What If the Village People Replaced Their Indian With a Rabbi?
By Dina Gilio-Whitaker
I might be able to argue that back in the 1970s when the Village People first came out the social awareness was not quite there, which was why Rose could get away with it without much criticism. But that doesn’t explain why he continues to exploit the stereotype today, except to say that it no doubt is still a good living for him. It’s doubly perplexing assuming it’s true that he is, as he claims, of Lakota heritage. I’m not even questioning his identity claims. But I can’t help but wonder how he can continually justify perpetuating Indian stereotypes reminiscent of the ridiculous and now defunct Chiefs Illiniwek and Wahoo mascots? The only thing worse than a parody of an Indian by a non-Indian is a parody of an Indian by an Indian.
I once met Felipe Rose back in my artist days and remember him as a very pleasant man. He is well regarded in some Native circles, particularly in the Hollywood/entertainment Native community. He is represented in the National Museum of the American Indian, has won a NAMMY for his solo music contribution in 2002, and according to his website he has been honored for his work by other Native groups. I think it’s great that he puts energy into working in Native communities and for Native causes. With the influence that comes from his celebrity he is in a position to make a difference for people who need it.
Rose’s website claims that it’s “not just a costume. It is also his public statement of where he comes from and his long association with Native American groups across the country.” However, the questions remain: how does Rose’s campy use of the Indian stereotype in the Village People contribute to the Native community? Is it ever more acceptable when the stereotype is perpetuated by a Native person than a non-Native person? And where is the dividing line between the appropriate and inappropriate use of Native dress and culture in the entertainment world, especially by Natives themselves?