Sunday, November 14, 2010

I have a question for fans of the “Hipster Indian” look.

(This is a more thought-out and in-depth version of a post I first put up on Tumblr this morning.)

If the reason that you feel the need to dress this way is just that you “appreciate the culture” and “think its beautiful” why don’t I ever see fashion spreads of Native Americans dressed in the attire as it was meant to be worn? Why is it always shirtless white ladies in the desert with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other?

(picture of a young white woman with straight brown hair wearing a war bonnet, is seemingly shirtless, with "warpaint" that looks like lipstick and smoking a cigarette, standing around in a forest)

Seriously, you don't need an advanced degree in semiotics to figure out what's wrong with this image.

My theory? These people don't give a shit about any particular Native American culture. They feel fine and dandy "appreciating" these images because the culture being appreciated is not any particular Native American culture. It is the culture of middle class America from 30 years ago, back when if you dressed your kid up as an “Indian Princess” for Halloween no one would think twice about it (I’m looking at you, mom). Back when you sent your kids to summer camp and they made wallets with fringe and plastic beads on them to "appreciate" Native culture. Or when you could take your family on road trips to reservations and buy a bunch of plastic tomahawks and fake arrowheads made in China (my husband is looking at you, mother-in-law).

(picture of three young white women wearing costumey feather headdresses, blackened eyebrows, and those cheesy 70s-ish clothes so popular with kids these days.)

You can tell because all these pictures also often exhibit artifacts of the 70s, like feathered hair and tube socks pulled up to your knees, or have orangey red faded color palettes or excessive lens flare like a flashback in a Wes Anderson movie or something.

The “more innocent time” these images are hearkening back to is not to some imagined time of pre-Colombian noble savagery but the time from my childhood when middle America felt free to stomp all over Native American culture without guilt.

That time has come again, apparently.

And let's go a little bit deeper. BFP on tumblr notes:

when you literally don’t care or it never crossed your mind what is happening to native peoples today—what their struggles are, what is happening to their children while you are admiring how pretty their headdress looks (if you dye it orange and green first) with blue eye shadow and blue jeans—when you write passionate defenses of your right to wear native dress instead of passionate pleas to people to donate money so that elders and children don’t get their fucking HEAT shut off in the middle of winter (because, yeah, that whole thing about having to pay somebody exorbitant rates for the use of minerals found on your own land sorta sucks ass)—then you can judge yourself as not having the right to wear native clothes of any sort.
I’m from New Mexico, the phenomenon of the rich white (or Hispanic) lady from Santa Fe who is fond of Navajo jewelry and Navajo art but not so much, you know, actual Navajo people is well-known to me.

Which is not to say that you can’t have a beautiful turquoise bracelet or something. Just don’t wear sacred items and always buy it from local Native artists so that the economic power stays with the people whose culture is being commodified.

That, I think, is at the heart of what makes this sort of thing so offensive (to me, at least). White people make money selling this crap to other white people while the people whose culture this comes from deal with some of the worst poverty in the US.

If I may nerd out for a moment, it's something I spent some time studying in school. There was a similar pattern with African art in the 1920s and 1930s, and Australian Aboriginal art in the 1980s. Cultural Anthropologists (which, while it is my chosen field of study, has a lot to answer for) would "gather artifacts" from communities and then sell them to art galleries for a jillion dollars.

Recommended reading: Hipster Appropriations and My Culture Is Not A Trend on tumblr. I got the pictures in this post from these blogs.

And, for those with an anthro bent, read anything by Sally Price, especially this book and this one.


Will said...

I take exception to your comments about Australian Aboriginal art in the 1980s. While it's that early in the 20th century there was a brisk ethnographic trade in Aboriginal artifacts, by the 1980s the art that was being sold in galleries around Australia (for a lot less than a jillion dollars--the record at auction in the last decade was more that $775,000 Australian) was produced for sale to just those commercial art galleries by Indigenous Australians who knew quite well what they were up to. Not to say that all those who bought them really cared much about the culture, but it's wrong to deny the artists themselves the agency they exercised in creating and selling their art to white audiences.

Vanessa said...

Admittedly, my knowledge on that particular subject comes solely from a documentary I've seen about an aboriginal woman who had her work stolen from her - both in the sense of appropriation and in the sense of literal stealing.

I wish I could remember the name of it. But I've never lived in Australia and am probably missing some nuance. I apologize.

But yes, denying the artists agency is the absolute last thing I'd want to do (it's funny you mention that, because I've been arguing against doing just that on tumblr all day).

If I may nerd out again, another great book that deals with just that subject (artist's agency) amongst other things, is Sound of Africa by Louise Meintjes.

Vanessa said...

Ah! I remembered!

The documentary was called "Copyrites."

Vanessa said...

I couldn't find anything about the film, but this PDF talks about the same case that was in the film. And it looks like it was the early 90s, not the 80s.

wanrey said...

Right on point! I have grown to appreciate the native culture more and more as I have gotten to know my indigenous brothers and sisters. I've realized they have similar struggles as myself growing up as a low-income person of color. Its just another piece of the puzzle of privileged (mostly white) cultures taking advantage of what they deem cool about us in order to be more cool (since with hipsters its all about being a cool as motherfucker while acting sad), yet they never take into account the robbing of cultures, the complete ignorance of the people who have built up that culture, and their unwillingness to be enlightened on that culture besides what they can gleam off of it to appear cultured. The hipster indian look definitely is bullshit, yet its only the tip of the iceberg of the pattern of privileged (again mostly white) people stealing the good ideas and culture of people of color. Oh the world we live in!

Anonymous said...

"The “more innocent time” these images are hearkening back to is not to some imagined time of pre-Colombian noble savagery but the time from my childhood when middle America felt free to stomp all over Native American culture without guilt."

You just kinda blew my mind. I mean, I agree with everything else you said, but this part in particular is an amazing piece of analysis.

And it's so cool to find that you're also a fan of bfp!

Also, Native Appropriations is another good blog dealing with this topic.

@wanrey: "...with hipsters its all about being a cool as motherfucker while acting sad..." Best description of hipsters I've read so far.

Ten Nebula said...

Peace and Light, Vanessa

I enjoy your blog!
All the best to you in 2011!!!

Bright Blessings & Stay well,

Ten Nebula

DaisyDeadhead said...

Yes, happy new year Vanessa... a little late!

Ironically, jst read your post about Native American culture being appropriated, right after posting on Billy Jack, the guy who started it.

Katrina said...

No, that's cute. It's not like your ancestors killed them all or anything.
But seriously. I'm a Cherokee woman, and honestly, a lot of the new native print stuff going around doesn't particularly offend me. I've always loved the look, and it's really awesome now that the prints are more accessible in cuter styles. That being said.
The head dress thing has got to go. Native American warbonnets are not made to be worn randomly or as a fashion accessory. These head dresses are also, in point of fact, typically worn by men. And not any men: these were worn by heroes of war. The best example I can give of equivalence is someone wearing a purple heart as a fashion accessory. It's just weird. It's a cultural symbol. And if you must wear one, please do not do so wasted at an indie concert. Please.
I don't know where she got this one, but if anyone does plan to purchase one, it's best to do so from a cultural practicing Native American, as it is part of their heritage. And in point of fact, we all kind of owe the entire culture more respect. Native Americans experience constant racism, whether it's mascots in the NFL or "casino gambling" stereo types that are precipitated with no kind of stigma attached. I think that Americans have shat on the Native American culture more than enough without wearing pieces of their cultural heritage, war paint, and nonchalantly smoking what is most likely an American Spirit cigarette as a fashion pose.
That being said, the girl in the photo looks beautiful. I'm just not a fan of her wardrobe choice. The only one allowed to wear one of these is Cher. Do you hear that hipsters? You haven't earned what she's earned.
-end rant-

Special K said...

Despite what Will wrote, you're pretty much on the money about Australian Aboriginal art. Most of what's sold commercially is made in China (as is everything in Australia these days it seems - down to the flagwaver's flags).

Aboriginal Australians are still fighting to have their rights recognised. Mis-appropriation of indigenous culture is disgusting.