August 19, 2011

Tribalism is trendy

This column reiterates what people have been saying for years:

Tribalism as Pop Culture Phenomenon and the Perpetuation of Offensive American Indian Stereotypes

By Ruth HopkinsWhile the misappropriation of American Indian cultures and imagery by western society has persisted for decades, there’s been a gradual uptick in the misrepresentation of Native peoples in the past several years. “Tribalism,” a mainstream trend largely based on false, stereotypical notions of who indigenous people are, has become a pop culture phenomenon. Celebutantes, pop princesses and hipster wannabes have been donning gaudy, exaggerated war bonnets and headdresses, wearing “war paint,” and playing dress up in Native American “inspired” costumes in record numbers. The perpetuation of stereotypical images of Native peoples is unacceptable and discriminatory for a myriad of reasons.

Non-natives who wear American Indian costumes are pretending to be someone of another race. Just as wearing blackface is repugnant, appearing as a stereotyped caricature of an American Indian is patently offensive. Those who play “dress up” by wearing an American Indian costume, headdress or war bonnet are not only failing to acknowledge the existence of over 500 recognized native nations, each separate and distinct from one another, they are making light of centuries of suffering, oppression and genocide endured by the indigenous people of this country. Enforcing racial stereotypes of Native peoples as savages in nondescript feathers and fringe also perpetuates the myth that American Indians are not active members of modern society and questions our very existence.

Perhaps the most deplorable version of stereotypical American Indian ensembles is the “sexy Indian” costume, a.k.a. the “Pocahottie.” Such costumes, like the one Paris Hilton wore last Halloween, depict Native women as sex objects to be desired by non-native men (and perhaps women). Considering that American Indian women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other race of women, that one out of three of all American Indian women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and that as many as 4 out of 5 of these acts of sexual violence are committed by non-native men, the very idea of perpetuating the image of Native women as a sex object is reprehensible.

Not all American Indian Tribes include war bonnets or headdresses as part of their traditional regalia. Of those who do, headdresses and war bonnets were worn by men, and have nothing to do with fashion or the sexual objectification of women. Each eagle feather contained in a war bonnet is individually earned, often bestowed upon the owner through ceremony, and represents a significant event or acknowledged act of bravery, leadership, or self-sacrifice. War bonnets are specifically worn by powerful, respected American Indian men with a history of valor who are leaders in their Tribal community. In other words, the only people who should be wearing war bonnets are chiefs or well-respected warriors, like Tatanka Iyotanka, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota—not Khloe Kardashian, or the pop star Ke$ha. Can you imagine the outrage if a celebrity was featured in scantily clad photos with a Medal of Valor or a Silver Star or the Congressional Medal of Honor that they didn’t earn? Such an inconsiderate display would be akin to the wearing of a war bonnet by someone who hasn’t earned it. This disgrace should be included in the Theft of Valor Act.
Comment:  Glad to see someone confirmed my argument in Hipster Medals Instead of Headdresses. The two (mis)appropriations of respected symbols are as similar as I said they were.

For recent examples of trendy tribalism, see Natives Attack "Indians" Showband and Callaloo Stereotypes "Native Americas." For more on hipster headdresses, see Hipster Headdress PSA on YouTube and Why Hipster Headdresses Aren't Okay. For more on the problem in general, see Hipster Racism.

Below:  Pop star Kesha mocks an entire race.


Anonymous said...

To an extent, it's not just Indian women who are objectified. I mean, Pocahontas featured not only the ridiculously fanservicey dress, but her fiancé was fanservicey in his own way.

I have to wonder why, exactly, nonwhite women get this idea that warbonnets were women's clothing. From now on, whenever I see a white celebrity wearing a warbonnet, I will say "It's a trap!"

Anonymous said...

What do you tell an African American; Asian or Latino that wears a headdress? White ignorance is expected, but other minorities, especially Jews that one would think understand racism, also perpetuate this?