that we have so much to honour in and be proud of (that is sorely needed today!), but maybe we didn’t feel like we always had to project ourselves in such a vociferous light since that’s just the way things were, and we accepted it.

In comes colonialism, Christianization, residential/boarding/mission schools, and other forms of genocidal oppression that are still happening, and you now have a majority of tribes that are being lead solely by men, women who have lost their rightful title to the land and even status as being Native if they married outside the community, and soaringly high rates of sexual assault and violence against our women that surpass every other race.

So yeah, we’re in a bit of a perplexing bind where perhaps we don’t know how to identify with our strong woman beginnings since they’ve been A) stolen away from us and B) re-owned, re-furbished, (and I’ll say it) appropriated in many ways by the White, mainstream feminist movement who still rarely acknowledges us.

It’s all definitely worth reflecting on how different things might be if our next generations knew about where we came from and called on their ancestral female strength to make it through these gender-based oppressions that we nonetheless face. I think our job now is to find practical ways to translate all of this into modern terms for our young people to use so they can recover what past generations may have lost, and re-assert themselves as the resilient, fierce, ain’t-gonna-take-any-crap females we’ve always been. Who are also feminists!

And maybe even so Juliette Lewis can re-think her choice of dress the next time she decides to sing. Our culture is not up for grabs to exploit anymore, and it really never was. It’s disrespectful, it’s ignorant, and it’s simply not for her to do.

I look to my community now to reclaim our feminism and put it out there as it once was: strong, sexy, powerful, and most of all; unapologetic.