Oh ANTM, Where Do I Even Start?: Mariah Watchman And The Pocahontas Controversy

All images courtesy The CW and Pottle Productions Inc.

By Guest Contributor Adrienne Keene, cross-posted from Native Appropriations

This is not a post hating on Mariah Watchman, America’s Next Top Model‘s very first Native contestant. At all. I’m so excited she’s on the show, and proud that she’s representing for all of Indian Country. Mariah is from the Umatilla rez in Oregon, but is also Ojibwe, Modoc, and Mandan, and seems pretty down-to-earth and awesome. This is much more about the show itself, and the messages it sends us about society at large.

The premise of this season of ANTM is a competition between British models and American models (they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel after 18 seasons to keep it interesting, I guess), and on the first episode, the models were paired in what was termed a “Culture Clash”–one model from the US and one from the UK, each representing an “iconic figure from [their] individual country.” Ok, fair enough.

So here were the pairings:

  • George Washington vs. Queen Elizabeth
  • Janet Jackson vs. Scary Spice
  • Madonna vs. Elton John
  • Michelle Obama vs. Margaret Thatcher
  • Andy Warhol vs. Amy Winehouse
  • Jackie O vs. Princess Diana

And, finally…

  • Pocahontas vs. John Lennon

Any guesses as to who they made portray Pocahontas? Yeah. Mariah. Her response (on the show) to the choice:

“Me representing Native Americans, I mean who else better for me to get than Pocahontas? But I’m also nervous, because she’s Pocahontas, and that’s a lot to live up to.”

She went on the record with an interview with her hometown newspaper discussing the choice as well (which was a choice of the producers, not her own), saying:

 “As soon as I heard what the competition was, I knew that’s who I would be. I was completely fine with it. There’s no one else I’d want more to portray. It’s someone everybody knows.”

I think this is completely a reflection of the sad, sad state of our society if a proud Native woman feels the only “iconic figure” that “everyone knows” of her race is a 12 year old who was famous for “saving” and marrying an old white dude and then becoming a Disney character. Awesome.

The choice of the producers to have her portray “Pocahontas” is straight up offensive, too. Let’s pigeonhole the only Native contestant by forcing her to don an extremely stereotypical outfit and be an Indian. The thing that stood out to me was that Mariah was cast into a race-based role, while the other pairings had plenty of (relatively progressive) race-bending. George Washington, Elton John, Jackie O, and John Lennon (all white) were portrayed by models of color, which I thought was kinda cool. But, because Mariah’s heritage is her “exotic” selling point for the show, the producers felt the need to exploit it.

Then the outfit they put on her. Oh the outfit. It looks like they bought it straight off the pocahottie halloween page–fake buckskin, primary-colored feathers, plains-style beading and designs, braids in her hair. And–the kicker–a tomahawk. Yes, a tomahawk. History lesson, ANTM: Pocahontas was from Virginia, and none of those stereotypes apply to her people. So, basically, they did what everyone seems to do when they want to “honor” Indians–drew upon every Hollywood Indian stereotype without any regard for historical accuracy, regionality, or how effing racist it is to make the only Native girl basically dress up in blackface. (I’m ready for the angry comments about that last part.)

But during the judging I wanted to throw my remote at Nigel Barker‘s face. Here’s the final picture:

It’s fine. There were others that were much worse (it’s the first episode!). But Nigel, with all his infinite wisdom, said this:

“First of all Mariah, I think you had a very easy thing to do. You’re Native American? (She nods) But I don’t feel that you’ve committed. I just don’t see the angst, I don’t see the feeling, I don’t see the passion. I just see you looking pretty.”

Dear Nigel, I’m sorry that Mariah did not live up to your stereotyped images of what a Native person should be, I’m pretty sure she was doing her best while dressed in a fake-ass outfit that trivializes and stereotypes her culture. And a 12-year-old Powhatan girl is supposed to portray “angst” and “passion”? Do you realize how ludicrous your statements are? She’s somehow supposed to be “better” at playing a fictionalized historic figure because she happens to be the same race? None of the other critiques mentioned anything about the model’s race. They didn’t tell the girl playing Michelle Obama that she could have done better because she happens to be black, and Michelle Obama is black, so why didn’t you channel your inner sassy black First Lady?

It’s just so frustrating. The only lens that millions of viewers of ANTM have to view us (Natives) through is that of stereotypes and false representations–even when faced with a, living, breathing counter-narrative to those stereotypes in Mariah. An educated, reservation-raised, Sahaptin language-speaking Native woman who doesn’t walk around in buckskin and braids, but is still Native (and proud!).

I sure hope this start doesn’t reflect how the rest of the season will go. To her credit, Mariah is taking it all in stride, wants to use her new celebrity to give back to Indian Country, and tried to represent Native peoples in a positive light on the show:

“I felt I couldn’t be crazy or nonchalant about things because I had a whole people on my shoulders,” she said. “I had higher expectations for myself. I wasn’t going to go and be crazy and disrespect people because for Native Americans one of the hugest things is respect.”


“Native Americans haven’t had anybody in the celebrity industry,” she said. “There have been a few native actors – Adam Beach, Irene Bedard – but there’s never been a native so high up in the fashion industry who’s looked at on a celebrity level. People don’t want to listen to you unless you come from a place of power. There are a lot of improvements across Indian country that can be made. I want to start helping out and being a factor.”

Finally, one image that did make me proud, here she is rockin her medallion during the panel judging:

So, thanks ANTM for showing us, once again, how deeply stereotypes and erasure of Native people run in our national narrative.

Adrienne Keene is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a graduate student in Boston, where she studies access to higher education for Native students. In her free time, she blogs about cultural appropriation and use of Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, and images in popular culture, advertising, and everyday life at Native Appropriations.


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  • Doug Smith

    I am glad I came across this blog.  I was pretty amazed at the stupid comment that Nigel made, as well as the other judge, cannot think of her name.  I could not believe Nigel’s comment that she portraying Pocahontas should have been easy.  I took the time to write ANTM, of course no response. 

  • http://www.cheoyleeriviera.com/ Cheoy Lee

    You’re right, it’s a bit rich to expect passion and real feeling from within a faked and stereotyped costume and surrounded by the attitude that the costume *should* prompt those feelings.

  • Anonymous

     ugh I’m so glad for this post.  My boyfriend and I were enraged from the beginning when they were assigned roles.  How did they not know this would be offensive?  And I’m pretty sure that Nigel also said something along the lines of, “You’re not being native american enough.” Ick

    I just do not understand how the producers could think any of this was okay. 

  • http://twitter.com/_Roxie_ Maria

    It’s like they had this outfit in a trunk and they were just waiting for a “non problematic” way to use it.

  • mickinickharp

    I’ve never watched ANTM, so I have no idea how much influence a model does/does not have regarding what he/she wears.  I would like to know what Mariah thought/said when she was given that abomination to wear.  As for the panel’s comments, those are stunning.  What is the difference between the way this young woman was photographed and Disney’s “Peter Pan” film that is generally understood to be uber-racist?

  • Anonymous

    And then there was Nigel’s response via twitter: http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2012/03/update-on-antm-mariahs-gone-but-nigel.html

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    ” George Washington, Elton John, Jackie O, and John Lennon (all white)
    were portrayed by models of color, which I thought was kinda cool.”

    I don’t think it’s cool having a Woman of Color, especially a Black woman, playing a man who held African Americans as slaves.

    Otherwise I totally agree with you. I just don’t expect much from ANTM. Tyra Banks acts pretty clueless on matters of race/ ethnicity. They have already done Blackface on the show at least once. And beside that no model of color has won the show in a few years. ANTM is, at this point, aiming for teen White girls as are all the other shows on the CW. So expect more of this sort of thing.

  • Elton

    Seems to me that Hollywood can’t see people of color as anything but stereotypes.  It’s like they don’t have the vocabulary or concepts to picture the world except through the lens of stereotypes.

    They’re way too comfortable in their complacency.  They just don’t get it!  Why are they so dumb?  How can we fix this?  Do we really have to explain it to them?They see an Indian and immediately think “tomahawk.”  Are they really unable to see or think or imagine beyond their first impulse?  Do they not see something racist, or at the very least unimaginative and uncreative, about this?And by the way, as a normal person, when I see Indians, “tomahawk” is not running through my head.  How do you get to the point where you see someone and stereotypes just start flashing through your mind?  How do you even get through your day?  How can you function in society if you look around and all you see is a list of stereotypes for everyone you meet?

    • Anonymous

       Since Hollywood’s inception it has been governed by white males.  Nothing has changed.

    • Medusa

      Elton- that’s the thing, though, isn’t it? Most white people *do* see people of color as nothing but stereotypes, regardless of whether they are  Hollywood or lowly plebeians like us. But the way I get treated on a daily basis by whites, and have my entire life, and I imagine other POC, no matter where they are in the world, that is exactly what they see. The stereotypes they want to see, rather than the actual humans surrounding them.

    • Jay

      I entirely agree with you. I’m struck by your point about how *uncreative* it is, since we’re talking about people who work in the arts. Even if they won’t reject stereotypes on the basis of being hurtful and inhumane, you might think they’d reject them on the grounds of how boring they are — we’ve certainly seen them all before.

  • http://profiles.google.com/chocolightning Rachel Mark

    I was eye-rolling SO HARD when I watched this episode. If I remember correctly, one of the judges expressed disappointment at the fact that she “failed to capture the spirituality” (paraphrased) of Pocahontas. Y’know, because Native Americans are inherently mystical, exotic beings who are in tune with nature (they paint with all the colors of the wind, ya’ll!), and Mariah failed at getting it right. 

    They judged this girl on falling short of being their stereotypical image of Pocahontas, and that in itself is disgustingly ignorant.

    • Anonymous

      Her spirituality? Oh, god. “I was really expecting an authentic rendition of All the Colors of the Wind, and you didn’t even bring a cuddly animal.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/herbie.hind1 Herbie Hind

    What!?  Thank goodness I don’t own a TV.  

  • Anonymous

    This is why we can’t have nice things!

  • Medusa

    Great article, and I don’t even watch ANTM, but, this FAILS ON SO MANY FUCKING LEVELS.

    • Mickey

      This is not the first time ANTM has race failed.  I recall them having the models represent various racial/ethnic mixtures, regardless of the model’s actual background. The show took heat for that.

      On another season, the models were made up to portray famous couples and a beautiful, dark-skinned Asian Indian model portrayed Oprah and Steadman. She looked really good, but I don’t recall her having to portray an Asian Indian of any sort. I don’t understand why the show had to showcase Mariah’s background in such a stereotypical way.