Paul Frank offends every Native person on the planet with Fashion Night Out "Dream Catchin’ Pow wow"

In Dream Catchin with Paul Frank, Fashions Night Out, hipster headdress, Paul Frank, playing indian, stereotypes by Adrienne K.Leave a Comment

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