Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Adrienne Keene

It's Halloween. I haven't had much energy or interest in the holiday this year. I started grad school in September and since then school work combined with work work has left me pretty much out of the dress up and celebrate loop. If I had time, I'd obviously dress Chop up as Lambchop and I'd be Shari Lewis...

Lane would look so cute in this wouldn't he?
Even though I've been busy, I haven't been totally in the dark about the seasonal discussions of overly sexualized female costumes, instances of black face, and how the entire month of October is now a pumpkin spiced smorgasbord. Unfortunately, what never seems to get enough attention is the undying favorite of dressing up like an "Indian". Ireland Baldwin wins this year's award of just-not-getting-it after she dressed up as the "Chief" from Disney's "totally not racist in anyway shape or form" children's classic, "Peter Pan".
Ireland as "Chief" 

Her responses to anyone voicing upset over her costume choice ranged from the basic non-apologies, "I respect all cultures and would never mock one. I am Cherokee Indian and I am also well aware of what many tribes encountered in the past."  To the more inventive, "Deleted the picture because it was insulting all the poor little white girls who need a racial cause to be apart of for attention." 
Good questions, Pocahontas!

Am I included in the latter? I guess. Ireland is only 18 years old, is famous for having famous parents, one of whom notoriously called her a "pig" when she was a child, and is probably responding harshly out of embarrassment. Whether or not she is actually Cherokee Indian as she said is hard to say because who really knows? None of it is an excuse. But how many of us think this is so bad? Or have even considered what dressing up as a caricature of another culture really means?  

Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has explained it to me through her blog "Native Appropriations". She is a student of Harvard's Graduate School of Education and researches education access for Native students. Native including those of American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian decent. In 2010, she was compelled to start her blog because of a trip to Urban Outfitters and her disgust from all of the "Tribal" products they were selling. Since then, she has educated me as well as other white girls who need attention and thousands of others about what native appropriation is, why it's harmful, and how we can become a more historically aware and culturally progressive nation.

I think most people, like Ireland, would say that they "know" about the atrocities committed against native people when the first settlers came to America from Europe. This past Columbus Day there was a popular post circulating the internet about how terrible Columbus was towards the native people he encountered when he "discovered" America. Many have a grasp on the history of their mistreatment but seem to believe the suffering of Native people at the hands of the Americans is over. The truth however is that this is not a part of our past but an ever present issue today. 

"Indians" exist to us mostly in their stereotypical form. They are mascots, alcoholics, a cross-legged seated position, noble naturalists, brutal scalpers, casino operators, tax-free cigarette and gas purveyors, hipster paraphernalia, and of course, a costume. Whatever "good or bad" perceptions of Native people you may have, they are damaging because they are not real. They are constructions. Manipulations for a twisted fairy tale that we have handed down generation after generation. We have decided that peace pipes, tee-pees, tomahawks, dream catchers and Geronimo are one in the same, "Indian". We know little about the differences in tribal culture, the significance of the headdresses and patterns. Non-Native people are satisfied with the incomplete and inaccurate picture. 

Keene's work directly confronts the belief that "Indian" is an all encompassing term. Her work is not about political correctness. She is offering you truth about her ancestors, family, and own present day experiences. In her installment of the excellent series WELL RED, she recounts the story of her family's farm. After the Trail of Tears, her great-great grandparents were given land in Oklahoma under the Dawes Act. You can read more about it on Wikipedia, but the Dawes Act basically took tribal land and chopped it up into plots for single ownership by American Indians. This land kept their family prosperous and alive throughout the Great Depression. Her great grandmother was given her own farm where she raised her 8 children. Life was good. Then, the county decided to create a man made lake. They flooded out the Indian land. Her great-grandmother was given $870 total for both of the family farms. She had to move her children into town and took a job as a cook in a restaurant where she worked for the rest of her life. My great-grandmother was still alive when I was born, which means this incident of injustice was not as far removed as we would like to imagine our crimes against American Indians to be. As Keene says, 
"So much shit's happened to Indian people."
With all these statistics, this appropriation by Victoria's Secret
is even more upsetting.
And it's still happening today. Since reading "Native Appropriations", I've become more aware of news pertaining to Native people. What I've learned is extremely upsetting. According to the Department of Justice, one in three American Indian women will experience rape or attempted sexual assault. These are just the reported cases as many women are encouraged not to report their rapes. Rape in many tribal villages in Alaska and on reservations throughout the country is as high as 12 times the national average. Rape has become an expected part of a woman's life. The rape culture in America exacerbates these already horrific statistics.* 

And what is our government doing to help? Nothing. If you remember back to a year ago, the House failed to reauthorize the Senate's version of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. This would have given tribal courts jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian sex offenders for crimes committed on their land and against their people. The House and some Senate GOP members felt this gave the tribal courts too much authority so when the reauthorization was finally passed, it was without this provision leaving American Indian women vulnerable and unprotected. *

I have watched documentaries about the rampant sexual assault of native children by Catholic missionaries in Alaska, a woman's struggle to cope with life on her reservation, corporations dumping toxic waste on American Indian lands causing deadly cancers and illnesses to decimate their populations, and the efforts to regain their Native languages and identities after centuries of abuse. All of these documentaries were set in the present day. This injustice is not a part of our past. And we have to acknowledge that. How do we do that?

To start, let's not dress up or misrepresent Native people anymore on Halloween or in our daily clothes. In the episode, "Don't Trend on my Culture", from The Stream (below), in response to the question is dressing up as an American Indian really as bad as wearing black face, Keene says yes and asks, "Who has the right represent whom?" The history of representation of Native people has historically been done by white actors. How many famous American Indians can you name? I can't name any. Because of this, Native Americans have been kept out of telling their story in popular culture which is why we find ourselves today manipulating their history. Keene says the misuse of their culture has trivialized it and in order for Natives to have a voice, they must play into the stereotypes. She wants more options. 

This is what separates the Native experience from other ethnicities. People like to argue that the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins are no different than the Fighting Irish or the Patriots. The crucial difference lies within who is in control of representing these cultural mascots. American Indians do not have ownership over the teams who use racist depictions but non-Native groups represent themselves. This is the significant difference. 

So what can non-Natives do to positively contribute to the cultural repair Keene is working towards? 

1) I'd say we need to listen and hear what she and others are saying. We need to stop defending our shameful history. And read read read Adrienne's blog! If you don't understand what makes a dream catcher so bad, don't be afraid to do your research. Then tell your friends! 

2) If you like American Indian aesthetics, support actual American Indian artisans. Beyond Buckskin, a website founded by Dr. Jessica Metcalf, profiles American Indian designers and craftsmen so you can be sure your purchases are culturally accurate. Jessica and Adrienne recently spoke out against Paul Frank's native appropriation in a collection last year and were heard by the company! Paul Frank collaborated with four designers from different tribes to produce a first of its kind collection. This was a rare success from a conversation that often proves frustrating and fruitless for both bloggers. 

From the National Congress of American Indians
3) You can educate yourself on the history of American Indians in your community. Since we all "know" non-Natives were not the first ones to live on the land we "discovered", you can be sure there is a rich American Indian history right in your own hometown. Learn about the specific tribal culture of your area. Find out what happened to the people and where they are now. This is probably the only actual way to go about ending the injustice our country commits against American Indians today. And maybe it will change your mind about keeping those harmful mascots that are so prevalent not only among professional teams but throughout public schools. I know I'm going to write a letter to the school board in Jamestown about changing the high school "Red Raiders" mascot. November is Native American heritage month so go and find out what events are happening around you. 

4) Lastly, think not only on Halloween but everyday about the images you are creating about another person or group of people. If you are not a racist and want to be sensitive to the experience of others, don't defend your right to harmfully contribute to injustice. I have to give a shout out to my friends who host an annual Halloween party called Spooky Boobs. It's always tons of fun but they make it clear to all who are invited, NO APPROPRIATION OR CULTURALLY DISRESPECTFUL COSTUMES. They create a safe, fun, creative, awesome party every year! Hopefully I'll be able attend again sometime soon.

For the happiest Halloween, remember these words from Adrienne

*Facts in these paragraphs can be found in The New York Times