A call to action--Response to racist shirts sold by War Paint Clothing Co. of Oklahoma City
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that was all he could say, so my response was less than articulate. I said, “well it’s f***ing offensive if you ask me.” He said “how was it offensive?” and I said that there is thing called genocide and it looks to me like your shirts are celebrating dead Indians.
This almost led to a confrontation outside the store:
Or to say it another way, if you want to honor native Americans, why not make a shirt of a hero from our history, or even show the face of someone alive today (who is resisting genocide, simply by living out native values and culture)? Why is it that only dead Indians, and abstract/stereotypical Indians who get celebrated?
The only answer is racism. It may be under the surface, but it is still there. Racism says that Indians are different: that we don’t count, that you can display our skulls in museums and put our skulls on funny t-shirts, that you can take our sacred religious objects and use them for satirical purposes. You can even make funny mascots out of us and use them to name your sporting teams.
A commenter makes a point:
It reminds me of an anti-war poster showing the skull of a soldier with a helmet on reminding people that war is terrible and men and woman are dying.
I don’t know if it was the artists intention or not but it could be taken as a reminder of the genocide; a shirt to wear to remind people of something so easily forgotten.
This also makes that photo with the American flag in the background much more meaningful. It reinforces the message that American did this to the Indians and I’m going to remember it and remind people by wearing this shirt.
If it said “remember” or “never forget” below the image I might even buy it.
I probably still would have been uncomfortable with it, but probably would have found it more understandable if they had explained the shirt in that way.
But to leave it in some kind of vague “we’re honoring our native heritage” way doesn’t have the vibe of remembrance or honor. It feels more like they are using the imagery of the past with Indians in the abstract (i.e. the Buffalo head nickel) rather than celebrating specific Indians (i.e. the Sacagawea coin). You can’t tell if they are trying to be ironic or just trying to cash in on their hipster cliche coolness.
At best the owner is guilty of "honoring" his heritage by reinforcing the idea that Plains Indians represent all Indians. That tribes don't have distinct cultures, or any culture at all except feathers. Some honor.
I thought of Aaron's alternative interpretation also. I suspect he may be right. But Branum's rejoinder is on point. If the owner intended to make a statement about genocide, his "honoring his heritage" explanation fails. If he intended to send a clear and compelling message, he really failed. A shirt that says "never forget the American holocaust" to Indians and "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" to racists is a colossal design failure.
A third meaning
The shirt reminds me of the cover to THE FOURTH HORSEMAN #1 comic book. As you may recall, this Indian was the ultimate savage: an unstoppable killing machine. This may be the shirt's message also: that Indians were as deadly as the Grim Reaper. That they were Death personified.
Again, this is an insulting, ugly, and stereotypical message. So two of three possible meanings are negative and the shirt's maker doesn't get any of them. Colossal design failure.
Branum asks what we can do about this shirt. I believe AIM got a Tribal Impressions store in Texas to take down some of its stereotypical images. How? By writing to them, explaining the problem, and perhaps threatening to protest outside the store.
Something similar would work in this and similar cases. First, tell them why they're wrong in writing. Post your explanation on websites, blogs, and social-media sites such as Facebook. Let the owners know they're getting bad publicity. Tell them things will only get worse unless they remove the shirt. That should be enough to garner a response.
For more offensive shirts, see "Hanging" Louis Riel T-Shirts Offend Metís, Lucky Brand Sells "White Lightning" T-Shirt, and "Drunk Indian" T-Shirts Aren't Stereotypical?