Nothing Says Native American Heritage Month Like White Girls In Headdresses

By Guest Contributor Sasha Houston Brown

Gwen Stefani in No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” video. Via theinsider.com

There is something insidiously ironic about being American Indian during the fall of the 21st century. It all starts with Columbus Day to mark our “discovery,” then moves right into the “it’s totally not racist to dress up as a hypersexualized Indian” awkward Halloween party, and goes out with a bang on Thanksgiving when we celebrate the survival of the Pilgrims and that harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship forged between colonizers and Indigenous peoples everywhere! However romanticized or factually inaccurate, these holidays happen to be the three days when Native peoples actually enter the mass psyche of American culture.

I don’t know about you, but I usually spend this time of year parading around in my Navajo Hipster panties, feather headdress (on loan from Karlie Kloss and Gwen Stefani), Manifest Destiny T-Shirt and knee-high fringed moccasins made in Taiwan while watching a Redskins game, smoking a pack of American Spirits, and eating genetically modified Butter Ball turkey, because I’m just that traditional.

Perhaps it’s that warm Indian summer weather that seemingly makes non-natives so eager to sport culturally demeaning faux Indian apparel and legitimize it under the guise of “ignorance” or “appreciation.” After all, it’’s totally cool to be an oblivious racist these days. Whatever the case, there have been unusually high rates of playing Indian this season.

Karlie Kloss at the Victoria’s Secret 2012 runway show. This outfit was edited off of the television broadcast of the show. Via starcasm.net.

A lot of the recent coverage and commentary on cultural appropriation, be it No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” video, the Gap controversy, or the Victoria’s Secret runway show, has emphasized the lack of education surrounding Native history and a greater need for sensitivity toward Native culture. While I certainly agree that invisibility continues to shroud Native issues and that there is a tremendous lack of education when it comes to the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, I think that the issue of why these circumstances exist is often overlooked. Why are Americans so clueless when it comes to the history and contemporary reality of Native peoples? What is it about this particular narrative that threatens the collective American psyche?

To be honest, while angered and outraged, I am not shocked about the most recent occurrences of Native cultural appropriation and denigration. Racism, dehumanization, and intellectual-property theft are not new to Native Americans. We have been confronting them in some form or another beginning with the Doctrine of Discovery and the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Imperialism and the genocide of Indigenous people have been justified under the premise of progress and growth and in the process our lands, cultures, and bodies have all been portrayed as inherently violable.

The sexual conquest and deliberate dehumanization of Native women has been used as a colonizing tactic for centuries. Sexual violence perpetrated against Native women was a strategy of domination used in the Indian Wars and as we can see, this type of mentality of domination persists today. Native women, stripped of their humanity, are still objectified as a sexual fetish or exotic other. In fact, these kind of derogatory stereotypes have become a fixture of both American mythology and pop culture. What is different today is that, in the digital age of Instagram and Twitter, you can see a picture of Karlie Kloss donning a feather headdress on your iPhone the moment she starts strutting the runway.

Actress Mary Kate Olsen. Via ew.com

Recent acts of cultural appropriation do not occur in a vacuum and should not be viewed as isolated instances separate from their social and historic contexts. It is far more complex than hipsters in Navajo panties and pop stars in headdresses. These contemporary instances of cultural appropriation and stereotypes are really byproducts of ongoing colonialism, systemic racism, and the deliberately false narratives perpetuated about Native peoples by white society. Cultural commodification and dehumanized stereotypes extended far beyond any single corporation, retail franchise, or celebrity.

Despite what dominant society and mainstream media say, Native culture is a vibrant and living culture. We are not a relic of the past, a theme or a trend; we are not a style or costume; we are not mascots, noble savages or romantic fictional entities. We are human beings and, despite all odds, we have survived. As sovereign Nations, Indigenous peoples have the right to speak for ourselves and not have dominant Euro-American society project and profit off of an artificial and socially constructed image of “Indian” identity.

November has been declared Native American Heritage month, and I think this would be an opportune time for corporate executives and members of the fashion and music industries to come visit Indian country and actually meet some of the people they are attempting to mimic. There are 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States, each with their own distinct culture, language, and history, and each with multitude of artists who could teach them a lot about beauty and dignity. Gwen, Karlie, Ke$ha and all you other culture vultures, maybe you should leave your synthetic headdresses at home.

And by the way, I am sorry if any of you are offended by me calling you out for being offensive.

Sasha Houston Brown is a member of the Santee Sioux tribe of Nebraska and holds a BA degree in Sociology and Anthropology from Carleton College. Sasha has spent her life in Minneapolis and has been involved in numerous environmental and social justice initiatives locally and nationally. She currently works at Minneapolis Community and Technical College as an advisor to the American Indian students on campus.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=780144973 Renée Clancy

    Never understood how they teach the 50 states but never US territories nor the Nations, ok 565 might be a bit much even for the most adamant geography buff at least the major ones, especially the ones “within” their own state! And why don’t they have these on official maps?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=780144973 Renée Clancy

    Never understood how they teach the 50 states but never US territories nor the Nations, ok 565 might be a bit much even for the most adamant geography buff at least the major ones, especially the ones “within” their own state! And why don’t they have these on official maps?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this piece. I have a serious aversion to the whole “Thanksgiving” myth and resist participating/celebrating as much as I can. I appreciate that in the Spanish-speaking world it’s called Día de la raza instead, which at least acknowledges the colonial baggage that Latin America carries to this day. Here in the states, where we can barely bring our voices to speak the word “empire,” we are too far behind in the process of decolonizing our minds of this junk.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/R44P4HQN74IHTCYVXGWSKT6OOQ Miss

    What’s sad is that they see nothing wrong with it. Oh to be culturally privileged. I do give credit to No Doubt for at least being open to know why they offended and apologized. Not many will do that in fear of revoking their “freedom of speech”. How is freedom of speech more important than being a good considerate person?

  • Bernadette Durbin

    Back in the mid-90s, I worked as a summer camp counselor for a Boy Scout camp. My second summer, I became the Handicraft director, which included the merit badge Indian Lore (because there was nowhere else to put it.) The merit badge book was… shall we say… problematic, mostly because it was written in the 1960s and had language which insinuated that, among other things, ‘Indians were better off now that they’d accepted help and moved to reservations’. Thankfully, they revised the book entirely in 1997 and made it something that was much closer to a history merit badge.

    At any rate, this was in California, and most of the kids signing up for this merit badge were the youngest of the scouts, around 11 years old. They not only had no clue that there were Native Americans still around anywhere, but that there were Native Americans in their own home state. And since this was a camp on location, it wasn’t as though we could contact and visit a community (one of the options in both the old and new versions of the book.) So the whole next year I collected and photocopied articles about contemporary doings of various Native American groups—mostly in the Pacific and Inland Northwest, since that’s where I was going to college. And… I was so naïve… I actually expected these 11-year-olds to read some of them. *sigh*

    At some point, when my kids are old enough, I’m going to sign up as a merit badge counselor for that badge again. Just long enough to talk a local Native American into teaching it. ‘Cause really, it needs to be done well.

  • http://richardzanesmith.wordpress.com/ Sohahiyoh

    Its a common practice of Conquerors to mount heads on the walls, or wear artifacts of the conquered. Think Methodist missionary Col. Chivington who ordered the mass killing and then the mutilation of women and children to make leather pouches from their body parts. Is that being extreme? maybe…but today STILL exists the gummy residue of Colonization when grandchildren of colonizers say : “get over it! we are just honoring you..(whether you like it or not) …in our own way.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/perry.brown.90 Perry Brown

    DITTO!

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these companies/celebrities/sports teams actually believed they were paying Native Americans a “compliment” by publicizing their false, perverse notion of what Native cultures/peoples mean to said companies/celebrities/sports teams. They might wonder why they’re being blasted for regarding Indians as being “brave warriors” and “sexy Native princesses”. And it truly is shameful how pervasively those false tales of American history get perpetuated through American mainstream media and education.

  • http://twitter.com/6other jana brubaker

    Intellectual and very much real property theft. Dump the final apology sentence, as you are not responsible for the feelings of anger that might be stimulated in an ignorant colonizer, otherwise beautifully written and insightful, thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/6other jana brubaker

    Intellectual and very much real property theft. Dump the final apology sentence, as you are not responsible for the feelings of anger that might be stimulated in an ignorant colonizer, otherwise beautifully written and insightful, thank you.

  • Lauren Wetterhahn

    Right on. I especially love it when said “culture vultures” respond when confronted “Hey, but I’m 1/32nd Cherokee. I’m just celebrating my heritage!” Ugh. Give me a freaking break.

  • Lauren Wetterhahn

    Right on. I especially love it when said “culture vultures” respond when confronted “Hey, but I’m 1/32nd Cherokee. I’m just celebrating my heritage!” Ugh. Give me a freaking break.

    • CC

      And I hate it when people say things like that when I really am 3/16th Cherokee! From East Tennessee (Tanasi, that is). Just because you look white doesn’t mean that the culture isn’t in your family. Do any of you eat venison every Thanksgiving a family member killed a few days ago???? Any of you know the story of the eternal flame or where the last Cherokee capital was located? Do you know who chief Vann was and where his house still sits today??? Do you have any clue who Dragging Canoe or Nancy (Nanyehi, formally) Ward are??? No?? OH, then STFU.

    • George Neville

      “Hey, but I’m 1/32nd Cherokee. I’m just celebrating my heritage!” Ugh. Give me a freaking break.

      This is just as much a problem as the exploitation. “You aren’t Cherokee unless you are on the official White man’s rolls.” or “You don’t have enough blood to participate”. I’ve got news for you, I’m 1/16 to 1/32 of most of the races in this country. Why? I’m an American brewed in the Melting Pot and my ancestors loved to mix it up. According to your guideline, I don’t have the right to celebrate or explore ANY of those cultural roots because I’m *only* 1/32. And yes, I AM 1/32 Cherokee and 1/32 Chickasaw.

      Sad to see people discriminating against their own blood. Oh wait, *1/32* of their own blood.

      Sorry Great Great Grandma, apparently I must disown you and your culture because I don’t pass the cultural litmus test Lauren has decided upon.

  • mkahlo

    This is such a frustrating trend. Every time I point out to someone that things like this are offensive, I always get the eye-roll, like “here she goes again — the p.c. police”. I do not understand how people don’t get that things like this are off limits.

  • mkahlo

    This is such a frustrating trend. Every time I point out to someone that things like this are offensive, I always get the eye-roll, like “here she goes again — the p.c. police”. I do not understand how people don’t get that things like this are off limits.

    • Jeri

      Oh my goodness. I am told that all the time when I try to be a decent human being. People just don’t how it effects othr people.

    • Jeri

      Oh my goodness. I am told that all the time when I try to be a decent human being. People just don’t how it effects othr people.