Archives For April 2012

I guess we can put all the talk about Johnny Depp “honoring” Native people to rest now. Cause it’s been over a month since those first horrendous publicity pics of Depp-as-Tonto surfaced, and more information has been trickling out about Depp’s “inspiration” for his lovely costume. I think we’ll now see just how careful, respectful and honoring Mr. Depp was with his “research” for his role.

As background, Depp has said in numerous interviews that wanted to change the role of Tonto, and wanted to “reinvent” the relationship between Indians and Hollywood. He also cited his Native heritage–“Cherokee or maybe Creek”–as part of his reasoning behind taking the role. In this clip from MTV news, Johnny describes his plans for Tonto’s character, which, out of context, actually sound pretty good:

He says in the clip:

“I like the idea of having the opportunity to sort of make fun of the idea of Indian as sidekick…throughout the history of hollywood, the Native American has always been the second class, third class, fourth class, fifth class citizen, and I don’t see Tonto that way at all. So it’s an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.”

Based on all of these interviews, I was still holding out a shred of hope that there was some major piece of information I was missing, that maybe Johnny had actually done his research, or that maybe he had no control over the actual costuming of Tonto, and that all of this anger and blame should be placed on some wardrobe stylist on set. But Entertainment Weekly published a blog post on Sunday that confirmed what I had been arguing all along. Johnny Depp decided to “honor” Native peoples and “reinvent” our role in hollywood by relying on the most tired and stereotypical tropes imaginable. On his “inspiration” for Tonto’s makeup:

“I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.”

Though that quote makes absolutely no sense (“separate sections of the individual?), the picture in reference is below. The connection between the Sattler painting and Depp’s costuming was actually caught quickly in March by some fans of the Native Appropriations facebook page, one of whom even took the time to call Sattler’s studio. The PR rep on the phone assured her to wait until the movie came out and that she was certain “everything would be done in an appropriate manner.” I guess “appropriate” is relative?

The thing about Kirby Sattler, a non-Native painter, is that he relies heavily on stereotypes of Native people as mystical-connected-to-nature-ancient-spiritual-creatures, with little regard for any type of historical accuracy. He says, right off the bat, that the images come from his imagination:

“My paintings are interpretations based upon the nomadic tribes of the 19th century American Plains. The subjects are a variety of visual sources and my imagination…I purposely do not denote a tribal affiliation to the majority of my subjects, rather, I attempt to give the paintings an authentic appearance, provoke interest, satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy.”

So he’s telling us, in so many words, that he makes these subjects up based on the (heavily stereotyped) images in his own head. Just listen to the language he uses to describe his paintings:

“Each painting functions on the premise that all natural phenomena have souls independent of their physical beings. Under such a belief, the wearing of sacred objects were a source of spiritual power. Any object- a stone, a plait of sweet grass, a part of an animal, the wing of a bird- could contain the essence of the metaphysical qualities identified to the objects and desired by the Native American. This acquisition of “Medicine”, or spiritual power, was central to the lives of the Indian. It provided the conduit to the unseen forces of the universe which predominated their lives.”

Note the past tense, since clearly Indians don’t exist anymore. Note the presumption that all Indians were/are the same, and that all our spiritual practices were/are the same. To refer to an entire population of diverse, living, breathing people of over 500 nations as “The Native American” is more than a little patronizing and offensive.

I say all this to establish the “credibility” of Johnny Depp’s source material. But Depp’s descriptions of why he was so drawn to the piece are even worse. On the striped make-up representing the “separate sections of the individual”:

“There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, and angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual. That makeup inspired me.”

Because Tonto happens to be Native American, he has to be “wise,” “tortured and hurt,” “angry and rageful,” and “very understanding and unique”? That’s like Hollywood Indian Stereotypes 101.  Finally, on the hideous crow headdress itself:

“It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top. I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive…The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant…As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.”

Right. So, I like the calling of the subject in the painting a “warrior,” based solely on the fact that he is Native and male (stereotype #1). Of course the “warrior” has to have a “spirit guide” (stereotype #2), and has a mystical connection that outsiders cannot understand–”It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him” (stereotype #3). I think, Mr. Depp, when you said you hoped to “mess around with the stereotype of the American Indian,” you actually meant “completely play into the stereotype of the American Indian,” because I’m really not seeing anything subversive or new about your language or this mess of a portrayal. If this is your “salute” to Native Americans, I’m really afraid to watch the actual movie. Also, since we haven’t seen a clip of the film yet, it remains to be seen if Depp will talk in the stereotypical broken-english “Tonto speak.” Let’s hope he drew the line somewhere.

What we have here is a case of an extreme mis-match between intent and impact. Johnny Depp might have entered this project with the nobelest of intentions, hoping to “honor” his heritage, “re-invent” the role of Natives in Hollywood, give Tonto more agency and move him from his sidekick status–but he went about it in exactly the wrong way. I don’t know what the right way would have been, perhaps going to talk to some Comanche community members (turns out Tonto is “full blooded Comanche” in this version, not Apache as I had reported earlier) to ask how they would feel comfortable being portrayed on the big screen–or if they even felt comfortable at all. I know the right way would have been doing a little more research into hollywood portrayals of Native peoples, and realizing that picking your costume from a non-Native painter who openly admits he has no regard for historical accuracy would probably be a bad idea. Many people have given Johnny a free pass because of his Native heritage, but I think that means we should hold him to a higher standard. If he is serious about honoring his ancestors and his past, he needs to realize that costuming Tonto like a fantasy Indian stereotype is not helping Native people, and his “intent” in the portrayal doesn’t save him.

Johnny Depp might have thought his intent cleared him of any criticism. That we would stand back and say “well, he didn’t mean to be offensive.” or “his heart was in the right place.” But that logic ignores the impact of his statements and his portrayal of Tonto. Think how many policies in Indian country were done by people with “good intentions,” and how all that turned out for us. The impact here is that millions of people will see this film, and they will walk away with this inaccurate and stereotyped image of American Indians burned in their brains.

So if Johnny Depp is serious about wanting to “salute” Native peoples, I would urge him to start a major PR campaign, since it’s presumably too late to change the costume. Admit your mistake, start a national dialogue about how American Indians are portrayed in film. Continue to support important Native causes (I hear Johnny has agreed to be the spokesperson for teen suicide prevention in Navajo?), and bring light to how issues of stereotyping are real and incredibly problematic. Because despite the best of intentions, these images continue to marginalize contemporary Native peoples, and no amount of face paint is going to hide that fact.

And if you’re still not convinced this is even worthy of talking about, check out my earlier post: Why Tonto Matters.

Entertainment Weekly (they link to me, which is kinda exciting!): Johnny Depp reveals origins of Tonto makeup from ‘The Lone Ranger’
Native Appropriations: Johnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I mean Tonto
Native Appropriations: Why Tonto Matters
Indian Country Today: Tontomania: Who are we’z anyways?
Guardian: Why I’m Willing to Believe in Johnny Depp’s Tonto
Ryan McMahon gets angry episode 4: I Ain’t Gettin On No Horse
Academic Article on Hollywood Stereotypes: The White Man’s Indian: Stereotypes in Films and Beyond

I have a million things swimming in my head this week (I promise I’ll write about some of them soon)–from the hideous Coachella headdress pics that keep popping up in my inbox, to those new Johnny Depp/Navajo pictures, to the water rights ish going down in Navajo, to this ridiculously racist kid’s party…and sometimes I just need a little push to keep me going. This video, put together by Native students at Dartmouth, is an awesome example of how something simple can have a powerful message. It’s stuff like this that helps me keep pushing back! 

Dartmouth has had a long and frustrating history with their Indian mascot, and it’s an issue that won’t seem to go away, despite the best efforts of a strong campus Native community and alumni base. Since like 90% of my Native friends on the East Coast are Dartmouth Indians (I don’t know how that happened…), I’ve heard firsthand plenty of stories of horrible ignorance about mascots and Indian issues on campus. Read some of the comments on the youtube video if you don’t believe me.

UPDATE: I was just sent this article from The Dartmouth Review, which puts the youtube comments in context. Choice quote:

“First off, it trades on the idea that nicknames derived from American Indians are inherently offensive. This is a bit of a stretch, as just about every poll done on the matter has indicated that a significant majority of American Indians are completely fine with such nicknames or consider them an honor. A glance at the nicknames used at reservation high schools in my home state of South Dakota finds several tribal nicknames and even one school calling its teams the Redmen. While there is no need to doubt the legitimacy of the offense some take, it must be acknowledged that they are an aggrieved minority, and one can find an aggrieved minority for just about anything.”

Um, no. Just no. They ARE inherently offensive. Those polls you cite have been shown to have sampling and bias issues. A “significant majority” of YOUR campus community is telling you that these mascots are offensive, and that should mean something. There are plenty of people in South Dakota fighting to change those school mascots, including the state school board (all the way back in 2001), and reservation high schools that don the Indian name are totally different. There’s a difference between choosing how you represent yourself versus how outsiders represent you. That’s called power, and why the whole “fighting Irish” argument doesn’t hold up. And your last sentence is just patently dismissive and dripping with privilege.

So to those out there that think the Native students at Dartmouth are being “too sensitive” or should just “get over it”– Native mascots are demeaning and offensive. Period. There is nothing “honoring” about them. They just serve to further marginalize and erase the presence of Native peoples. So “get over” your privilege and realize that these images are hurtful and wrong.

Keep up the great work guys, I know it took a lot of guts to put yourselves out there with this, and I hope the video will open the eyes of your classmates to their insensitivity and ignorance. I also encourage other schools dealing with Indian Mascot issues to think up their own ways of pushing back–and, as always, let me know!

A selection from my (many) posts on Indian Mascots:

The Fighting Sioux are back: Part 1 (the passionate plea) and Part 2 (the science behind why mascots are harmful)

Thanks for the severed head, you’ve proved my point
A reminder of why this blog exists: One reader’s experience (A former Stanford Indian supporter)
The Stanford Indian: Then and now

and the link to the video:

Youtube: Savage That!

PS–Dartmouth folks, I’ll see you at your powwow! (Stanny friends, don’t hate me…)

(Thanks Autumn, Karenina, Meg, Stew, Preston, JesAnne, Laura, Mattie, and Taylor!)

AK Note: I’ve been working on this post for a while, but last week’s comment chain on this post on Jezebel stirred me into action. I’m so sick of the myth that it’s somehow “easier” for Native students get into college, or that the government pays for our whole education. These myths and stereotypes are harmful to Native students and are patently untrue. So I thought we should talk about it. 

Dear Native High School Student who was just admitted to college,

First and foremost, congratulations! Yay! I can’t even convey in words how excited I am for you. You are making your family, your ancestors, your tribe, and your community proud. You’ve worked your butt off, putting your studies first, navigating a complex and confusing application process, making difficult choices along the way. After all those essays, standardized tests, and maybe an interview or two, you’ve done it, and I am so proud of you.

After all that work, you now get to reap the rewards. Revel in the excitement of your family, let your mom bring your admission letter to work, let your little brother wear your new college sweatshirt to school. Because you deserve the praise. I know it can feel weird sometimes, but I want you to realize that going to college is not a selfish choice. It’s a choice that will give you the means to give back to your community, and the broader Native community as well. You will have the power to shape the future of Indian Country, and that is the most decidedly un-selfish thing you can do.

But I wouldn’t be being truthful if I told you that things in the next few weeks or months won’t be hard. People may say things to you to try and diminish your accomplishments, and I want you to be prepared, but I also want you to know that they’re 100%, completely and totally, wrong.

When I got into my school, it was the happiest day of my entire life. I remember crying and jumping around my living room for what felt like hours, in complete disbelief that my dream since 5th grade had come true. But at my large, suburban, mostly white high school, others weren’t so kind. Though I had some amazing friends and teachers who supported me, the rumors started flying that I had “checked the Indian box” to “cheat the system” and get into school. My best friend told me “If I were I minority, I’d be going to your school too.” People gave me the side-eye and questioned if my admission was “legit”—while ignoring the other things like loads of AP classes, A’s, community service, and sports that might have, you know, helped. Suddenly, this girl who looked like them, talked like them, was “different,” and that wasn’t “fair.”

In all truthfulness, I went to college feeling like an imposter, having internalized all of these messages. I grew up so far away from my Native community, and had grown up with few Native influences in my life—by no fault of my own—so I thought my classmates must have been right. But from the moment I stepped onto my college campus, I made sure the Native community was a huge part of my life, volunteering at events, working at the Native center, listening, learning, and always giving back. By the end of my four years on campus, there was no question in my mind—I knew I belonged, and that my experience had given me the skills to keep learning, listening, and giving back to my own community, as well as a commitment to serve Native people and Native causes for the rest of my life.

After I graduated, I worked in undergraduate admissions, mostly because I wanted to help support and grow the college community that had given me so much. I was the Native recruiter–traveling out to communities, bouncing over rural dirt roads, presenting hundreds of times to students and families in VFW halls and HS auditoriums. Every year, I read mountains of applications and admitted amazing, talented, incredible Native students. And you know what? Not a single one of them was admitted simply because they were Native. I want to say that again. You were not admitted to college simply because you were Native. You were admitted because your special combination of talent, academics, extra curriculars, and personality was exactly what your college was looking for. Period.

In life, some people will throw around the term “Affirmative Action” like it’s a dirty word. To them, it means “some people” (ie minorities) get an “unfair advantage” in the admission process. Do you know how much “affirmative action” goes on in admissions offices that has nothing to do with race? Students of alumni (“legacies”), athletes, students from underrepresented states, children of wealthy donors, students from low income backgrounds, women interested in science and engineering, LGBT students, students with disabilities, students who have extraordinary talent in something…I could go on and on…they all get “special” consideration in the admissions process. The goal is to create a well-rounded class that represents many different perspectives, not to be able to say the class has X number of Native American students. You were not admitted to college simply because you are Native.

 In addition, you as a Native student are in a different position than other students. Your background is not just a racialized one, but a political-social identity as well. You are a citizen (or descendant) of a tribal nation. A nation that is looking for future leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers. Your ancestors signed treaties that promised education for their people in exchange for land, and therefore you have a sovereign right to your education. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. By going to college, you’re directly contributing to the Nation Building of your tribe, building capacity for the future. And that is so incredibly awesome.

So it may be hard in the next few months, and even harder when you get to campus, to hear these messages from your classmates—especially when dealing with the other challenges that come with going away to college. But know that there is a huge, loving, supportive Native community out there holding you up and sending you prayers and good thoughts. There were many strong Native men and women who paved the path before you, and now it’s your turn to make the path even stronger for those behind you. But don’t be afraid to reach out if you need a little extra support—there is always someone willing to help, and needing a boost is not a sign of failure, it’s a sign of your commitment to success. You can do it. You’ll be amazing. I know it.

Much love,

Adrienne K.

Readers, tomorrow I’m going to post a compilation of advice/words of wisdom for college-admitted Native students I pulled from Twitter and FB last week. If you have thoughts you’d like to add, or your own personal story to share, email me, or feel free to comment below.

Words of Inspiration: Native High Schoolers’ College Essays
Cal’s Affirmative Action Bakesale: I want my free cookies

Another post on the topic:

Welcome to Harvard, where we show extreme insensitivity toward members of our community in the name of humor! Tonight, members of the Harvard Lampoon, a student-run humor magazine that’s been around since 1876, will be playing a game of basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters. The name the hilarious Lampoon-ites have chosen for their team? The Lampoon Indians.

The screenshot above is an email sent out to members of the undergrad community on Saturday, advertising tonight’s game. We all know how I feel about the use of Indian Mascots in any capacity, and to some, this might seem like a minor battle and not worth it. But this event is taking place a block away from where I am sitting this very moment, and this, to me, is just another instance demonstrating how marginalized Native students are at Harvard.

My guess is the Lampoon chose the “Indians” to “honor” Harvard’s past. Little known fact, but way back in the day, Harvard had an “Indian College” that was built for the express purpose of educating (and christianizing) young men from the local Native communities. It was also built cause the university was in a whole lotta financial trouble, and they knew that if they built the Indian College they could get cash money from the local missionary societies that so badly wanted to “save” the local “savages.” True story.  In the 1650 founding charter of the University, it even states the purpose of the university is “the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge: and godliness.”

Today, in 2012, there is a solid Native community at Harvard and a Native program that supports students, but Native people still nearly invisible on campus and in the classroom. There are repeated instances of ignorance towards Natives at Harvard, some of which I’ve chronicled on the blog. I wrote about the Harvard chapter of Sigma Chi’s “Conquistabros and Navajos” party, which to their credit, they apologized for, and my “Open Letter to Pocahotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween” was inspired by a conversation with Harvard undergrads. I’ve also shared some of my experiences in the classroom and the cafeteria. I have come to realize just how accepted and normalized these instances are in this community–as they are in most of the US and Canada–and that’s simply unacceptable.

So back to the Lampoon. This is actually the second time they’ve donned the “Lampoon Indians” name, the first was in October 2011, when they played the Boston Bruins in a game of dodgeball (and got their asses kicked). In two minutes of perusing the Harvard Lampoon website, I found a couple of instances of outright disrespect towards Native people, which doesn’t help their case if they decide to stick to the argument of “honoring” Native people. Remember friends, lighten up, cause these are supposed to be funny.

Instance #1: A piece entitled “A Guide for the Freshmen of This College, 1670 by JBO, ’10.” Please direct your attention to rule number 4, emphasis mine:

4. No freshman shall wear his hat in the College yard except when it rains, snows, or hails, or if he be on horseback and hath both hands full with corn, sow feed, or the like, or if he be whipping of his Indian. 


Instance #2: This whole story. I don’t really get it. Though I’m just a dumb Indian, so what do I know? But I know the punchline is that they “kicked the crap” out of a “Cherokee Priest.” Again, LOL!

This is where we get into a supposed conundrum-of-sorts. But where do we draw the line with humor? It’s satire, it’s supposed to be subversive and borderline offensive! Lighten up, it’s just a joke! No one is safe from the jabs of the Lampoon, they’re equal opportunity humorists! But the thing is, they’re not. At least on their website, no other racial or ethnic group is mentioned in such a “satirical” way in their published stories. Just Indians.

So what does this have to do with the Lampoon calling themselves “Indians” tonight? It establishes a pattern. A pattern of “jokes” that I don’t find funny.

So here’s the letter I’ll be sending them, along with a link to this post. The letter is admittedly not my most impassioned or well-reasoned, but I’m tired guys. It makes me so sad that this is how my fellow community members perceive me. If you’re in the area tonight at 5pm, feel free to come by the game and tell them what you think.

Dear members of the Harvard Lampoon, 

It has come to my attention that you have decided to use the team name “Lampoon Indians” tonight as you take on the Harlem Globetrotters. As a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and more importantly, a member of the Harvard community, I am respectfully asking you to change the name of your team for this evening. 

I do not find the use of “Indian” as a mascot to be honoring of my culture or my community, in fact, I find the equating of my culture with animals or mythical creatures to be downright insulting. I have no idea if you plan to “dress up” as Indians or use any type of Native imagery to represent your team tonight, but the name in itself is bad enough.  

I write a blog called Native Appropriations, where I examine representations of Native peoples in mass media and pop culture. I’ve written about the mascot issue many times, but most recently have covered the “Fighting Sioux” controversy here and here. I would encourage you to read those posts if you are still unsure of where you stand on the issue, or this post, written by a non-Native, which takes my arguments even further. I don’t feel the need to re-argue those points here. The bottom line is that the use of Indian mascots stereotypes, demeans, and marginalizes Indigenous peoples, and has real effects on the psychological well being of Native students and community members.  

To me, this is not an issue of humor or history, it is an issue of basic human decency. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, and trust that you didn’t mean to be offensive, but the intent of your choice and actions doesn’t negate the impact these instances have on the well being of Native people in the Harvard community and beyond. I trust you’ll make the right choice and change your team name for this evening. There are any number of names you can take that would give a nod to your Harvard roots while being actually funny, without marginalizing an entire race of people in the US. 

I have also posted this letter on my blog, with more background information about the Lampoon and other instances of disrespect towards Natives on Harvard campus.  

Adrienne K. 

UPDATE 4/2: They apologized, and didn’t even use the Indians name! I’m so used to my posts going off into the abyss or responses of anger/defensiveness, I stared at the email for a good minute or so before it sunk in. I seriously applaud their reaction , and we’re going to set up a time to meet soon so we can chat more. It’s a pretty great and all-too-rare feeling when things actually work out, isn’t it? Their email is below:

Hi Adrienne,

Per your request, we decided not to use the team name Lampoon Indians. You were right: it wasn’t us at our funniest. You were also right in that we did not mean to insult anyone. I apologize for any offense we caused you or any Native-American members of the Harvard community.  

I would love the chance to talk to you more in depth about this. If you would like to have a dialogue, please feel free to call me at xxxxxx. Again, our apologies. 


Native Appropriations: The Fighting Sioux Are Back: My Passionate Plea against Indian Mascots 
Native Appropriations: Indian Mascots Part 2: The Science

Harvard Lampoon: History/About 
Harvard Lampoon: A Guide for the Freshmen of This College, 1670 by JBO, ’10
Harvard Lampoon: Pet Cemetery by CAS ’12