Every day, aboriginal culture is borrowed, copied, dressed up or watered down. Is that art? Or is it stealing? Appropriation, it turns out, is all about the attitude.

By Samia Madwar  June 1, 2014


Last fall, two exhibits opened in Montreal, both centred on aboriginal themes. Beat Nation, a multimedia presentation by aboriginal artists who’d mixed hip-hop culture with their own iconography, opened at the Museum of Modern Art on October 16. The next day—purely by unfortunate coincidence—the Museum of Fine Arts boutique unveiled Inukt, a new product line featuring aboriginally-flavoured clothing, accessories and homewares.

Beat Nation was an unapologetic, boundary-crossing exploration of tradition and modernity, and largely a critical success. Inukt was a confused, haphazard jumble, and a public relations disaster.

Like its mock, made-up name, few of Inukt’s products bear any resemblance to Inuit art. This April, the website advertised everything from T-shirts and tote bags to throw pillows and arm-chairs, adorned with portraits of random Plains Indian chiefs, bought from an online stock image gallery. Other T-shirts feature west-coast imagery—though the items themselves have Anishinaabe names. And then there are the “Eskimo doll” key-chains, miniature versions of embarrassing kitsch holdovers from a less sensitive time, their survivors now scattered across dusty thrift store shelves around the country. “The cultural mishmash here hurts my head,” wrote Chelsea Vowel, a Montreal-based Métis blogger.

Inukt’s designer, Nathalie Benarroch, is Canadian; a self-described fashionista who’d just returned to her home country after 23 years in Paris when she launched Inukt. “I saw this country with a totally new outlook than the one I had when I left,” she states on her website ( “Canada is beautiful and has an overall good reputation, but it still lacked glamour … Hence came the idea to renew with the history, culture and codes of Canada, while reinterpreting them fashionably, giving them a contemporary edge and exposing choice artists and artisans that are the New Canada.”

Her attempt to glamourize, however well-intentioned, didn’t fly. In fact, it crash-landed pretty much out of the gate. Within hours of Inukt’s opening, Benarroch had received so much flak on her Twitter and Facebook accounts, many from First Nations critics, that she had to shut them down.

“Some people wrote whole tracts on [her social media accounts], explaining how exactly [Inukt’s products] encroached on their culture, and yet still Benarroch was uncomprehending,” says Isa Tousignant, the reporter who covered the controversy in the Montreal Gazette.

Five hours after Tousignant’s article was published, the museum boutique withdrew its Inukt products from sale. What went wrong? Lots, and Benarroch was only a small part of it.

The appropriation of aboriginal culture has been going on since first contact. In some ways, it’s part of living in a multi-cultural world; that’s why you don’t have to be Inuit to paddle a kayak, or First Nations to wear moccasins.

But there are limits. Sylvie Laroche, manager of Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts boutique, claimed she didn’t see anything wrong with Inukt: “It’s tourist season now, and Europeans are nuts for this type of product,” she told The Gazette at the time.

“The free market idea doesn’t correspond to cultural responsibility in lots of ways,” says Tania Willard, curator of Beat Nation. “We can say people shouldn’t do that and it’s not respectful, but if people are buying it, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Inukt is hardly the worst offender. The headdress, a spiritual, sacred symbol for Plains Indians cultures, is one of the most controversial cultural objects out there. Headdresses are earned, not bought; eagle feathers are symbols of honour, and aboriginal activists in the U.S. compare warbonnets to army veterans’ medals. So when “hipster headdresses” became trendy, or when H&M Canada released a line of faux headdresses (featuring pink, green and purple feathers) last year, it was a problem. When Victoria’s Secret had lingerie models in headdresses in 2012, it was a problem. This past March, when cheerleaders at the University of Regina posted a photo to Instagram that revealed the team dressed as “cowgirls” and “Indians,” it was misappropriation, verging on racism.

Today, these transgressions don’t slip by without an uproar. “We have gone through the atrocities to survive and ensure our way of life continues,” Navajo Nation spokesman Erny Zah said in an interview following the Victoria’s Secret fiasco. “Any mockery, whether it’s Halloween, Victoria’s Secret—they are spitting on us. They are spitting on our culture, and it’s upsetting.” For the record, H&M withdrew their line with apologies. The cheerleaders were reprimanded and sent to cultural sensitivity classes. Victoria’s Secret also issued an apology, stating, “We absolutely had no intention to offend anyone.” Maybe so, but that naiveté is part of the issue. And Inukt is no exception.

“Canada uses aboriginal culture to sell itself or exotify itself,” says Tania Willard. “[Benarroch] said she was celebrating Canadian culture. And Canadian culture is in some ways an appropriation of aboriginal culture, and that’s a problematic history, and one that, today, we’re trying to right.” It’s not that non-native people shouldn’t be inspired by native art, says Willard. In fact, she has no harsh words for Benarroch herself. “The main thing there is to treat those designs with respect … and respect is acknowledging the original artist and acknowledging the original use of that work.”

With Inukt’s moccasins, Benarroch did manage to show some respect: she worked with Wendake, an aboriginal-owned business from the Huron-Wendat First Nation in Quebec, and mentions them on her website. Today, Benarroch says, she’s more sensitive to the issue: her latest designs lean away from First Nations symbols, instead using generic Canadian icons such as the maple leaf. (“Is that okay?” She asks plaintively when we speak on the phone.)

“That doesn’t mean other products in their line aren’t problematic,” says Willard. “I think the artwork [Inukt] is using for its clothing line should be properly credited as well. And I think they’d be more successful if they did that.”

It’s tricky. People take it for granted that aboriginal culture is free to imitate, steal and exploit. Then again isn’t that, rightly or wrongly, the way all culture evolves?

“Art is something we are inspired by and respond to, and we want that to be there,” says Willard. “I think that’s what makes art beautiful, the exchange in it. But how we do that—I think we can do that with a level of respect.”

But in the world of art, design and fashion, there are no rules. Lines are meant to be crossed. Should aboriginal culture, then, be off-limits?

Pallulaaq Friesen models an amauti made by Charlotte St. John; white inner duffles by Saskia Curley; mittens by Shepa Palluq; headband by Pelagie Nicole; kamiks provided by Friesen’s aunt. Photo by Dave Brosha

Pallulaaq Friesen models an amauti made by Charlotte St. John; white inner duffles by Saskia Curley; mittens by Shepa Palluq; headband by Pelagie Nicole; kamiks provided by Friesen’s aunt. Photo by Dave Brosha

Amautis, Inuit women’s coats featuring characteristically wide hoods to carry babies in, aren’t what most people would consider sacred, but in terms of cultural identity, they might as well be. Whether they’re made from seal, caribou or eider duck skins depends on the region, and a young mother’s amauti is different from that of a widow. For many Inuit seamstresses, the patterns they use are part of their family heritage.

So when Donna Karan, the fashion designer and creator of DKNY, sent representatives to the western Arctic in 1999 to buy up Inuit garments, including amautis—presumably to inspire a future fashion collection—a million red flags flew up. Until then, amautis hadn’t gone the way of the ubiquitous, mass-produced parka; for the most part, you could only buy authentic amautis in the Arctic.

Pauktuutit, a Nunavut organization representing Inuit women, launched a letter-writing campaign to Donna Karan. Putting designer amautis on the shelf, they said, would erode a vital Inuit artform.

It worked: DKNY never released an amauti collection. But the case raised some urgent questions. What if it happened again? For many Inuit seamstresses, making garments such as amautis is essential to their livelihood. In 2001, Pauktuutit launched the Amauti Project, establishing the garment as a case study on how to protect Inuit culture from future threats. The workshop concluded, “All Inuit own the amauti collectively, though individual seamstresses may use particular designs that are passed down between generations.”

That’s still not enough, legally speaking, to stop DKNY, or any other designer for that matter. Since 2001, Pauktuutit has focused on intellectual property law to protect cultural objects. But though it and other Inuit organizations are active in the World Intellectual Property Organization and have been lobbying for over a decade, it’s still the federal government that decides the official policy.

And the federal government’s position so far doesn’t help much. In response to a WIPO questionnaire on the protection of, among other things, aboriginal culture, in 2002, Industry Canada stated: “[Some] aspects of folkloric expressions, which are in the public domain, are available without restrictions and thus serve to enrich the fabric of Canada’s multicultural society.”

Since 2002, that hasn’t changed. Even if it does, it might only create more problems.


Photo of Tanya Tagaq by Patrick Kane

Tanya Tagaq defies tradition. A fiercely talented trailblazer from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, she shook the world stage with her unique brand of throat-singing in 2001; since then, she’s collaborated with Bjork and the Kronos Quartet, and released two albums as well as a live recording (listen to her latest album, Animism, here).

While throat-singing is usually performed by two women, she sings solo. Her guttural energy has been labelled as primal, orchestral and free jazz. You wouldn’t want to restrict that. But despite her critical acclaim worldwide, not everyone back home approves.

“When I first started singing,” she says, “I was accused by fellow Inuit of appropriation.”

She was in her 20s. “I was putting it to music and doing it by myself, and there was a massive backlash … There were people who created a Facebook page to get me to stop. I heard Pauktuutit had a problem with me. All that was really hurtful.”

To her critics—most of them from an older generation, and, she adds, most of them never having been to one of her shows— she’d adulterated an artform that, like the amauti, is deeply rooted in Inuit culture. To Tagaq, what she’s doing is clearly not misappropriation: she is Inuk, and so her music is still Inuit art.

“I’m not trying to talk for everyone,” she says. “I’ve been though a lot of the stereotypical ideas of what Inuit people go through, so [throat-singing] is like protest music to me. I didn’t want to stand with a partner, nicely making some sounds … I don’t want to sound victimy to people.”

She recalls a non-Inuit woman from Cambridge Bay, Tagaq’s hometown, who grew up in the North and has taken up solo throat-singing. “I thought it was so cute,” Tagaq says, genuinely pleased. “If you’re from the North, that’s good. If you’re born and raised up there, and you’re part of the culture, then good, go ahead. But if you’re from Montreal and you’re just trying to sound cool, then no, that’s not OK.”

For artists venturing into aboriginal culture, “You need to make sure that you’re respecting the people,” she says, “and if one person [from that culture] has a problem with it, then it shouldn’t be done.” But what of her own critics?

Sometimes, she concedes, you can’t win. If her non-Inuit friend in Cambridge Bay had been the trailblazer, championing solo throat-singing, “I would’ve been fine with it,” says Tagaq. “But I think other people might not have been. The people who had a problem with me would’ve had a way bigger problem with her.”


Photo courtesy of Jeneen Frei-Njootli

Photo courtesy of Jeneen Frei-Njootli

To Jeneen Frei-Njootli, a young Vuntut Gwitchin artist from Old Crow, Yukon, the very idea of tradition is flexible. Consider what her own culture has adopted: coffee whitener, snowmobiles, fiddling. “Why can’t coffee whitener be a Vuntut Gwitchin food?”

There are some Vuntut Gwitchin stories she’d like to represent in her performances, installations and sculptures. But “because I don’t know them well enough, I am not allowed to use them,” she says. “That can also be counter-productive, because I’m a young person, I want to learn more about [these stories]. I want to interact with them and feel like they’re my own too. At this point, it’s really important to have as few barriers as possible for people who want to be knowledge-holders.”

Through her art, she hopes to lower those barriers. But being a cultural ambassador, she says, has its downsides. “It’s exhausting,” she says. As a student at Emily Carr School of Design, she often became the designated aboriginal expert, instead of getting to talk about her own work.

On a daily basis, she finds herself confronting people who, for instance, find it acceptable to wear feathered headdresses to parties. “How do you teach people the complexities of a situation … without alienating them? Talking about cultural appropriation in the bathroom of a bar is the worst way to learn.”

In the end, it shouldn’t be an artist’s burden to teach the world about cultural sensitivity. But for now, it’s emerging artists like Jeneen Frei-Njootli, established performers like Tanya Tagaq, and active curators like Tania Willard who are helping explore the boundaries of cultural appropriation and exchange, and nudging people toward the latter. At the same time, they’re challenging their own communities to embrace change. It’s up to the public to follow through.

Aboriginal culture “is not stagnant,” says Frei-Njootli. “It evolves and it grows. And I want to be a part of that.”

Blog: Open Letter to the Pocahotties

The annotated version

October 9, 2013


As part of my Halloween series, I’d like to try something a little different. The last couple of days, my 2011 post, “Open Letter to the Pocahotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween,” has started to make the rounds again. The first time I posted it, it caused such a firestorm I had to shut down comments (after it hit something like 500), and I even had to write a follow up post clarifying and confronting some of my own hesitancies with the post. I read it now, two years later, and my reaction is a little different–I stand by my words, and am still very confused as to how this particular post still stirs so much vitrol and hate toward me as a person. It’s started up again, which apparently is now an annual tradition. Here are a couple of the more benign samples from twitter–I actually got called the c-word by one troll today over the post–if you’re interested.

So I thought I’d re-post the original letter, with some annotations and commentary, and let’s figure out together what it is about my language that causes white folks to get real, real mad and defensive, shall we? Yes, I guess I’m performing a rhetorical analysis, on myself. I’m writing a dissertation right now, remember? I’m in crazy academic mode and I can’t get out. Original post in block quotes, thoughts below each.

Dear Person that decided to dress up as an Indian for Halloween,

Ok, pretty basic start. Notice it doesn’t say “white person,” it doesn’t say “racist person,” just person.

I was going to write you an eloquent and well-reasoned post today about all the reasons why it’s not ok to dress up as a Native person for Halloween–talk about the history of “playing Indian” in our country, point to the dangers of stereotyping and placing of Native peoples as mythical, historical creatures, give you some articles to read, hope that I could change your mind by dazzling you with my wit and reason–but I can’t. I can’t, because I know you won’t listen, and I’m getting so tired of trying to get through to you.

That’s 100% honest. The person that decided to dress up as an Indian probably isn’t going to listen to me. But those links actually *go* places. Places where you can read about why this is wrong. Where you can educate yourself. So if you read that paragraph and were like “oh crap, I don’t know any of this”–maybe now it’s time for you to click those. I’ll wait.

I just read the comments on this post at Bitch Magazine, a conversation replicated all over the internet when people of color are trying to make a plea to not dress up as racist characters on Halloween. I felt my chest tighten and tears well up in my eyes, because even with Kjerstin’s well researched and well cited post, people like you are so caught up in their own privilege, they can’t see how much this affects and hurts their classmates, neighbors and friends.

Again, this is actually what happened. I read that post at Bitch and got so frustrated and sad in my office. It’s really, really hard to hear all of the same arguments over and over and over and feel the actual weight of being silenced–because if people were listening, then it wouldn’t be the same mountain to climb every. damn. year. But oh sh*t, I used the word “racist” and the word “privilege”–this is where it starts to go downhill for people. People shut. down. when they hear those two words, especially in the same paragraph. I’ve learned that through the years. I really am pretty sparse with the use of “racist” on the blog, despite the fact that everything I write about on here is racism. Just had to get that out there. But remember the context where I’m writing this post. I was tired, I was sad, I was frustrated. I didn’t feel like dealing with the usual tone-down-don’t-scare-people-off editing I often do. Did you know I do that? Cause I do. Also, notice that I’m appealing to your emotion right now in this paragraph of the post. I’m asking you to think about your classmates, neighbors, and friends. Real people. I don’t know if that scared people too?

I already know how our conversation would go. I’ll ask you to please not dress up as a bastardized version of my culture for Halloween, and you’ll reply that it’s “just for fun” and I should “get over it.” You’ll tell me that you “weren’t doing it to be offensive” and that “everyone knows real Native Americans don’t dress like this.” You’ll say that you have a “right” to dress up as “whatever you damn well please.” You’ll remind me about how you’re “Irish” and the “Irish we’re oppressed too.” Or you’ll say you’re “German”, and you “don’t get offended by people in Lederhosen.”

The most hilarious and ironic part of the response to this post is that I got every single one of these phrases, pretty much verbatim, in the comments. It was like folks didn’t even actually *read* the post, just got to the part where I said “racist” and “privilege” in the same sentence and skipped to the comments. You’re not original. Hate to break it to you. And I don’t see why that unoriginality isn’t seen as a problem to the people who repeat these phrases over and over.

But you don’t understand what it feels like to be me. I am a Native person. You are (most likely) a white person. You walk through life everyday never having the fear of someone mis-representing your people and your culture. You don’t have to worry about the vast majority of your people living in poverty, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, hunger, and unemployment caused by 500+ years of colonialism and federal policies aimed at erasing your existence. You don’t walk through life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don’t represent who you are at all. You don’t know what it’s like to care about something so deeply and know at your core that it’s so wrong, and have others in positions of power dismiss you like you’re some sort of over-sensitive freak.

Ok, this is where sh*t hits the fan. You guys. 1) Anywhere in this paragraph does it say that *all* white people don’t know any sort of struggle? no. 2) Anywhere in this paragraph does it say that all white people are evil? no. But that seems to be the take-away for a lot of folks. I am relating my experiences as a Native person. I DO walk through life everyday fearing the moment when I turn a corner and am confronted with an egregious stereotype of my people. I AM 100% guaranteed every. single. day. to see a mis-representation of my culture. I DO worry about the majority of my people struggling–real struggle–everyday, and I know that the root cause of all of that struggle is colonialism. That’s not an exaggeration. The current state of Native peoples is a direct and ongoing result of colonialism. Colonization by white people. I didn’t realize that was such a remarkable fact to people. But it is a fact–one that’s not actually open for debate. And, ok,  I’ll concede with the last line that you as a non-Native person can conceivably care very deeply about something and have others in power dismiss you.

I’ll also concede that using the rhetorical strategy of “you don’t know,” while possibly effective at making a bid for your emotions, is also probably the wrong way to do it, because it causes people to immediately say “you don’t know me! you don’t know what I feel and think!”–you’re right. I don’t know you. But I do know my experience.

You are in a position of power. You might not know it, but you are. Simply because of the color of your skin, you have been afforded opportunities and privilege, because our country was built on a foundation of white supremacy. That’s probably a concept that’s too much for you to handle right now, when all you wanted to do was dress up as a PocaHottie for Halloween, but it’s true.

This again, is where we dig deeper into the words that make a lot of white folks lose their sh*t. I can’t unpack the whole world of white supremacy and privilege in a couple of paragraphs, so I’ll just scratch the surface here. I first would like to take another moment to remind all of you readers that I, too, have white privilege. I don’t hide it. I’ve got light skin and light eyes and 90% of people would look at me and say “oh hey, look, a white person.” So lemme talk to you, white-ish person to white person. Just because someone points out our privilege, and points out that we get benefits because of it, does not mean 1. That we didn’t “deserve” any accolade, opportunity, or accomplishment we’ve received. 2. That we should feel guilty for our privilege 3. That we are racist, bad people. All it means is that we need to stop and think about how messed up it is that we live in a society that was founded on the backs of black and brown folks and how unfair it is to all of us that we still live in that society, and then? *Do* something about it.

So when I’m telling you as the reader in this paragraph that you are in a position of power simply because you’re white, I’m not saying you haven’t worked hard, I’m not saying you haven’t struggled, I’m not saying that there aren’t white people who are in desperate and shitty situations right this very moment. I’m saying that white people, in general, are the people with all the power in our society, and that we live in a society that–generally–favors those with white skin. Yes, we’ve got a black president, but he’s also half white (ha). But really, think about it. And how did white people get that power? Through attempting to eradicate Native Americans (to gain resources) and enslaving Black Americans (to make money from those resources). Again, these are facts. I’m not making this up right now. This is a simple history lesson. But again,to reiterate, am I saying you are a very bad person simply because you are white? No.

I am not in a position of power. Native people are not in positions of power. By dressing up as a fake Indian, you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us. That should worry you.

This is the part where readers are confronted with the results of that privilege we’re talking about. “Oh sheeit, I’ve got this power I didn’t ask for and now you’re telling me that it’s oppressing people?!?” And yes, I mentioned I have white privilege, but I’m also a Native person, so I’ve got this complicated privilege/non privilege thing going on. It’s messy. But that’s an aside.

People usually have a couple of reactions when confronted with these facts of privilege/oppression. 1. They get super defensive, back to the “you don’t know me! How DARE you say I’m oppressing someone! You don’t know the *intentions* behind my costume choice! My ancestors weren’t even HERE during the founding of the country. That was 500 years ago, why can’t you just get over it!” which, judging by the mail and comments I get, is the top response. But more ideally, 2. They get super uncomfortable, and say “yeah, that does worry me. crap. I feel embarrassed that I’ve gone through my life not even realizing this is a problem. Omg, what do I do now?!” Now, it’s so super easy what you do once you have this realization. YOU DON’T DRESS LIKE AN INDIAN FOR HALLOWEEN. That’s it. That’s all I’m asking for. Seriously. It’s so easy. You just don’t. dress. up. like. an. Indian. In this post, I’m not asking you to become a social justice anti-racist warrior, I’m literally just asking you to not dress up as a fake “Native American.” See, solving oppression is so easy!

But don’t tell me that you’re oppressed too, or don’t you dare come back and tell me your “great grandmother was a Cherokee Princess” and that somehow makes it ok. Do you live in a system that is actively taking your children away without just cause? Do you have to look at the TV on weekends and see sports teams with mascots named after racial slurs of your people? I doubt it.

Ok, another area where readers can and do “tone police” me. I *know* white people have intersections of oppression too. Trans* folks, non-Christian folks, women, on and on, but that still doesn’t mean you can dress up like an Indian an it’s ok. Other POC, this goes for you too. You do not get a free pass because you deal with the effects of white supremacy too. I see lots and lots of images of other POC playing Indian–it is seriously not ok. But the “I’m oppressed too!” and Cherokee princess comments are ones I also get all the time, and was trying to head it off.

Last night I sat with a group of Native undergraduates to discuss their thoughts and ideas about the costume issue, and hearing the comments they face on a daily basis broke my heart. They take the time each year to send out an email called “We are not a costume” to the undergraduate student body–an email that has become known as the “whiny newsletter” to their entitled classmates. They take the time to educate and put themselves out there, only to be shot down by those that refuse to think critically about their choices.Your choices are adversely affecting their college experiences, and that’s hard for me to take without a fight.

Not much to add here. I feel like I can take the heat–this blog is a choice. I know what I’m getting into. But when you’re 18-20 years old and just want to be accepted on your college campus, that’s different. I feel fiercely protective over those kiddos. They don’t deserve that hate just because they dare ask to be respected. So I stand by this.

The most frustrating part to me is, there are so many other things you can dress up as for Halloween. You can be a freaking sexy scrabble board for goodness sake. But why does your fun have to come at the expense of my well-being? Is your night of drunken revelry really worth subjugating an entire group of people? I just can’t understand, how after hearing, first-hand, that your choice is hurtful to another human being, you’re able to continue to celebrate with your braids and plastic tomahawk.

This is still the question I have every year. Seriously. There are so. many. costume. choices. I don’t understand how you can be like, “yes! Indian!” and then hear firsthand from a real Indian (that’s me) that it’s a bad idea and hurtful, and still be like, “yes! Indian!” That goes back to the privilege convo. It’s not the privilege that’s a problem, it’s how you deal with it. So, if you read this post and thought “oh damn, this was a bad idea” and threw away the costume? Congrats. You’re on your way. But if you dismiss it and still galavant around in your costume? Congrats. You’re complacent in the system that benefits from the oppression of Native peoples. And now you have no excuse, because I *told* you. That takes some real privilege, to be able to dismiss an entire group of people like that.

So I know you probably didn’t even read this letter, I know you’ve probably already bought and paid for your Indian costume, and that this weekend you’ll be sucking down jungle juice from a red solo cup as your feathers wilt and warpaint runs. I know you’re going to scoff at my over-sensitivity. But I’m telling you, from the bottom of my heart, that you’re hurting me. And I would hope that would be enough.


Adrienne K.

That imagery of the red solo cup and the wilting feathers and running warpaint was pretty good, right? *pats self on back* Thank you, thank you. (I’m kidding)

I’m not sure if this exercise made anyone feel any better, besides maybe me? But I do think it’s really interesting how confronting and dismantling privilege causes people to react in such violent ways. It’s something I’ve seen over and over in my posts, in teaching critical race theory at my school, and in my interactions with fellow grad students. In all honesty, I think that struggle with the privilege conversation is really one that holds us back in having real discussions aboout race. And if you’re reading this, and are thinking, “wow, this is something I really need to learn more about”–learn. Google. That’s what I use. I’m not being facetious here, I’m saying there are amazing resources online. But I want you to learn for yourself, because POC can’t always be the ones to do it. I’ve been learning/writing about these issues for 3+ years now, and I’m still just barely learning the language and words to talk about all of this. I still get uncomfortable and feel like I don’t know enough, and I’m by no means an expert. So I want those of you who are new to all this to start on that journey too. I found this great quote when I was poking around tonight, and I wanted to share:

I’m going to make you work for you education just like I have worked my whole life. In order to truly decolonize your mind, it can’t be handed to you in questions answered by someone else. You must observe, you must feel dissonance, you must feel hurt, but it will be worth it.

So Happy-Almost-Halloween. I welcome your resources in the comments, as well as your awesome non-racist costume ideas.

Native American issues that go beyond the Redskins controversy

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images



With football season on the horizon, the usual headlines commence: injuries, trades, and…style guidesSlateThe New Republic, and Mother Jones have all said they will no longer use the term “Redskins” in their publications, citing its long history of offensiveness to Native American readers.

Well-recycled AP poll numbers suggest that four out of five Americans think the Redskins should keep their name as it is. It’s an issue, many Native activists agree – but certainly not the only one. Here’s what activists point out the public also needs to know:

By Ariana Tobin
August 27, 2013


Mascot stories can be a distraction. 

Adrienne Keene, a member of the Cherokee nation and the PhD student behind the high-traffic blog Native Appropriations, says these team mascot stories are usually all the same.

“Because [it] affects non-native folks, mostly,” Keene told Bustle. “So that tends to make the news. And most of the coverage of Native peoples in it has been portraying us as whiners or as people who need to get over it.”

But as Keene has argued many times, the story misses the larger point: For Native Americans, this isn’t a new conversation, and it has never been just a question of one sports team name’s racist etymology. It’s a question of understanding the larger context that allowed the team to be called the Redskins in the first place. Among the many nuances of dynamic, diverse, and contemporary Indian culture, there is the bigger point: Cultural appropriations are way more widespread than mascots.


Just walk into Urban Outfitters.

As a student at Harvard, the California-raised Keene often found herself frustrated by her classmates’ ignorance about Native issues. One day, walking by a Cambridge Urban Outfitters, she realized why.

“They had all of these dream catchers, and totem poles, and moccasins, and I kind of put things together, and realized the reason that most of the folks I encountered out here didn’t ever think about contemporary native people as a living, breathing part of their society was because the only images they ever encountered were these things,” Keene said. “They didn’t ever see pictures of real native people, so because of that our real challenges and issues didn’t exist in their minds.”

She decided to start cataloguing images of Native cultures that had little connection to what she knew as “Nativeness”: generic approximations of beaded-and-feathered Plains Indians from a past era; fictionalized characters that had little to do with tribes past or present; hyper-sexualized Pocahontases that spared no thought for the 1 in 3 Native women who have been raped or sexually assaulted. As she expected, she didn’t have to look far. From the runways of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, to the hipsters at Coachella, to the ice-cream freezer at Safeway, she found caricatures of tribal cultures passively condoned.


In response, Native American activism is alive and well.

In the U.S. alone, there are 566 tribes with a wide array of issues and histories specific to each community. However, as younger members of these tribes connect through a new, social-media based conversation, there does seem to be at least one common concern: The continuing, passive ignorance of wider American culture, which has not yet noticed — let alone registered — this new moment in Native American activism.

And most of it’s online in in plain view. According to Native leaders, bloggers, and advocates of all ages, never before has there been such a wide swath of Indian country paying attention to representations of their cultures. Keene and her cohort are not Native American protestors frozen in the late nineteenth-century, building fortresses against invading armies of outsiders. Nor are these the militant, disenfranchised American Indian Movement protestors of the 1970s, burning down buildings and pointing guns at FBI agents. AIM does still exist, but in growing numbers, another group of Native Americans are operating alongside their traditional counterparts: they are lawyerscomediansdesigners,professorsjournalistsflash mob organizers, and even federal U.S. government staffers. They are Internet-savvy 20-somethings engaged in a thoroughly modern, hashtag-heavy conversation with other indigenous peoples around the world.

Through now-infamous live-in “acculturation” schools, coerced adoption and foster-care, many young Natives were cut off from their tribal communities by practices that supposedly ended with the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. Less well-known, however, are the consequences of the U.S. government’s 1956 Indian Relocation Act, designed to encourage assimilation.  With a combination of funding cuts to Reservations and incentives for those who chose to leave, tribal members left for cities from Denver to Minneapolis. As the New York Timesreported in April, the trend has continued: 70 percent of registered Native Americans live in cities, as opposed to 45 percent in 1970.

“The relocation effort and campaign by the U.S. government — it’s falling apart right now because of social media,” journalist Simon Moya-Smith told Bustle. “You know, that’s how we’re reconnecting. Through social media, through things like Twitter and Facebook, we find each other, we socialize, we converse, and that divide and conquer begins to dissolve. It’s a wonderful thing to watch as it happens.”


Still, mainstream media doesn’t do a great job covering other Native issues.

Twitter can only do so much.

More than a generation of Native Americans grew up away from the centers of their communities, often attending public schools with standard American history curriculums that rarely mention tribes after the turn of the twentieth century. Indian reservations are also some of the most under-connected spaces in the country, limiting the conversation’s reach.

“What media misses in general is that we are extremely diverse. We don’t all have the same opinion on issues. It’s just like American politics, and the more access we have to social media, the clearer that becomes,” Managing Editor at Native Sun News in South Dakota Brandon Ecoffey said.


The U.S. government has work to do, too.

Of course, there are still-lingering wounds from the years of forced adoptionalcohol restrictions, and land battles.

And then there’s the big issue: Poverty. According to Kevin Blackbird-Steele, the youngest member of his tribal council at Pine Ridge, the sequester in Washington has had a disproportionate effect on Native American reservations, and it’s worrisome. Statistics from Pine Ridge put unemployment at 85 percent.

But figuring out why poverty continues to plague wide swaths of Native America demands nuance.  Without it, poverty and alcoholism becomes the flip-side of the idealized “Pocahontases” sold all over; creating what blogger Rob Schmidt calls a “poverty vs. pageantry” dichotomy. That said, poverty remains a major issue for Native country — and it’s exacerbated by less-than-consistent coverage by mainstream news organizations.

Andrew Vondall, a member of the Crow nation and a Georgetown student who interns on Capitol Hill, says it’s sometimes difficult even to convince legislators that their Native American constituents exist, let alone pay adequate attention to their issues. In his words:

You’ve got all these newspapers planting big stories from New York and California about how much money they have. You see the big huge casinos in Connecticut or just outside of L.A. And then there are stories in the news about how oh ‘Every single tribal member gets this much money’ or ‘Every single tribal member gets free college,’ and lo and behold, they come to find out later on that those tribes consist of maybe only 300 people, where a tribe like mine, the Crow tribe in Montana, or the Sioux tribe in South Dakota, consist of thousands of members who get no money. So it just makes it, if people see that, when they see a bill about Indian spending, they call their Congressman and say, ‘Those Indians get money already, why are we giving them more?’

Editor’s Note: Everyone quoted in this piece either explicitly gave the author permission or put their words in the public domain. However, our author has asked us to pull a section featuring an open letter and Tweet from a Native activist uncomfortable being highlighted on our site. Ethically, there is nothing wrong with including statements made in public. But sometimes misrepresentation is in the eye of the beholder, but at the request of the speaker, we’ve now removed her quote. 

Native American artists take back the headdress

“Appropriation of cultural Regalia, such as the war bonnet …causes sacred objects to lose their power when they are represented out of context,” wrote Luger in his artist statement.

By Marianne Combs

When Dyani White Hawk Polk asked a group of artists for work for her exhibition “Make it Pop,” she was looking for contemporary pieces responding to issues of the day.

“We’ve had somber exhibits, politically driven, fine art,” says White Hawk Polk, sitting at her desk in All My Relations Gallery. “I wanted this to feel more playful and cutting edge, something that really speaks to our youth and people interested in pop culture as well as fine art lovers.”

White Hawk Polk got what she was looking for; the colorful show reflects and comments on popular culture in a number of ways. Interestingly, two artists – Frank Buffalo Hyde and Cannupa Hanska Luger – chose to focus on an issue that has many Native Americans upset: the appropriation of Native Regalia by popular culture – in particular, the headdress.

"In-Appropriate 3," a painting by Frank Buffalo Hyde responding to the use of a Native American headdress and jewelry on a Victoria's Secret model at a fashion show held on November 7, 2012.

“In-Appropriate 3,” a painting by Frank Buffalo Hyde responding to the use of a Native American headdress and jewelry on a Victoria’s Secret model at a fashion show held on November 7, 2012.

White Hawk Polk says she wasn’t surprised.

“It’s always been an issue,” reflects White Hawk Polk. “It’s always been there, but this past year, year and a half, it’s just been prolific.”

Native Americans belong to many different tribes spread across Native North America. But the headdress, or war bonnet, is a universal symbol of great spiritual importance worn only by highly respected individuals.


Read full article and see photos here