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.
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.
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.
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,
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):
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.