An Open Letter To Hipster Celebrity Doofuses
Just because Johnny Depp was recently adopted by the Comanche while staring as Tonto in a remake of The Lone Ranger filmed in Navajoland doesn’t mean the rest of you get a pass into Hollywood's Indianville. I realize you all adore Depp and secretly envy his Tonto costume--crow hat and ghostly war paint and bear skins (oh my!)--and its transport into some faux Hollywood Indian cultural authenticity. But that envy doesn’t mean you all get to play Indian now.
You probably do not realize that No Doubt’s reunion was marred when they posted a music video on YouTube for their first single, “Looking Hot.” Gwen Stefani, the lead singer, donned herself in a ridiculous Indian costume--a femme version of Depp, no doubt. After a flurry of criticisms from Native people, the band pulled the video and issued an apology on their website.
Let me tell you something about apologies.
They mean nothing. They mean nothing especially when serving as deflections of responsibility for your actions and as a blame of others--teachers who taught you to be proud of manifest destiny (The Gap), a temporary lapse in judgment (Paul Frank), or bad advice from "Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California" (No Doubt). And lest we not forget that, all the while, these apologies lament the hyper-sensitivity of "some" Natives (as if Natives got over it your costume could go on).
The reason you had unchecked pride in America's past as some success story of progress and/or indulged bad fashion sense is because not only do you think all real Native people are dead, their cultures and identities frozen in a past you can treat as fashionable accessory when not a museum relic, is that you believe you are in control of America's history as your own. And because you are in control you can rewrite it at will, to serve your purpose and tell your story: you are, after all, the great embodiment of America's evolution into a progressive, multicultural society.
By Micah Collins-Sibley
So what’s the big deal about cultural appropriation anyway? As long as you’re not actively inflicting violence on a minority group, it’s okay, right? As long as you’re not using racial slurs, all is well, yeah? The answers to those questions are: Everything. No. And no.
Cultural appropriation turns the realities of different groups of people into entertainment or into fashion statements. It groups widely diverse communities into one stereotyped image. It takes away the sacredness of a tradition and turns it into the next fad. It tells those cultures and those people that their way of worship, their way of dressing, their music, their language are acceptable as long as they’re fun or pretty. That way, no one has to think about what those things mean, and what injustices and violent acts have been done to people simply for being who they are. Cultural appropriation continues to normalize this idea that one image or one person can represent and homogenize an entire group.
There’s a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Cultural appropriation is taking aspects of another culture and using them without permission or understanding. Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, involves learning about another culture and the significance it places in certain objects. Cultural appreciation is being invited into a culture’s practices to observe, participate and learn. However, just because you’ve been invited to a Native American tribe’s open powwow at some point does not make it okay to wear moccasins made by non-Native Americans or wear a war bonnet you have not earned. And taking photos or wearing elements of a culture you don’t belong to because “you like how it looks” or “it’s fashionable now” isn’t cultural appreciation, it’s appropriation.
Violence against Native women
Second, the specific problem of violence against Native women:
No Doubt's "Looking Hot" Video was No Doubt, A Big Mistake
By Linda Tioleu
"I am in awe of the fact that, clearly, not one, single person involved with this video said, 'Wait a minute, this might not be our best idea.' Instead, someone sat down and said, 'How many ways can I disrespect a whole bunch of cultures that I don't understand and don't want to take the time to do so because that would get in the way of producing a really offensive video?'"
I won’t repeat all of the statistics on Amnesty International’s recent student of the sexual exploitation of Native women, but I will repeat the fact that Native American and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than the average American woman, and that 86% of these violent acts are committed by non-Native men. Additionally, a U.S. DOJ study found that over 34% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetime.
These statistics frighten me--not just for my own safety, but for the safety of our mothers, aunties, sisters, and daughters. No Doubt’s hypersexualization of a woman dressed as an American Indian further perpetuates and reinforces the misconception that Native women are the sexual property of mainstream media and the general populace. We absolutely cannot sit idly by and see Native women--who are the foundation of our people, culture, spirituality, and community--thrown out to slaughter by anyone--let alone by Hollywood’s greed machine.
Here's the thing. Violence between "Cowboys and Indians" was brutal. Maybe we become desensitized, and judging by many of the comments on the video when it first came out, people are desensitized. They think "what am I supposed to be offended by Cowboys and Indian movies now too?" Yes, you probably should be. But what you should really be offended about is the way in which this violence, perpetrated as a means to exterminate a people, is continually portrayed as a game. The scene in the music video was eerily familiar to many of the massacres of Indian people. They shoot at them point blank, and then drag the woman away. She's a spitfire, she's tough. They don't put her in jail the way they do the other Indian they captured, instead they tie her provocatively to the wall and proceed to ogle her as she writhes around.
And this is all one thing, but when you consider that at the same time she's singing her song which has her repeat the line "Do you think I'm looking hot" over and over again while they are doing this, coupled with the "go ahead and stare and take a picture please..." it just becomes too much. In the words of one guy I know it's "traumatizing."
"But it's just a video! It's art! Get over it."
Yeah, I've heard it all before. So let me repeat what I've said before. This video, in fact, glorifies trauma. It erases real, living Native peoples. It forgets that "those people" could be watching. I quite honestly think that this is what happens when someone approaches a subject without much historical or even contemporary knowledge about the subject or without consulting community members. So I ask--could I remake this video shot for shot but instead use a young girl who is being dragged away from her family to a concentration camp, tied up against a wall, mocked by Nazi soldiers and then she asks "Do you think I'm looking hot?" Could I do the same with black face and slavery? Would there be less of a "calm down" response to those portrayals? (The truth is, I don't plan to find out.)
The implied violence of this video is startling. I do a lot of my work on gender violence in Native communities. I can suggest a LOT of reading and even some movies if you'd like to know more. Sexual violence against Native peoples is a part of the continuing genocide of Native peoples. It manifests itself in portrayals of Native peoples in popular media. It ties to the way that people feel about Indian peoples. Andrea Smith writes--"As a consequence of this colonization and abuse of their bodies, Indian people learn to internalize self-hatred, because body image is integrally related to self-esteem. When one's body is not respected, one begins to hate oneself. ... Native peoples internalize the genocidal project through self destruction."
For more on the subject, see Sexy Chief vs. Jana and "PocaHotAss" Doesn't Offend People?