Appreciation vs. Appropriation: Native American Culture

By Asia Daggs
Assistant Web Content Manager

In light of November being Native American Heritage month, I thought I’d dedicate this volume to some of the most culture-rich communities we know today.

Native American (or American Indian) culture can be associated with both harmony and pain. The culture thrives off of the many customs they live by: spiritual symbolization, ceremonies, language, food… you name it. On top of dealing with issues such as civil rights, mass incarceration and the never ending attempts of government stripping them of their land; Native Americans shouldn’t have to deal with tedious cultural appropriation as well. Over hundreds of years, society developed countless forms of defamation towards Native Americans that have been transformed into long-lasting stereotypes and discrimination.

Illustration by Jasmynne Flores.
Illustration by Jasmynne Flores.

You probably have heard of the controversy surrounding the name and logo of baseball franchise the Cleveland Indians. Their logo, Chief Wahoo, is a caricature that displays a red-skinned man with an eagle feather tucked in his hair. Wahoo was created in the Jim Crow era, and currently serves as a piece in an exhibit at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Does this little tidbit not raise any eyebrows?

The Penobscot Indian Nation officially asked the franchise to retire the logo back in 2000 with a hand-delivered copy of their request. Their federally registered organization deemed the logo “to be an offensive, degrading, and racist stereotype that firmly places Indian people in the past, separate from our contemporary cultural existence.” Unfortunately, they were basically ignored and were not given any signs of the team offering a resolution. It wasn’t until 2009 that the continuous efforts from over hundreds of organizations finally paid off. As of today, the franchise has downgraded Chief Wahoo down to their secondary logo. That is a great strive achieved, but the racial caricature still remains a part of the team uniforms.

My next point is going into Hollywood’s playing hand in appropriation. Tons of movies portray Native Americans just as the stereotypes go. One of the most recent releases is Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six. It is labeled as a western satire with a comedic plot following an orphaned boy raised by Native Americans. Some of the issues regarding the film spread like wildfire in media after several Native American actors left the filming site after realizing the movie’s racially charged jokes and other degrading content. More examples can be found in tons of popular movies and cartoons, like Peter Pan with the angry, red-skinned chief and his tribe. You can also check out The Lone Ranger or even Pocahontas for more understanding on the role Hollywood plays in depicting Native Americans in a stereotypical light.

Last, but not least, is the never ending issue of Native American dress being turned into fashion statements and costumes. Every year, we see or hear about insensitive costumes regarding someone else’s race, culture, religion, etc. The headdresses that are popular in costumes hold so much significance. Native men must be honored with the privilege to wear one. Therefore, when a non-native person is wearing one, it is considered as a high degree of disrespect. A perfect example would be when supermodel Karlie Kloss sported a headdress down the VS Fashion Show runway back in 2012. Native communities voiced their concerns over the appropriation. Victoria’s Secret respected the complaints and had the outfit removed from the broadcast. With that being said, be wary of cultural boundaries and everything between. If you do not know, ask someone with the appropriate knowledge.

The least we could do is show support and respect for our Native American communities. After all, they founded the land we call America.

Featured image by Jasmynne Flores.

Holly Henrichsen

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