In less than a week the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will air on CBS. I wasn’t formally introduced to the show until my freshman year of college – and I will always remember that evening as the quietest night I ever experienced in my college career in the dorm. I didn’t hear any loud music, no boys were playing football in the hallway – and I believe it was the one night all year that popcorn wasn’t burnt on my floor. Since that night, my interaction with the show has been virtually non-existent. I couldn’t tell you when it airs, who the musical performers are or even who half the models are. It just isn’t normally on my cultural radar – at least it wasn’t until earlier this month, when one of the models, Karlie Kloss, walked down the catwalk dressed in a headdress and turquoise jewelry, with the word “Thanksgiving” projected behind her. In response to public outcry of the lingerie wearing model in Native garb, the company, and Ms. Kloss, have both issued public apologies and agreed to cut the segment from the telecast. This event got me thinking – there’s been a lot of this going on lately; from the Gap’s recent Manifest Destiny t-shirt to No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” music video.
I reached out to Raney Bench, Curator of Education, at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine to discuss and comment on these and other recent events of “playing Indian,” the idea of cultural appropriation and how museums can be an active partner in dialogue around these issues. Raney has a BA in Native American Studies, and a MA in Museum Studies and has worked with Native issues and in the museum profession for over 15 years. Below is a reflective and informative guest post from Raney:
The United States has a long history of non-Native people “playing Indian,” dressing in feathers and fringed leather, in an attempt to honor, exploit or recreate some imagined past. Invariably there are others who find playing Indian offensive, pointing out that cultural and religious appropriation of Native history and culture does not actually honor Native people, history, or culture. Indians are accused of being too sensitive and are often told to “get over it,” which implies that “it” is in the past and people need to move forward, into a future that does not include the issue or damage that occurred. A recent series of events, reflective of long standing national trends, highlights why “getting over it” is so hard to do in Indian country.
In September Paul Frank Industries made the mistake of hosting a “Dream Catchin’ Pow Wow” party. For more information on the party itself, check out the September posts in Adrienne K’s blog, Native Appropriations. The outrage sparked by pictures of children dressing in war paint and feathers and cocktails, like the Neon Teepee, forced the president of Paul Frank Industries, Elie Dekel, to reach out to the Native community and apologize. This is not a new trend, but what makes this story unique is that Mr. Dekel made a financial commitment to correct the wrong.
The band No Doubt recently stumbled into the same kind of hot water for their video “Looking Hot,” released November 2, and pulled only two days later. The full story can be read here. After claiming the band had consulted with Native people to make sure the cowboy and Indian-themed video was not culturally insensitive, an apology was issued and the video taken down.
Not all of the recent issues have been handled with respect and/or a financial commitment to correcting mistakes made. Gap released a tee shirt with the motto “Manifest Destiny” emblazoned on the front. When faced with criticism the designer, Mark McNairy, tweeted “Manifest Destiny. Survival of the Fittest.” This unpopular response forced him to issue a second “apology” tweet, in which he stated that he was hurt at being called a racist. “I AM SORRY FOR MY SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST COMMENT. IT HURT ME DEEPLY TO BE CALLED A RACIST AS THAT IS NOT ME. I REACTED WITHOUT THINKING,” he tweeted (in all caps). Gap pulled the t-shirt. To read the full story click here.
Spirit Halloween Stores felt there was no reason to apologize for the 50 Native American themed costumes sold on their website. The defense can be read here, where they explain that “when your kids want to don a traditional Indian costume with frays and a feather, don’t look at it as disrespectful. See it as a way to teach your little one about American history.” I encourage you to take a look at the company’s idea of historically and traditionally rich Native dress and judge for yourself.
And, most recently, Victoria’s Secret joined the fray by dressing up model Karlie Kloss in leopard print underwear, a Plains Indian headdress and Navajo turquoise jewelry. Behind her the word “Thanksgiving” was projected on a large screen. The company and model issued apologies and will not air the segment during the December show, which sparked a second firestorm of criticism for pulling the item. Native people were accused of suppressing freedom of expression and being too politically correct and sensitive. Comments ranged from “She’s pitching a teepee in my pants,” to “The lack of exposed skin greatly offends my nudist heritage.” In an on-line poll asking people if Victoria’s Secret was right to pull the segment, over 83% answered that Indians should “get over it.” To read more, click here.
All of these are examples of cultural appropriation. So, what is that, you ask? Katie J. M. Baker cites Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi in her article “A Much Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation” at Jezebel, saying that it can be really difficult to nail this down. Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
Bruce Duthu, Chair of Native Studies Department at Dartmouth College said “It’s not that you have to get permission to use anything that involves something Native. It’s about assuming responsibility and not being surprised if people react by saying, “You screwed up.” It’s not about censorship; it’s about being clear on the motivations that are inspiring the appropriation. I think for many Native peoples, the advent of social media has meant that groups and individuals around the globe can now participate in this push back. Within minutes, people from all over can join the conversation, which provides a quick reading on the popular reaction to certain events and activities.”
These occurrences cannot be understood independently of the multitude of similar situations that are happening every day. As I write this, for example, McFadden’s in Washington, DC just issued an apology for their themed Thanksgiving party with the tagline “Party like a pilgrim, drink like an Indian!”. Rather, we need to understand that these continued examples of cultural appropriations are happening as an extension of colonial dominance and perceived ownership over Indian history and culture.
Museums are an important place to foster this kind of understanding. The Abbe Museum, where I work, as Curator of Education, has a mission to inspire new learning about the five Native communities in Maine, known collectively as the Wabanaki. The national trends mentioned above impact all Native people, and therefore we at the Abbe feel it is important to address issues of cultural appropriation. We have created new teacher resources about Thanksgiving and stereotypes, teach classes to students and adults about contemporary stereotypes and the impacts they have on modern Native people, and we have led workshops for the public suggesting techniques for standing up to stereotypes and bias we all encounter every day. By doing so, the Abbe and our communities are taking action to create a more inclusive and respectful society where racism like we have seen recently cannot be confused with political correctness.
Thanks for sharing your perspective and expertise on these recent events, Raney!
To learn more about the Abbe Museum and its programming, click here.
As Native American Heritage Month comes to a close (you do know that November is Native American Heritage Month, right? President George H. W. Bush made the designation in 1990) and we reflect on these recent “playing Indian” gaffes – it is important to remember, as Raney stated above, that these events “impact all Native people.”
I highly recommend reading, “Just say no to ‘playing Indian’“, an opinion piece by journalist and documentary filmmaker, Jenni Monet. Monet says, “The national observance [of Native American Heritage Month] is not unlike America’s commitment to African-American History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month, a time of year that major brands have come to commercialize in recent years. But little recognition has been paid to the original inhabitants who represent 1% of the U.S. population. Instead, this November, there has been a series of cultural gaffes made by celebrities, journalists and large companies during a time set aside to acknowledge and honor Native people.”
So what do you think? Does your institution address cultural appropriation issues? What is your reaction to the instances mentioned above? Where do we go from here?
About the Abbe Museum
The Abbe Museum opened in 1928 as a trail side museum in Acadia National Park. We now operate two facilities, our original location, and a year round museum in downtown Bar Harbor, Maine. We offer educational programs, changing exhibits, and public programs and events to meet our mission, to inspire new learning about the Wabanaki Nations with every visit. For more information visit: www.abbemuseum.org