November 12, 2010

Belle responds to "Squaw" controversy

Editor-in-chief Jason Roop has responded to the controversy Belle magazine generated with its "Squaw's Appeal" feature:

Response from Editor of "Belle" magazineThank you for sharing your recent feedback about our November issue of Belle. After reading through the letters we received and giving thought to the issue, we have posted the following response on our Web site. It also will run in next week’s issue of Style.

We appreciate your feedback this week and apologize for any offense the story and images may have caused you.

You may find the post online here, and below.

Jason Roop
Editor in Chief

To the Reader

Style received several e-mails from people who took offense to a story in the November issue of Belle, our monthly magazine for Richmond women. In it we featured local artist and animal-rights activist Kate Horne, who often wears a Native American headdress during the First Fridays Art Walk.

Those offended expressed anger that we would picture Horne in the headdress, saying that it was demeaning to what is a sacred symbol for many, and disrespectful to Native Americans. Some writers also expressed anger at the use of the word “squaw,” which in our context meant “young woman,” but is a sore subject for many who see more controversial meanings represented by the word. (There is ongoing debate about the word’s historical allusions.)

We write about various cultural issues on a regular basis and always intend to treat such subjects with respect. We apologize to these letter-writers and any other readers who were offended by the story and photos. We will take the concerns you’ve expressed with us into account as we prepare content for future issues.

In addition, Metro Space Gallery, where the artist works, has issued an invitation to Native American artists to submit their work for consideration in a Native American art exhibit, of which proceeds would be donated to an approved Native American charity. Contact Mark Szafranski at

The Editors
A couple of responses on Facebook:The term "tepid" comes to mind...better than a "fuck you" but not so great....I'm sure Native Artists will be lining up to show their work in the same gallery as the idiot woman...???

Figured it was a step in the right direction and a little healing couldn't hurt!
What's wrong with this "apology"

I'd say "tepid" aptly describes this non-apology apology. Let's parse it:

  • First, note the language Roop uses: "people who took offense," those offended," "writers also expressed anger," etc. It's all about casting blame on readers, not admitting blame as the instigator. "We didn't do anything wrong, but some (politically correct) readers got upset anyway. We're 'sorry', as in not really sorry, that these complainers chose to involve us in their political battles."

  • Roop noted one aspect of Horne's dressing up in a headdress: that it misuses a revered object for selfish gain. But he missed the other aspects.

    One, she's stereotyping Indians as primitive people of the past. She's implying that all Indians are Plains Indians.

    Two, she's dressing up in the Native equivalent of blackface. To Natives, this isn't any more acceptable than putting shoe polish on her face and pretending to be a plantation's Big Mammy. Yet Belle endorsed every aspect of this minstrel-like display with its uncritical article and photos.

  • Roop is flatly wrong about the word "squaw." Yes, its origin is uncertain and controversial. But its present-day meaning isn't. Here's what the dictionary says:

    squaw1. Often Offensive. a North American Indian woman, esp. a wife.

    2. Slang: Disparaging and Offensive.
    a. a wife.
    b. any woman or girl.
    Why do you think states are renaming geographic locations with "squaw" in their names, Roop? You do know about this, don't you? I hope you and your magazine aren't as ignorant as I think you are.

    Whether "squaw" has a negative origin or not, it's an outdated racial label. It's like calling every Native man a "brave" and every Native baby a "papoose." You wouldn't think of calling a modern Native man a "brave," so why would you call a (faux) Native women a "squaw"?

    In other words, it's equivalent at best to calling a woman a Negress or Jewess. Again, the parallels to "mammy" is apt, which is why I used it. A big-hearted mammy laughs and a stoic squaw doesn't, but they both represent women as second-class citizens.

    "Squaw" explained to Belle

    No need to take my word for it. Here's what critics have said about "squaw":

    You paleface; me male fantasy

    In Terrence Malick's new film, Hollywood panders to old prejudices about Native American women

    By Kevin Maher
    The screen squaw was an exotic creature, submissive to her husband brave, yet possessed of an earthy eroticism, and always dressed in fetching doeskin with trademark centre-parted hairstyle and stylish headband. She appeared in everything from Busby Berkeley musicals (see the hundred-plus chorus line of dancing squaws in the 1930 extravaganza Whoopee!), to Bob Hope comedies such as Paleface, to John Wayne westerns like The Comancheros. In all this she was never her own character, just an empty cipher.Typecast:  Representations of the Indian Princess and Easy Squaw in Recent North American FilmLess prevalent, but no less important, is the image of the "easy squaw," that stock character appearing most often as a pawn, meant to be shamed, traded or conquered in passing. Acoose maintains that, after invading North America, the Europeans eliminated any societal roles for Indigenous women except those which supported the already-subjugated positions females held in Europe. The Native woman, therefore, was either "elevated beyond a normal Indigenous woman's status" and became a princess (pg. 43) when she could further the white man's cause, or degraded to a "shadowy, lustful archetype" (pg. 44), the squaw, when the Europeans needed a reason to assert power. This represents the historical basis of the Indian princess and easy squaw stereotypes that are cultural "givens" today.And:Acoose cites Gordon Johnston when she states that, in regard to fictional representation, many of us are not able to distinguish between real people and constructed characters (pg. 85); the line between what is truth and what is fiction becomes increasingly blurred. If such images as the princess and easy squaw are accepted as being widely recognized and easily accessible characters, then the real women who must live as the physical manifestations of these imaginary beings are forced into the same narrow and restrictive boxes. They are made into "shadow creatures," seemingly unreal and less than human, mere constructions to whom the normal dignities of everyday life are not afforded.Note again that these definitions have nothing to do with the word's history. Regardless of what "squaw" meant centuries ago, this is what it means today.

    The art gallery offer

    The art gallery's offer of a Native show is as good as far as it goes. Especially since the gallery is at fault for hosting Horne and her "Big Squaw" minstrel show.

    But note: The gallery hasn't guaranteed the show will go on. There's a chance it'll deem the Native submissions unacceptable or "forget" about the show after the controversy dies down. Better would be to hold a Native show now--by finding one in the Virginia area. And to accept artists' submissions for a charitable show down the line.

    Also better would be to inform us that the Big Squaw minstrel show is ending. That Horne has apologized and will make amends somehow. Or that the gallery has expelled her for not abandoning her racist take on Indians.

    And the gallery is only part of the problem. What is Belle magazine doing to make up for promoting Native stereotypes to thousands of readers? Other than issuing this tepid apology, that is?

    For more on the subject, see see Squelching the S-Word and Why Hipster Headdresses Aren't Okay.

    Below:  A typical squaw as unattractive, servile, and second-class.

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