March 09, 2013

Humboldt Republic's "Chief Life" t-shirts

These Northern California images--the original and revised "Chief Life"--have created a stir on Facebook. An academic named Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Karuk, Yurok) does a good job of telling us what's wrong with them.

Humboldt County T-Shirt Controversy that's all up in my Facebook OR Native American Mr. Potato-Head--now with Aztec Parts!

By Cutcha Risling BaldyFirst--a quick and dirty run down history. There is a company. This company wants to make a tshirt. The artist at the company designs one. It’s has an Indian looking guy on it with some feather headdress and earrings and whole bunches of generic “Indian” looking designs in the background. And underneath it says “Chief Life.” A bunch of people respond. Some like it, some don’t, some are concerned, some are concerned about people being too concerned. Friends of mine get involved. The artist asks for honest feedback about the design. People give it to him. He says some people are rude, some people aren’t, but mostly he thinks they are rude. He is surprised by the response so he “redesigns” it to be an Aztec guy, and not some generic Indian guy. (This seems to mean from the pictures I’ve seen that he changes the generic designs in the background to Aztec writing symbols and also adds some Aztec design looking earrings and an Aztec shield to the guys forehead. Everything is the same. It’s like, Mr. Potato-Head Indian Style. Exchange your cultural appropriation parts for others, make an entirely new Indian Mr. Potato-Head.) Again he asks for feedback. People still aren’t happy. And suddenly he’s writing on Facebook that:“I think it kind of comes down to what happened to Native Americans in the past That makes this so sensitive… The thing is I wasn’t here for that and neither was my genetics.. And what happened to the Native Americans was simply a byproduct of war that happens in every culture and region that has war…”And“Native Americans are not the only ones that have gone through genocide… Many many cultures go through it… Like I said before sometimes it’s a byproduct of war… So when I’m having fun with art I’m not trying to read bring up bad memories of genocide that did not happen when I was alive..What is "Chief Life"?

Ms. Risling Baldy addresses the "Chief Life" slogan and Plains chief image:Now, as a Native American person I don’t like the shirt. You can put me in that category. I don’t know if you’re adding it up and waiting to take a poll to democratically decide on using your artwork, but if you are, I’m firmly in the no, don’t do it, it’s not a good idea, yes it’s problematic, yes it’s sad, and no it’s never going to work, no matter how many different sets of earrings you stick on the poor man, it’s not going to ever be an image that portrays “respect”, “dignity” or even “honor.” It’s just going to be a stereotypical, Native image that you are using to make money, glorify stereotypes and continue to ignore why these problematic images are damaging, destructive and ignorant.

Also, truth be told I had no idea what “Chief Life” was. According to my younger, cooler friends (and Urban Dictionary) to “chief” is to smoke marijuana. Me, as an old person, I want to over analyze it. I’m assuming it has something to do with the old stereotype of “smoking the peace pipe” and how Chiefs were supposed to have been big smokers who smoked the peace pipe and did all that smoking (all, completely distorted by the way and in many ways totally wrong, but that’s an entirely DIFFERENT letter). Blah blah blah, it’s “chief” dude. I’m probably using it wrong.

I haven’t seen you at all address that side of this issue. So far it seems like you’ve been focusing on the image. To paraphrase (quickly): Oh you don’t like the feather earrings? I’ll replace them with Aztec earrings? Oh you don’t like the weird generic designs, I’ll replace them with Aztec writings. The image is too “Plains Indian” and not “Humboldt,” why don’t you look at some Humboldt stuff? Etc. etc. It looks like a mascot, mascots are honorable, no they’re not, yes they are, why aren’t Buccaneers offended? Pretty soon Vikings will start complaining. Something about how anybody can be offended by any image but Chief is an honorable image, etc. etc.

Except, we’re talking about “Chief Life.” Which, for your company, I’m assuming has something to do with marijuana, and drug culture, and drugs. I ain’t mad atcha dude. I know that this whole “weed” thing sort of lives where we live. I get it. I’m not trying to play super narc-y innocent girl who “oh my word” “I declare” I can’t believe you’re talking about drug stuff. But, Chief Life--it’s just sad.
The past is the past?

She addresses the artist's notions about war, genocide, and the past being the past:Did you know that it used to be policy in Humboldt County that you could hunt Indian people? There were Indian hunting days. Did you know that it used to be policy in Humboldt County, that it was easier to exterminate Indian people then to have to deal with them? Did you know that on the very places you walk, or live, very near where your business is located, there were massacres of Indian women and children. There were rapes of young Indian girls. And after all that, there were continued attempts to erase a people from the land. And then after that, there were reservations, there was poverty, there was trauma, and there were drugs. It’s health thing. It’s hard to separate sometimes from what we think of as “recreational” but lots of our “recreational” habits, are ways of coping with trauma that passed itself along through generations. This is the part of our people that is overwhelmed when we stand at the edge of the bay, look out and realize that one night, as a tribe was holding a world renewal ceremony, a group of people showed up and tried to kill every single one of them.

Now, you weren’t there. I know that. This doesn’t mean it isn’t written on the landscape where you live. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feel it every single day. It doesn’t mean that it never resonates in our waking lives. Because it does. In policies, in ignorance, in forgetfulness, in the way we talk about ourselves, and each other. Maybe your “genetics” weren’t here, but you are here – now. It’s time to know. It’s time to know where you are. And to “know” this place, is to listen. And to “listen” is to realize that we aren’t talking about an ancient history, we are talking about a recent history. And maybe, just maybe, what you consider “simply a byproduct of war” is, surprisingly, not. Genocide is not a byproduct of war--genocide is tool of an aggressor. Genocide is a choice. It doesn't just happen because war is hell. Genocide is systematic. Genocide is deliberate. It is not a "byproduct" of aggression, there is intent--an intent to annihilate a group of people. We should not tie genocide to just another "byproduct of war" and erase this intent. Systematic murdering of a people, enslavement of children, raping of women, massacres, these are not byproducts of war, these are tools of genocide. The "byproduct of war", is the trauma. The byproduct war, is the destruction. The byproduct of war is the loss of life, land, resources, brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters. And for many, many Indigenous peoples the byproduct of war has been survivance. It’s been strength, it’s been coming together, it’s been healing. The byproduct of war has been a culture that refused to die.
"Chief Life" = "Good Life"?

What if Chief Life" is just a way of saying "be cool"? Risling Baldy addresses that too:Let’s say “Chief Life” is just like the “Good Life.” It probably is, if you consider responsibility, respect, reciprocity and consciousness to be the “Good Life.” Let’s talk a little about that then, you’re just telling me to live the good life. Chief Life, Aztec Life, whatevs. So then let’s take it another step-–

Sambo Life. (If you don’t know much about Sambo, you should check out here, or here, or watch this.) If you want Sambo can wear sunglasses. Of course he should have big red lips. Super dark black skin. Maybe a backwards cap, some gold/ diamond teeth. How about some watermelon earrings? How about some chicken and waffle earrings? How about he just looks like Kanye West. Although Kanye’s gone all Kardashian so he may not be stereotypical enough for your more discerning audiences who expect to recognize right away what image they are trying to appropriate.

Ooo, Jew Life. Let’s put a dude in a Holocaust outfit, complete with tattooed number on his forehead. Some star of David earrings. If you want you put menorah’s as your background. Genocide is a byproduct of war after all. A lot of other cultures go through it. You’re just trying to have fun with your art, so Jewish people should understand. You’re not trying to “bring up bad memories of genocide that did not happen when [you] were alive.” And we all know that the “Jewish Life” is the good life too--like a Chief Life--because Jewish people have money and own Hollywood.

Asian Life. They’re all the same anyway right? We wouldn’t want to get too specific with the whole Japanese life or Chinese Life or any other number of “Asian” cultures. So let’s go generic. Slanted eyes. Big straw hat. Maybe some buck teeth. If you want they can be kung-fu-ing something. The background can just be “ching, chong, chang” written over and over again. If somebody doesn’t like it you can just change the earrings and make it “Bangkok” life, cause that’s different right?

Mexican Life--sombrero, something to do with gardening, maybe a taco.

No matter how many compromises you make--these images won’t work. These images--don’t work.
Comment:  This controversy is reminiscent of the "skulls with headdresses" t-shirts I wrote about. The basic problem is the same. Someone's ignoring America's history of killing Indians, and the Indians' continued existence, and trying to turn them into a fun, edgy symbol. "Look at us!" these shirts seem to say. "We're not just plain-vanilla suburban white boys and girls. We belong to a global 'tribe' of people who have declared themselves to be hip and trendy.

"We're just like '60s counterculture hippies. Except we don't want to drop out, grow our hair, take drugs, or protest anything. We want to be different by putting on a shirt we can take off so we can return to our safe white homes without sacrificing anything. We want the illusion of being different while we conform to mainstream fashion like everyone else with cool tribal emblems."

For more objectionable shirts, see Ecko's "Weekend Warrior" Line and Zazzle's "Indian Name" T-Shirts.


Anonymous said...

My first thought was that the Indian's head looked vaguely skeletal. I know it's just that we naturally have Villainous Cheekbones, but still...

Hunter C. Eden said...

The "Aztec" face doesn't look at all Aztec (some priests wore those big, fan-like headdresses, but that's about about where the similarity ends). And while it's hard for me to see from the image posted here, I'm pretty sure that writing is actually Mayan.