Archives For February 2011

Everyone knows the photographs of Edward S. Curtis–they are the “iconic” Indian pictures you see in coffee table books, on postcards, even on wall hangings at Ikea. They’re the images people most often associate with Natives: Indians on horses, Indians in headdresses, Indians riding off into the sunset never to be seen again…

At the time he was working, Curtis was convinced that the Native population was about to disappear forever, so he took it upon himself to photograph as much of this “vanishing race” as he could. He amassed an amazing body of work, but he definitely had an idea of what he thought “real” Indians looked like.

Edward Curtis is a bit of a running joke in my family, since both my sister and I focused our senior theses on his photographs. I argued that his images created a false authenticity from which contemporary Indian artists struggle to break free. It came to light later that he was a fan of doctoring images (erasing signs of “modernity”), providing costumes for his subjects, and trying to make Native peoples fit his notion of Indianess. My sister talked about those issues too, but also looked at how contemporary Natives are using the images as a way to have a tangible connection to family and ancestors, and how Native artists are beginning to reclaim the images and use them as a starting point to re-imagine Native photography.

The common theme throughout Edward Curtis’s portraits is stocism. None of his subjects smile. Ever. Check out this gallery or this gallery if you don’t believe me. To anyone who has spent anytime with Indians, you know that the “stoic Indian” stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Natives joke, tease, and laugh more than anyone I know–I often leave Native events with my sides hurting from laughing so much.

So in response to the sad-stoic-angry Indian images of Edward Curtis, we’ve got this awesome video by Sterlin Harjo (the man behind Four Sheets to the Wind and Barking Water) and Ryan RedCorn (the man behind Demockratees and Buffalo Nickel Creative). Simple but powerful, and showcases the diversity of Indian Country too!

I always love Native art/film/poetry/writing/anything that subverts popular narratives about Indians and calls into question all the stereotypes and preconceived notions the public holds about Native peoples, so this is right up my alley. It’s also adorable. And sports cameos by a few of my friends.

The video was produced by the 1491′s, and I highly recommend checking out their youtube channel for some awesome ndn humor. If you haven’t seen the Wolfpack audition video, you haven’t lived. 
(Thanks Sterlin and Ryan!)
(Jacoby Ellsbury via

Every Wednesday (well, almost every Wednesday) for the past year and a half, a group of my cohort-mates and I have played trivia at an Irish pub in Harvard Square. It’s our weekly tradition, and we’re pretty good. Like we place first, a lot. But that’s just an aside. ;)

Anyway, in the course of our trivia history, there have officially been two questions about Natives, and we have officially gotten both of them wrong. Quite embarrassing, considering we have not one, but two Natives on our six-person team. (The first one was asking which state has the highest number of Natives, and they said the answer was New Mexico, but I still assert it’s Alaska. or Oklahoma.)

The question this week was:  

Name two of the three Native Americans currently playing professional baseball.  

But the announcer added this clarification, “We’re talking full blood, folks. Real, verifiable, Native Americans.” He then repeated the question, adding “full blood” to the description.

As my team looked to me, it took me way too long to think of Jacoby Ellsbury–the athlete crush of many Native women–but then I had no idea about the other two. We ended up putting Shane Victorino of the Phillies, who’s Native Hawaiian (it should count!).

Turns out the other two are Joba Chamberlain (Ho-Chunk), who plays for the Yankees, and Kyle Lohse (Nomlaki) who plays for the Cardinals. 

When the host read the answers, he said, “Ok, so we were looking for two full blood, verifiable Native Americans who are current major league baseball players. And sorry, whoever put ‘Johnny Trueblood’, that doesn’t count. (everyone laughs)” He then gave the correct answers, with tribal affiliations, and moved on.

I was pretty taken aback by the whole exchange. It’s amazing to me how ingrained the blood-quantum narrative is in our society, to the point that it’s perfectly acceptable to differentiate based on blood in a trivia game. I just want to put this in perspective a little bit, so let’s pick a setting where African Americans are sorely underrepresented, like, say, the US Senate. What if the question went like this:

“Name 3 of the 6 African Americans who have been US senators. We’re talking full-blood Black folks guys, real, verifiable, African Americans.” 

Sorry Barack Obama, you wouldn’t count. and then there was the whole “Johnny TrueBlood” comment too–what if someone had just made up a terribly stereotypical and borderline offensive African American name, and put that as an answer? Would the host have read it out loud? Would the audience have laughed?

The hilarious part of all of this is none of the three Native players named are full blood. They’re all mixed. but they are all “real, verifiable” Indians–citizens of their tribal communities.

(Joba and his dad)
 (Kyle Lohse)

Interactions like these make me so angry, because they continue to reinforce the colonial concept of blood quantum (“how much” Indian you are) as the only method of determining a “real” Native person. Blood quantum was introduced by colonial powers as a method of erasing Native people–”breeding out” the Indians until they no longer existed. This is not a concept that comes from within our communities or traditional cultures, and it’s frustrating how much it still dominates conversations in Indian Country. These players are “real” Indians. But, according to Stump trivia, the only “true, verifiable” Indians are full-bloods.

No one in the bar would have looked at our team and realized that there were two Native Americans sitting there, since we’re both light skinned and have light eyes. As long as these conversations continue to dominate the narrative of Native identity, we will never be seen as Indian–despite our cultural, community, and family connections, not to mention tribal citizenship. And that sucks.

Miss Miley Cyrus was recently inked with her fifth tattoo, a dream catcher along her ribcage. It’s supposedly to protect her four siblings, or something like that. Honestly, dream catchers are probably one of the most appropriated and exploited Native images–you see them everywhere. So I’m not supremely bothered by the tattoo, but it is annoying. However, everyone’s favorite Disney starlet recently turned 18, and her 18th birthday was a “bohemian theme.” Apparently, “bohemian”=dream catchers and feathers. Have a look:
Note the “backdrop” of dream catchers and the abundance of feathers. There are a million more pictures at the bakery’s blog, here
Cake close up. The bakery wanted to “incorporate golden sugar feathers, braiding, beading, and turquoise beading”.
Backdrop close up. Plastic pony beads are very authentic, right?
Miley got into the theme as well, wearing feathers hanging from her halter top, as well as feathered earrings. While the bakery was going for “bohemian,” clearly there’s a Native theme going on here. At least Miley didn’t wear a headdress?
Like I mentioned before, dream catchers are one of the most appropriated and commercialized Native images. They’re originally Ojibwe, but have been adopted by tribes across the US and Canada, mostly as items created for sale to tourists and non-Natives. The problem is, in many Ojibwe communities, dream catchers are still a sacred, and their creation involves specific ceremonies and prayers. The plastic commercial keychains sold in rest stops are making a mockery of a sacred object. When people buy the dream catchers because they’re “pretty” or to ward off bad dreams, and aren’t aware of the power and history behind the objects, it dilutes them to a commercial object disconnected from their origins and community.
I’m not saying that dream catchers are off-limits to non-Natives. But if you do choose to buy a dream catcher, as always, buy it from a Native artisan. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act states that artists who are selling Native-style arts must be tribal members, and if they are not, they must identify themselves as such, so ask.
I used to think that dream catchers had lost a lot of power in Native communities due to their over-commercialization and association with new-agey non-Natives, but last summer at a program I’m involved with for Native youth, I changed my mind. A guest speaker passed around a dream catcher (handmade by an Ojibwe elder), and had each of us hold it and think about our hopes and dreams for the future. After we had all held it, he presented it to the director of the program to keep on her wall as a reminder of all the dreams created and realized through her program. If that’s not reclaiming the dream catcher, I don’t know what is. 

Happy Valentines Day everyone! Last year I posted a bunch of vintage valentines with Native imagery, and the Vintage Valentine Museum has a bunch more that are worth a click. This year I thought I would share the “art” of Lee Bogle, whose images have become synonymous with “Native American Love” (just google it, you’ll see).

My friends apparently find it entertaining to send me postcards with these paintings on them, I’ve definitely opened up my mailbox more than once to find a Lee Bogle original staring back at me.

So where to even start with these ridiculous romance-novel-esqe images? I mean, clearly, they eroticize and sexualize Native peoples, but they also rely on the ubiquitous stereotypes dark skin, long hair, images of nature, feathers, fur, buckskin, headbands, etc. I picked out the ones that are supposed to represent “love”, but there are many others that highly sexualize Native women alone.

Most people can look at these and see them for their ridiculousness, but the problem is that they are reproduced millions of times all over the internet, with “Native American Blessings” or “Native American Love Poems” emblazoned across them. There are entire websites dedicated to e-cards, desktop backgrounds, cards, and t-shirts of these images.

If it weren’t obvious, Lee Bogle isn’t Native. He’s a white guy from the Pacific Northwest. His official website says this about his use of Native imagery:

Collectors know him for his images of Native Americans, often solitary figures of women. “I try to convey a spirituality in my art that the viewer must interpret for himself,” Bogle says, “I want my paintings to show a peaceful contemplation and express a depth of serenity that comes only with quiet inner peace”

Since all Natives are innately spiritual and have a “quiet inner peace,” right? But this by all means is not an isolated artist or isolated incident. There are hundreds of non-Native artists that make their livings off perpetuating stereotypes about Native people and preying on mainstream romanticized and idealized notions of Natives. Contemporary Native peoples don’t look like something out of a crappy romance novel, and images like Lee Bogle’s perpetuate stereotypes and erase our current existence and diverse and real people.

So with that, wishing you lots of Native love this Valentines Day!

(look from Pendleton’s new “Portland Collection” for Fall 2011. Source here.)
Last night I was cold. So cold, in fact, that I had to pull out not one, but two, of my Pendleton blankets to add some extra warmth to my bed. As I shook them out and laid them on my bed, I thought about how special these blankets are to me–one was a graduation gift, the other a thank you gift for serving on a panel about the “Future of Indian Education.” In many Native communities, Pendleton blankets are associated with important events, and have been for hundreds of years. They are given as gifts at graduations, at powwow give-aways, as thank you gifts, in commemoration of births and deaths, you name it. In addition, I’ve always associated the patterns with Native pride–a way for Natives to showcase their heritage in their home decor, coats, purses, etc. There’s something just distinctly Native about Pendleton to me.
(Stanford Native Graduation from a couple years ago)
But recently, Pendleton prints and fabrics have started popping up everywhere. It started with Opening Ceremony’s Pendleton line in 2010, and now Urban Outfitters has started carrying a Pendelton line, celebrities are wearing Pendleton coats, and Native-themed home decor is apparently all the rage. Now Pendleton has announced their newest collaboration, The Portland Collection, which fashion blogs are proclaiming will be the big thing for 2011.

So what’s the problem? I openly admit that a lot of these designs are adorable, and I would fully sport them (that bag! I love!), if I had a spare $1000 or so. I can’t cry straight up cultural appropriation, because…well, it’s complicated.
Pendelton has been supplying Natives with blankets and robes with Indian designs since the late 1800′s, which the “history” section of their website outlines:

A study of the color and design preferences of local and Southwest Native Americans resulted in vivid colors and intricate patterns. Trade expanded from the Nez Perce nation near Pendleton to the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni nations. These Pendleton blankets were used as basic wearing apparel and as a standard of value for trading and credit among Native Americans. The blankets also became prized for ceremonial use.

It’s almost a symbiotic relationship–they saw a market in Native communities, and Native communities stepped up and bought, traded, and sold the blankets, incorporating them into “traditional” cultural activities. Pendleton has also maintained close ties with Native communities and causes, making commemorative blankets for organizations like the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Indian Education Association. They work with Native artists to design the special edition blankets, and even donate some of the proceeds to the causes.

 (NIEA 40th anniversary blanket)

But then, on the other hand, they go off and do things like design a $5000 blanket with White Buffalo hair, which many tribes consider extremely sacred and definitely off-limits to commercial sale.

I do appreciate Pendleton’s relationship with Native communities. I love my blankets, and love even more what they represent.


However, seeing hipsters march down the street in Pendleton clothes, seeing these bloggers ooh and ahh over how “cute” these designs are, and seeing non-Native models all wrapped up in Pendleton blankets makes me upset. It’s a complicated feeling, because I feel ownership over these designs as a Native person, but on a rational level I realize that they aren’t necessarily ours to claim. To me, it just feels like one more thing non-Natives can take from us–like our land, our moccasins, our headdresses, our beading, our religions, our names, our cultures weren’t enough? you gotta go and take Pendleton designs too?


Then there’s the whole economic stratification issue of it too, these designs are expensive. The new Portland collection ranges from $48 for a tie to over $700 for a coat, the Opening Ceremony collection was equally, if not more, costly. It almost feels like rubbing salt in the wound, when poverty is rampant in many Native communities, to say “oh we designed this collection based on your culture, but you can’t even afford it!”

So I don’t know. Are all of these designs cultural appropriation? Should I ignore the twinge in my stomach every time I see a Pendleton pattern in the Urban Outfitters window? Should I embrace it as the mainstream fashion scene finally catching up with what we Natives have known since the 1800′s?

Personally, the bottom line is that I would rather associate Pendleton with Native pride and commemorating important events…

(our panel last year)

…than with hipsters, high fashion, and flash-in-the-pan trends. But I’m obviously conflicted. What do you think? Are these designs and trends ok, or do I have a right to be upset?

(Thanks to Precious for getting me thinking about this!)

The Ubiquitous "Eskimo"

February 1, 2011 — 9 Comments
 (Hipster band One EskimO…they’ll get a whole post on their own soon. So many problems.)

Hi Friends! Yes, I’m back. I have a litany of excuses, but you don’t care! So back to the Native Appropriations!

Since Boston is on a record-breaking snow streak (already over 60 inches this season), I thought I would pull together a post about the ever-present “Eskimo” in advertising and pop culture. Because everyone knows, snow, ice, cold=”Eskimos”! (/sarcasm)

Alaska Native communities are often completely left out of conversations about race in the US, and even left out when we talk about Native communities. I lament the fact that the only representations we see of American Indians are the feathers-and-buckskin stereotypes, but I think it is even more apparent that the only images we see of Alaska Native peoples are the “Eskimo” images–furry hood, big parka, probably an igloo, maybe a dog sled…you know exactly what I’m talking about. So without further ado, some of these images:

A major offender, Eskimo Joe’s in Stillwater, OK. Their website says they are famous for the “smile seen round the world,” and you can buy a whole host of memorabilia featuring this image. Don’t worry, there’s also Mexico Joe’s, if you’re an equal opportunity stereotyper. The “eskimo” doesn’t even have eyes. Talk about de-humanizing.

This is actually the image that inspired this post. My friend Marj had an 80′s party this weekend, and she bought Lisa Frank decorations (which were awesome). There was one that featured this image above, except it had the girl hugging a polar bear, with a penguin and a puffin dancing beside them. But note all the images thrown together–igloo, polar bear, penguin, husky, northern lights…um, shouldn’t we be aware of some geography here? I’m pretty sure you can’t find all of those things in the same place. Not to mention the anglo-cizing of her features. 

My grandparents always had Eskimo Pies in the freezer when I was growing up. There are a lot of historic images of their mascot too, since they’ve been around since 1921:

Images of Alaska Natives have been used in advertising since the 1800′s, and there are numerous examples all over the internet. This page, compiled by a professor at Rhode Island College is a great collection, and this ad was on boingboing a while back:

Note the nonsense “language” they’re speaking, and implications that they’re unintelligent and “savage”.

There are so many examples to draw from–movies often exploit this stereotype, as we saw in The Simpsons Movie, and then later on the show, “Mukluks” and other arctic-inspired footwear have invaded fashion…I could go on and on.

These images collapse over 11 distinct Alaskan cultural groups into one stereotype, not to mention the other cultural groups in recognized in Canada. The Alaska Native Heritage Center is an amazing resource for learning about the indigenous people of Alaska, and they divide their exhibitions up into five cultural groupings (click to be taken to the web pages): Athabascan, Unangax & Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Yup’ik & Cup’ik, Inupiaq & St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida & Tsimshian.

I visited the ANHC on one of my admissions recruiting trips, and it was amazing. If you’re ever in Anchorage, I definitely recommend a visit. 

(it was summer when I was there)

There is also some debate surrounding the term “Eskimo”–which is usually a blanket term to describe Yupik and sometimes Inupiaq peoples. The accepted term in Canada and Greenland is “Inuit,” however it is not used in Alaska. Most Alaska Natives I know identify by their cultural group and consider the term “Eskimo” pejorative–but I also know a few who identify as “Yupik Eskimo” or other similar combinations. If there’s someone who knows more and wants to weigh in, please let me know. 

I feel like this post is a little all over the place, but I just wanted to point out how ubiquitous these images are in our everyday lives. They are just as harmful as all the images of American Indians I post–reducing a heterogeneous group of people to one stereotyped image rooted in the past, in “magic” or fantasy, and erasing the current, contemporary presence of Alaska Native and Inuit peoples.

(Thanks Wendy and Marj!)