Aang! Hi everyone- happy Spring!
This was going to be a post about buying Native items, and the importance of doing careful research prior to making a purchase. But, the explanation of the importance was more involved than expected. I’ll be doing a second post soon about buying Native- Native artists deserve to stand out and have a post of their own!
Anyway, with all the hullabaloo in the media, I felt the need to speak the truth. It’s time to have an honest talk about what’s okay, and what isn’t okay, when it comes to buying and selling Native American items, or “Native themed” items. Many people who appropriate these items are not intending harm, they have no idea that it’s offensive, or why. So, I’m here to help!
Don’t buy Native items or imagery from non-Natives- this is not okay. Support actual Native artists and craftspeople, and show off those items with pride- this is okay! Read on to find out why…
Dream catcher hanging from your rearview mirror? Do you sleep in your car? Dream catcher tattoo or sweatshirt? Do you sleep walk? Can you name the Nation that originally made dream catchers? These are questions I asked those who came into our shop and seemed to be obsessed with them.
I’ve never been okay with non-Natives making or selling items such as dream catchers, medicine wheels, etc. When we had our tattoo studio, I refused to do these types of tattoos because of my strong opposition. However, I used to be either okay with or on the fence with certain other things- i.e. mascots, imagery, etc.- Until I really listened, and truly dug deep to learn about my family history. It’s become a huge issue lately, with “Native culture” (more on that later) being so “in” now.
One of the issues contributing to appropriation is a lack of knowledge. Schools haven’t taught students the truth of what happened to Native Americans. I’ve heard non-Natives mention that it would be “too traumatic” for young children to learn the truth. Well, I’ve got news for people who feel that way- Native children were subjected to FAR worse. Native children had to watch while their parents were slaughtered and scalped. Not a very a pretty image, huh? Now, non-Natives feel entitled to capitalize on Native items and images. Imagine how that feels.
Of course, the people today making the claims that their children shouldn’t be subjected to learning the truth are not the ones who committed those acts. They cannot go back in time and change what their own ancestors did. But they CAN ensure the truth is spoken, without being “whitewashed.” Covering up the truth only leads to misunderstanding the implications of appropriation.
As a Native American, Unangax (Aleut) and St’at’imc, my ancestors were subjected to horrific atrocities. My Unangan ancestors were colonized by Russians, with the Chiefs and men being killed, and the rest exploited. During WW2, the government put my people, US citizens, into internment camps, and left them to languish in poor conditions with few resources and little food- many died from the conditions. Meanwhile, a few miles away, Nazis in a POW camp had hot meals and ping pong tables, thanks to the Geneva Conventions.
When our people were finally allowed to “apply for permission” to return to their own homes, they didn’t have anything to return to– the government had burned their village to the ground. The government did actually help rebuild, but then blackmailed the Unangan into doing the seal hunt, to benefit the government, under threat of taking back everything that had been rebuilt.
Later on, the Unangan, along with other Alaska Natives, were forced into assimilation- the motto was “kill the Indian, save the man.” Children were removed from their families and put into boarding schools, where they were starved and abused for their own cultural practices and languages. They were literally beaten just for being Native.
The same happened with my St’at’imc ancestors- they were put into residential schools to be assimilated. Women were subjected to forced sterilization, and again, children were being removed from their homes and families.
You might think all this happened a long time ago, right? With my ancestors- these atrocities were very recent. There are still living people on my family tree, who were in those internment camps, who were in boarding schools, who were forced into assimilation. As a result, less than 200 people still speak my peoples’ language, Unangam Tunuu. The trauma is very real, and very recent. There are instances of First Nations people being coerced into sterilization even now. The Nations where the trauma was earlier, it’s still not right- the current generation is still feeling the effects.
Another thing women of many Nations are continuing to experience is fear of kidnapping or murder. If you do a search on “MMIW” or #MMIW, many will be surprised, and should be shocked. Native women, particularly those from the PNW, Alaska, Canada, have disproportionately come up missing, or dead.
Four out of five Native women are affected by violence in current times. According to the US Department of Justice, Native women and girls suffer from murder rates that are more than TEN times the national average. Statistics from the CDC show that homicide is the fifth leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women aged 25-34 (CSVA, 2019).
When Native items and or imagery are appropriated, it causes a host of problems. Now, back to the idea of “Native culture” mentioned above… “Respect and/or admiration for Native culture” is a reason often cited by non-Natives wishing to capitalize or utilize. There is no such thing as “Native culture.” There are 573 federally recognized Nations just within the colonial United States borders. This doesn’t count those that are not federally recognized, or those outside the borders. Each of these Nations has their own cultures, beliefs, and language.
Not all Natives wear war bonnets. Not all Natives use “peace pipes.” Not all Natives use sweat lodges. Not all Natives lived in teepees. Not all Natives make or use dream catchers. When non-Natives use or promote such imagery, it leads to false stereotypes, and actual Natives are reduced to “characters.”
For the Nations who these items are a part of- they’re sacred, spiritual items. I’m not familiar with all Nations, obviously, but I can’t think of ANY where females wore war bonnets. It seems relatively few Nations wore them at all, and of those who did/do, they were/are EARNED. It was/is a privilege to have one bestowed upon oneself.
Dream catchers, medicine wheels, mandalas, medicine bags… these are all very sacred, and very meaningful. Even the number of poles used in teepees was significant. Non-Natives usually don’t know the significance of such things, and it’s offensive to Natives for these things to be corrupted and exploited.
Now, remember those MMIW stats I just provided above? How many times do you see sexualized images of Native women? Even non-Native women posing nude or very scantily dressed while wearing a war bonnet? These images lead to fetishizing, which compounds and contributes to crimes and violence against Native women. Think really hard about this next time you head to a music festival.
So, in summation- cultural appropriation of Native American items and images causes harm to actual Natives. False stereotypes are promoted, fetishizing is dangerous in that it contributes to MMIW, and it’s just downright insulting. When non-Natives violently forced Natives to assimilate, punishing them for “being Indian,” and now non-Natives want to capitalize? It’s just plain offensive. And if you’re not Native, you don’t get to decide what is or isn’t offensive to those who actually are Native.
So, when you put on that teepee print blouse, get into your car with a dream catcher on your rear view mirror, to go to a music festival where you’re going to wear a war bonnet- take a moment to think of what actual indigenous people have experienced. Think really hard about that.
We. Are. Still. Here.
CSVA (2019). MMIW. Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. Retrieved March 15, 2019, form www.csvanw.org.
*The Esk*mo photo is available all over the internet and social media- I could not determine the original source. The most “official source” I could find was from the Marquette University Archives on Flickr, available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/27772396@N07/5680530277.