October 02, 2008

Juliette Lewis plays Indian

In Indigenous Feminism and Cultural Appropriation, Jessica Yee brought another example of stereotyping to our attention: actress Juliette Lewis playing an Indian in her band.

Yee found an open letter to Lewis that took Lewis to task:Letters: to Juliette Lewis

(Sent to the myspace account of Juliette and the Licks, in response to Ms. Lewis’ feathered-headdress-as-rock-and-roll-image.)

Hi Juliette (or if not Juliette, Hi Whomever Is Reading This Message),

Someone recently called to my attention how you use a feathered headdress as a part of your “Rock and roll warrior” image. I checked out your website and myspace--it seems like you’ve been using it pretty extensively, and how other people are imitating it at your concerts.

Heads up--the way that you are using of this symbol, which is a clear (and from the gist of what I read of your comments, intentional) reference to “native americans,” is careless and really pretty disrespectful.

I’m not writing this message to jump on your ass, or pretend like I’m some superior person. I have nothing to gain from that. And this has nothing to do with whether or not I like your work (from what I’ve heard, it sounds reasonably cool--kudos for following a different path).

I’m putting this out there because I can’t complain about anything anyone does if I’m not willing to back it up with some action that seeks to change things. And you should have a chance to learn about what people are saying, and change the behavior and (more importantly) the system that supports it, if you are so inclined.

You’re in a position to be heard by a lot of people, and the image you’re putting out there takes advantage of the painful history of native americans in this country without paying any respect to it. This is problematic in the extreme. (And I say ‘native americans’ specifically because your feathers refer to an idea and not any real tribe or nation, from what I can tell.)

But Yee seemed to say she understood Lewis's pretending to be an Indian because Lewis was embracing the strong role of women in Native societies:[A]s an Indigenous feminist myself, I’m at a crossroads on how I’m feeling about that, because I’m someone who recognizes that the strong, raw, and unapologetic womaness (or feminism for that matter) that permeates mainstream activist movements, in reality was rooted in Indigenous, matriarchal cultures around the world.Needless to say, I disagreed with this. If there's ever been a valid excuse for perpetuating a negative Native stereotype, a rock 'n' roll band isn't it. As I said in a comment:How does wearing feathers and warpaint and shooting a bow and arrow equate to adopting matriarchal values? Answer: It doesn't. Lewis isn't trying to emulate the feminine aspects of Native culture. She's trying to emulate the masculine aspects: the whole savage warrior stereotype.For the full debate, follow the links to Yee's posting and Atena's open letter. You'll find lots of interesting comments there, including mine.

For more on the subject, see The Big Chief and Team Names and Mascots.

Below:  "I'm tough, rebellious, and wild! I'm an Indian!"


writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Boy, is Rob going to have a field day when Johnny Depp plays Tonto in Jerry Bruckheimer's megabuck production of THE LONE RANGER for Disney in 2011! He hated Depp as one of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (all three films) and he will hate him even more in the fourth PIRATES film now scheduled for the same time period. No telling what Rob will say when Depp appears as The Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and as The Riddler in the next BATMAN film, and as John Dillinger opposite Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis in Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES, and as Hunter S. Thompson in THE RUM DIARY, and as RANGO in George Lucas' film of the same name. Get your poison pen ready, Rob. You soon will be able to write about almost nobody else, including writerfella...
All Best
Russ Bates

dmarks said...

Oh Bruckheimer is doing it? Look for explosions. Lots of them. I can't wait for the scene when Silver falls over and goes up in a massive fireball.

Rob said...

Thanks for showing up to shill once again for your Hollywood buddies, Russ. I knew you'd have nothing to say against Disney's decision to cast Depp as Tonto. As we've seen many times, when the choice is making money or portraying Indians honestly, you'll always opt for the sellout.

Don't worry, I've already had a field day with the issue. See

Johnny Depp as Tonto?!
Johnny Depp, Cherokee?
Fallacy of the big-name actor

for details, and feel free to respond there.

Anonymous said...


It's like The Village People,isn't it?