Archives For July 2011

 (screenshot from the Yay Life documentary trailer…not exploiting Native cultures at all, right?)

Someone posted a link to the “Yay Life Tribe” on the Native Appropriations Facebook page a couple of days ago. The “Yay Life Tribe” is the brainchild of a 20-something named Tucker, who got a spirit hood, it changed his life, and then he quit his job to devote all his time to spreading the message of loving life and positivity. The way he plans to do this is through selling Spirit Hoods, having a blog, twitter, and facebook page, and traveling around to music festivals this year where he will spread the gospel (and make a documentary while he’s at it).

I spent a fair amount of time that night looking at the facebook page, clicking through fan photos, and watched the trailer to the documentary. When I was done, I shrugged, and thought “I’m all for positivity and loving life. If this is how they want to do it, whatever.” I was perturbed at the use of the “tribe” idea–but I’m clearly not going to claim that American Indians are the only people who can use the word. There was also something else that really bothered me about the whole thing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon, I got a comment on my Spirit Hood takedown from the founder of the “Yay Life Tribe” himself, Tucker Gumber:

You guys are amazing. You are taking a product that actually adds happiness to the world and make it come off as some jab at native americans. Spirithoods have changed my life and inspired me to start a movement to get the world to realize that being happy is a decision (one that it seems like many of you on here need to make). Just google Yay Life Tribe to find our Trailer to the documentary we are making. You should also get used to seeing Spirithoods…. this is only the beginning.

I would be honored if you would join our tribe.

Tucker, Chief Of The Yay Life Tribe

I really had to take a step back here, and read the message twice. It’s rare these days, when I get constant emails of horrible outright appropriations and stereotypes, that I get a burn of outright rage in my chest. For some reason, this did it.

The bottom line is, The Yay Life Tribe, and Tucker’s message, reek of privilege and self-promotion.

Unfortunately, I can’t conquer the complexities of power and privilege in this post. What I can do is offer my interpretation of his words, and point out how it makes me feel.

Tucker, perhaps for the first time in his life, has felt the pinch of privilege. All of a sudden, someone tried to burst his bubble–taking something that he is intensely proud of and protective over, and told him that it exploits an entire group of people, and continues to contribute to the oppression and marginalization of Indigenous peoples. That’s a lot to handle. So he reacts. He reacts by blaming me for being overly sensitive (a classic tenet of colorblind racism), that I’m “making it come off as some jab at Native Americans.” He tells us that we need to “realize that being happy is a decision,” and then, in closing, to “get used to seeing Spirit Hoods.” He was happy in his land of protected privilege–a land where he had the ability to quit his job, cash out his 401K, and spend the summer traveling to music festivals where he will hang out with others who have the ability to shell out hundreds of dollars for a ticket, and propose that we all love each other, and that somehow will change the world. Who am I to come along and burst his happy bubble? How dare I.

First of all, honey, I didn’t “make it come off as a jab at Native Americans”. The darn thing is called a “Navajo Black Wolf” hood, and the founder of your beloved Spirit Hoods confirmed that he is “influenced” by Indian “culture.” I didn’t make that up. I’m really glad that a disembodied animal head changed your life. But for someone who is all about happiness, your message really hurt me. You dismissed my opinion, didn’t listen to what I had to say, and basically wrote me off as a party pooper trying to ruin your dream. The tone of saccharine laced with malice is what gets me the most. A “get used to it” threat in closing does not paint you as a peace-loving happy freak.

And then, THEN, you have the audacity to list yourself as the “chief” of your “tribe”. I’m sorry. Chiefs of our communities are respected, honored, revered figures–leaders who serve the people, not 25 year olds who run around with stuffed animals on their heads.

The thing is, I honestly don’t give a flying eff about your campaign to change the world one drunk music festival goer at a time. But there is absolutely no reason to bring Native cultures into this. Celebrate loving life, talk about how awesome you are for giving away your iphone, promote the hell out of your documentary, paint yourself as a martyr for the cause, gain some of the fame you clearly desire in the process, but why do you have to call yourself a “tribe”? Why do you have to paint yourself up and wear a breastplate? Just wear the animal on your head. Leave it at that. There is nothing that inherently screams cultural appropriation about “Spirit Hoods”–the cultural appropriative and exploitative aspects have all been added on after the fact–and that’s what bothers me.

So no, I won’t be a member of your “tribe.” Sorry. #yaylife?

I’ve mentioned a few times my involvement with an awesome organization called College Horizons-a summer program for college bound Native students. I’ve been a part of the College Horizons family for 9 years now, starting in 2002 when I was a student in the program, then I attended the Graduate Horizons program as a college student, served as a faculty member when I worked in Admissions, and have since been and essay specialist and volunteer counselor. This summer was special for me because I served as a small group leader for the first time, and I also was conducting my research for my qualifying paper in my doctoral program. I felt like I had truly come full circle. It’s an incredible feeling to be in a position where I am now able to give back to the organization that I credit will so much of my success. My goal in coming to graduate school was to give voice to high school Native students navigating the college application process, showcasing the strength, resiliency, and promise in our communities, and I always knew that the story of College Horizons was the story I wanted to tell through my research.

This summer I had the absolute privilege to work with nearly 200 students, but worked closely with 22 in my small groups (Group 6 CSU and Group 6 UR forever!!). My second week I was the essay specialist for an amazing group of students, working on draft after draft of their personal statements. As part of the program’s closing ceremony, small group leaders read excerpts from the student essays–creating almost found poems of their powerful words. I wanted to share the words of my students with you, because we always need reminders of power and strength in the face of all the misrepresentations I feature on this blog. These students came from 9 different tribes, 10 different states, some very connected to their heritage, others still learning, but all passionate about their Native identities and going to college. As you read, realize these are the words of our future tribal leaders, doctors, lawyers, artists, teachers, engineers, writers, and musicians. I’d say the future of Indian Country is in good hands. Without further ado, Group 6:

While we dance, we connect it to the spirit world. While we dance, we pray to the spirits and for everyone around us.
I have been entrenched in the culture and ways of life of my people and have grown proud of this remarkable place. I have grown to realize the importance of living on our ancestral land that our people have lived on since the beginning.
Being able to grow up in Hawaii and being of Hawaiian blood places me in the ideal situation to know and understand the other qualities of the Aloha spirit, starting with my parents’ teachings.The Aloha Spirit exists in the lives of all the keiki (children) of Hawaii.
Right then and there I felt as if that mound in the middle of the grassy field wasn’t just where my ancestors once lived, but it was where I belonged. For the first time in my entire life it wasn’t just something someone had told me about, it was actually real.
As I arrive to school and exit my vehicle, I take a deep breath of fresh air and smell the sweet aroma of incoming rain, with a little hint of wood smoke from a Hogan nearby. I then know that this will be a great day–living on the land where my Native people have dwelled for hundreds of years.
The sky is a deep blue gradually turning lighter, the stars seem right at my fingertips, and the cool air of dawn gently nips my skin.  Seeing the beauty of earth while everyone is asleep is magical.  It’s peaceful and calming to think of seeing a brand new day emerge.  Greeting the sun as she patiently illuminates the rocks and the sand of Sky City.
I was born in T’aatsoh, the month of Big Leaves, to a young scared teenager, far away from the Navajo Reservation, far away from Dinetah (the Navajo Homeland).
Unlike the neighboring city where I go to school, San Pedro is very loud.  But that noise keeps me company, and I often sleep with my window open letting the sounds lull me to sleep.
I honor my Nation by teaching the ways of our people, and by connecting others and myself to not only my tribe, but the all the tribes of this country as well.
This stagnation, which evolves into transformation, is reflected in the melodies I make as I bang on the keyboard in my room – I move from the bass and drums to the keys and synth…I can hear exactly what harmony I need to reinforce the funk and bring effervescence to the track.
In the future, when I stand with my new choir, I will feel grateful for the opportunity and look forward to reaching the new dream of perfection.

For any of you who wondered what I research out here in Boston–this is what I do. I believe that in order to fully engage in self-determination, practice our sovereignty, and continue the process of nation-building in our communities, we need to find a way to reclaim education and find a way for our traditional values to co-exist in a western higher education environment. The magic of College Horizons is that it encourages students to use higher education as a means to give back to their tribal communities, and to find strength in their Native identity that will propel them through the college application process and beyond. 


(Thanks College Horizons, and my fantastic small groups–I continue to be humbled and amazed by you!)

Oh Spirit Hoods.

July 9, 2011 — 35 Comments

Oh Spirit Hoods. One of those fashion trends that makes me pause, cock my head, and say “really??” If you’re unfamiliar (meaning you’re not one of the 15,000+ people who “like” the brand on facebook), Spirit Hoods are furry animal hat/scarf combos that are all the rage with tweens, celebs, and hipsters alike. I’ve gotten a few tips recently about the company, particularly their use of the tag-line “join the tribe”:

At first, I was annoyed by the tag line, but found the whole concept of wearing an disembodied stuffed animal on your head so ridiculous, figured it wasn’t worth the fight. They also don’t focus solely on what I would call the stereotypical mystical, Native animals (wolves, bears, deer, buffalo, owls, etc), they have pandas, leopards, and lions as well. But then, I started exploring their site further, and I got a tip about their new “Navajo wolves” line. And boy did I change my mind.

The “Navajo Wolves” collection are the wolf hoods, lined in Pendleton-style fabric.

For each “animal” they provide a description of what the “animal spirit” represents–traits and characteristics that the wearer will somehow embody. And the accompanying description for the “Navajo Black Wolf” is just fantastic:

Black Wolf-Navajo
Mysterious » Shapeshifter » Beauty

The black Wolf spirit has unmatched ferocity, cunning, stealth, confidence, and loyalty. They howl at the moon and are great communicators with a strong appreciation of music. This animal spirit feels at home within order and chaos. Often a teacher or dancer with keen senses, these warrior spirits will also defend their ground. The Black Wolf is in touch with lunar influences and the shadow within. This healer brings the magical spirit-medicine.

Deep breath. Ready? Let’s looks at this critically. How many stereotypical “Indian” traits can we fit into a short paragraph? So apparently Navajos are described by the terms “mysterious, shapeshifter, beauty”–because we’re all like twilight and turn into wolves. Though, it’s an interesting reference to skinwalkers too (f you want to be scared s***less, have a Navajo tell you some of those stories. ::shudder::). Then we’ve got the “warrior spirit” and “brings the magical spirit-medicine”–basically every line of this description reads like a bad Indian fantasy novel. We’ve got the warrior stereotype, the connected with nature and the environment stereotype, the wise teacher stereotype, the mystical healer stereotype, the musical stereotype…on and on and on. “But,” you may be saying, “it’s about a wolf, not an Indian, you silly blogger-woman!” I think it’s fairly obvious the connection they’re trying to make with the Pendleton fabric and calling the darn thing a “NAVAJO” wolf.

So, a few brave Native Approps readers took the issue head-on over at “Kingdom of Style”. Look for the comments by “Mea.” The fascinating part comes from a comment by the Co-Founder of Spirit Hoods–this is the philosophy of the company, straight from the horse’s mouth. Another deep breath may be necessary, and try to read past all of the misspellings and grammar errors:

This is a good topic for discussion, and in fact we at SpiritHoods have taken a lot into consideration when it comes to Native American culture. In no way are we trying to demean or prostitute Native American’s, in fact their way of life has been so inspiring to us that it has forced us to evaluate our lives and everything we do within it. For instance us four owners went to a traditional native American sweat lodge out here in California together. If anything we are inspired by native culture and their respect for the land and it’s animals, but not just Native American’s, native’s all over the world.
The animal headdress is seen in many cultures, Alaskan natives, American natives, South American natives, African natives etc. The Spirit of the animal and our connection to it is seen in cultures all over the world and we believe it is innate within us. Hence the importance of Product Blue and why we give back to non-profits that help in the rehabilitation of these animals.
Native American’s see this duality and the importance of our co-existence and protecting it. If anything we are trying to help perpetuate that.
We try our very best to respect all people and cultures in everything we do, we are inspired by their designs, their philosophies and what we want to do with SpiritHoods is embrace self expression with a foundation of giving back.
If your interested in more about this topic here is a good read:
and check out out to learn more about how we support the animals
Alexander Mendeluk

CO-Founder/Director of Design&PRSpiritHoods

Wow, thank you, Alexander for telling all of us what exactly Native Americans (all of the millions of us) think! and thank you for realizing that there is only one “Native American culture” and that we are all exactly the same! and thank you  for finding our way of life (since we only have one!) “inspiring”–since marginalization, colonization, and ongoing poverty are awesome, right? and thank you for going to a “traditional Native American sweat lodge” so you now have the first-hand experience and knowledge to speak for all of us! and finally, thank you for considering the animals first. I’m glad to know your “foundation of giving back” doesn’t extend to the people that your product is so clearly “inspired by”–that would be silly!

Dripping sarcasm aside, I love the irony of him linking the SocImages post that’s a summary of my blog. Talk about missing the point.

Honestly though, it’s a hard line, because clearly Alexander and Spirit Hoods don’t think they’re being offensive. They truly believe that going to a “traditional Native American sweat lodge” is enough to force them “to evaluate our lives and everything we do within it,” they truly think they are showing respect to Native peoples and cultures. 

So how do we go about addressing something as deep as this? That’s a struggle I have with many of these examples–if the owners read this, they are going to get defensive and dismissive, and not actually think deeply about what effects their actions are having on the collective American consciousness about Native peoples. Especially when their products are making them hella cash (each retails for $150) and are all the rage–what motivation do they have to change? So if we can’t change the company, let’s change from the ground up: Don’t buy from Spirit Hoods, because they promote the stereotyping of Native peoples, the appropriation of our tribal names and traditions, encourage the problematic practice of “playing Indian”, and the company philosophy is based off of a harmful romanticized vision of Native cultures. 

Spirit Hoods Official Website:
Kingdom of Style: The Night Owl

(Thanks Jackie, DC, Christi, Alyss, and the others who sent this in!)

 Right on the heels of our great discussion on Al Jazeera’s The Stream, the Today Show decided to feature “tribal jewelry” as one of its go-to summer “outfit makers.” I’ll embed the video clip below, but I don’t know how long it’ll be up on the site, so I took some screen shots and made a quick transcript as well:

 Text of their conversation (more or less…they should learn to listen while someone else is speaking!) is below:

“Our next trend is that all that tribal look has morphed into more of an American Indian vibe. And this is a look that is in summer, we see it a lot in summer…” (Kathy interrupts)

“well you always see this out there in Arizona and those western states…”

“true,true,  but this is actually something that is carrying into Fall. We saw it on the runway. This necklace is from Lauren Wells, it’s inspiration, it’s 96 dollars, but I promise you this with a white t shirt and jeans is a great go to summer look. it’s a really strong look, and these are from express, these earrings here are good if you just want to try the trend.”

“So is the feather thing still going to last?”

“Well yes, I think so, it’s that Hollywood-Coachella festival kind of vibe…”

Here’s the Lauren Wells Necklace:

and the Express earrings:

So, basically this one minute clip is demonstrating a lot of the points I try to get across with this trend. The use of generic “tribal” to represent some random stereotype of “Indigenous”–or even the term “American Indian vibe”–Honestly, what does that even mean? And which American Indians are you talking about?

Then, the fact that all of the pieces are shoddy knock offs of Indian artisan work–Lauren Wells seems to be a designer that takes a LOT of “inspiration” from Native designs, and those express earrings look just like ones you could buy at any powwow from, you know, a real Native artist. What a novel concept.

Finally, the “feather trend” which Kathy (or Hoda, I can’t tell, they’re all talking at once) says she’s “sick of” and that people should “go to Las Vegas” where they’ll see “plenty of feathers.” The “feather trends” are based off of Native practices of wearing feathers as part of regalia or traditional clothing, and their comments are reducing a sacred practice (feathers in many communities are given as part of special ceremonies, or in honor of large accomplishments) into a trend that you can be “sick of” or akin to a showgirl’s headdress in Vegas. Exactly the same thing, right?

The last point about the feathers is part of a larger issue I’ve been grappling with–while I look forward to the day that I no longer see Native cultures mis-represented in store windows, the whole process of “discarding” the trend as “over” or “so last year” by default makes Native peoples and cultures disposable as well. The dominant culture can take what they want, use it as they see fit, and then ultimately throw it away.

So in one minute, the Today Show manages to condense millions of Native people into a single, incorrect, otherizing stereotype, encourage viewers to buy Native style jewelery from non-Natives, and minimize an important and sacred cultural marker of many tribes. Bet the producers didn’t think about all that.

Today Show: Summer Outfit Makers

(Thanks Myrton!)

In case you missed it, I was a guest on Al Jazeera English’s social media news show The Stream yesterday. I was super nervous going into it, but ended up having a lot of fun and feeling like my voice was actually heard for once.

The host asked some tough questions, like “In a multi-cultural society, isn’t a certain level of cultural appropriation to be expected?” and the dreaded headdress-blackface connection, but I’m fairly happy with the way the whole interview went.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The article is here:
Al Jazeera The Stream: Don’t Trend On My Culture