September 17, 2009

Reclaiming the swastika

Graphic artist Ryan Red Corn posted this image on Facebook and wrote:POLL: if this was on a t-shirt, would you wear it?

I trust the message of this image is obvious to Newspaper Rock readers. The swastika belongs to "skins" (Indians), not skinheads (Nazis).

Poll results

Some of the many answers (edited slightly to increase readability):Yes because it challenges what people know (and want to believe) about this symbol.

This symbol was used on Navajo Rugs long before Hitler was born.

YES!!YES!!!YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

... in [a] heart beat. I would rep this so hard...

I don't think I could wear it Ryan, I know that Indians had it first, but just what the Nazis turned the symbol into and all the hate that it resonated, nah, I wouldn't wear it.

I get it, but I'd still like it better if it just said SKIN. I'd sport it, I've seen Natives reclaiming it all over the place lately. Don't be scared to offend, it's an educational piece. It's woven in our baskets from hundreds of years ago.

I support reclaiming the swastika for its pre-20th century meanings, but nope, don't like getting beat up.

Traditional Indians might get it, but nobody else would. Sometimes I hate giving a dissertation on a t-shirt.

How much are they?

Naaaaaaaaaaa...wouldn't want to misidentified as a Nazi.

I'd say no. I'll probably get my ass shot down for this, but: the dominant culture has no idea the symbol was used in either Native America or Asia long before the NAZIs, and the NAZIs are in recent memory. Education is awesome, but I think I'd get a fist in my face before anyone asked me what I was wearing--exacerbated by the fact that I don't look like a Plains Indian, which I think is the only kind of Native non-Natives are aware of....

It is a Nazi symbol now...I don't think we can take it back....

No Ryan, I would not wear that. Hitler totally ruined the meaning of that symbol, regardless of who used it first.
I think the nays took this poll by a 3-2 or 2-1 margin.

Swastika lore

For those who don't know it, a brief history of the swastika:Archaeological record

The symbol has an ancient history, appearing on artifacts from Indo-European cultures such as the Indo-Aryans, Persians, Hittites, Slavs, Celts and Greeks, among others. The earliest consistent use of swastika motifs in the archaeological record date to the Neolithic.

Native American traditions

The swastika shape was used by some Native Americans. It has been found in excavations of Mississippian-era sites in the Ohio valley. It was widely used by many southwestern tribes, most notably the Navajo.

As the symbol of Nazism

The use of the swastika was associated by Nazi theorists with their conjecture of Aryan cultural descent of the German people. Following the Nordicist version of the Aryan invasion theory, the Nazis claimed that the early Aryans of India, from whose Vedic tradition the swastika sprang, were the prototypical white invaders. It was also widely believed that the Indian caste system had originated as a means to avoid racial mixing.
Rob's reply

I posted this response to Red Corn's poll:I'd say no.

If you want to tell people that the swastika is an ancient Native symbol, I think you need a more informative design. Most people won't get the message from this.
An informative design would be something like Native art containing a swastika on the left, perhaps with a check mark under it. And Hitler brandishing a swastika on the right with a line drawn through him. Message: Native swastikas good, Nazi swastikas bad.

If Red Corn thinks a t-shirt is enough to reclaim the swastika, I'd have to disagree. You might be able to reclaim it with a massive PR campaign lasting decades--i.e., long enough to overcome the taint of Nazism. But would it be worth the expense and effort? Probably not.

I'd say continue using the swastika on Navajo rugs and other Native art. When used it in this manner, the art gives it context. It informs viewers that it's a Native symbol, not a Nazi symbol.

But don't wear a single swastika with an oblique message and expect people to get it. Even after you explain yourself, they may not believe you. They'll probably think you're pretending to honor the Native symbol so you can parade your Nazism in public.

For more on the subject, see Swastikas = Mascots at UND.

Below:  "Basketball team on Home 1 Steps, 1909. This photograph is part of a series of glass plate negatives used by the Chilocco Indian School print shop in publishing the Indian School Journal."

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Damn. I definately wish we could take that symbol back!

For me, would I wear that shirt? I love to say yes, but the message on the shirt isn't clear enough. Even if I don't look white like Rob. I'd still could be at risk for a beat down by a pack of angry neo-Nazis and anti-Racist activists alike. The message needs to be clear, just as Rob put it, it also needs to be a tad more specific, then maybe just maybe, I'll wear it.

Shadow Wolf---

dmarks said...

I think it would be a losing battle to take it back, really. Wear it in a mall, and everyone think "Hey, what's that nazi doing?"

jean said...

The nazis ruined it.
The only places one could wear it without any hassle are probably certain parts of India and Austria...

Steve Julian said...

Images are powerful. Even if people are educated about the history of the running wheel, the image of Nazi's will always be the forefront. Education and acceptance are slow vehicles. Just look at what is happening in the US right now with the push against the president. Images are used to attack his credibility and what he stands for. I don't believe that the symbol can be taken back in the mainstream world but only in the Native community. I once read an article where some Natives said they would not use the symbol anymore.

Anonymous said...

Not Austria (or Germany). You'd get yourself put in jail for that.

dmarks said...

Steve: "Just look at what is happening in the US right now with the push against the president. Images are used to attack his credibility and what he stands for"

And it happened a whole lot with the previous President. Not as much as now, but still a lot.

Anon: I was wondering about that too.

Anonymous said...

Actually, if you are a Native like me, you can wear it on the rez. Since most Natives(excluding the younger ones) are already aware the meaning behind the ancient symbol. I definately would wear it on the rez since everybody knows me.

Shadow Wolf--

dmarks said...

The beginning of the post said: "if this was on a t-shirt, would you wear it?"

The rest of it implies that it is not on a shirt. You might have trouble even having it printed at most t-shirt making places. Most, not all.

Color choice would help: steering clear of red, white, and black.

Anonymous said...

That's not a bad idea.

Why not a black&white vintage imagery. I have a Homeland Security shirt with Geronimo and crew in a vintage B&W. And I think something like that would be cool. Perhaps the swastika inside a Dreamcatcher with feathers on both sides.

Shadow Wolf--

gaZelbe said...

I think its imperative that Indian people reclaim this symbol and assert their right to use it. What if some crazed neo-conservative theocrats start using an eagle feather as their symbol? Are we going to stop using eagle feathers because our use of the symbol might then be misunderstood? Our use of the swastika *will* be misunderstood at first. I don't think there is any way around that. But what is the alternative? Let Hitler steal it from beyond the grave? No way.

That being said, Rob could well be right about this specific design. What he said about the visual context is important. It has to be reintroduced in a good way.

sparky said...

I didn't even know that "skins" referred to Indians, so the whole message was lost on me.

Anonymous said...

Hitler's swastika is similar to the Indian symbol. The arma are reversed. The Chilocco motiff, unfortunately, was abandoned prematurely. Had Indians been running the school it would not have been abandoned, just because Hitler adopted a similar symbol. It should have been reclaimed as soon as we kicked their ???.

Anonymous said...

I have it tattooed.