August 06, 2014

"Russian Pow Wow People" stereotype Indians

“Indians” in Russia–It’s not a fairy tale!

By Nahnda GarlowEastern Europe is full of people who legitimately pow wow. They aren’t Ongwehowe at all but have devoted their lives to researching Ongwehowe ceremonies, traditions, crafts and dancing. The Pow Wow People of Russia have actually created an entire sub-culture of weekend indigenous life right in the middle of Europe. They have retreats where they will sleep in tipis that they make themselves, hold sweats, have naming ceremonies and hold dance contests–“just like the red man.”

This makes a lot of actual indigenous people angry. Understandably so. The story of colonization first removed the indigenous people from our territories and then forcibly separated our ancestors from our culture. Further to that, Victorian times thought it appropriate tokenize Indians and romanticize ‘savages’ through things like Peter Pan and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Because of this history, the sight of European men and women gathering around the big drum, singing victory songs and speaking Lakota can absolutely be taken as adding insult to injury. However because they are doing so much research into what is actually authentic, there is yet a layer of separation between this kind of tokenization and things like mascotry done by professional sports teams in the USA or some idiot wearing a cartoonish replica headdress at Coachella. Just one look at the amount of work going into the Russian Pow Wow People’s regalia, all pieces handmade by themselves, and you start to get an understanding of their level of commitment to pow wow life.

Before we grab hold of the megaphone and cry out misappropriation…could it be that these Russian enthusiasts believe that they are legitimately trying to honour us–albeit in a very awkward kind of way? Is what these Russian Pow Wow People are doing different than Khloe Kardashian’s now infamous Instagram picture of herself sitting cross-legged and becoming “one with water” while wearing a replica headdress?
Why do you choose to participate in cultural things that are of a different culture other than your own?

It is a difficult question. Probably, it happened because of many reasons. Many children in that time when I was a child watched movies and read books where Indians are shown by noble, courageous people. We wanted to be similar to them. Some of us, having become adults, continued this way. But now we don’t play anymore, we study this culture. We show respect for this culture. And we don’t understand why sometimes Native people have a negative opinion about as. We don’t steal their culture. We try to inform it to people in our country.
Comment:  There may be "a layer of separation between this kind of tokenization and things like mascotry," but it's still stereotypical. Like every other wannabe in the world, these people focus on the Plains Indians of the 19th century. It's a tiny, one-dimensional slice of Native culture that misrepresents the complex and diverse whole.

The author asks if this is different from Khloe Kardashian's wearing a replica headdress? Not really. Mikhail isn't wearing a headdress because he's earned the right from a tribal elder halfway around the world. He's wearing it because he thinks it looks cool. That's exactly the reason Kardashian and every other hipster wears a faux headdress.

Back in 2000 I critiqued a Russian group calling itself the Orthodox Wannabe League (OWL). I even engaged with a couple of members, explaining how they were misrepresenting Indians. They didn't get it, of course. To them it's all about living in a romanticized, idyllic past free of disease, broken treaties, and genocidal wars.

Everything I said then still applies now. Indeed, these Russians may be the same as those Russians, for all I know.

In short, they're not helping Indians, they're harming them. They're furthering the world's ignorance of Native history and culture.

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