In recent years, wearable art with animal parts has become downright trendy, particularly, though not exclusively, among twenty-something hipsters and their “ironic” ilk. Feathered earrings are all the rage, fox tails are on everyone’s purse and belt loop, and “hipster headdresses” are showing up everywhere from college campuses to Coachella.
Unfortunately, some artists are participating in an older, undesirable tradition: cultural appropriation. For decades, particularly since “going Native” became cool with the hippies in the 1960s, non-Native people have been grabbing bits and parts of various Native American cultures—or at least what they think “playing Indian” is supposed to be like. And there are those who deliberately misrepresent themselves as Native artists or purveyors of Native art, when they’re in actuality not associated with any tribe, and may even be reselling dreamcatchers and other things made in China.
So why is this a problem? Read on:
–What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is the borrowing/theft of elements of one culture from another. More specifically, the culture doing the appropriating is generally more powerful than the one being borrowed from, and often there is a history of oppression and even genocide. Appropriators generally don’t think about the effects the appropriation could have because it’s part of their privilege to not have to think about things like that.
Most commonly with regards to dead critter art, appropriators are cashing in on “Native American mystique”, either accidentally or intentionally misusing elements or perceived elements of Native American cultures in their art. This is not just a case of mistaken identity, as in happening to use animal parts in your work and having someone else accidentally assume it’s Native, but rather things like people “dressing up like Indians”, or mass-produced dreamcatcher car air fresheners. Hipster headdresses are an especially bad trend; these are quasi-Plains-tribe feathered headdresses, like old Indian “warbonnets” from 20th century Westerns, worn by (almost always white) hipsters for “irony”.
–Why does it matter?
There are a few reasons:
First, racial stereotyping. There are still entirely too many people who think that Indians are just imaginary beings that exist in some romanticized past, or are all horse-riding savages out on the plains, or are all unemployed alcoholics, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Artistic appropriators usually draw on the “noble savage” stereotype, where Native Americans are hyper-idealized as nature-loving, broken-English-speaking shaman-elders dispensing medicine to wide-eyed whites. That, or they draw on the “all natives wear feathers and buckskin” stereotype, drawing together some Hollywoodized smattering of supposed Plains Indian traits into a cultural trainwreck.
Second, buying “native-inspired artwork” does nothing to help actual Native people. This includes artists who may have some Native blood in their background, but have absolutely no contact with any indigenous cultures. News flash: being 1/16 Cherokee does not predispose you to being able to work with dead animals in your art, nor does it make you an expert on your distant family’s culture if you’ve had no contact with your tribe. While certainly not all Native people live on reservations and not all are impoverished or struggling with addiction, the truth is that many reservations are among the poorest places in the United States and this all too often gets ignored and even encouraged by non-natives. The money that goes to non-Native artists posing as “Native” could be going to actual Native artists, either on or off the reservations.
Third, continuing to pander to stereotypes does nothing to help these issues or the people affected by them. Playing dress-up Indian just sends the message that Native people are stereotypes, costumes, images, and otherwise not real people. Additionally, the confusion can draw attention away from actual Native artists who are trying to get their work out there and clarify what is and isn’t genuine tribal artwork. “Hey! We’re over here! Someone pay attention?” often gets drowned out by “NEW NAVAJO NATIONS SHIRT ON SALE 50% OFF AT URBAN OUTFITTERS!!!!!” If we’re going to have any hope of turning these harmful trends around, we need to be paying better attention than we have been.
Now, for some more specific points:
–Why is it bad to associate feathers and antlers and furs with Native American art? Don’t they use these things in their work, too?
Some of them do, some of them don’t. The sort of indigenous artwork you’ll find in Guatemala is very different from what you’ll see in South Dakota, which is all different from what you’d find in British Columbia, and then on into Alaska. And while many modern Native artists do incorporate these things in their work, not all stick to traditional art forms and patterns; there’s just as much innovation of new designs among Native artists as anyone else. So just as there’s no such thing as a monolithic “Native American culture” or “Native American spirituality”, so there isn’t one single style of “Native American art”.
And as a side note, if you think about it, “Native American” as a general title is a remnant of what’s happened to a diversity of cultures over the past five centuries. Most non-Natives wouldn’t take the time to identify someone as Cherokee, or Salish, or Diné. And so to those non-Native people, “Native American” is as specific as they feel they need to get, effectively erasing cultural diversity even further. “Native American” as a concept didn’t exist 521 years ago.
Anyway, back to art—yes, some indigenous artists use animal parts in their work, but some don’t. And of those that do, the exact materials they use, and how they incorporate them, varies not just from tribe to tribe, but from artist to artist. Some tribes use almost nothing in the way of animal parts in their work, or none at all; others’ art looks very different from the buckskin shirts and feathers found in some Plains tribe artisanry. For example, weaving plays a significant part in a number of tribes’ art and culture, from Guatemalan sheepherding cultures, to the Chilkat weaving of Northwestern tribes. Woodcarving is also important in the Northwest and elsewhere, and far north the Inuit are known for intricate carving of bone and ivory.
Also, assuming that ANY art with animal parts is Native or stealing from Natives is itself a form of stereotyping. This essay was prompted in part by a situation where a neopagan artist was using very personalized designs in her art with animal parts, designs that anyone even barely familiar with actual Native art would know weren’t indigenous. Someone called her out as an appropriator simply because she had a piece with an antler and some feathers. That critic was furthering stereotypes herself, by automatically equating dead animal parts with Native art, as if that’s all that indigenous people ever use. I think I’ve made the point that “Native American art” is much more than antlers and feathers, and to continue the idea that antlers and feathers is all it is is just more limiting and stereotypical.
–“So why can’t I have my hipster headdress? It’s just ‘Native American INSPIRED’”.
It’s also racist. I’ve been sorely tempted on more than one occasion to ask someone in a hipster headdress “So, do you wear blackface on Tuesdays?” Think about that for a moment. American culture (other than a few pockets of pure ignorance) has rejected the stereotyping of black people by blackface performers. We see what’s wrong with it, and so we don’t do it anymore.
But in the same way that blackface was a farcical, marginalizing stereotype of African Americans, so hipster headdresses and similar “Native-inspired” art can do the same to Indians, yet fewer people are speaking out about it. Really, how does wearing chicken feathers on your head and acrylic paint on your face honor people whose homes were forcibly taken from them, whose numbers were drastically reduced to just a fraction of what they were by deliberate mass murder, and who today still often suffer the consequences of physical and cultural genocide?
Unfortunately, indigenous people are still all too often made invisible in civil rights efforts. So most people don’t see what the issue is with chicken feather headdresses and “Pocahotties” at cowboy-and-Indian-themed frat parties because they haven’t encountered any opposition to it. The current hipster headdress trend doesn’t help this invisibility one bit; it simply reinforces the idea that “playing Indian” is somehow okay. (By the by, this is a MUCH more detailed and eloquent explanation of what’s wrong with hipster headdresses.)
–But so and so is Native American and they said my artwork was cool!
Well, yes. Native Americans aren’t one big group in full agreement on everything. Some are going to think that there’s nothing wrong with the made in China dreamcatchers and may just think the hipsters in headdresses are silly, nothing more. Others are more pissed off about the effects they see these things having on their people and other tribes.
It’s because some of them are upset that I feel it’s worth paying attention to. If Person A isn’t upset about something but Person B is, it doesn’t mean that I should just assume Person B is full of shit because it suits my personal interests to do so, especially in a situation where there has been definite damage done to the ancestors and cultures of both Persons A and B by people not listening to them. And, on top of it, as a person who is NOT a part of an indigenous culture, I have even less authority to decide that that complaint is worthless. Finally, given the history of white people NOT listening to Natives’ complaints, to include today, do I really want to continue in that tradition of not-listening?
–So what can I do to help?
First and foremost: educate the fuck out of yourself. Check out the Native Appropriations blog at http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/ and read the archives, as well as checking out the blogroll. For a historical perspective, read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. If it seems like each chapter is just telling the same story over and over again but with different people in each, then that should tell you something about the consistency of how badly various tribes were treated. If you have a Netflix account, both Reel Injun and Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action are on instant queue. These are just a few tiny starting points, but even they can be good eye-openers.
Study up on actual Native artwork, too. Some art and history museums have collections (however ill-gotten) of artwork and artifacts of various tribes. Read up on various tribes’ artworks, both historical and contemporary. Head over to sites like http://www.nativeart.net/ and http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/native-american-art-entertainment. If you want to buy genuine Native American artwork, ask the artist about their tribal connections, and make sure you’re buying from the right people (powwows are a good starting place). Oh, and make yourself familiar with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
Second, take a good long look at your own artwork. Have you been trying to make Native-style artwork? Are you still developing your own style, and are there ways you can make it more your own rather than borrowing from others? I’ve been developing my own work for over a decade, and I still periodically look over what I’m doing to make sure that I’m not encroaching on someone’s traditional designs; it’s part of why I no longer use loomed and applique beadwork in my art, and why I no longer make dreamcatchers, as a couple of examples.Presentation is important, too. I have a big disclaimer on my artwork page on my website and in the main description of my Etsy store that specifically says I’m not Native and I’ve never claimed to be. I’m even wary of using certain key words in my Etsy listings; I’m okay with using the fairly generic “pagan” and “shaman” as they’re a part of my background as a neopagan since the 1990s. (However, I’m also aware of how neopagan culture has itself appropriated from indigenous cultures, as well as the troubled recent history of the word “shaman”.) I’m less okay with keywords like “medicine”, even though I know that people looking for generic little leather bags will use that term, which has been drawn further and further away from its origins much in the same way as “shaman” and “totem”. But I refuse to use “Native American” on my listings (with one exception) even though it would probably get me more hits from people who don’t know the difference between a Native American artist and someone who makes stuff out of deerskin.
Third: find your own balance. I’ve explained above how I have my boundaries currently set, and those may change over time. Even writing out this article has given me reason to test those boundaries and how I feel about them. You may not be as concerned as I am, and be okay with making dreamcatchers as a non-Native person, or not see an issue with using the term “Native-inspired”. Or, for that matter, you might be even stricter and see my calling myself a “shaman” or using the term “headdress” for the wearable animal hides I make as appropriative actions in and of themselves. I can’t decide for you where your boundaries are, though I will respect you more for at least giving them thought.
And that’s really where I want to leave this for now–something for people to chew on, and think about, and discuss further. Feel free to link to this, if you like; it’s a public post.