Archives For stereotypes

Chief_Osceola_Renegade

Live and learn. I guess the “quick post” model failed–you should see my inbox. Guys, I know the Seminole Tribe of Florida has worked with FSU and offered their approval of the mascot and associated images. I know quite a bit about the relationship, actually, and I’ve been learning quite a bit more in the last day or so…thanks to the strongly worded responses from some passionate FSU fans.

Quick background:

Florida State has been the “Seminoles” since 1947, and have had a “relationship” with the Seminole Tribe of Florida for many years, but it was solidified more recently. In 2005, the NCAA passed a resolution, calling Native American Mascots “hostile and abusive,” and prohibiting schools with these mascots from hosting post-season events. The Seminole Tribe of Florida then officially gave their permission to use Osceola as the mascot, letting FSU get a waiver from the NCAA rule.

Disclaimer, and a big one–I am not Seminole, and I don’t want to speak for the tribe. I am offering my interpretation and perspective, but it’s just mine. I am going to be up front and say that I don’t agree with the choice to give the university permission to mock Native culture (see the billboard and video I posted earlier), and I don’t find a “stoic” dude in a wig and redface throwing a flaming spear “honoring” (see photo above), and I definitely don’t think that the “war chant” is respectful in any way. In fact I find it quite “hostile and abusive.”

Continue Reading…

FSU MBA

Florida State University (home of the “Seminoles”) has unveiled a new billboard for their MBA program. I always wonder how these types of things make it through so many layers of approval. Kirsten who sent it over said this has been their slogan for awhile, apparently. While we’re at it, have you seen the new commercial made by students in FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts?:

Yeah. “A spirit roams these parts…a spirit of respect.” Respect for who, exactly? 

Programming note: I’m going to be trying something a bit new (or old, if you’re a long-time reader of the blog) where I share a lot of these “random appropriations” in between longer blog posts. I’m not going to go through and deconstruct all of them, it’s more to share the ubiquity of these images and how pervasive they are in our society. But I always welcome conversation in the comments!

(Thanks to Kirstin for the image, and everyone who sent me the commercial!)

 

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

My friend Jeremiah sent me this picture last night via twitter, and in my head, I thought “I could make some stereotype biscuits for breakfast!” Which got me thinking. How many products with stereotypical imagery could I fit in one imaginary breakfast?

All of these products are readily available (though some are regional), and I decided not to include vintage products, because that would mean about 2 million more pictures. Ready? Welcome, dear friends, to the first annual Stereotype Breakfast(TM)!

On our fictional menu: Cornbread with butter and honey, orange juice, toast, iced tea, and then some bonus snacks and drinks for the rest of the day. Who knew racial inequality could be so yummy?!
So our cornbread is ready to go, made with the Calumet baking powder and Indian Head Corn Meal pictured above. Served with some, of course, Land ‘O Lakes butter
and some Sue Bee Honey:
Close up on the logo, in case you can’t see it (is she saying “how”? omggaasjfbkh, how ADORABLE!):
Then I think I’ll have some toast. Hmmm, this one looks good! Oh wait, WHAT?

Ok, so maybe no toast. I’ll just have some Orangina

You know, I’d prefer it if my orange juice didn’t wear a sacred headdress. Iced Tea, perhaps?
Guess not. Well, we could screw the whole breakfast idea and just have some ice cream. Who doesn’t love ice cream? 
Yeah. That didn’t work out too well. Good thing I have my soda and snacks to hold me over for the rest of the day…
Cherikee Red. My favorite. With the authentic Cherokee regalia on the front and everything! And don’t forget the Beef Jerky:
Something in here stinks. It must be all this racism. Good thing I’ve got my air freshener right here:
The sad thing is I could keep going and going…I’m sure you come across other products in your daily life as well (feel free to share in the comments). And this is just food. In isolation, each of these would seem like no big deal–these are the “good” stereotypical images. The “noble savage.” No wild eyes or big noses, just headdresses and Indian maidens. But when taken as a collective, is it any wonder that most people in the world think of Native peoples as headdress-wearing Plains chiefs or buckskin-clad Indian women? I’m not saying there isn’t stereotypical imagery of other racial/ethnic groups in branding, but the ubiquity of Native imagery is striking. 
Many/most of these products have “historic” ties to the logo, but that’s no excuse. If you look in the “about” pages of the companies, many of them mention the wish of the founders of the company to “honor” the local Native peoples. But, for example, sorry Umpqua Ice Cream, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians don’t wear plains headdresses. It’s 2012. I think it’s time to critically examine the way that Native peoples are represented in branding and advertising. Why is this still socially acceptable? 
Much like Indian mascots, these images are not “honoring,” they serve to collapse hundreds of distinct nations and cultures into one stereotypical lump, and perpetuate stereotypes of Native peoples living like they did in the 1700′s, rather than modern people who are shopping at the local Star Mart (without a headdress on). Truly, for many people, these are the only representations of American Indians that they see. Add on to that Indian mascots, hollywood stereotypes like Tonto and Twilight, and is it any wonder that Native peoples and issues continue to be marginalized and forgotten? How is a small child supposed to know that all Indians don’t say “how” and wear feathered headdresses everyday, when every morning they are putting Land ‘O Lakes butter  and Sue Bee Honey on their squ*w bread? 
I don’t know about you, but this breakfast didn’t sit too well with me. Turns out racial inequality isn’t so yummy, it just makes my stomach hurt. 
(Thanks Jeremiah!)

You know what I’ve learned in the last few months? Apparently I’m not a real Indian. Apparently, going to grad school and questioning how Native people are portrayed in pop culture makes me less “real.” I knew, in starting this blog, that being a white-looking Cherokee from SoCal trying to talk about Native issues would cause some problems, and my “legitimacy” would, at some point, be called into question. What I didn’t anticipate was the shit hitting the fan over Tonto. *TONTO*.

So a disclaimer: In the post that follows, I’m going to be departing from my usual don’t-engage-with-the-haterz approach, and calling some people out. This makes me immensely uncomfortable, and I fear what stirring the pot is going to cause in terms of repercussions. But I’m going to share my thoughts and opinions about how the things that were said to (and about) me in the last few months have made me feel, because if you haven’t noticed, the blog’s been silent for over a month. Also, this is about to be the longest post in the history of Native Appropriations (sorry!):

A Tonto Timeline:


March 8, 2012: Johnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I Mean Tonto
I wrote this post quickly after seeing the “first look” pictures of Tonto in the new Lone Ranger. I inadvertently caused a firestorm by making a snarky remark about Johnny Depp’s “Indian heritage”–which he says is “Cherokee or maybe Creek,” and saying he wasn’t an “Indian actor.” The commenters, rightly so, reacted. And in reacting, called into question my ability to call myself Indian if Johnny couldn’t.

March 15, 2012: Ray Cook writes a column in Indian Country Today called “Tontomania–Who are we’z anyway?
Ray Cook straight up calls me out in this post, without referring to me by name. He said:

I read a blog earlier and the owner of the blog said she was pissed that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto because she did not believe he was Indian enough for that particular role, what ever the heck that means. The blogger guesses that Tonto was/is Apache and the whole Apache nation should have been consulted about the role, who should play it and what that actor should wear so as to project the right “image” in a politically correct way so as not to make restless the, er, ah, well, Natives. The blogger basically expressed, I am Native and I am restless over this affront to our good nature and reputation. 

So much hog-wash, so much wasted cyber-space, so much wasted oxygen. Let’s set the record straight. Tonto is a radio, television, and comic book character. Period. No one, and I mean no one, will give two Indian head nickels what tribe Tonto is from, just as long as someone gets shot, hung, chased, rescued, skewered, or run out of town. It’s Hollywood for crying out loud. Babbbbababbababbaaa, that’s all folks!

He goes on to assert his Indianess by talking about his gorgeous Mohawk wife and tells us all to lighten up and that we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously. He tells us (me) to “get your head out of your computerized butts and live a little.” The not-so-subtle subtext here through devaluing my opinion as “wasted oxygen” is saying real Indians don’t give a crap about Hollywood.

March 16, 2012: Why Tonto Matters
Written directly in response to Cook and others who said we shouldn’t care about how Depp was portraying Tonto. I’m still pretty proud of this piece, and I constantly refer folks back to it when they say the issue doesn’t matter. I ended the post with this, which I still believe to be the crux of the issue:

How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can’t–and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.

April 24th, 2012: Johnny Depp as Tonto: I’m still not feeling “Honored”
As the Depp drama continued to swirl, I compiled all of the quotes I could find in reference to Depp discussing the choices he made in costuming and creating his version of Tonto. I came to the conclusion that he totally missed the mark. The comments, however, still focused heavily on Depp’s background, and whether or not I was being unjustifiably mean to Johnny.

So before I continue, let’s notice that all of my posts focus on either 1) the choice of Johnny Depp to play Tonto 2) the costume and character choices Johnny made for his role, based on Johnny’s own words, and 3) What “Tonto” means on a larger level in terms of representations, stereotypes, and our future as Native peoples. I said nothing about the Native actors in the films, nothing about  the Native involvement in the film, I just talked about Johnny Depp. A public figure, who, as such, is open to criticism and questioning.

This is where things get interesting. In the comments on the post, I received a comment from actor Saginaw Grant, wishing to speak to the “author of this blog.” I emailed him at the address he provided, and set up a time to talk with him, his publicist, and his personal assistant via phone. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I said yes, but I was also curious to hear Saginaw’s thoughts, since he has a role in the film.

Fast forward to the phone conversation. I spent 2.5 hours on the phone being berated for my coverage of Tonto. Saginaw told me over and over again that the “Indian way” was “not to criticize” and that if I did so, I had “no right to call [myself] an Indian.” I was told that “everything you know, you learned in books” and that all my degrees were just “pieces of paper.” I was told I was being disrespectful to all of the Indian actors on the film, as well as the broader Indian community, and that if I continued to write, no producer would hire Indian actors ever again because they would want to avoid the “controversy,” so I was hurting all Indian actors chances of working in Hollywood. They went on, and on, and on with all of the ways I had apparently messed up.

His team had written down tweets and quotes from my blog, read them back to me, and forced me to defend myself. I was in a horrible position, because if I defended myself and stood by my words, I would have been perceived as being “disrespectful” towards a “respected elder,” so instead I avoided directly addressing their questions, to which I was called “evasive” and therefore, “disrespectful.” I was so polite and tried to show the utmost respect, though I was shown none in return. I sat there, for over two hours, and listened as my identity was questioned and my writing torn apart. I listened carefully, because I know I’m wrong all the time–and if I was wrong about this, I wanted to know. But instead, the only message I heard was that I was not Indian if I dared question this film. At one point, after about the twelfth time I was told I had “no right to call [my]self an Indian”–I broke down and said (in Cherokee), “I’m Cherokee, not a white person.” I didn’t know how else to defend myself.

They did tell me that the spirit on the set was one of respect towards the Native actors, that care was taken to address any cultural concerns, and that there were Comanche advisors on the set making sure things were done right. They told me to wait until the movie, and things would make sense, and I would see how I was wrong. Considering that apparently Depp is speaking in broken English in the trailer…I’m not holding my breath. They told me that Johnny is such a nice and respectful man, and that he does many good things for Indian country. They’ve met him and interacted with him, and I haven’t, so I have no right to judge him.

Before the end of our conversation, I reiterated my intentions with the postings, and apologized for any harm I may have caused. But I remember I said I was going to keep writing the blog, because it was my way of empowering our communities and making my ancestors and family proud of me. I don’t ever remember saying I was going to refrain from writing about Tonto again.

Saginaw exited the conversation, and the tone noticeably shifted. His publicist and assistant shifted from anger to praise, telling me how my work was important, what I wrote was important, and things like hipster headdresses were a huge issue. They said I was an “inspiration” to younger Native students to see that I was at an elite university. I, admittedly, was surprised. I said that I would update the blog with the information they shared about the set, which they agreed to.

After I hung up the phone, I cried in my kitchen. The conversation was emotionally draining, and I felt like I had been given little recourse to defend myself. I had been judged for my perceived lack of respect or connection to my community, when they knew nothing of my family or my heritage. It hurt, a lot. To be told that this work that I put my heart and soul into was causing harm to my community felt horrible, even if I still believed in my gut that I hadn’t done anything wrong.

I took a week off from the blog, and talked to a lot of my friends about the situation. They agreed that it was probably a lot of misplaced anger–Saginaw has come under some intense criticism for roles before, so they were probably trying to head off anything before it got too major. I thought it had blown over at this point, and went back to work, cautiously.

May 8th, 2012: Nelly Furtado’s “Big Hoops” video: Native Dancer’s represent!
I was so excited to see Nelly’s video. I loved the way she incorporated the Native dancers, and thought it was a great example of positive Native imagery. But I, without thinking it would be a problem, noted:

“So far the video has 42,000 views on YouTube, so 42,000 people have seen Native folks representing themselves, showing off their skillz, not painted up with a bird on their head. These are the kind of representations I’d like to see on a more regular basis.”

The “bird on their head” linked back to one of my Depp posts. To which I received the comment from Saginaw’s assistant, Andrea:

I guess your privilege of hearing Saginaw Grant’s words of wisdom were not taken as advice, just words. I am witness to the conversation because the conversation was a conference three way, your words were that you were going to refrain from the movie in it’s entirety. You speak with fork tongue and you wonder why you receive negative and/or hate mail from many of the people. As I said, you are inciting animosity amongst people who don’t know better. You told Saginaw that you had much respect for him, well, that was untruth on your part and we are disappointed and furthermore, you do not speak a few words you have learned in Cherokee to a person who is Sac/Fox. Only his publicist new what you were talking about. Shame on you.

You can see my response and the whole comment chain here, which gets worse. I tried to, as always, be respectful. The team then took to Facebook to further disparage me on my own page and others, which seem to have been deleted, which is nice, I guess.

Finally:
June 13, 2012: Crooked Arrows: The Good, The Bad, and The Flute Music 
I went and saw Crooked Arrows, and had a lot to say about it. Again, I made the mistake of referencing the word Tonto in my intro paragraph. To which Saginaw responded:

“hello may I request that you leave the word Tonto out of your stories that does not pertain to this movie you are writing about. -Saginaw Grant Sac & Fox Nation Actor/Public Speaker”

I was upset. I felt really unsettled that I was being monitored so closely that I couldn’t even say the word Tonto. I responded, and then Andrea jumped in, as well as several other commenters. It got so out of hand so quickly, that I had to shut down comments on the post. Andrea’s first comment was as follows:

With all due respect Adrienne you say you are about representations of Natives on the big screen, well my dear, you are no authority regarding the movie industry or natives, you are only a young one and wet behind the ears trying to bring attention to yourself. If you are going to write on a story and believe yourself to be a writer, stay to the subject matter and do not go off course into another direction such as your continued reference of “Tonto”, a non-fiction story. Why is it that you are so adamant about your continual slamming of this movie. The movie will be made with or without you, and you cannot change the box office draw that it will bring, it is inevitable. Furthermore your continual disrespect of elders is abhorred because if you say you are Indian, it shows not because no traditional person would speak or question any elder’s words or Ms. Ladonna Harris choice which you have done. In closing you are very young and inexperienced and with very little track record behind you and have exhibited no traditional thought of mind just book learned and that is quite a shame.

Emphasis is mine, and I think she meant “fictional” not “non-fiction”. Ladonna Harris is the member of the Comanche Nation who “adopted” Johnny Depp recently, which E! Online interviewed me about here. Notice I did not actually criticize LaDonna in my quotes.

The irony of this whole situation kills me–I’m not allowed to criticize Johnny Depp, a public figure, and we’re supposed to lay off of him because he has “Indian heritage,” is a “good person,” and doing “good things” for Indian country.

But me, a Cherokee woman going to graduate school so I can give back to Native communities and help more Native students go to college, who puts herself out there for criticism and hate because I dare question how Native people are situated in our society, is not an Indian or even a good person. Why does Johnny get a free pass?

Let me remind you that this is all over TONTO. Tonto. A character that has gone down in history as one of the worst and lasting stereotypes of Native peoples, and continues to affect us today.


I’m not asking you to agree with me, I’m not saying I’m right–when I make mistakes, I own up to them, often. But don’t feel I made a mistake in questioning Johnny Depp or Tonto, I don’t feel my writing about the Lone Ranger makes me any less of an Indian, and I certainly don’t feel I’ve shown “continual disrespect of elders.” But taking this conversation from the words I’ve written to the realm of my family and my identity is not productive, and unnecessarily hurtful.

You can read my entire comment history on the blog, or this post I wrote after halloween last year to see how I’ve constantly noted that I don’t speak for all Indians, and how I constantly reiterate that my Indian experience is unique to me. I try very, very hard in writing Native Appropriations to be real, gracious, and admit when I’m wrong.

I’m constantly told I’m not “Indian enough” to write this blog, which is frustrating, but admittedly comes with putting your thoughts and identity on the internet. I acknowledge that my white privilege has meant that I’ve been given hella opportunities, and am now in a privileged position to be able to sit here and write these ideas. But part of dealing with privilege is working actively to dismantle it. If I didn’t use my strange combination of oppression and privilege to openly question, critique, and start conversations, I’d just be playing into the system that benefits from Native subjugation and white privilege–and that would be something to be concerned about.

I’ve been reading Scott Richard Lyon’s X-marks: Native Signatures of Assent lately, and his thoughts about modern Indian identity, “acculturation,” “assimilation,” and even “nationhood” are fascinating, and have been super empowering to help me theorize and understand these blog-o-sphere interactions. He said, in a blog post about his book:

In my book, I argue for a greater recognition of the actually existing diversity in Native America, and I further posit the suggestion that indige­nous people have the right to move in modern time. That means, first, acknowledging differences that already exist in the Fourth World, and, second, seeing those differences as by-products of modernity, hence nothing to be ashamed of. Native shame is rarely justified. We require a little self-forgiveness for being the people we are, and we should remember that the flip side of forgiveness is a promise. Our ancestors promised that their descendants would be part of the modern world while continuing to maintain that activist sense of community that Jace Weaver has called “communitism.” Sometimes that means adopting new ways of living, thinking, and being that do not necessarily emanate from a traditional cultural source (or, for that matter, “time immemorial”), and sometimes it means appropriating the new and changing it to feel more like the old.

These interactions and comments admittedly made me feel ashamed. I felt ashamed that I had somehow disrespected my community, ashamed that I didn’t know how to defend myself better, ashamed that because of history of my ancestors and policies of the federal government, I ended up growing up away from my community and not being more of a “real Indian” in their eyes.

But instead of feeling ashamed, I’m trying now to turn the tables and think that I, instead, am the colonizer’s worst nightmare. Because history has tried to eradicate my people by violence and force, enacted every assimilating and acculturating policy against my ancestors, let me grow up in white suburbia, and erased all the visual vestiges of heritage from my face–but still tsi tsalagi (I am Cherokee). My ancestors gave their “x-marks”–assents to the new–so that I could be here, fighting back against misrepresentations, through a keyboard and the internet.

So I care about how Native people are represented, and I will fight for our right to be portrayed with accuracy, dignity, and respect. So while “real Indians” might not care about Tonto, I do, and despite what others might think, I’m just about as real as you can get.

The same day as our Crooked Arrows adventure last weekend, Mikaela and I also hit up the Haffenreffer Anthropology museum at Brown to check out their new student-curated exhibit: “Thawing the Frozen Indian: From Tobacco to Top Model.” Dr. Hoover, one of the faculty members at Brown, had mentioned to me at Harvard Powwow (she was the Head Lady Dancer) that there was a reference to my blog, and I might like the exhibit. But, imagine my surprise and geeked out delight when I walked in and saw this:

Yep, that says “On the blog Native Appropriations, Adrienne K. explains…”! There’s a block quote, from me, on the wall of the museum! How cool is that?! It’s from my anti-hipster headdress manifesto.

The exhibit came out of a class (that I wish they offered at my school!) called “Thawing the Frozen Indian: Native American Museum representations,” and they had a panel that gave the history and rationale for the exhibit:

The panel reads:
“From cigar store Indians to reality TV, American popular culture has reflected, created, and perpetuated stereotypical representations of Native Americans. Museums have helped legitimize and solidify these stereotypes, freezing American Indians in a primitive, ahistorical past. As part of the class “Thawing the Frozen Indian: Native American Museum Representations,” we have created an exhibit about the (mis) representation of Native Americans both inside and outside of museums. This exhibit is confronting the complex, and often painful, history of cultural appropriation in order to foster conversation. As part of the process, we created a Facebook page and crowd-sourced comments from individuals who identify as Native American. 

We have organized our research into three categories: racist stereotypes, mass-produced cultural appropriations, and contemporary Native art. In this last and final section we provide examples of the “unfrozen Indian,” art that combines the tradition and modern in Native American life today.”

If I were to design an exhibit, this would be it. I loved every part–the discussions of cultural appropriation, stereotypes, mascots, advertising, etc–but also the awesome contemporary art from artists like Teri Greeves. Overall, I was in nerd heaven the entire time. It was kinda like my blog, in museum format. Which was so cool.

So next to the panel about Playing Indian was a case with info about the Urban Outfitters Case, coupling pictures of the Urban products with a traditional Navajo rug (which was a nice juxaposition):

The captions on the cases all had Facebook comments printed on them, which provided a nice interactive element and connected the museum to the “real world”:

I also loved that they had glass pens to allow visitors to add their thoughts–directly on the cases themselves!

Here was the case talking about Top Model (using my transcription, I noticed the aside I had included–love it):

Then there were these adorable Teri Greeves baby high tops:

I took a ton more pictures, but I want you to go visit! My terrible point-and-shoot can’t do justice to the exhibit. So in closing, we decided to be awkward and take some pictures with “my” panel:
  
“omg that’s me!”
 
Then we signed the guest book:

…and headed to see Crooked Arrows. It was a great day. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend you stop by. The museum isn’t large, but they’ve packed a lot of good stuff into a small space–and it’s free!

Here’s the info for the museum:

The Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Mondays and Brown University Holidays.  Admission is free. The Museum’s phone number is 401-863-2065.

Oh, then when we were walking through Providence, we saw these flyers posted all over the place, and found the card in a restaurant. These guys should walk over and check out the exhibit!

(Thanks so much to all the Brown students, staff, and faculty involved! You totally made this blogger’s life complete!)

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

Why Tonto Matters

March 16, 2012 — 51 Comments

It’s been a week or so since the original photos of Johnny Depp as Tonto have surfaced, and the internet has been abuzz with Depp defenders and Depp defectors–and while the Native Appropriations community and my internet circle have been on the “oh dang, this is real bad for us” train, I’ve been surprised at how many people have basically told me and others with similar opinions to STFU and “get over it” (with also some more choice words than that…).
But I still stand by the fact that Tonto and his portrayal matter to Indian Country, and should matter to Indian Country. And here’s why.

Defenders of Depp-as-rodeo-clown-Tonto’s arguments basically boil down to the following: Tonto is a fictional character. The Lone Ranger is a fictional movie. Johnny Depp is a great actor. We should be glad to have him portray Tonto. No one thinks Tonto is representative of a real Indian. There are bigger things to worry about in Indian Country, this is so trivial it shouldn’t even be an issue.

Here’s the thing. Yeah, Tonto is a fictional character, and there are plenty of white actors and actresses who play fictional characters, and we don’t automatically assume that white people are fictional, so it shouldn’t matter, right? We saw Natalie Portman as an evil-crazy-swan-human in the Black Swan, and we don’t assume that Natalie Portman’s character is representative of her, or all white people, in real life. But that, my friend, is white privilege at work. Everyday we see millions of representations of white people in varied and diverse roles. We see white actors as “real” people, as “fantasy” characters, and everything in between. 
But for Native people, the only images that the vast, vast majority of Americans see are stereotypical in nature. You go to the grocery store and see plenty of smiling white children on cereal boxes, contrasted with the only readily recognizable Native image–the Land o’ Lakes butter girl. In advertising we see plenty of non-Native folks participating in everyday life, and then we get ads like this featuring Native people. There are also hardly any (if any) Native people in current, mainstream television shows. And this carries over even more strongly into Hollywood.

The last big blockbuster series to feature Native characters was the Twilight series, and we are portrayed as wolves. Think of every recent major studio film that featured a Native character or Native actor. All of the ones I can think of off the top of my head were set in a historical context, were a fantasy film, or were offensively stereotype laden. There have been so few accurate, modern, nuanced portrayals of Native people it’s not even funny.

So, when we live in a world where there are other, more nuances portrayals of Native people for non-Natives to draw upon–when there are Native people featured in mainstream romantic comedies, dramas, sitcoms, even reality TV,  or news–then, maybe, will I be able to be looking forward to a stereotypical mess of a Tonto on the big screen. But I doubt it.
Comedian Ryan Mcmahon has a fabulous podcast series called “Ryan McMahon Gets Angry”, and he just did an awesome 5 minute rant on Johnny Depp as Tonto, and the responsibility we have as a community to question these representations. I can’t recommend it enough (language slightly NSFW):

Here’s a transcript of the end of his podcast:

So is Johnny Depp putting a bunch of Indians on the back of horses for this Lone Ranger Jerry Bruckheimer car crash gonna be good for us? Hell no. I’m not looking forward to it, I don’t think we should be happy about it, and I don’t think we should immediately go to that excited-happy-place everytime we see ourselves on TV. Because more oftentimes it hurts us more than helps us.  

I think the time to take back our stories, to take back our pride, and to start empowering and helping each other to rise is the time that we’re in now. That’s what I look forward to, that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what a whole bunch of other people are trying to do. Is Johnny Depp being on the back of a horse with a g*ddamn crow on the his head supposed to help us? Probably not. But it’s definitely not going to. So don’t get happy when you see four or five other brothers sitting on the back of a horse in their loincloth. Don’t be surprised, don’t be happy about it, don’t celebrate it, cause it’s bullsh*t. The time to reclaim, recapture, redefine, our own stories, in our own ways is now, and g*ddammit we gotta do more of it. Demand more from the producers, demand more of the television people, demand more from the people who are writing these stories. Because the stories are there. We are strong, proud people, and we need to be represented, by ourselves, as such.

I couldn’t agree more. There are several sub-arguments that I’ve seen in the last few days, citing how many Native actors would miss out on work as extras if this movie weren’t made, or how Johnny Depp’s “star power” was needed to get the film made in the first place. Those arguments are upsetting to me. We need to demand more. We can’t be complacent with just going to that “excited-happy-place” every time we see any representation of an Indian on screen. We can’t be thankful that 50 Native actors are able to ride around bareback in the background of a film, or be psyched that a big name Hollywood actor put a crow on his head to “honor” us–talk about ongoing colonization of the mind. Our community is so much better than that. We are worth so much more than background roles and misrepresentations.
Ryan also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:

Everything you do, grandson, is going to be political because you’re Anishinabe.

The way we represent ourselves is, therefore, inherently political. These “trivial” issues are representative of deeper, darker, larger issues within Indian Country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and misrepresentation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the “real” issues in Indian Country. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it as many times as I can until it sticks:

Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can’t–and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.

Earlier:
Native Appropriations: Johnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I mean Tonto. 

Further background reading:

If you want to read Ray Cook call me out and tell me that my writing is “So much hog-wash, so much wasted cyber-space, so much wasted oxygen” (awesome!): Tontomania: Who are we’z anyways?

Guardian: Why I’m Willing to Believe in Johnny Depp’s Tonto

Reel Injun (documentary about stereotyping of Indians in Hollywood): http://www.reelinjunthemovie.com/site/

Academic Article on Hollywood Stereotypes: The White Man’s Indian: Stereotypes in Films and Beyond

Ryan McMahon gets angry episode 4: I Ain’t Gettin On No Horse

PS- There are other things that I think need to be addressed with the controversy, but I didn’t have space here. The issue of Depp being “Indian enough” is a big one, or what “Indian enough” even means, or the historical accuracy of his costume, or the role of Native people in the film overall. I’d recommend a read through the comments on my first post for some great, interesting, and intelligent conversations.

EDIT 3/20–I switched out the cartoon at the top of the post because of my complete ignorance to the homophobic undertones to the original. My deepest apologies to the LGBTQ community for using an insensitive image, it was definitely not my intention to marginalize anyone. I definitely try to be aware of when my hetero/cis privilege comes out–so please continue to call me out on it, and I’ll definitely do better moving forward. Wado!

(Program and ticket from the play “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi. Above the ticket, notice the word “Squaw.” Also, note the pins thrust into Ishi’s body as if he were in an insect collection.)

AK Note: Please welcome guest blogger Tria Andrews.

Tria is a mixed race Cherokee, Irish, and Filipina writer who has published critical essays, fiction, poetry, and photography. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction from San Diego State University, a Shinnyo Fellow, and a PhD student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, where she teaches Asian American and Native American Studies. Her current research examines culturally relevant forms of rehabilitation for Native American youth in juvenile detention centers located on tribal grounds. This research is informed by over five years of tutoring and teaching yoga to incarcerated adolescents.
This past weekend marked two events held at UC Berkeley which presented conflicting representations of the violences that have occurred against Native peoples in the U.S. In her keynote address for the Empowering Women of Color Conference, “On Revolution: A Conversation Between Grace Lee Boggs and Angela Davis,” Davis foregrounded her talk by emphasizing, “I would like to begin by acknowledging the indigenous people, who are the original inhabitants of the land on which we meet. . . . And let us never forget that our presence here is very much related to the genocidal violence inflicted on this area’s Native people, and if we believe in justice, we must stand for justice for Native people in the 21st century.”

In contrast, the play, Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, which opened March 2, attempts to justify the gross violences committed against Native peoples through its portrayal of Ishi as a batterer, murderer, and rapist. While arguably the production evidences some meager attempts to provide a more nuanced version of history, ultimately, the play endeavors to erase not only Ishi, but also all Native peoples, who through the production’s monolithic representation of Native Americans are conflated with the Yahi. When the play is not depicting Native peoples as extinct, it suggests that Native Americans are not “survivors” or “victims,” but instead, were asking for it: “Maybe Manifest Destiny was a two-way street.”

Manifest Destiny was certainly not a two-way street; it was a colonial policy aimed at annihilating Native peoples, traditions, and cultures and usurping Native Americans of their lands in the name of “progress.” The attempts of dominant discourses to render Native peoples extinct to justify the continued occupation of Native lands is unfortunately one reason that Ishi may be a compelling story for non-Native audiences. The dominant and Non-native archive, which was utilized for the production, “a work of fiction based on fact,” perpetuates a tiresome story told from the point of view of the aggressor. Despite the fact that Native peoples associated with UC Berkeley have been addressing the complexities of Ishi’s story, it appears that no Native Americans were consulted for the play. Given the exploitative and dehumanizing relationship of UC Berkeley with Native populations in the past, the university has been working hard to repair the relationship that the institution has with Native peoples. However, the play seems completely oblivious to these activities and the important work that Native activists have been doing to seek restitution and reconciliation. Instead, the play causes further violences to Ishi and Native communities.

While the play pretends to present disparate and diverse versions of history—to speak from Ishi’s perspective—in truth, the production is about the European-American characters going native. Going native, as defined by Native scholar and UC Berkeley Professor, Shari Huhndorf, is a trope aimed at alleviating White guilt regarding the violent founding of the nation while simultaneously reinforcing White supremacy. While constructed around the character of Ishi, whose image is exploited on the production’s brochure, the protagonist of the play is in fact Dr. Alfred Kroeber, the primary anthropologist who studied Ishi. By purporting to be a play about the last of the Yahi (underscored by the play’s title), the production diminishes White guilt by representing Native peoples as extinct and Whites as the rightful owners of the land. In the falling action of the play, Ishi’s ghost—after his body is dismembered and dispersed throughout numerous institutions in the U.S. against his wishes—rises from the dead and assumes the third person plural, “we.” Here, Ishi’s adoption of “we” endeavors to downplay the violences against Native peoples, which the play in fact fetishizes. In other words, after his death, Ishi supposedly becomes a White man and in doing so, attempts to warrant the dispossession of Native peoples from their land.


While the play’s concluding characterization of Ishi as a European-American commits yet another horrific act of violence against Ishi, unfortunately, the play also fetishizes violence to Native characters’ bodies—or the bodies or non-Native actors playing Indian. The opening scene reveals a Native man in a loincloth who is chased by a White man wielding a gun. The White man is starving and intends to murder and eat the Indian. This action takes place both center stage and off stage as the actors circle the audience and whoop. One character warns another not to “pollute the [Indian’s] flesh with bullets.” These scenes of gruesome violence are staged as spectacle and rationalized in the narrative. Three White men brutally murder an Indian man, whose death the audience witnesses in scene. The Indian is beaten, tied to a stake, knifed, and finally, set on fire. This dramatization of violence, like others throughout the play, is accompanied by the bloodcurdling screams of the Indian characters. At one point in the play, while European-American characters are brutally beating an Indian, an image of a White woman wrested by two Native men is projected center stage to seemingly justify the violence committed against the Indian. As the play makes clear, the violences against Native peoples continue postmortem as Native remains are stored in museums and universities, such as UC Berkeley, which currently houses 12,000 human skeletons. However, the production commits even further violences. Through Ishi’s perspective, Native remains are labeled “evil,” and the housing of these bodies in museums and institutions is presented as an unavoidable and resolved circumstance, which is certainly not the case given the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Ishi in 1914

Considering the immense violences that Native peoples—and in particular Native women—continue to endure from non-Natives, violent scenes, which are unsparingly utilized in the performance, reveal disgusting and insulting displays of ignorance. European-American men and Ishi himself beat and threaten Native women or “squaw[s]” as the cast list derogatorily refers to one of the female characters. In the play, Native women, unlike their European-American counterparts (with the exception of Dr. Saxton Pope, M.D. who goes native, donning a two piece buckskin ensemble while simulating masturbation), are not only sexualized, but also beaten and raped. The depiction of Native American women as promiscuous, their bodies, like the land, seducing European-Americans, is yet another racist trope that the production cannot resist. Ishi’s narrative, which the main characters expend most of the play attempting to extract from Ishi, is presented in two versions, both of which render a Yahi woman, Ishi’s sister, as incestuous, murderous, and inherently rapeable. Rape, as Cherokee activist and writer Andrea Smith highlights, is a tool of conquest. Yet, the production portrays Native men as rapists and Native women as enjoying their violability because of their cultural upbringing: “Copulate and rape are not different words in Yahi.” This Western, patriarchal portrayal of violence against Yahi’s sister, who revels in her own rape so much so that she seeks out her rapist—also her parents’ murderer—as a lover and father for her child, is absolutely inexcusable. Yet another irresponsible scene conflates violence with sexuality as Ishi is positioned behind his sister in a manner that suggests intercourse while the two work together to commit infanticide. To add insult to injury, the production completely misrepresents Native conceptions of “balance” or harmony, insisting, “There’s balance in all [Ishi’s] stories.”

But in Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, Ishi’s so-called stories are not his own. They are stories of Ishi narrated through a Western lens. I could continue by citing the multiple violences against Ishi and Native peoples that the play commits and which I have not yet specified: unproblematizing privilege and power dynamics; portraying Ishi as childlike, savage, and subordinate; reinforcing racial and gender binaries, etc., but I want to conclude in a way that is more useful.

As a mixed race (Cherokee, Irish, and Filipina) woman, who identifies as indigenous and who was required to watch this production for a class, I want the director, cast, and crew to try to understand what it was like to be a Native person in the audience. The jolt sent up my spine when I read word “squaw” in the cast list, the knot that took root in my stomach and held while I witnessed the gunning down of an Indian in the opening scene, the stiffening of my shoulders when I was surrounded by staged violence accompanied by the villainous laughter and whoops of European-American characters in a play that professes to treat the history of our nation and the mass murdering of Native peoples as “gray matter.” It would have been impossible for me to sit through the play without writing back to it. Within the first few minutes, I began taking notes on my checkbook—the only paper I had. Although I wanted to leave the theater almost immediately, was determined to leave at intermission, a friend and former journalist convinced me a review would have more credibility if I watched the entire production.

Recommendations:

All that I have written here, I write without hesitation. I write what I witnessed and what I feel and know with all my being to be true. I understand that long hours and hard work were required to make a production such as Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, but because of the gross violences that this production perpetuates against Native peoples, I recommend that all further performances be canceled in order to create the time and space necessary for a dialog among Native peoples, the play’s director and writer, John Fisher, his cast, crew, and the campus community. If at an institution such as UC Berkeley we are truly committed to diversity and learning, I see no other alternative.

Please sign the petition to cancel the remaining performances here.

You can also email the Director, John Fisher at jofish94117@yahoo.com.

(Thanks Kayla and Tria!)

This is not a post hating on Mariah Watchman, America’s Next Top Model’s very first Native contestant. At all. I’m so excited she’s on the show, and proud that she’s representing for all of Indian Country. Mariah is from the Umatilla rez in Oregon, but is also Ojibwe, Modoc, and Mandan, and seems pretty down-to-earth and awesome. This is much more about the show itself, and the messages it sends us about society at large.

The premise of this season of ANTM is a competition between British models and American models (they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel after 18 seasons to keep it interesting, I guess), and on the first episode, the models were paired in what was termed a “Culture Clash”–one model from the US and one from the UK, each representing an “iconic figure from [their] individual country.” Ok, fair enough.

So here were the pairings:

George Washington vs. Queen Elizabeth
Janet Jackson vs. Scary Spice
Madonna vs. Elton John
Michelle Obama vs. Margaret Thatcher
Andy Warhol vs. Amy Winehouse
Jackie O vs. Princess Diana

and, finally…

Pocahontas vs. John Lennon 

Any guesses as to who they made portray Pocahontas? Yeah. Mariah. Her response (on the show) to the choice:

“Me representing Native Americans, I mean who else better for me to get than Pocahontas? But I’m also nervous, because she’s Pocahontas, and that’s a lot to live up to.”

She went on the record with an interview with her hometown newspaper discussing the choice as well (which was a choice of the producers, not her own), saying:

 “As soon as I heard what the competition was, I knew that’s who I would be. I was completely fine with it. There’s no one else I’d want more to portray. It’s someone everybody knows.” 

I think this is completely a reflection of the sad, sad state of our society if a proud Native woman feels the only “iconic figure” that “everyone knows” of her race is a 12 year old who was famous for “saving” and marrying an old white dude, and then becoming a Disney character. Awesome.

The choice of the producers to have her portray “Pocahontas” is straight up offensive too. Let’s pigeonhole the only Native contestant by forcing her to don an extremely stereotypical outfit and be an Indian. The thing that stood out to me was that Mariah was cast into a race-based role, while the other pairings had plenty of (relatively progressive) race-bending. George Washington, Elton John, Jackie O, and John Lennon (all white) were portrayed by models of color, which I thought was kinda cool. But, because Mariah’s heritage is her “exotic” selling point for the show, the producers felt the need to exploit it.

Then the outfit they put on her. Oh the outfit. It looks like they bought it straight off the pocahottie halloween page--fake buckskin, primary colored feathers, plains-style beading and designs, braids in her hair. And, the kicker, a tomahawk. Yes, a tomahawk. History lesson, ANTM: Pocahontas was from Virginia, and none of those stereotypes apply to her people. So basically they did what everyone seems to do when they want to “honor” Indians–drew upon every Hollywood Indian stereotype without any regard for historical accuracy, regionality, or how effing racist it is to make the only Native girl basically dress up in blackface. (I’m ready for the angry comments about that last part)

But during the judging I wanted to throw my remote at Nigel Barker’s face. Here’s the final picture:

It’s fine. There were others that were much worse (it’s the first episode!). But Nigel, with all his infinite wisdom, said this:

“First of all Mariah, I think you had a very easy thing to do. You’re Native American? (She nods) But I don’t feel that you’ve committed. I just don’t see the angst, I don’t see the feeling, I don’t see the passion. I just see you looking pretty.”

Dear Nigel, I’m sorry that Mariah did not live up to your stereotyped images of what a Native person should be, I’m pretty sure she was doing her best while dressed in a fake-ass outfit that trivializes and stereotypes her culture. So Native people/a 12 year old Powhatan girl are supposed to portray “angst”, and “passion”? Do you realize how ludicrous your statements are? She’s somehow supposed to be “better” at playing a fictionalized historic figure because she happens to be the same race? None of the other critiques mentioned anything about the model’s race. They didn’t tell the girl playing Michelle Obama that she could have done better because she happens to be black, and Michelle Obama is black, so why didn’t you channel your inner sassy black first lady? 

It’s just so frustrating. The only lens that millions of viewers of ANTM have to view us (Natives) through is that of stereotypes and false representations–even when faced with a, living, breathing counter-narrative to those stereotypes in Mariah. An educated, reservation-raised, Sahaptin language-speaking Native woman who doesn’t walk around in buckskin and braids, but is still Native (and proud!).

I sure hope this start doesn’t reflect how the rest of the season will go. To her credit, Mariah is taking it all in stride, and wants to use her new celebrity to give back to Indian Country, and tried to represent Native peoples in a positive light on the show:

“I felt I couldn’t be crazy or nonchalant about things because I had a whole people on my shoulders,” she said. “I had higher expectations for myself. I wasn’t going to go and be crazy and disrespect people because for Native Americans one of the hugest things is respect.”

and

“Native Americans haven’t had anybody in the celebrity industry,” she said. “There have been a few native actors – Adam Beach, Irene Bedard – but there’s never been a native so high up in the fashion industry who’s looked at on a celebrity level. People don’t want to listen to you unless you come from a place of power. There are a lot of improvements across Indian country that can be made. I want to start helping out and being a factor.” 

Finally, one image that did make me proud, here she is rockin her medallion during the panel judging:

So, thanks ANTM for showing us, once again, how deeply stereotypes and erasure of Native people run in our national narrative.