Archives For September 2012

I don’t know if you were aware, but there’s an election coming up here in the US. Like, real soon. This is a call to remind all of you (especially the Natives) that you need to register to vote, and then turn out on November 6th and cast your ballot!

The rates of voter registration and voter turnout for Natives are dismal–and I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about that here. If you’re interested in more background, there is a (admittedly frustrating and sad) report pulled together by that details all of the obstacles and challenges involved in increasing Native voter turnout. It’s available for download here. This graph below gives an idea of AI/AN voting patterns compared to other ethnic groups:
I also have some Native friends who refuse to vote in US elections because they see it as voting for a foreign election. I fully support that notion of sovereignty, but the reality of our current state is that the decisions the US government makes about healthcare, housing, education, and other funding for Indian Country have direct and real effects on the ongoing well-being of our peoples. We need to have a voice in electing our National officials. 
So, what are you going to do about it? 

(and do it ASAP! State deadlines vary, and you don’t want to miss out! Yes, that’s an Obama site, but by all means be subversive and use it to register as a Republican–I just want Natives to vote. Seriously.)
Read up on the Native Vote at NCAI’s Native Vote 2012 website (and watch some videos of Native celebs like Chaske Spencer telling you to vote).
Send an email to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting that Indian Heath Services (IHS) clinics be made into voter registration sites via the Daily Kos
Finally, watch this awesome video that three of my BFFs (Hillary, Yuki, and Aza) made, starring another one of my best friends from grad school, Mikaela, to support the Native Vote 2012. Featuring, of course, some awesome music by A Tribe Called Red. 

Just stop and think about it for a minute. American Indians weren’t even legally US citizens until 1924. My great-grandma, born in Indian Territory (before it was Oklahoma) couldn’t have voted. My grandma just barely made the cut-off. This is not some ancient history. This is our right, and we need to assert it.

And if you need any final motivation, here’s me mailing in my voter registration–my first time voting in Massachusetts!

Have you registered? Have other resources you want to let us know about? Share in the comments!

(Thanks Yuki, Hillary, Aza, and Mikaela! Miss you guys!)

You guys, I don’t really even know how to start this post. Think about how many times I’ve reached out to companies in the history of this blog, how many times I’ve thrown my opinion to the ether and received nothing, or worse, received dismissive, hurtful replies in return. That’s fully what I was expecting when I posted about the Paul Frank “Dream Catchin’ Powwow” on Sunday, especially after the company posted the quick, standard apology on their Facebook page.

So I was surprised, and admittedly skeptical, when I got this email on Wednesday from Elie Dekel, the President of Paul Frank Industries:

Dear Adrienne K,  

My name is Elie Dekel and I am President of Paul Frank Industries LLC. I am writing to see if you would be willing to speak with me regarding the recent Paul Frank event. While we have not yet received your letter [AK note: I only had emailed it to the PR company], we have seen the copy online and would like to address your concerns directly. This is something we take very seriously, and since the event, we have begun to take numerous steps to address this regrettable and unfortunate situation. I’d like to talk with you so I can update you on what we’re doing as well as hear more from you, so we learn from this mistake. If you would be interested in speaking with me, please let me know how best to reach you and when you might be available.  


Elie Dekel

There were some hints in the email that this wasn’t going to be my typical dismissive conversation (they want to learn from their mistake?! They’ve taken steps to address the situation?!), so I was already feeling better about the whole thing going into the call. Mr. Dekel also reached out to Jessica Metcalfe (of Beyond Buckskin), so we decided to have a conference call with the three of us. Unfortunately, Ms. Beyond Buckskin is in Canada for a visit, and her phone was being mean and wouldn’t let her call in. So I talked to Mr. Dekel on my own (but then immediately filled in Jessica afterward, don’t worry). She’s going to be following up with him next week when she’s back home.

The phone call went so much better than I could have even imagined. Elie was gracious, sincere, and kind from the beginning, and truly apologetic. He took full responsibility for the event, and said he wanted to make sure that this was something that never happened again, and wanted to learn more so he could educate his staff and colleagues. We talked about the history of representations of Native people in the US, and I even got into the issues of power and privilege at play–and the whole time, he actually listened, and understood. Such a refreshing experience.

I could go on and on about the call, but enough background, here are the incredible, amazing, mind-boggling action steps that the company has taken and has promised to take in the near future:

  • They have already removed all of the Native inspired designs from their digital/online imprint 
  • The company works off a “Style Guide” that includes all of the digital art for the company, and then separate manufacturing companies license those images and turn them into products. Elie and his staff have gone through the style guide, even into the archives, and removed all of the Native imagery, meaning no future products will be produced with these images.
  • They have sent (or it will be sent today) a letter to all of their manufacturers and partners saying none of this artwork is authorized for use and it has been removed from their business
  • Elie has invited Jessica and I to collaborate with him on a panel about the use of Native imagery in the industry to be held at the International Licensing Merchandisers Association (LIMA) conference in June. This would reach a large and incredibly influential audience all in one place.
and the MOST exciting part:
  • Paul Frank Industries would like to collaborate with a Native artist to make designs, where the proceeds would be donated to a Native cause!
Elie said he wants to learn how this can be done in an appropriate and respectful manner, and that they’re not “looking to profit” from this. On top of it, we’ve set actionable next steps to make all of this happen, and he’s even assigned staff members to stay on it so it doesn’t slip through the cracks. 
I’m seriously still in disbelief–this is beyond a best case scenario. This is taking a relatively isolated event, and bringing it to a history-making level. These interactions with Mr. Dekel and Paul Frank can set the stage and create a model for any company in the future to follow, and by taking steps like the artist collaboration and the conference presentation, we’re reaching far beyond the walls of Paul Frank. 
I often hear push back about the impossibility of pulling images or dealing with manufacturers on a large scale, but this just goes to show that when there is actual interest and dedication by company leadership, amazing things can happen. 
I want to thank all of you who’ve been involved with this since the beginning–this was truly the result of some incredible community mobilization. The outpouring of tweets and facebook comments throughout this all has been what has kept the company accountable and started the ball rolling to make some real and meaningful change. This was all you! 
I also want to thank Elie and the staff at Paul Frank for being proactive with the steps they’ve taken, and for being so sincere on the phone call. I have no doubts that this is going to happen, and it’s going to be done right. I’m also very excited that Jessica and I can bring our two areas of expertise together!
Welcome to 2012 friends, when an incredibly spread-out, incredibly diverse community of  Native people and allies can unite for a cause, and use the internet to hold multi-million dollar companies accountable. I’m so proud to be Native right now. Today is an awesome day. 
Paul Frank offends every Native person on the planet with Fashion Night Out “Dream Catchin’ Pow wow”
Beyond Buckskin: Paul Frank’s Racist Powwow

PS–I also wanted to draw your attention to this letter released by Mr. Paul Frank, who no longer works for Paul Frank Industries. He wants to make sure we all know that he (as a person) had nothing to do with the event.

Fashion’s Night Out is now in its fourth year–an annual night for residents of New York, LA, and other fashionable cities to get dressed up in sky-high heels and totter from retail outlet to retail outlet, pushing through hoards of similarly clad city dwellers attempting to partake in free cocktails and canapes. Stores host “celebrity” appearances–though it seems to be mostly reality stars and folks whose 15 minutes may have faded a few years ago. Overall it’s a fun-filled chance to celebrate fashion and leave a huge mess behind for working class folks to clean up.

Do I sound bitter and jaded about this “fun” and “fashionable” night of joyous revelry? I am. I am, because this year for Fashion’s Night Out, the PR team at Paul Frank in LA decided they would host an event called “Dream Catchin’ with Paul Frank” a “pow wow celebrating Fashion’s Night Out.” The Hollywood Reporter described the event as:

…a neon-Native American powwow theme. Glow-in-the-dark war-painted employees in feather headbands and bow and arrows invited guests to be photographed on a mini-runway holding prop tomahawks.

Jessica Metcalfe at Beyond Buckskin posted the photos of the event last night on her FB page, and I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Just looking at the flyer posted above was enough to send me into a cultural appropriation Hulk rage. How clever, the font of the “Dream Catchin’” looks like teepees! How clever, the Paul Frank monkey is wearing warpaint and a sacred headdress! How clever, we put him in the center of a dream catcher, complete with pony beads and neon feathers!

The Paul Frank Facebook page posted well over 1,000 photos of party-goers posing on their runway with plastic tomahawks and headdresses. After the firestorm of criticism last night (more on that in a minute), all the photos are down off the page as of this morning. But minor internet sleuthing still produces plenty of evidence. Photos like this one:

and this one:

Luckily our friend @bright_moments was able to fix the photos for us:

That’s singer Christina Milian, by the way. Here’s a close-up of the provided “props” for the runway shots:

Headdresses, plastic bows and arrows, plastic neon tomahawks, even some antlers. But it gets even worse. Check out the bar:

here’s a side shot:

First off, that’s a painted cow skull, on a bar. Then the sign says, cheerfully, “Pow Wow and have a drink now!” and the three drinks are labeled “Rain Dance Refresher,” “Dream Catcher,” and “Neon Teepee.” There is absolutely nothing offensive about that set up, at all. Nope. Arghalkshjfbghlsfdh.

Here are a few more assorted pictures from the evening, and Zimbio has a bunch more if you’re curious:

There are so, so many things about this event that are upsetting to me that I don’t even really know where to start. It is such a statement about the state of our society that this event was allowed to go off without a hitch. Think about how many layers of approval these things go through, and not one person at Paul Frank, or in the PR company they hired (Red Light PR), thought this was problematic.

One thing that made me happy about the whole thing was the outpouring of anger and rage by the facebook and twitter community. There were hundreds of comments and tweets in the course of a few hours last night, and there was only one (literally, one) comment I saw that defended the party as “fun” and told commenters to “get over it.” Compared to pretty much every other event or issue I’ve discussed on the blog, that is remarkable. It gives me hope that the word is starting to get out about how seriously effed up the continued misrepresentation and stereotyping of Native people is, and that it is high time for it to change.

One other troubling aspect to these photos is the number of people of color engaged in “playing Indian.” I don’t kid myself to think that these issues are limited to the dynamics of power between white folks and Native folks, but its honestly hard to see people from other marginalized communities jumping on the bandwagon to oppress another group. Definitely a bigger discussion for another time, but just wanted to draw your attention to it.

Without further ado, in typical Native Approps/Adrienne K. fashion (ha, punny), here’s my open letter to the company:

Dear Staff of Paul Frank LA and Red Light PR, 

My name is Adrienne K., I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and I write a blog called Native Appropriations. I write about representations of Native people in the media and popular culture, and last night (9/8/2012), photos from your Fashion’s Night Out event “Dream Catchin’ with Paul Frank” were brought to my attention. I am extremely troubled and concerned with many aspects of the event, and I honestly felt like someone had punched me in the stomach when I first loaded the photos posted on your Facebook page.  

To begin, the image of the Paul Frank monkey in “warpaint” and a headdress is incredibly problematic. Headdresses are considered sacred in Native communities and are reserved for the most respected and revered leaders. To place one on the head of a monkey trivializes the sacred and respected nature of the warbonnet, and paints Native people as sub-human. There is an entire painful history of people of color being equated with primates, and images such as this echo to that past. I’ve written an entire post about why wearing “hipster headdresses” is offensive, which can be found here, and breaks down the argument more completely.  

In addition to the monkey imagery, party goers were encouraged to “play Indian” with plastic tomahawks and bows and arrows, resulting in photos of fake “scalping,” “war whooping,” and other extremely hurtful stereotypes. I have also written extensively about the issues surrounding “playing Indian” and dressing up as Native peoples for Halloween and other theme parties. This practice is exactly akin to providing props for party guests to dress in blackface for photos, a practice that I’m sure would not bode well for your brand.  

Powwows in Native communities are social events, but are also spiritual and closely tied to traditional culture. Photos from your event show a sign on the bar reading “Pow wow and have a drink now!” with drinks called “Rain Dance Refresher,” “Dream Catcher,” and “Neon Teepee.” The vast majority of contemporary powwows celebrate sobriety and are very explicit about the prohibition of alcohol and drugs on powwow grounds. To associate the consumption of alcohol with a powwow is disrespectful, especially given the history of alcoholism in our communities.  

There were also many children at the event, and your celebrity appearances were tween Disney stars. As a result, now these children in attendance are being acculturated into thinking that Native peoples are one-sided stereotypes of feathers, warpaint, and weapons, and that playing Indian is perfectly acceptable and fun. My young cousins worship anything to do with these starlets, and I know there are many other young girls who do the same, and that worries me to no end.  

The bottom line is this: your event stereotypes and demeans Native cultures, collapsing hundreds of distinct tribal and cultural groups into one “tribal” mish-mash, thereby erasing our individual identities and contemporary existence. Until 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Native peoples could be arrested for practicing traditional spirituality–many aspects of which you mocked in your party theme. While the theme may have seemed “fun” and “playful” to you, to me as a Native person, it just represents our continued invisibility. When society only sees us as the images you presented, it means that our modern issues of poverty don’t exist, nor do our modern efforts like schooling and economic development through sovereignty and nation building. We have sophisticated tribal governments and communities, but how will we be able to be seen as modern, successful people if we are continually represented through plastic tomahawks and feathers?  

You may have mental images of Native people stuck in the historic past, sitting around in tipis and smoking peace pipes, but if last night’s reaction on Twitter and Facebook showed you anything, I hope it showed you that we are contemporary peoples who enjoy fashion and fun, but don’t tolerate when our cultures are stereotyped and sacred aspects are trivialized. We don’t all run around with tomahawks and bows and arrows, or war whoop and say “how.” We do, however, mobilize as a diverse yet connected community through technology, and continue to fight for our living cultures to be celebrated in respectful and meaningful ways. 

While I commend you for taking down the thousands of photos from the Paul Frank facebook page, I encourage you to issue an apology or statement surrounding the event, and let us know how you plan to remedy the situation. Hundreds of Native people and allies responded to the photos last night, and we are all waiting to hear from you.  

Thank you,
Adrienne K. 

UPDATE 9/10:
Mere minutes after my post went up, Paul Frank issued this apology on their Facebook page:

Paul Frank celebrates diversity and is inspired by many rich cultures from around the world. The theme of our Fashion’s Night Out event was in no way meant to disrespect the Native American culture, however due to some comments we have received we are removing all photos from the event and would like to formally and sincerely apologize. Thank you everyone for your feedback and support.

The fact they apologized is good, but clearly it’s the classic “sorry you were offended” rather than “sorry we were offensive” response. They should read this post next time. But baby steps, I guess?

Especially since Ms. Metcalfe at Beyond Buckskin came across these designs last night:

I also emailed my letter to the PR company directly, and have yet to hear a response.

Other coverage of the party:

Beyond Buckskin: Paul Frank’s Racist Powwow
Indian Country Today: Paul Frank Offends with Dream Catchin’ Party
Oh No They Didn’t: Disney Stars (& Others) Attend Paul Frank ‘PowWow’ Mocking Native Americans
Uncle Paulie’s World: Designer Paul Frank’s Technicolor “Dream Catchin’ Pow Wow” Furthers Native American Stereotypes