Reflections on 3 years at Native Appropriations

In academia, activism, reflections by Adrienne K.6 Comments


My trusty macbook, where I’ve written nearly every post on the blog

This morning my brain woke me up wide awake at 5am, just opened my eyes, ready to go, like this were a normal and everyday experience. The reality is quite the opposite–most mornings I hit snooze more than I care to admit. My brain was whirring from the moment I blinked awake, and I decided to put to paper some of the things I’ve been working on in my head. I’ve been feeling in a very contemplative mood the last few days, maybe brought on by my recent trip to Stanford (my alma mater), where I did a talk at the Native house and followed around one of my awesome dissertation study kiddos. It was a great trip, despite the fact that I came down with a terrible cold, and it was amazing and strange to realize how much and how little has changed in the five years since I’ve graduated. The students there are so incredible, and I admittedly felt extremely self conscious to be heralded almost a hometown hero upon my arrival, interviewed by the new activist blog on campus, given a special shout out at the Stanford American Indian Organization meeting, met with whispers when I walked into the Native center. I am so grateful and still often shake my head in disbelief at the journey Native Appropriations has taken me on in the past three years, and I felt like it was time to reflect and share the origin story of the blog, the path it has taken, and where I hope it will go in the future.

The blog turned 3 years old (it’s just a toddler!) on January 15th, and I’d say it’s not too late to celebrate. Three years ago, I was a petrified first year doctoral student, sitting in the back of my first year doctoral seminar, feeling alone, out of place, young, and in many ways voiceless. I had left the warm safety of my Stanford community, a community where I was surrounded by Native students, a community where I was known and accepted, where I felt that I had support for Native issues and there was always someone wiser, or more experienced I could call upon when a question or issue arose. I arrived in a cold–literally and figuratively–and isolated space where I suddenly was (and still am) the only Native student in my program. I suddenly had no one else to turn to when a questionable comment was made in class or when I encountered classmates at my elite institution who had never met a Native person in their lives. Those experiences, coupled with the fact that I was several years younger than my classmates and the only student in my cohort without a masters degree, left me silent and scared. I often wondered if I had made the right choice in going to graduate school, and this resulted in that my first year, I said–truly–three comments in class. Ever.

It was in this space that the blog was born. I had always felt passionate about representations of Native peoples, but approached it from more of an art and museum context. I interned at museums all throughout undergrad, and did my senior paper on contemporary Indian art that challenged stereotypes and questioned how outside western forces were shaping what constituted “authentic Indian art.” I think this interest came, and still stems, from the fact that I never saw myself, my friends, or my family reflected in images of “Nativeness.” Most of the images of Native people I saw represented people in some mythical past, or as a one-sided stereotype, not the vibrant, diverse community I knew. After a trip to Urban Outfitters right across the square from my school, I felt like something clicked. I felt invisible as a Native person, because the only images my classmates and colleagues ever saw of Native people were the false stereotypes in fashion, advertising, and hollywood. To them, even subconsciously, Indians were flat commodities to be bought and sold, whether as a fake dreamcatcher, beef jerky, or a mascot, not real, living, contemporary people. So I decided to write about it.

Writing the blog gave me a voice. In my semi-anonymous space on the internet, I was free to question, be angry, and fight back–things I struggled to do in “real life.” I watched my notoriety and influence grow online, while in my day-to-day I was still the silent girl in the back of the classroom. Even today, many, if not most, of my classmates don’t know what I do outside our campus. My alter-ego of “Adrienne K.” is (or tries to be) a fierce warrior, though sometimes I feel the real-life Adrienne doesn’t always match up.

Thinking back to those first early posts, where I still didn’t have the proper language to push back on the stereotypes, where I was still learning to use my voice and perspective, it’s incredible to see how far we’ve come. I say we, because I would be nowhere without the community that has developed around Native Approps. The daily emails, the tweets, the facebook posts, and the comments, it is the community that keeps me going and writing. I’ve learned so much from my readers, because I acknowledge that I am still no expert in this field. Through a happy confluence of factors, somehow I’ve emerged as a voice and an activist, but this blog has been a process of learning for me as much as it has been for you. I stand on the shoulders of those who have been in this fight for decades, and I am forever indebted and grateful to the work of the strong women and men who have laid the groundwork for me to be here today. I, by no stretch of the imagination, am the first Native person to write and care about how we are represented, I just have picked up and joined in what has been going on for generations.

For those reasons, the “fame” part of the blog has never been something I’ve been comfortable with. I didn’t start writing with some dreams of grandeur, and I still am super awkward when folks I meet in real life mention they read the blog. Actually, I’m just pretty awkward generally. All I am is a big nerd who found an outlet for that nerdiness, I swear. I reiterate again and again that I don’t claim to speak for all of Indian Country, that I just speak for my experience, which is one of several million perspectives that could be represented here. I think that’s one of the hardest things I’ve been learning to navigate–the tension between wanting to be heard, but not wanting to be seen as the only voice on Indian issues.

In the past three years we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve discussed young costumed non-Native powwow-goers, broke the story for the Navajo Nation Urban Outfitters lawsuit, talked about Halloween costumes, mascots, and random appropriations in-between. I caused a big stir by discussing my opinions of “Love in the Time of Blood Quantum,” one that’s left a lasting legacy of the now (in)famous term “unicorn” amongst my friends and acquaintances (though it may be time for an update on that post…). There was the (ongoing) Tonto fiasco, Victoria’s Secret, and Paul Frank. But the post that continues to be the biggest hit is my anti-hipster headdress manifesto, re-posted, linked, and reblogged all over the internet.

I would have never dreamed that I’d be on monthly conference calls with Paul Frank assisting in a Native artist collaboration, that I would have been a guest on a Al Jazeera or Native America Calling, interviewed Adam Beach, been interviewed by E! online, CNN, or any of the other “mainstream” outlets I’ve been privileged to chat with. I’ve been invited to speak at universities and conferences all over the country, where I’ve met incredible new friends and colleagues. I’ve gained technology skills, taught myself (basic) coding, learned the ins and outs of wordpress, learned how to manage social media platforms, how to build and cultivate a caring community, and curate content. I think it has taught me more about writing and refining my ideas than grad school ever could alone.

I’m listing this all off to remind myself how amazing it’s been, because admittedly it’s also been hard. I can’t separate the journey of the blog from my journey of grad school, and both have been fraught with tears over identity attacks, feelings of inadequacy, lack of confidence in myself and my ideas, and far too many moments where I thought it would be so much easier to stop everything and try and return to and salvage my previous life back in California.

As for what the future of Native Appropriations will hold, I have some grand plans and big ideas, but I also have to graduate. Since the blog is not exactly a cash cow, I also am balancing taking courses, multiple jobs as a teaching assistant, being an editor at an academic journal, doing my dissertation research, applying for funding for this and next year, and writing my qualifying paper and dissertation proposal. Any of which could be a full time job. But I somehow continue to find time, and will continue to find time, because I care deeply about this work and find so much strength and joy in the real change we are making for Native peoples.

What I hope for the future is that we can continue to learn together, that I can offer my ideas and perspectives as a starting point, but that the conversation will grow outward and not stay within the confines of the blog. I hope that my dedication to this world can bleed into my academic life, where the 1900+ words I’ve written here are more than I’ve written for my qualifying paper in months. Writing on the blog, strangely enough, is freeing. Despite the fact that thousands of people read my intimate thoughts online, and are not shy about sharing their hate for me and my opinions, it doesn’t scare me. What scares me is my dissertation committee, the classmates to whom I felt inferior, and the ivy-covered world I live in. Internet trolls? Bring it. The Committee on Degrees? Excuse me, I’m going back to bed.

For the daily fear that I live in of not being good enough in my academic life, I sometimes forget to celebrate the joy and accomplishments this world has brought. Native Appropriations has given me confidence and a voice when I felt marginalized and silenced in my everyday life. It has connected me on a deeper level to my own identity, and forced me to defend who I am and what I care about, making me stronger and braver. I’ve become an activist and a writer, when I only sought out to share images of what we are not.

I feel that we are on the edge of something big as Indigenous Peoples. If the Idle No More movement is any indication, we are ready to rise up and be seen and heard, not content to be silenced any longer. I know that I’m ready, and feel confident that I am ready to be a part of, or help to create, whatever comes next. Pushing back on Native representations is just the beginning. Our rights, lands, women, and cultures have been violated for far too long, and I know the time is now for things to change.

So thank you for joining me on this journey–for reading, commenting, emailing, and discussing. For spreading these issues to your family, friends, and colleagues, and making cultural appropriation an issue worthy of discussion and change. For making it to the end of this behemoth of a post. Here’s to the next three years and beyond.

  • disqus_S5B6bws3pE

    Thank you, Adrienne! Your blog has helped educate me and inform my viewpoints about Native issues. Keep blogging and we’ll keep reading. Wishing you the best with your future endeavors – you have already done remarkable things and are bound to succeed! 

  • M. Specialfxlady

    Thank you for sharing your story. I assumed the blog had been around for a while (I’ve only been reading for little over a year) and I’m glad to know that I’m getting to watch you develop and grow as a writer.

    I’ve learned so much here from you and your commenters.

    Best of luck to you in all that you do.

  • Thanks for sharing this post Adrienne! You are an amazing inspiration for Native students attending or hoping to attend grad school (I know being called a “role model” is probably another thing that might make you awkward ;P ). I often hear about the inferiority complex or “impostor syndrome” that grad students have–from students coming from a place of privilege! Being a Native woman in academia comes with an entirely different set of issues. 

    I also wanted to say wado for making your audience feel like they’re a part of something. Your blog has given me the courage to stand up to my own family members who think “Natives need to just get over the mascot thing.” I’ve also used some of your ideas (always crediting, of course!) in a class I taught and in other guest lectures. You’ve been a major part of creating a community who stands up against appropriation, and I think the uprising against No Doubt, Victoria Secret and Paul Frank arose, in large part, our of your leadership and the blog.

    Continue being awesome, both at grad school, on the blog and in real life. You inspire me!

  • Congrats! 

    Agreed on the sense that things are changing. Seems like (as with the Paul Frank case) we’re getting closer to people wanting, and getting, guidance on how to be inspired without appropriating.And hehe. I’m only just reading the young costumed non-Native powwow-goers post. And comments. Sorta sad I wasn’t around when that broke.

    • KBuffalo

      Seems like (as with the Paul Frank case) we’re getting closer to people wanting, and getting, guidance on how to be inspired without appropriating.

      *Raises hand* This person here does. I found this blog through a Jezebel post about sexist Halloween costumes that included a racist “Pocahottie-“type thing too. As a white person, I’d never much thought about these issues before. I’ve been trying to read more and learn more ever since.

      Thank you, Adrienne, for doing what you do. Blogs such as your embody the promise of the internet. Too often, we hear about the dark side — porn addicts, Manti Te’o fake girlfriends, people who get cyberbullied to death. Blogs like yours bring me back to the early days when this shining new invention promised that everyone would have a voice, and humanity would become connected. I love reading your blog and have learned so much from it. I was even inspired to take action on something that had bothered me for a while — the existence of a park in my community that is named for an offensive term for Native Amercian women. (Action went nowhere…no response from the mayor or my councilmember but I tried and will keep trying). Keep it up!

  • Blaise Astra Parker

    Hi! Long time reader first time commenter. (I know that’s cheesy to say but I had to get it out of the way.) I come to you today with a request for some thoughts, if you’d be willing to share them. I am a White woman who teaches women’s studies, and one of my main classes is an intro level course called Multicultural Women in the US. As a South Dakota native who has spent time on Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and other reservations (and who loves people who still live there), I feel pretty passionately about Indigenous issues, but as a White woman, I also don’t always have the answers to questions my students ask. I don’t want to call on my friends from the reservations (in a “please educate me and tell me what Natives think about _____” way), and although I’ve read a lot of Indian literature and read race-related blogs, etc., I haven’t found a good way to address a few questions that students have. I’ve used your blog in class many times, and today it occurred to me that posting a question here might result in some interesting discussion from you and your readers, so here goes nothing.

    When I discuss issues of appropriation in my classes, one thing my students often say is, “Well, THEY (Natives) are the ones selling/making money from their culture.” I think there are plenty of examples of appropriation where that is NOT the case (Paul Frank, Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters), but here in Georgia (where I live) a lot of students have been through Cherokee, and they talk about how in Cherokee you can buy things like moccasins, headdresses, bows and arrows, etc. from Indian-owned stores. So, in their minds, if Indians themselves are selling their own culture, then it’s fine for Whites (and others) to appropriate it. I have SOME idea of how to respond to this (e.g., poverty/capitalism necessitates it), but if you have any additional ideas of what I could say to these students, I’d be grateful. I run into the same thing with respect to discussing Indian mascots and the Seminoles, and I’m so glad you addressed this in your previous post. I think it’s hard for students to understand the point you raised there–that just because SOME factions of a minority group agree with something doesn’t mean ALL of them do, or that it’s right. Was hoping for some thoughts on this (admittedly similar) issue. 

    Thanks for this blog–it’s amazing!