Racism is Trending

The exploitation of Native American culture has become explosive throughout fashion and the media

Halloween – the one day of the year where everyone gets to be someone they are not.  Stores open with a plethora of costumes from monstrous creatures, movie characters, celebrities, and animals.  But what is meant to be a harmless holiday of fun has turned into a nightmare for other cultures. While walking through the aisles, no one can escape the hordes racially themed costumes – most notably the ones depicting Native Americans.

For less than 50 dollars, children and adults can buy stereotypically designed Native American outfits, many of them being overly sexual or depicting alcoholism or violence with demoralizing names, such as “PocaHottie.”

According to a report released by Amnesty International, Native American women are at least 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in the United States, and at least 86 percent of the reported assaults are committed by non-Native American men.

And according to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11.7 percent of deaths among Native Americans between 2001 and 2005 were alcohol-related, while the percentage for the rest of the United States was 3.3.

The depictions of these problems through the use of Halloween costumes lessens the seriousness and awareness of them to the point of it becoming a joke.

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the “adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards, and behavior from one culture or subculture by another.  It is generally applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture.”

The use of sacred Native American items, such as headdresses, war paint, and feathers in white culture lessens the meaning of these items and contributes to systematic racism.  According to Gene Fracek, a retired teacher from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, headdresses and other sacred items are not just for design or fashion.  The feathers on headdresses are representative of something specific for each tribe.

“Each feather stood for something, so I would be embarrassed to wear one because I have not earned the right to wear anything with that many feathers,” said Fracek.  “But people are wearing them and not understanding what it is.”

Native Americans have been the targets of racism, genocide, and oppression for centuries.  Tribes were killed, land was stolen, children were taken and forced into American schooling, and all Native people were forced to give up their culture and assimilate into American culture while being shoved into low-income reservations.

In American culture, everything is for the taking, including cultures we continue to oppress, making them tools and resources to earn money and denying them any power or privilege over their own culture.

According to Fracek, cultural appropriation promotes stereotypes about how Native Americans are supposed to look, live, and act.  One of the most popular items appropriated from Native Americans are headdresses.  Headdresses are seen as “typical” Native American wear, even though not all tribes wore headdresses, such as the Cherokees.

“People want Indians to look like Indians, so even the Cherokees are wearing headdresses,” said Fracek.  “That’s not who they are, but it’s the perception people want to see.”

But, unfortunately, this appropriation has expanded for more than one day out of 365.  Teenagers and young adults hold “Cowboy and Indian” parties, sports teams are named after Native tribes, and the monster that is the world of fashion has devoured Native American culture.  Racism is now trending.

Controversies in Fashion

Type “Native American” in the search engine on many blogs, including Tumblr, and you’ll most likely find pictures of half-naked white women wearing headdresses, along with clothing lines from fashion retailers featuring “Navajo” inspired prints.

Most recently, the clothing store Urban Outfitters has been sued by the Navajo Nation for violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in February 2012.  This makes it illegal to suggest that goods are of authentic Indian manufacture when they are not.  The store came out with a line of clothing and accessories featuring earth tones, feathers, fringes, beads, and anything that looked somewhat Indian, and stamped the word “Navajo” in the title to market it to white teenage girls.

“I think that it’s sort of a reinterpretation of the past and the exotic,” said Drake University anthropology professor, Brian Adams-Thies.  “We see a lot of that in terms of attempting to sell products that have images of other cultures.  What we see happening at Urban Outfitters with their Navajo pattern merchandise is a re-working of the exotic, and what we perceive to be historical culture.”

Items featured in Urban Outfitters clothing line included “Navajo Printed Hipster Panty” and “Navajo Print Wrapped Fabric Flask,” which is particularly questionable because of the alcohol problems reservations face.

“What I find interesting is how this re-interpretation divorces the original meaning of these products,” said Adams-Thies.  “Navajo weaving has a very specific relationship to Navajo culture and identity.  So, when Urban Outfitters takes those designs and reworks and decontextualize them, it’s an insult to original Navajo culture.”

Urban Outfitters has since removed their Navajo inspired items from their website, but that has not stopped other companies from appropriating.

“I think the draw to market through the exotic is so powerful,” said Adams-Thies.  “That’s what sells, especially for a middle class that believes that in order to be interesting, they have to consume the ‘exotic other.’  If you go to a furniture store and it says ‘sofa,’ you’re going to be like ‘okay,’ but if it says ‘the Madrid style Spanish sofa in exotic fuchsia,’ then you’re like ‘oh my gosh!” and buy it.”

Being Native in America

“Growing up I always thought it was funny going to places like Yellowstone and the Black Hills, and going into all of the shops that have “Native Trinkets” made in China that people are dumb enough to buy,” said Kenzie Adams, a full-blooded Northern Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.  “Someone is going to buy a dream catcher made in Taiwan and hang it in his or her house as their native souvenir from the summer.”

At nine months old, a Caucasian family adopted and raised Adams 1 ½ hours away from the reservation.  His adoptive mother divorced and remarried a man who was raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is very poor.  Growing up in two of the poorest reservations in the country shaped Adams’ thoughts on cultural appropriation.

“Growing up and going through the education system knowing that I was Native and learning about American history was always weird for me,” said Adams.  “I always wondered why there was never any comprehensive history of the people that were here before white settlers so bravely and gallantly started fighting and killing for land.  I never understood why Manifest Destiny and the killing or caging of everything that stood in the path of this was glorified, to the point where I almost started to believe at a young age that ‘Why wouldn’t we do that?’  I think the way children are taught the one-sided heroic endeavors of white settlers vs. the Natives has everything to do with complacent views of cultural appropriation.” 

Why is this still happening?

Cultural appropriation has been happening for many years, and no matter how many people try to explain why it’s wrong; it’s still a problem.  Why aren’t people listening?

Both Adams-Thies and Vibeke Petersen, a sociolofy professor at Drake University, believe that part of this is because we live in a capitalist society where we believe everything is ours for the taking.

“We want the feathers, but we don’t want the spam,” said Petersen, speaking about how Americans tend to ignore the negative aspects of society, such as the high poverty rates of Native Americans.  “We cherry-pick a culture, but we don’t want to know the mortality rate.”

People of color have been forced to assimilate into white culture for hundreds of years.  Because of this, many white Americans feel as though they have no culture, and therefore steal from others to feel more exotic and different.  Fashion companies realize that “the other” is profitable and use it as a marketing tool.

“Capitalism is always looking for the new and exotic,” said Adams-Thies.  “It’s such a draw that they essentially hope that the ‘exotic other’ will be quiet so they can take their stuff and no one will say anything.  But with the rise of the information age, in many ways, that’s becoming more and more impossible.  People are aware that their culture is being appropriated, and they stand up against it, which they should.

But it isn’t realized that this is a form of racism because in American society it is believed that racism doesn’t exist anymore when in reality, it does.  White people have privilege in our society, and therefore don’t see the systematic racism that happens when we appropriate other cultures.

As seen with the Urban Outfitters lawsuit, Natives have started to take a stand against cultural appropriation, but according to Adams, it is hard to get people who have been oppressed for 100 years to stand up for themselves or be heard.

But the introduction of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in the ‘90s has since helped Native Americans take a stand and sell their authentic merchandise against the fakes.  “That has really helped Indian people as a group because most people, if they have the money, would rather spend it on something that’s authentic.  And there’s no way to tell authenticity other than to have some documentation that says ‘this was made by an Indian.’”

What is in store for cultural appropriation and the future?

Even though there have been more strides to end cultural appropriation, it has been happening for many years, and will most likely stick around for many more.

Fracek noted that cultural appropriation is an issue that doesn’t impact people every day.  Someone standing up against fashion isn’t going to gain as much support as someone fighting for their right to vote.

And the need to market and earn money overrides the voices of those who do stand up against cultural appropriation in our capitalist society.

“I think that it’s a way to market stuff, so it’s not going anywhere,” said Adams-Thies.  “There will constantly be this fight between groups that are being appropriated and the appropriators.”