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Two weeks ago, America’s most visible Native American activist, Russell Means, passed away of esophageal cancer. Means’s work on behalf of the American Indian Movement began in the late 1960s with highly publicized objections to athletic teams’ use of caricature Indians as mascots, and included the bloody 71-day Wounded Knee, South Dakota, standoff of 1973 in which gunfire killed two activists and paralyzed an FBI agent.
Russell Means summed up his lifelong agenda in a controversial, yet apt, quote from his 1996 autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread: “When a woman grabs my braids and says, ‘How cute!’ I grab her breast and say, ‘How cute!’ She never touches me again.”
Today, a Native American activist with a savvy press person might have been persuaded to edit that statement.
It's a curious injustice that in this hyper-PC, sexually and ethnically aware, Glee-era time, Native American culture continues to be blithely appropriated in mainstream pop culture, a whimsical appropriation that occurs quietly but notably in fashion.
The heedless commodification of Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters’ “Navajo print” items and Native-themed spreads in Vogue magazine utilize “non-Native designers, non-Native models, non-Native photographers, non-Native stylists and make-up artists, and non-Native consultants and editors,” points out Chippewa blogger Jessica Metcalfe, a Ph.D. in American Indian Studies, on her excellent website Beyond Buckskin.
Let’s just come full circle: Why does the offensive use of Native imagery remain the last bastion of acceptable racism?
This summer saw clothing company Paul Frank Industries throw a “Dream Catchin’” party. Guests had war paint applied to their faces and drank “Rain Dance Refresher” and “Neon Teepee” cocktails. (Paul Frank later apologized on behalf of his company, claiming he had nothing to do with the event—he also announced an impetus to hire a Native American designer for a new line.)
This week, the band No Doubt, enjoying a comeback after 10 years between albums, pulled the cowboys-and-Indians-themed video for their second single “Looking Hot” after an outcry from YouTube commenters about the offensive imagery: In “Looking Hot,” lead singer Gwen Stefani writhes in a come-hither buckskin-and-feathers outfit as her band mates, dressed like protagonists in a spaghetti Western, tie her up in a provocative position.
On Monday, No Doubt released the following statement:
As a multi-racial band our foundation is built upon both diversity and consideration for other cultures. Our intention with our new video was never to offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history. Although we consulted with Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California, we realize now that we have offended people. We sincerely apologize to the Native American community and anyone else offended by this video. Being hurtful to anyone is simply not who we are.
Because we’ll never know who that ill-advised “expert” was—and the professor probably has tenure anyway, sigh—let’s just come full circle: Why does the offensive use of Native imagery remain the last bastion of acceptable racism?
The trivialization occurs because Native Americans form a minority group that has been ghettoized and marginalized in essentially every socio-political area.
The revenue made from Native designs and goods is in stark contrast to the social status of Natives today, with teen drug abuse levels—particularly meth—higher than any other American demographic, as well as higher overall rates of disease, premature death and a lack of medical coverage.
Furthermore, as of May, rapes on reservations were as much as 12 times higher than the national average, and 65 percent of these were not prosecuted by the Justice Department.
Because the people enduring them are sequestered, these tragic epidemics don’t affect the mass of America. Subsequently there is no en masse push to rectify the sorry legacy of one of our nation’s original wrongs.
It might help if reservation communities were paid a cut from their appropriated designs—or say, Gwen Stefani donated a portion of No Doubt’s album proceeds. These gestures might open up a dialogue toward righting the imbalances that were put on tilt at the foundation of our proud, free land.
Sorry, did I say our land? Happy Thanksgiving!
Should No Doubt have pulled its “Looking Hot” video, or are people being too sensitive? React in COMMENTS.