Yesterday my BFF and biggest fan Marj texted me this image from the Ecko outlet in Washington. I believe my exact response was “OMG wtf?!?!” Notice at the bottom the tagline is “Party your face off.” Yeah, not offensive at all.
So I turned to the googles to see what this was all about. A quick search brought me to the Ecko homepage, which prominently features the line up front and center, called “Weekend Warrior.” The image is below. So, the headdressed skull is bad enough–more on that in a second–but look a little closer…
Um, NO. Your model is NOT wearing a headdress too???
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t seem to find the line for sale on the actual Ecko website, though it is available in other online stores, like Macy’s
This headdressed-skull thing is a problematic trend that has been popping up everywhere. From “mainstream” retailers like our good friend Urban Outfitters
A couple of weeks ago in SF, my friends and I even went stalker status on a guy in Bootie SF wearing a a similar tee (thanks to John for the 50 variations of this picture on my camera, ha):
There’s plenty more all over the internet, but I think you may be starting to see my point.
Let’s break it down. Clearly this is problematic on many levels. Beyond the usual arguments against the hipster headdress
, there’s something deeper here. I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that skulls are associated with death. So if you put a skull with a headdress, the first jump I make is to “dead Indian”–just me? I don’t think anyone can go for the “honoring” argument here (although I won’t be surprised if they try). This, to me, is playing into the narratives of Indians existing only in the past, or Indians are extinct, or Indians were
brave warriors who no longer exist today. It also, like all the Plains Indian stereotypes, solidifies the one-dimensional “warrior” image that doesn’t represent the hundreds and hundreds of tribal nations still around today.
Back in 2010, James Branum, a lawyer in Oklahoma, posted about his interactions
with a company in OK City called “War Paint Clothing” who were selling a similar shirt (Rob at Newspaper Rock covered it as well
). He makes some excellent points, and I definitely recommend heading over to his post
to read the entirety of his interactions with the company:
I first think about the famous line, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” (a quote sometimes attributed to General Sheridan, but more likely a paraphrase from a line out of Congressional floor speech of Congressman James M. Cavanaugh from 1868) and the way our society in past generations honored the “noble savage” who either died off or was assimilated into white society, but refused to give any honor to real live Indians in the present day who resisted both death and assimilation.
Or to say it another way, if you want to honor native Americans, why not make a shirt of a hero from our history, or even show the face of someone alive today (who is resisting genocide, simply by living out native values and culture)? Why is it that only dead Indians, and abstract/stereotypical Indians who get celebrated?
The image of the skull also brings to mind the Indian remains held in many museums to this day. There is an ongoing fight to return those remains to their people and to the earth (see Return2theearth.org and the wikipedia article on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act for a bit of this history), but the fight isn’t over. The graves of Native dead have been desecrated for many years, and many remains are still in museums.
Finally, I’m not aware of any Plains Indian tribe that would be comfortable with this imagery (and I’m discussing it in that context, because the stylized image is of a stereotypical plains style headdress — I know Natives in other culture, especially in Mexico have different cultural ideas about skulls). Some plain tribes use animal skulls for ceremonial purposes (i.e. the buffalo skull in the Sun Dance), but those skulls are normally used in a sacred manner. The use of a human skull on a t-shirt would be incomprehensible.
I think those major take away points–“The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” the continued celebration of only dead or stereotypical Indian imagery, the ongoing fight over Native remains in museums and educational institutions, and the overall sacredness of human remains (and headdresses) in our communities–are exactly spot on. This trend is symptomatic of an overall disrespect of Native peoples and cultures, as well as a convenient amnesia of the genocide of Native peoples in this country. As with most of the images on this blog, one shirt in isolation may not be a problem. But when you start to peel back the layers and see how deep these issues run, and how ubiquitous these images are, you begin to realize the depth of the problem. This isn’t a one-off shirt in a window. This is a lens into how Native people are viewed in the United States.
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