January 31, 2013

Tomahawk hangs up her tassels

Burlesque Performer Suspends American Indian Act

By Sheila ReganTomahawk Tassels, the Twin Cities burlesque performer who uses a stereotypical American Indian persona, says she is suspending her Native act indefinitely amid controversy over what many in the local American Indian community call an offensive portrayal of a Native woman. Known for her long black braids and use of a cartoonish-style canoe, tipi, feathers and other kitschy motifs in her performances, Tassels says she never intended her character to be derogatory, but rather satirical. “Whether or not I agree, out of respect I feel I need to respond,” she said of the recent criticism.

Tassels, who identifies as half-Cherokee, has been performing burlesque since 2006 and her American Indian act since 2007. Since 2011, she’s attended several meetings with the American Indian protest movement Idle No More. Her participation eventually led to an outcry that Tassels says has left her feeling harassed and bullied. For the time being, she won’t perform in her Indian character, though she will continue to perform burlesque, including Friday at Ground Zero with Dr. Farrago's Burlesque Theatre and then on Saturday at Amsterdam Bar & Hall as part of Le Cirque Rouge.

The fact that she’s not performing her Native act isn’t stopping a planned protest at her show on Friday night, called “Retirement Protest for Tomahawk Tassels.” Shannon Edberg, who met Tassels at various planning meetings for Idle No More, is the host of the protest’s Facebook event, and isn't satisfied that Tassels is “suspending” her Native act. “The name needs to be retired,” Edberg said. “She still profits off that name and her pretend Indian style.”

Tassels says the main reason she’s suspending her act is for her own safety. She also wants to give herself time to reflect on everything, particularly in light of the stalled Violence Against Women Act, for which congressional Republicans have recently endeavored to remove protections for American Indian women. Tassels is aware that Native women are disproportionately affected by rape and sexual violence. “I’ve heard the statistics quoted to me constantly. My response is that rape is awful anytime--I don’t support that… it’s one of the reasons why I’m suspending at the moment. Maybe VWA will get passed, maybe it won’t be as much of an issue.”

Critics respond

Several Native critics seem to think "Tomahawk Tassels" and the vita.mn publication aren't taking the problem seriously enough:Wow, Vita.mn, way to present a completely one-sided perspective on this issue. Way to cast native people as bullies, senseless harassing Amanda Riley without just cause. There are serious consequences, including the facts that you barely skimmed over, of cultural appropriation and hyper-sexualization of native women. She really has learned nothing, and the whole situation, including the band of fans that came to her defense and dismissed upset native people as "haters" has really lowered the level of respect I have for the burlesque community as a whole.

First she started out a Japanese mocking stripper and is now parading as an Indian stripper. “It was very rude and very obnoxious,” Tassels said. “Never had anyone so blatantly expressed hatred like that.” Gimme a BREAK. Anyone with ndn blood and a natural respect for the culture and heritage they were born of, would do anything in their power to steer clear of all action that could even be misunderstood as disrespectful. There are white folks who do not appropriate the Indian experience who know damn well what she is doing is wack. She knows it's wack. Showing up at an Idle No More rally in counterfeit regalia is the ultimate spit in the face. Why not be an Irish Catholic stripper? Get drunk and strip while cursing at the audience and singing old folk songs. Pew.

Over the course of a year I had polite (on both sides) conversations with Amanda. I would post statistics and information about violence against Native women, try to make her understand that she was doing a modern version of blackface and that it was painful to watch what she did. In the time I spoke with her she went from having a little native blood to being half native. I told her I supported her in finding out more about her heritage and learning why this imagery was so offensive. I got a lot of hate from her fans for it, but remained polite, as did she. But in the end, she let it be known, her career, her hope for "fame" and "fortune" were what was most important.

The first thing that came to my mind by reading this article is just how lost and disconnected that Amanda is to reality, or at least that is how pieces of the article came across. She can self identify with Cherokee image, but that's truly what it is to her an image with no real meaning, but the real meaning behind it all is ego, money, fame and distortion, using a culture to sexual exploit, because you cant just get up on stage and be you, you have to dress up and use a disguise. People like her are weak, and point the finger's to blame, like those she crossed paths with who called her out. Thankful we have warriors out there that do call her out, they are looking out for all of us, the women, the men, the youth and those coming up behind us. She shouldn't be scared of us, for her safety, she should be scared that she is so lost and would ever, ever do such a thing to a living people.

"Critics"? These aren't "critics in the Indian community," this IS the Indian community. Loved and cherished friends, colleagues, people of Minneapolis, and global environmental, social justice allies. Suspending her Native act includes suspending the name(s) of all her characters in her "Native" act. There is no reason she cannot be just as successful without her character's name, a name that marginalizes a race of people, and further perpetuates negative stereotypes. White people have too little understanding of Natives to recognize a satire about it, especially when the act's main purpose is not to educate. If she was a part of the community, she would understand that. We support her retiring her act, warts and all.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see A History of Sexy Indian Maidens and Tomahawk Tassels Stereotypes Native Women.

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