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.