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 –
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.