This semester I am teaching an "Introduction to American Indian Studies" course with 32 mostly first year students. For the first four of the sixteen week semester, we worked through the politics of race and racialization in U.S. history, focusing on the way racist ideologies and stereotypes of Native/Indigenous people -- like the Hollywood Indian -- permeate everything about Native/Indigenous people, from popular culture to U.S. Supreme Court decisions to anti-Native political movements. Somewhere in the second week, the students were visibly bored. They wanted to "get on with it," meaning, they wanted to get to the more interesting stuff about Native/Indigenous traditions. Of course, they proclaimed in quiet exasperation, there was racism a long time ago. But we're over that now and we know it was wrong and why do Indians have to be so sensitive when we don't feel that way. Some of us really like Indians.
1. The Gap
About a month ago, The Gap’s new clothing line, designed by Mark McNairy, featured tshirts with the phrases Manifest Destiny, Exploring East-West, Onward, and Roam Free USA. When a student at UCLA started a petition urging the company to pull the tshirts, claiming that they were “normalizing oppression,” the company promised to stop selling them. On Saturday, when McNairy heard of the petition and The Gap’s decision, he retorted on twitter: “Manifest destiny. Survival of the fittest.” On Monday, he apologized, “I am sorry for my survival of the fittest comment. It hurt me deeply to be called a racist as that is not me. I reacted without thinking.” Meanwhile, AIM in southern California reports that not all local The Gap stores have pulled the tshirts from their shelves even though you can no longer buy them on-line.
2. Paul Frank
Just last month, Paul Frank Industries hosted a party in West Hollywood as part of Fashion’s Night Out that it themed “Dreamcatchin.” Women and the Industries’ monkey mascot donned “Hollywood Indian” garb – complete with faux war paint, headdresses, and tomahawks – in promotional advertisements. A slew of criticisms followed on multiple facebook pages and website blogs. FPI responded quickly by taking the images down and issuing the following apology: “Paul Frank celebrates diversity and is inspired by many rich cultures from around the world. The theme of our Fashion’s Night Out event was in no way meant to disrespect the Native American culture, however due to some comments we have received we are removing all photos from the event and would like to formally and sincerely apologize. Thank you everyone for your feedback and support.”
3. Scott Brown
Over the last several months, Scott Brown, Republican incumbent in the Massachusetts Senate, distributed the above billboards throughout rural MA in an attempt to discredit Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat challenger, who has made false claims to Cherokee and Delaware ancestry.
The indomitable stereotypes and narratives of the Hollywood Indian have long-ago stopped being interesting or surprising. They are as persistent and malleable and common as are the racist ideologies and practices that fuel them. And they are more than just annoying or insulting (though they are that also).
The truth about The Gap, Paul Frank, and Scott Brown is that they are not aberrations in an otherwise politically correct nation. This nation has not moved on or away from its racisms towards Native/Indigenous people. While there are countless reasons why this is so, I would like to think about two of them for here.
First, the ability to done Indian war paint, regalia, and weapons -- to treat Indians as costumes -- is related directly to the ability to pretend race and racism are things of the past. Putting Indians on as costumes is about pretending that you (yourself) and the U.S. are so civilized and evolved that -- of course -- such play is just playful. There is no racism where good will and fun exist.
Second, keeping Indians in the past is about being able to continue to exploit Native/Indigenous lands, cultures, and bodies today. If, after all, the only good Indian is a dead Indian (the only real Indian an Indian of a 100 years ago), then current Native/Indigenous claims to treatied land rights, cultural autonomy, and reproductive rights are irrelevant because they are not claims being made by real Native/Indigenous people.
So not only do Indian costumes and costuming represent good will and fun (and justify resentment of suspicions to the contrary), they serve to mask the unashamed exploitation of Native/Indigenous territories, environments, and bodies that goes on every day in the United States.
The reality denied is that Native/Indigenous peoples are not conquered, vanished, romantic relics of the past. They are humans of a legal, economic, and social present that demands accountability and respect.