Trending: appropriation of Indigenous emblems, symbols, and imagery in fashion and pop culture

Chelsea Vowel’s article An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdress is a much needed interjection into a pop-cultural environment where the appropriation of indigenous symbols and emblems is “hot”, chic, and comes as naturally as breathing. In the article, Vowel explains the significance of “restricted symbols”, of which indigenous headdresses are one. She compares the unearned wearing of a headdress to the forgery of a diploma or the fabrication of a military medal, stating that “[t]hese items cannot be legitimately possessed or reproduced by just anyone, as they represent achievements earned according to a specific criteria” (Vowel, “An Open…in Headdress”). Her argument brings into plain sight what is often ignored by those who appropriate these symbols: that indigenous culture is not merely cute, chic, or exotic – it has deep symbolic meaning and may confer rank, status, experience, and other merits – and it should be respected as thus. I believe that Vowel’s article is a fine educational script, and can also serve as a jumping off point for looking at the appropriation of indigenous symbols and imagery in a broader context.  There are many other less obvious, more subtle, systemic and pernicious ways in which indigenous material has been appropriated. In this blog, I would like to focus not only on the unsanctioned use of restricted symbols, but also on the appropriation of unrestricted imagery, the line between “appreciation” and “appropriation” of cultural products, and the significance of considering the intersection of race, power imbalances, and colonial histories.

The past months have been a truly wince-inducing period for fashion, providing examples of how even non-restricted imagery can be used in a highly problematic (and utterly embarrassing) manner. First, the fashion brand KTZ’s fall/winter collection was released, claiming to be “a tribute to the primal woman indigenous to this land, who evolves into a sexualized, empowered being” (Schilling, “On No … in Milan”). This statement is a brow-furrowing, grimace-inducing chimera of poorly employed equity buzzwords (e.g. empowered being) and pure unabashed exoticization. To make matters worse, the designer, Marjan Pejoski, “borrowed” (read: took without permission) themes and designs from the work of a Northern Cheyenne/Crow designer, Bethany Yellowtail (Schilling). Bethany’s intricate and (as she explains) deeply personal beading patterns and dress designs were lifted without her permission, and without any financial return or even acknowledgement of the original artist. More recently, the fashion company D-Squared released an indigenous “inspired” line entitled D-Squaw (Adrienne K., “New York…Bethany Yellowtail). This line, titled using a derogatory term referring to indigenous women, brought a fusion of indigenous and settler-era British garb to the runways of the Milan. As they described it, they were mixing “the enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes” with the “confident attitude of the British aristocracy” (Adrienne K.). Both of these appropriative acts, from different designers in different countries, are worryingly similar in narrowness of vision and lack of respect.

The key to examining these instances of appropriation is in finding patterns within them. In these examples, I found several. First, there is a noticeable absence of indigenous input, but obvious indigenous “output” or material. Essentially, white and non-indigenous designers have not sought the original ideas of indigenous people or involved them in their process: they have not even recognized the people from whom they have taken, referring to them generically as “Canadian Indian Tribes” (Schilling), and refusing to give credit to the indigenous designers that inspired their work. Secondly, the ways that the lines have been described are unanimously essentializing and fetishistic. Indigenous women are referred to as “primal”, affirming the status of their culture as unadvanced, primitive, and less valuable and forward thinking than hegemonic white culture. Their “tribes” are also referred to as “enchanting”, a patronizing term that conjures images of the magic of nature and the simplistic and naïve beauty of these “Indians”. D-Squaw even provides a glaring juxtaposition of their indigenous imagery against their British imagery – the white colonizer pieces are “confident”, “aristocratic”, and blended seamlessly (ignoring any historical irony) with the indigenous pieces.

Finally, building on this last point, there is willful ignorance of the historical and dynamic nature of indigenous peoples. There is an ignorance of the tension between colonial images (e.g. Old British garb) and indigenous images, and there is a utopic emphasis on a sort of “old world Indian” or “imaginary Indian” – “enchanted”, “primal”, untouched, unaltered, uncolonized, untraumatized. And I believe that this is a fundamental truth that underlies these patterns of colonial logic: colonizers want to have their fun, fashion, and profit with indigenous symbols, but they don’t want to recognize their significance and history, whether that be considering how an object is a restricted symbol, or considering a history of colonialism and inflicted trauma.

Cultural appropriation in the fashion industry and popular Western culture at large is an issue that must be not only addressed, but resolved. The author of the article that inspired this post suggests several ways in which a non-indigenous person can “appreciate” rather than “appropriate”, and I wish to share these with you (especially since her word has much more value in this subject than mine). Vowel first asks simply that restricted symbols be respected: do not wear a headdress or other restricted symbol unless you have earned it. She also suggests that individuals who want to celebrate indigenous art go out and purchase art from actual indigenous artists, rather than appropriative facsimiles. She suggests to non-indigenous artists who use indigenous emblems and imagery to create images of real first-nations people, and to cite who they are and what specific nation they belong to (Vowel). To this, in light of the recent events laid out in this blog, I would like to humbly add one more suggestion. Be wary of pop-culture productions “inspired” by indigenous cultural productions. Is someone being recognized for their “inspirational” value? How fanciful, unrealistic, or falsifying is the resulting work? Who is benefitting from the sale of this work – it is likely not its “muse”. And with these suggestions, I will now be signing off – I encourage you to read the original article from which my piece was informed, and indeed, “inspired” at http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/.

Bye for now –

Moira

Works Cited

Adrienne K.. “New York Fashion Week Designer steals from Northern Cheyenne/Crow artist Bethany Yellowtail”. Native Appropriations. WordPress. Web.7 Mar. 2015.

Chelsea Vowel, âpihtawikosisân. “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdress.” Âpihtawikosisân: Law language, life: A Plains Cree speaking Metis Woman in Montreal. WordPress. Web. 6 Mar. 2015

Schilling, Vincent. “Oh No They Didn’t: Designers Show “Squaw” Fashion in Milan”. Indian Country. Today Media Network., 3 Mar. 2015. Web. 6 March 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Trending: appropriation of Indigenous emblems, symbols, and imagery in fashion and pop culture

  1. Elin

    Hi Moira,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your piece – the topical nature of the examples that you used throughout your piece made it a very interesting and informative read! I thought it was great how you clearly defined and elucidated, from the get-go, the key concepts and terms that you were going to be using throughout the piece. Further, you made a number of astute observation in respect to the derogatory and patronizing language implored by the clothing companies in regard to the description of the inspiration of their collections, which I thought added an incredible amount of interest to your piece. Particularly, the juxtaposition in language choice that you discussed about D-Squared, D-Squaw’s line, and the ruminating colonial rhetoric which it embodies and perpetuates. At the end of your piece you discuss the importance of being critical of “pop-culture productions inspired by indigenous cultural productions”, do you think that with society as a whole becoming more critical of such productions there will be a reduction in such appropriation?

    ~Elin

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    1. Moira Post author

      Hi Elin! Thanks for your comment. With respect to your question, I think we are becoming more aware of appropriation, which is great. We are definitely coming int an age where these “marginal issues” are gaining some ground in moving towards the centre. However, at the same time, I think that mass media and pop culture, fuelled by profits, are appropriating at a rate never before seen, making more money doing it, and reaching more people with these products. So…. I don’t know if we are making NET progress – but I hope that one day we will be.

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  2. Rosa Queen

    Hey Moira,

    I would first like to say that I am intrigued that we both started with the same article and decided to take completely different looks at it! You brought up such interesting and thought provoking ideas about the appropriation of Indigenous symbols and the pre-existing power structures that allow for this. You also brought up the creation and maintenance of stereotypes that are only strengthened by these symbols being thrown into consumer culture. I think a key point from your article is that we are using these symbols to tap into the stereotypes pressed on Indigenous cultures and this is inherently damaging. Canadians especially would like to think that we are more multicultural and accepting, but you bring up some key insight and examples such as the D-squaw line that show us that there is much further to go for us to be truly respectful of these cultures. Finally, I really appreciate your suggestions near the end of your blog highlighting what we can do to avoid appropriation. Although rules are great, having these suggestions allows your readers to actively avoid appropriation which is the first step to making change!
    My final question to you is, as a society how do we tackle appropriation? Should we start with the abolishment of the view of Indigenous peoples as primal and uncolonized? Or should we remove the appropriated symbols first?

    As usual, reading your blog was a pleasure!

    -Rosa Queen

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    1. Moira Post author

      Hi Rosa! Thank you for commenting. It really is a difficult question – how do you “abolish” a systemic, engrained societal view? I think that the answer to this is in education, and in communication. We need to combat ignorance and silence before we can understand how we are being destructive through appropriation: humanization is the key! Introducing more and more education about the abuses levelled against Indigenous peoples into our school system, reading more texts and material from Indigenous writers, teachers, activists etc., and taking the time to reflect on our legacy of colonization are the key to combatting this. But how do we revolutionize an institution like our education system? The questions just keep building!

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  3. gndsgirl11

    Moira,
    I was not surprised when I read your blog and thoroughly enjoyed it. Your style of writing is fascinating, and when I read your posts everything is simple and easy to follow. When I saw the options for what to write about, I decided to not read this article, so getting to read your blog based upon the article was very interesting, and inspired me to finally read the article. I learned about indigenous women in my global development class, but mainly about the dangers that they are in by simply being who they are in this country. I found that before reading your post and the article I was very forward thinking about this topic, yet I never even thought about how controversial the indigenous based fashion truly is. However, that is why I am taking this class after all. I really appreciate your input and voice on this topic, and thank you for making the issue so clear to me, as someone who generally finds a hard time thinking about topics like this in the ways we do in this course.

    – gndsgirl11

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  4. Darkling

    Hi Moria,
    This is a phenomenal critique of cultural appropriation on a broad scale: the specific instances you referenced to make your point were well selected and absolutely horrifying to read about. I think that the D-Sq**w line is a particularly effective microcosm for the way in which cultural appropriation functions: it takes perceived elements (usually fetishized, orientalized, and decontextualized) of the marginalized culture and blends them in a grotesque manner with the culture of the oppressor for the purpose of consumption. White and non-indigenous people can select elements they consider desirable and forcibly merge them with settler-colonial society without the consent of indigenous peoples. Oppression in this context functions to completely separate indigenous people from the cultural elements being exploited: they have no control over production, profit, representation, distribution, or symbol. The point about exotification is also very important: does cultural appropriation actively contribute to the pervasive sexual violence enacted against indigenous women by white people? Does the representation of the hypersexualized native woman in fashion (where native women are, of course, never hired as the models) stem from that violence? Is it a combination of both? Finally, I think that the point about the utopic “imaginary Indian” is a very strong one, and not one that I had previously seen articulated. I think it plays into the way in which contemporary settler culture often conceptualizes indigenous people as a relic of the past, while degrading and oppressing indigenous people who are currently alive. There is a cognitive dissonance that allows white people (and many non-indigenous people of colour) to fetishize and romanticize native imagery, clothing, and symbols, while simultaneously degrading contemporary indigenous people for failing to adhere to the untroubled, “spiritual,” “simple” image constructed in the nostalgic colonial imagination. Overall, this was an amazing analysis, and a wonderful read.

    -Darkling

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