The Fine Line Between Trendsetting, Racism
Unbeknownst to many people, the day after Thanksgiving, which is commonly referred to as Black Friday, was actually American Indian Day or Native American Heritage Day, created in 2009 by Congress. Unfortunately, that's not why American Indians have been showing up so much in the media lately.Instead of being recognized for effective voter turnout in the 2012 election or the great contributions made to the world, Native Americans are still experiencing acts of cultural appropriation and racism. As we embark on the holiday shopping season, I can't help but remember the Navajo print fabric wrapped flask and Navajo hipster panty sold at Urban Outfitters last year; or the Gap T-shirt this year that said “Manifest Destiny” — a historical concept that many American Indians associate with forced relocation, broken treaties and genocide.Adding insult to injury, newly elected U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren made headlines for falsely declaring her Native American identity because of family stories and her grandfather’s high cheekbones; Victoria’s Secret featured a Native American headdress on a lingerie-clad model during its annual fashion show; and No Doubt's Gwen Stefani wore an array of Native American costumes that perpetuated a stereotypical narrative in the band’s “Looking Hot” music video.Whether the aforementioned events were coincidences or ways to “honor” American Indians, they are not isolated and should not be viewed separately from their social and historic contexts. These are examples of cultural appropriation, a process by which aspects of a marginalized culture, like a culture’s practices, symbols or historical artifacts, are taken by a dominant culture and misrepresented without regard to its original meaning.Perhaps the best example to break down is the No Doubt video. More than a single image or action, it featured a story of gross stereotypes and violence against Native women. Public reaction, even from No Doubt fans, was swift. The band quickly removed the video from the web and issued an apology earlier this month:“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. This is of great concern to us and we are removing the video immediately ... 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.”I was taken aback by the first line, and I was glad to read the quick reaction of Professor Angela R. Riley, director of both the UCLA American Indian Studies Center and the MA/JD Program of UCLA Law School: “We also want to make clear that, while No Doubt’s apology claimed to have consulted ‘Native American studies experts at the University of California,’ to our knowledge, no such person from UCLA was consulted about the video prior to its release.” This raises important academic questions: In the commodification of American Indian culture and identity, who are the experts? Is it someone who has studied us, read about us, wrote a thesis about us or claimed to have a tinge of Native ancestry? Are we going to finally allow authentic American Indians to speak for themselves? American Indians have an active and resilient culture, and listening to the voices of true Native American culture experts is critical. Any effort by non-Indians to construct an identity for us racially, socially or otherwise is racist and should be called out as such, especially when such efforts are for profit. If asked, American Indians never shy away from the opportunity to educate others about the realities of our peoples and communities. But we need to be asked. As a Native American, I want to avoid a further perpetuation of Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes situated in the past, or worse, in the imaginations of others. That is why I am pleased to be a part of a campus that has a Native Advisory Council and supports a growing Native Studies minor, the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center (CICSC), a Tribal Liaison and the American Indian Student Alliance. At CSUSM students can learn more about Native American culture by simply visiting the CICSC, taking a Native studies course and attending cultural events.The CICSC will also be offering in the near future cultural competency certificates for individuals interested in working with American Indians in education, health, natural resources, tribal governments and — hopefully soon — film and media. This spring I will be teaching a course called “Imagining Indians: American Indians, Mass Media, Film and Society” on Hollywood representations of American Indian history and culture, and the consequences of those representations.Teaching gives me hope that with the right lesson plans and opportunities, American Indians will continue to persevere and challenge the myths, racist notions and intellectual property theft that exist in society today. I invite others to leave stereotypes at the door and come learn about our history, language, arts, worldview and governments. The facts are much better than the fiction.