August 02, 2013

What's wrong with the Village People?

A columnist asks some cogent questions about the "Chief" in the Village People:

What If the Village People Replaced Their Indian With a Rabbi?

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker[L]et’s cut to the chase. Why on earth, after American Indians have for decades been successfully waging war against the use of Indian stereotypes in popular culture, is Felipe Rose still parading around on stage in an Indian costume like a character in a Mel Blanc cartoon come to life? The humoristic use of costumes and play on stereotypes in Village People’s act is not offensive in and of itself, but Rose’s Halloween-style Indian is the only character to play on the identity of a living culture. What if there was a caricaturized Hasidic Jew, a Japanese Samurai, or, god forbid, a guy in blackface? It wouldn’t be tolerated by any of those groups for one second, not in this day and age.

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?
Comment:  For more on people dressing up as Indians, see Responses to Sleepless Entertainment's Tribal Cosplay and "Village People" in Saturday Night Live.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm...Go for the obvious jokes?

In the case of the Village People, since everything about them was a gay reference, I assume that the costumes are a camp parody of physique magazines.