Archives For March 2012

Something super exciting happened at midnight last night. So exciting, in fact, that I just had to share it with all of you. I don’t know about you, but my weekdays pretty much start out this way: Get up, head to my office, sit down at my computer, open A Tribe Called Red’s soundcloud page, and then proceed with my day. Just me?

Well now you can have A Tribe Called Red on your very own computer–because last night at midnight they dropped their debut album, which is available for download here, FOR FREE. How awesome is that?

For those of you new to A Tribe Called Red, they describe themselves on their blog as creating “a never before heard sound made up of a wide variety of musical styles ranging from Hip-Hop, Dance Hall, Electronic, and their own mash-up of club and Pow Wow music, known as Pow Wow Step, that is quickly gaining respect from all kinds of communities from all around the world.”

I’ve loved them since I read an interview back in Jan 2011 where they rail against hipster headdresses and mainstream representations of Natives. Some of my favorite quotes are below (both from DJ Bear Witness, though the other guys have great insights as well. I definitely recommend a read of the whole interview):

What is your goal when you sample images or references to indigenous people from Hollywood movies or pop songs? 

Bear Witness: Reclaim, repurpose and reuse. I like to look past the automatic reaction to say these images are racist or stereotypes (which they are) and flip it around. We make these images our own. Taking away the power they have to harm us and reclaim it for ourselves. It’s like how we and many other young Native people like to wear things like the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves logos. We have made these images our own. 

Is it ever strange to bring music that samples traditional tribal music into a club setting? 

Bear Witness: I’m a strong believer in the idea that culture and tradition are living, growing and changing things. We learn to understand our past to guide us into the future. I will always remember going to pow wows when I was a kid in the early ’80s, right around the time break dancing was getting really big. There were fancy dancers who were adding break dancing movies in with the pow wow steps and things like checkered bandannas to their regalia.

As someone who deeply cares about representations of Native people, I love how ATCR manages to reimagine what “Native” music sounds like, causing people to question their preconceived notions and stereotypes. They also are very aware of and respect cultural boundaries as well, striking a balance between wanting to be subversive and respecting tradition: “We want people to dance, so we use songs that are meant for people to dance to. We won’t use sacred songs, such as ‘honour’ or ‘grand entry’ songs, which aren’t even allowed to be recorded. We have way too much respect for the tradition to do that.”

They also did an awesome collaboration with the ethnomusicology lab at UCLA, where DJ Shub (Dan General) was able to work with some archival wax cylinder recordings of Cayuga tribal members. The song “General Generations” was the resulting track and can be found here, along with the story behind it. The scholar who worked with them also gives a great anecdote that I loved of not knowing how to address DJ NDN over email–”Dear Mr. NDN?”

Along with the music, images are a large part of ATCR’s weekly “Electric Powwows” at clubs throughout Canada, and many of their music videos are mash ups of stereotypical images from movies and other sources, carefully selected to re-appropriate and reclaim them.

Basically, their music is amazing and I love it, but I love that the group members are so into social commentary and working against stereotypes and negative representations of Native people even more. It’s like someone designed the perfect genre of music just for me! I thought this quote summed it up quite well: “A Tribe Called Red are more than just a music act; they are an audio-visual, cultural phenomenon.”

But because I am who I am, of course this post can’t be complete without some critical analysis of how ATCR has been portrayed by non-Native media outlets. I was ready and bracing myself for some of the usual racist BS, but was pleasantly surprised that the majority of the reviews of the group were great–highlighting the social activism and re-appropriation/reclaiming aspects of the group, as well as the popular appeal of the music.

But, one from MTV Iggy referred to “tribal drum circle music” and “sick tribal chanting,” and this one in the National Post calls the sampled Northern Cree songs “high pitched aboriginal cries.” Definitely a little exoticizing and othering, but in the grand scheme of things, not too bad?

TL;DR: Go download A Tribe Called Red’s debut album. It’s amazing, and you’ll be glad you did.

Download the album above or right here: http://www.electricpowwow.com/

You can also find A Tribe Called Red on Facebook, Twitter, and their blog.

MTV IGGY Album Review: S/T by A Tribe Called Red
MTV IGGY Interview: Q&A With Powwowstep Pioneers A Tribe Called Red: “Ke$ha Must Have A Big Pair [Of Balls]”
UCLA Ethnomusicology Review: Notes on the Collaboration with A Tribe Called Red
National Post: A Tribe Called Red’s Urban Powwow

Just a quick post for today–I thought this image from LastRealIndians.com was great. The “hipster repellent” is definitely my favorite part. Also check out their site for some great critical essays about Native issues.

Are you following any interesting or important Native stories this week? Feel free to post in the comments!

Last Real Indians: Anti-Appropriation Cartoon

Why Tonto Matters

March 16, 2012 — 51 Comments

It’s been a week or so since the original photos of Johnny Depp as Tonto have surfaced, and the internet has been abuzz with Depp defenders and Depp defectors–and while the Native Appropriations community and my internet circle have been on the “oh dang, this is real bad for us” train, I’ve been surprised at how many people have basically told me and others with similar opinions to STFU and “get over it” (with also some more choice words than that…).
But I still stand by the fact that Tonto and his portrayal matter to Indian Country, and should matter to Indian Country. And here’s why.

Defenders of Depp-as-rodeo-clown-Tonto’s arguments basically boil down to the following: Tonto is a fictional character. The Lone Ranger is a fictional movie. Johnny Depp is a great actor. We should be glad to have him portray Tonto. No one thinks Tonto is representative of a real Indian. There are bigger things to worry about in Indian Country, this is so trivial it shouldn’t even be an issue.

Here’s the thing. Yeah, Tonto is a fictional character, and there are plenty of white actors and actresses who play fictional characters, and we don’t automatically assume that white people are fictional, so it shouldn’t matter, right? We saw Natalie Portman as an evil-crazy-swan-human in the Black Swan, and we don’t assume that Natalie Portman’s character is representative of her, or all white people, in real life. But that, my friend, is white privilege at work. Everyday we see millions of representations of white people in varied and diverse roles. We see white actors as “real” people, as “fantasy” characters, and everything in between. 
But for Native people, the only images that the vast, vast majority of Americans see are stereotypical in nature. You go to the grocery store and see plenty of smiling white children on cereal boxes, contrasted with the only readily recognizable Native image–the Land o’ Lakes butter girl. In advertising we see plenty of non-Native folks participating in everyday life, and then we get ads like this featuring Native people. There are also hardly any (if any) Native people in current, mainstream television shows. And this carries over even more strongly into Hollywood.

The last big blockbuster series to feature Native characters was the Twilight series, and we are portrayed as wolves. Think of every recent major studio film that featured a Native character or Native actor. All of the ones I can think of off the top of my head were set in a historical context, were a fantasy film, or were offensively stereotype laden. There have been so few accurate, modern, nuanced portrayals of Native people it’s not even funny.

So, when we live in a world where there are other, more nuances portrayals of Native people for non-Natives to draw upon–when there are Native people featured in mainstream romantic comedies, dramas, sitcoms, even reality TV,  or news–then, maybe, will I be able to be looking forward to a stereotypical mess of a Tonto on the big screen. But I doubt it.
Comedian Ryan Mcmahon has a fabulous podcast series called “Ryan McMahon Gets Angry”, and he just did an awesome 5 minute rant on Johnny Depp as Tonto, and the responsibility we have as a community to question these representations. I can’t recommend it enough (language slightly NSFW):

Here’s a transcript of the end of his podcast:

So is Johnny Depp putting a bunch of Indians on the back of horses for this Lone Ranger Jerry Bruckheimer car crash gonna be good for us? Hell no. I’m not looking forward to it, I don’t think we should be happy about it, and I don’t think we should immediately go to that excited-happy-place everytime we see ourselves on TV. Because more oftentimes it hurts us more than helps us.  

I think the time to take back our stories, to take back our pride, and to start empowering and helping each other to rise is the time that we’re in now. That’s what I look forward to, that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what a whole bunch of other people are trying to do. Is Johnny Depp being on the back of a horse with a g*ddamn crow on the his head supposed to help us? Probably not. But it’s definitely not going to. So don’t get happy when you see four or five other brothers sitting on the back of a horse in their loincloth. Don’t be surprised, don’t be happy about it, don’t celebrate it, cause it’s bullsh*t. The time to reclaim, recapture, redefine, our own stories, in our own ways is now, and g*ddammit we gotta do more of it. Demand more from the producers, demand more of the television people, demand more from the people who are writing these stories. Because the stories are there. We are strong, proud people, and we need to be represented, by ourselves, as such.

I couldn’t agree more. There are several sub-arguments that I’ve seen in the last few days, citing how many Native actors would miss out on work as extras if this movie weren’t made, or how Johnny Depp’s “star power” was needed to get the film made in the first place. Those arguments are upsetting to me. We need to demand more. We can’t be complacent with just going to that “excited-happy-place” every time we see any representation of an Indian on screen. We can’t be thankful that 50 Native actors are able to ride around bareback in the background of a film, or be psyched that a big name Hollywood actor put a crow on his head to “honor” us–talk about ongoing colonization of the mind. Our community is so much better than that. We are worth so much more than background roles and misrepresentations.
Ryan also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:

Everything you do, grandson, is going to be political because you’re Anishinabe.

The way we represent ourselves is, therefore, inherently political. These “trivial” issues are representative of deeper, darker, larger issues within Indian Country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and misrepresentation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the “real” issues in Indian Country. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it as many times as I can until it sticks:

Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can’t–and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.

Earlier:
Native Appropriations: Johnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I mean Tonto. 

Further background reading:

If you want to read Ray Cook call me out and tell me that my writing is “So much hog-wash, so much wasted cyber-space, so much wasted oxygen” (awesome!): Tontomania: Who are we’z anyways?

Guardian: Why I’m Willing to Believe in Johnny Depp’s Tonto

Reel Injun (documentary about stereotyping of Indians in Hollywood): http://www.reelinjunthemovie.com/site/

Academic Article on Hollywood Stereotypes: The White Man’s Indian: Stereotypes in Films and Beyond

Ryan McMahon gets angry episode 4: I Ain’t Gettin On No Horse

PS- There are other things that I think need to be addressed with the controversy, but I didn’t have space here. The issue of Depp being “Indian enough” is a big one, or what “Indian enough” even means, or the historical accuracy of his costume, or the role of Native people in the film overall. I’d recommend a read through the comments on my first post for some great, interesting, and intelligent conversations.

EDIT 3/20–I switched out the cartoon at the top of the post because of my complete ignorance to the homophobic undertones to the original. My deepest apologies to the LGBTQ community for using an insensitive image, it was definitely not my intention to marginalize anyone. I definitely try to be aware of when my hetero/cis privilege comes out–so please continue to call me out on it, and I’ll definitely do better moving forward. Wado!

Entertainment Weekly just posted the “first look” of Johnny Depp as Tonto in the new Lone Ranger movie. I’m really at a loss for words right now. I…can’t.

There was a bunch of controversy over the casting of Johnny Depp to begin with–and I was right on board, mad that they hadn’t cast a Native actor in the role. The Johnny defenders note that he has Indian heritage that he’s proud of…so proud that he says it probably started with a rape:

“The interesting thing, if you find out you’ve got Native American blood, which a lot of people do, is you think about where it comes from and go back and read the great books, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee or [John Ehle's] Trail of Tears, you have to think, somewhere along the line, I’m the product of some horrific rape. You just have that little sliver in your chemical makeup.”

and this:

“I guess I have some Native American (in me) somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.”

That’s a whole ‘nother post. But I think it gives you some context as to how “connected” and “proud” Johnny is of his ancestry. Always the Cherokee great-grandma, amiright?

Every article since the casting decision has stressed how this version of the Lone Ranger is going to be much more about Tonto, and he’s going to be given a bigger role, and that Depp hopes to “reinvent” the relationship between the two characters:

“When the idea came up [for the movie], I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way try to — ‘eliminate’ isn’t possible — but reinvent the relationship, to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only in The Lone Ranger, but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.”

If this horrific image is “an attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans…and turn it on it’s head”, I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.

He looks like they just took the Captain Jack Sparrow costume and removed the pirate hat, put a bird on it, and added some menacing facepaint.Or wait, they already did that:

(Pirates 2)

(Lone Ranger)

The Tonto costume is a mish-mash of stereotypical Indian garb, a Plains-style breastplate with a southwest-style headband (minus the effing bird), random feathers and beads–but the face paint that makes him look evil, forlorn, and angry all at once is a nice touch. Then, the fact that the publicity photo shows the “wild” and “unruly” (ok, I’ll say it, “savage”) Tonto behind the clean, polished, (and white) Lone Ranger is a great “honoring” to Native people too, and shows how much agency Tonto has, right? (/sarcasm)

You guys, I’m pissed off. Like for real. I had a teensy-tiny bit of hope that this wouldn’t be another othering-stereotype-filled-horror, but clearly I was so wrong. This movie has a budget of like $215 million. That big of a budget, and you couldn’t have hired a Native consultant, or shoot–even asked  a Native person from the community you’re purporting to represent (Tonto’s Apache, right?) what the character should look like?

Yeah, I know this is *fiction* I know it’s not supposed to be *real*–but 99% of audiences aren’t able to separate images like this on the screen from real, live, Native peoples. History and every other stereotypical hollywood portrayal has taught us that.

But if the movie comes out and I am totally, totally wrong. I’m prepared to eat crow. Starting with that hideous one on Johnny’s head.

Entertainment Weekly: Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer as Tonto and The Lone Ranger — FIRST LOOK
Entertainment Weekly: Johnny Depp wants ‘The Lone Ranger’ to back off Tonto: ‘Why is the f–––ing Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?’

 

UPDATE: here are the other blog posts in my “Tonto series”

3/16/2012: Why Tonto Matters

4/24/2012: Johnny Depp as Tonto: I’m still not feeling honored

7/16/2012: Real Indians Don’t Care About Tonto

 

(Thanks @deluxvivens!)

Mariah Watchman got voted off American’s Next Top Model last night. Sadface, right? We didn’t even have a chance to see how many racial microaggressions she would have to endure over the course of the season! I haven’t watched the episode, but Indian Country Today did a quick recap here, if you’re interested. But I have something more interesting to share.

Last night I was perusing twitter as the show was on, and truly just by chance caught this convo between a reader of Native Approps and Nigel Barker himself:

Her next tweet was a link to my ANTM post from a few days ago:

I decided to screenshot the whole thing so I could share on Facebook, and I’m glad I did, because magically this morning, all of Nigel’s tweets had been deleted. Does that mean Nigel *read* my post? And maybe learned something about how his behavior and the choices of the show were incredibly insensitive? I really, really hope so. Or he could have acted out of embarrassment.

Either way, kinda interesting, right? I’ll tweet this post to him and see if he responds–though I’m not holding my breath.

Oh, and Nigel, if you read this, I’m a little sorry I said I wanted to throw my remote at your face in the other post. I’m usually a pacifist. 

If you missed the original break down of ANTM:
Oh ANTM, where do I even start?: Mariah Watchman and the Pocahontas controversy  

Indian Country Today: Mariah Watchmen makes early exit from America’s Next Top Model 

Nigel’s Twitter: @NigelBarker

(Thanks Kelly!)
(Program and ticket from the play “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi. Above the ticket, notice the word “Squaw.” Also, note the pins thrust into Ishi’s body as if he were in an insect collection.)

AK Note: Please welcome guest blogger Tria Andrews.

Tria is a mixed race Cherokee, Irish, and Filipina writer who has published critical essays, fiction, poetry, and photography. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction from San Diego State University, a Shinnyo Fellow, and a PhD student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, where she teaches Asian American and Native American Studies. Her current research examines culturally relevant forms of rehabilitation for Native American youth in juvenile detention centers located on tribal grounds. This research is informed by over five years of tutoring and teaching yoga to incarcerated adolescents.
This past weekend marked two events held at UC Berkeley which presented conflicting representations of the violences that have occurred against Native peoples in the U.S. In her keynote address for the Empowering Women of Color Conference, “On Revolution: A Conversation Between Grace Lee Boggs and Angela Davis,” Davis foregrounded her talk by emphasizing, “I would like to begin by acknowledging the indigenous people, who are the original inhabitants of the land on which we meet. . . . And let us never forget that our presence here is very much related to the genocidal violence inflicted on this area’s Native people, and if we believe in justice, we must stand for justice for Native people in the 21st century.”

In contrast, the play, Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, which opened March 2, attempts to justify the gross violences committed against Native peoples through its portrayal of Ishi as a batterer, murderer, and rapist. While arguably the production evidences some meager attempts to provide a more nuanced version of history, ultimately, the play endeavors to erase not only Ishi, but also all Native peoples, who through the production’s monolithic representation of Native Americans are conflated with the Yahi. When the play is not depicting Native peoples as extinct, it suggests that Native Americans are not “survivors” or “victims,” but instead, were asking for it: “Maybe Manifest Destiny was a two-way street.”

Manifest Destiny was certainly not a two-way street; it was a colonial policy aimed at annihilating Native peoples, traditions, and cultures and usurping Native Americans of their lands in the name of “progress.” The attempts of dominant discourses to render Native peoples extinct to justify the continued occupation of Native lands is unfortunately one reason that Ishi may be a compelling story for non-Native audiences. The dominant and Non-native archive, which was utilized for the production, “a work of fiction based on fact,” perpetuates a tiresome story told from the point of view of the aggressor. Despite the fact that Native peoples associated with UC Berkeley have been addressing the complexities of Ishi’s story, it appears that no Native Americans were consulted for the play. Given the exploitative and dehumanizing relationship of UC Berkeley with Native populations in the past, the university has been working hard to repair the relationship that the institution has with Native peoples. However, the play seems completely oblivious to these activities and the important work that Native activists have been doing to seek restitution and reconciliation. Instead, the play causes further violences to Ishi and Native communities.

While the play pretends to present disparate and diverse versions of history—to speak from Ishi’s perspective—in truth, the production is about the European-American characters going native. Going native, as defined by Native scholar and UC Berkeley Professor, Shari Huhndorf, is a trope aimed at alleviating White guilt regarding the violent founding of the nation while simultaneously reinforcing White supremacy. While constructed around the character of Ishi, whose image is exploited on the production’s brochure, the protagonist of the play is in fact Dr. Alfred Kroeber, the primary anthropologist who studied Ishi. By purporting to be a play about the last of the Yahi (underscored by the play’s title), the production diminishes White guilt by representing Native peoples as extinct and Whites as the rightful owners of the land. In the falling action of the play, Ishi’s ghost—after his body is dismembered and dispersed throughout numerous institutions in the U.S. against his wishes—rises from the dead and assumes the third person plural, “we.” Here, Ishi’s adoption of “we” endeavors to downplay the violences against Native peoples, which the play in fact fetishizes. In other words, after his death, Ishi supposedly becomes a White man and in doing so, attempts to warrant the dispossession of Native peoples from their land.


While the play’s concluding characterization of Ishi as a European-American commits yet another horrific act of violence against Ishi, unfortunately, the play also fetishizes violence to Native characters’ bodies—or the bodies or non-Native actors playing Indian. The opening scene reveals a Native man in a loincloth who is chased by a White man wielding a gun. The White man is starving and intends to murder and eat the Indian. This action takes place both center stage and off stage as the actors circle the audience and whoop. One character warns another not to “pollute the [Indian’s] flesh with bullets.” These scenes of gruesome violence are staged as spectacle and rationalized in the narrative. Three White men brutally murder an Indian man, whose death the audience witnesses in scene. The Indian is beaten, tied to a stake, knifed, and finally, set on fire. This dramatization of violence, like others throughout the play, is accompanied by the bloodcurdling screams of the Indian characters. At one point in the play, while European-American characters are brutally beating an Indian, an image of a White woman wrested by two Native men is projected center stage to seemingly justify the violence committed against the Indian. As the play makes clear, the violences against Native peoples continue postmortem as Native remains are stored in museums and universities, such as UC Berkeley, which currently houses 12,000 human skeletons. However, the production commits even further violences. Through Ishi’s perspective, Native remains are labeled “evil,” and the housing of these bodies in museums and institutions is presented as an unavoidable and resolved circumstance, which is certainly not the case given the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Ishi in 1914

Considering the immense violences that Native peoples—and in particular Native women—continue to endure from non-Natives, violent scenes, which are unsparingly utilized in the performance, reveal disgusting and insulting displays of ignorance. European-American men and Ishi himself beat and threaten Native women or “squaw[s]” as the cast list derogatorily refers to one of the female characters. In the play, Native women, unlike their European-American counterparts (with the exception of Dr. Saxton Pope, M.D. who goes native, donning a two piece buckskin ensemble while simulating masturbation), are not only sexualized, but also beaten and raped. The depiction of Native American women as promiscuous, their bodies, like the land, seducing European-Americans, is yet another racist trope that the production cannot resist. Ishi’s narrative, which the main characters expend most of the play attempting to extract from Ishi, is presented in two versions, both of which render a Yahi woman, Ishi’s sister, as incestuous, murderous, and inherently rapeable. Rape, as Cherokee activist and writer Andrea Smith highlights, is a tool of conquest. Yet, the production portrays Native men as rapists and Native women as enjoying their violability because of their cultural upbringing: “Copulate and rape are not different words in Yahi.” This Western, patriarchal portrayal of violence against Yahi’s sister, who revels in her own rape so much so that she seeks out her rapist—also her parents’ murderer—as a lover and father for her child, is absolutely inexcusable. Yet another irresponsible scene conflates violence with sexuality as Ishi is positioned behind his sister in a manner that suggests intercourse while the two work together to commit infanticide. To add insult to injury, the production completely misrepresents Native conceptions of “balance” or harmony, insisting, “There’s balance in all [Ishi’s] stories.”

But in Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, Ishi’s so-called stories are not his own. They are stories of Ishi narrated through a Western lens. I could continue by citing the multiple violences against Ishi and Native peoples that the play commits and which I have not yet specified: unproblematizing privilege and power dynamics; portraying Ishi as childlike, savage, and subordinate; reinforcing racial and gender binaries, etc., but I want to conclude in a way that is more useful.

As a mixed race (Cherokee, Irish, and Filipina) woman, who identifies as indigenous and who was required to watch this production for a class, I want the director, cast, and crew to try to understand what it was like to be a Native person in the audience. The jolt sent up my spine when I read word “squaw” in the cast list, the knot that took root in my stomach and held while I witnessed the gunning down of an Indian in the opening scene, the stiffening of my shoulders when I was surrounded by staged violence accompanied by the villainous laughter and whoops of European-American characters in a play that professes to treat the history of our nation and the mass murdering of Native peoples as “gray matter.” It would have been impossible for me to sit through the play without writing back to it. Within the first few minutes, I began taking notes on my checkbook—the only paper I had. Although I wanted to leave the theater almost immediately, was determined to leave at intermission, a friend and former journalist convinced me a review would have more credibility if I watched the entire production.

Recommendations:

All that I have written here, I write without hesitation. I write what I witnessed and what I feel and know with all my being to be true. I understand that long hours and hard work were required to make a production such as Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, but because of the gross violences that this production perpetuates against Native peoples, I recommend that all further performances be canceled in order to create the time and space necessary for a dialog among Native peoples, the play’s director and writer, John Fisher, his cast, crew, and the campus community. If at an institution such as UC Berkeley we are truly committed to diversity and learning, I see no other alternative.

Please sign the petition to cancel the remaining performances here.

You can also email the Director, John Fisher at jofish94117@yahoo.com.

(Thanks Kayla and Tria!)

I almost feel a little bad writing this post. Because in doing so, I know everything I’m saying is going to come as a big shock to the owners of this company. I know that they think their intentions are pure and their heart is in the right place, and that they think through their own brand of hipster hippy humor they’re immune to criticism. I’m pretty sure we’ve got another Yay Life Tribe or Spirit Hoods on our hands–This is a company that is clearly the heart and soul of the founders, that strives to do good in the world, and is just so earnest in doing so–that they’ve been blinded to how hurtful their imagery and representations of Native culture are. So Thunderbird Energetica, I’m sorry, but I’m about to tear apart everything you hold dear. And I do feel bad about it. I do.

So what is Thunderbird Energetica? It’s a small “artisan energy bar company committed to producing powerful sources of human fuel.” Every bar is handmade, they use “real” ingredients, and even the wrappers are biodegradable. Cool. I’m on board with that. They also are super into supporting athletes–runners, bikers, triathalon-ers, etc. Also fine. So, if that’s where the story stopped, I’d be happy to hop on by my local natural foods store and buy a few bars.

But as you can tell from the image at the top of this post, the entire company is imbued with Native cultural appropriation–running so deep that several Native Approps FB readers thought the entire site was a work of satire. Ready? Here’s the “origin” of the company:

As night fell, a lightning storm looming on the horizon provided the fireworks that further sparked our imaginations. We interpreted this moment as a sign, a metaphor, for what we captured in our energy bar. Raw, organic power and a simple, yet finely balanced force; an entire energy system designed to bring life and romance to an otherwise harsh and punishing environment. We had been touched by the Thunderbird and everything that it represents.

Um, right. 

There’s truly too much for me to unpack every layer in one post, so I’m going to send you off to various parts of their website.

The profiles of the founders each include a section on their “Spirit Animal”–Catamount, Jaguar, and White-Tail, respectively. You can find these profiles by clicking on “Tribe” at the top of the page, and then “Creators” (not kidding). “Jaguar”, also known as Taylor Thunder, the founder listed (until tonight–more on that later) “Native Americans” among his “Inspirations.” It now reads something about his dog. Who is named “Lakota,” btw.

Then I took a little time to explore their blog. A few things. They love their Moms and Dads. Cute. They support a lot of races. cool. They hired a designer named “Sprinting White Horse”. Wait, what?

Yeah. “Sprinting White Horse”–”Jed Rogers (christian name)” found his spirit animal through an “intense sweat lodge experience”. Read the whole thing here, it gets even more ridiculous. I get it. It’s a joke (oh please jeebus let it be a joke), but the trivializing of Native spiritual practices and sacred naming ceremonies does not strike me as funny. Here you go:

In order to design the perfect Thunderbird logo, Jed Rogers (christian name) left his native land of Austin, TX  to partake in a month long sweat lodge experience in the remote desert plains of New Mexico. While exposing his sculpted body to temperatures above 140 degrees, Jed partook in intense week long meditation sessions while fasting. After 2 weeks of deprivation and searching deep into his soul, Jed experienced his first hallucination.  He saw himself as a hawk soaring high into the stratosphere looking down at the meek earth. Miles beneath his feathered quads, Jed saw a wild stallion. Of course this stallion was sprinting and Jed was intrigued. He flew down to take a closer look at the magnificent beast and he quickly realized that he shared many of the same stunning physical characteristics. Huge vein filled legs, beautiful white teeth, and an affinity for traveling faster than most terrestrial animals. Jed had discovered his spirit animal!

Next, their racing kits. They sell a package where you can “join the tribe” and wear their company branded outfits. It comes with a contract, seen below (click to make it bigger):

Some choice phrases: “Congratulations on your admittance into the Thunderbird Tribe. Your life is going to improve exponentially after donning the sacred colors of the Thunderbird Nation. Be prepared to transcend time and space as you begin a magical journey into manhood/womanhood/tribeshood.” They call it a “sacred treaty”, but it’s supposed to be “funny”. Rules include saluting to buffalo and looking for your spirit animal.

There’s plenty more. They have a whole post about “spirit animals”:

Thunderbird Energetica is the only energy bar company to harvest the mystical powers of spirit animals during the fabrication and design of our product. Not only do the owners of our company have intimate relationships with their respective spirit animals, but each one of our bars has its own power animal.

They recommend this book on “spirit animals”:

 Looks totes legit! Real Native, right there.

They also had (again, until tonight) a blog post about how all their bars were “shaman blessed,” but the url (http://thunderbirdenergetica.com/thunderbird-is-shaman-blessed) now leads to an error page. I can only vaguely remember what it said–but they had some dude who came to the offices to bless the packages before they went out.

So, as you can tell by the subtle changes currently going on on the website, I posted this on the Native Appropriations facebook page earlier today, and readers had some less-than-nice words for the company. I commend Thunderbird for taking action to try and make their stuff less offensive, and clearly by editing it shows they’ve been made aware. But not totally aware, because a few readers sent them emails, and got variations on this response:

Im sorry you interpreted what we are doing as offensive. That is unfortunate. We have nothing but respect and honor for all indigenous tribes and cultures globally. I myself have deep Lakota Sioux roots that I am very proud of! So proud that I chose to start an energy bar company that would reflect that. The way I select to express my freedom of expression and speech is my conscious choice and perhaps it is too light hearted for your taste. Once again, never meant to offend you. Obviously you don’t understand my positioning and that is ok… We are all different and due to that diversity we express ourselves differently. You still have to respect that idea and the freedom of creativity.

Taylor
Sent from double rainbow machine

Ok. So now that we’ve established just what is so offensive, and how the company is choosing to respond, I’m going to structure my critique in an open letter format, cause I like doing it that way, ok?

Dear Taylor and the staff of Thunderbird Energetica,

I think you may have gotten more than a few angry emails from readers of Native Appropriations today, so I wanted to take some time to tell you why exactly it is we’re so upset by the way that you’ve chosen to market your company. First of all, so you know about me, I write a blog where I examine representations of Native peoples. Day in and day out, readers and I look at egregious examples of cultural theft, misrepresentations, and stereotypes, and I break down how these images are hurtful and contribute to the continued oppression of contemporary Native peoples. Unfortunately, your company and your language falls right in line with these examples of cultural appropriation.

I get that most of your website is tongue-in-cheek, that it’s supposed to be funny, poking fun at a culture of hippy-dippy health food nuts. I understand what you’re attempting with your writing, because that hyperbole and exaggeration are rhetorical devices I employ all the time on the blog as well. But the examples I’ve pulled out above, like the “spirit animals,” the fake-Indian-naming, the use of the term “tribe,” and the overall co-opting of Native American spirituality are upsetting and hurtful to me and other Native people.

First of all, your images and language collapse hundreds and hundreds of distinct tribes and traditions into a generic new-age Native stereotype. We don’t all participate in sweat lodge ceremonies, we don’t have “spirit animals,” very few of us have names that follow the extremely stereotypical “adjective+animal” format. The website perpetuates stereotypes that you may see as “positive”–Native peoples as stewards of the land, connected to nature, mystical, magical, special–but even these stereotypes are harmful because they relegate us to a mystical, fictional creature that exists in the past, not allowing Native people to exist as a modern, heterogeneous population that lives in the same world you do.

Taylor, you say that you have “Lakota Sioux roots,” and that’s great. But if you explored those roots a little more, you would learn that until 1978, American Indians couldn’t even legally practice our spirituality that you so openly appropriate–sweat lodges, naming ceremonies, “vision quests”–all illegal. That is why it hurts many of us so deeply when we see these practices being appropriated or mocked. If you wanted to form a company that “reflects” your roots, I’m pretty sure your Lakota elders would not have told you to rely on stereotypes.

I also struggle with your use of the term “Thunderbird tribe” and “Thunderbird nation.” Our American Indian tribes are sovereign nations within the United States. We have tribal governments that deal with the US government on a Nation-to-Nation basis. Our nations are strong and proud, and have existed long before the United States. They are not something that can be created from wearing a spandex outfit and signing a joke contract (don’t even get me started on calling it a “sacred treaty”). To call yourself a “tribe” and a “nation” trivializes the 500+ years that we have been fighting against colonization and fighting to keep our tribal rights.  

Finally, Taylor, your apology, or lack thereof. I totally get that this was all a big shock, and you’ve put a lot into this company to have some angry-Native-people-who-can’t-take-a-joke try and take that away. But your apology is pretty much a text book response to this type of thing, so much so that I almost laughed. Read this, if you don’t believe me. We’re not interpreting this as offensive, it is offensive. It’s not honoring to have someone make a mockery of your culture, traditions, and spirituality. I don’t find it respectful when someone makes light of the insurmountable loss of land and life from broken treaties, or basically tells me that I can’t take a joke, when the joke is at the expense of my culture.

You have “freedom of speech and expression,” yes. But for those who identify with the majority culture, you have most of those freedoms because of a system of privileges afforded to you simply because of the color of your skin and your position in society. You can turn on a tv, open a magazine, walk down the street, and see millions of images that reflect and affirm your life, your culture, and others like you. Native people don’t have such a privilege. The only images and representations we see are those created by outside forces, most of which, like your company, are stereotypes that don’t reflect or affirm the true nature of our cultures at all.

So your company is not “too light hearted for [our] taste,” and we can take a joke. But I’m sorry, I don’t find this funny. While on the surface, you may feel that your company has been unfairly targeted, or there are worse things that I should be going after, or that I should get a life and go fix something important–can I ask you one question? Did you even ask one Native person if your approach was ok? You know, the people you’re trying to honor?

This is all actually a surprisingly easy fix. Your company could be awesome. You’re a small, family-run, sustainable, organic-gluten-wheat-free-biodegradable-all-that-fun-stuff energy bar company. I support that mission. Just remove the Native imagery, get rid of the cultural appropriation. Change your website, re-brand, and you’ll be way more successful without 2% of the US population mad at you. Really.

Overwhelmed? Upset? I know how you feel.

Thanks for listening,

Adrienne K. 

Thunderbird Energetica Homepage
Thunderbird Energetica Facebook
Thunderbirt Energetica Twitter

Earlier Posts (You may want to read these to see how others have dealt with this–though I wouldn’t say they’re shining examples):

The Privilege of the Yay Life Tribe
Oh Spirit Hoods

EDIT 3/6: I clarified the language in the “white privilege” paragraph and took down the owner’s picture. Definitely want to make clear this is not about identity politics–it’s about images and representation.

 (Thanks Anita!)

This is not a post hating on Mariah Watchman, America’s Next Top Model’s very first Native contestant. At all. I’m so excited she’s on the show, and proud that she’s representing for all of Indian Country. Mariah is from the Umatilla rez in Oregon, but is also Ojibwe, Modoc, and Mandan, and seems pretty down-to-earth and awesome. This is much more about the show itself, and the messages it sends us about society at large.

The premise of this season of ANTM is a competition between British models and American models (they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel after 18 seasons to keep it interesting, I guess), and on the first episode, the models were paired in what was termed a “Culture Clash”–one model from the US and one from the UK, each representing an “iconic figure from [their] individual country.” Ok, fair enough.

So here were the pairings:

George Washington vs. Queen Elizabeth
Janet Jackson vs. Scary Spice
Madonna vs. Elton John
Michelle Obama vs. Margaret Thatcher
Andy Warhol vs. Amy Winehouse
Jackie O vs. Princess Diana

and, finally…

Pocahontas vs. John Lennon 

Any guesses as to who they made portray Pocahontas? Yeah. Mariah. Her response (on the show) to the choice:

“Me representing Native Americans, I mean who else better for me to get than Pocahontas? But I’m also nervous, because she’s Pocahontas, and that’s a lot to live up to.”

She went on the record with an interview with her hometown newspaper discussing the choice as well (which was a choice of the producers, not her own), saying:

 “As soon as I heard what the competition was, I knew that’s who I would be. I was completely fine with it. There’s no one else I’d want more to portray. It’s someone everybody knows.” 

I think this is completely a reflection of the sad, sad state of our society if a proud Native woman feels the only “iconic figure” that “everyone knows” of her race is a 12 year old who was famous for “saving” and marrying an old white dude, and then becoming a Disney character. Awesome.

The choice of the producers to have her portray “Pocahontas” is straight up offensive too. Let’s pigeonhole the only Native contestant by forcing her to don an extremely stereotypical outfit and be an Indian. The thing that stood out to me was that Mariah was cast into a race-based role, while the other pairings had plenty of (relatively progressive) race-bending. George Washington, Elton John, Jackie O, and John Lennon (all white) were portrayed by models of color, which I thought was kinda cool. But, because Mariah’s heritage is her “exotic” selling point for the show, the producers felt the need to exploit it.

Then the outfit they put on her. Oh the outfit. It looks like they bought it straight off the pocahottie halloween page--fake buckskin, primary colored feathers, plains-style beading and designs, braids in her hair. And, the kicker, a tomahawk. Yes, a tomahawk. History lesson, ANTM: Pocahontas was from Virginia, and none of those stereotypes apply to her people. So basically they did what everyone seems to do when they want to “honor” Indians–drew upon every Hollywood Indian stereotype without any regard for historical accuracy, regionality, or how effing racist it is to make the only Native girl basically dress up in blackface. (I’m ready for the angry comments about that last part)

But during the judging I wanted to throw my remote at Nigel Barker’s face. Here’s the final picture:

It’s fine. There were others that were much worse (it’s the first episode!). But Nigel, with all his infinite wisdom, said this:

“First of all Mariah, I think you had a very easy thing to do. You’re Native American? (She nods) But I don’t feel that you’ve committed. I just don’t see the angst, I don’t see the feeling, I don’t see the passion. I just see you looking pretty.”

Dear Nigel, I’m sorry that Mariah did not live up to your stereotyped images of what a Native person should be, I’m pretty sure she was doing her best while dressed in a fake-ass outfit that trivializes and stereotypes her culture. So Native people/a 12 year old Powhatan girl are supposed to portray “angst”, and “passion”? Do you realize how ludicrous your statements are? She’s somehow supposed to be “better” at playing a fictionalized historic figure because she happens to be the same race? None of the other critiques mentioned anything about the model’s race. They didn’t tell the girl playing Michelle Obama that she could have done better because she happens to be black, and Michelle Obama is black, so why didn’t you channel your inner sassy black first lady? 

It’s just so frustrating. The only lens that millions of viewers of ANTM have to view us (Natives) through is that of stereotypes and false representations–even when faced with a, living, breathing counter-narrative to those stereotypes in Mariah. An educated, reservation-raised, Sahaptin language-speaking Native woman who doesn’t walk around in buckskin and braids, but is still Native (and proud!).

I sure hope this start doesn’t reflect how the rest of the season will go. To her credit, Mariah is taking it all in stride, and wants to use her new celebrity to give back to Indian Country, and tried to represent Native peoples in a positive light on the show:

“I felt I couldn’t be crazy or nonchalant about things because I had a whole people on my shoulders,” she said. “I had higher expectations for myself. I wasn’t going to go and be crazy and disrespect people because for Native Americans one of the hugest things is respect.”

and

“Native Americans haven’t had anybody in the celebrity industry,” she said. “There have been a few native actors – Adam Beach, Irene Bedard – but there’s never been a native so high up in the fashion industry who’s looked at on a celebrity level. People don’t want to listen to you unless you come from a place of power. There are a lot of improvements across Indian country that can be made. I want to start helping out and being a factor.” 

Finally, one image that did make me proud, here she is rockin her medallion during the panel judging:

So, thanks ANTM for showing us, once again, how deeply stereotypes and erasure of Native people run in our national narrative.