I know this isn’t front page news anymore, but the issues raised by musician Pharrell posing on the cover of Elle in a headdress still remain. Sure it gets twitter or FB or Native news networks media attention for a little while, but then it falls by the wayside until someone decides to do something stupid once again and tries to play it off by calling it honor. When does the cultural appropriation end? So some of us get offended by these kinds of disrespectful acts; why does any of this matter?
I never studied Ethnic Studies and barely have the “academic” language to deconstruct the power structures and oppression embedded in what really happens when someone puts a headdress on their head or dresses up like an Indian for Halloween or at a sporting event where the mascot is an Indian. I studied writing, which I suppose in a way means I studied how to communicate and how to deconstruct some of that communication. I got a BA in English from Stanford and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. At UNM I taught rhetoric. I relearned and taught my students how to employ persuasive techniques like ethos, pathos, and logos. I taught them to think about the intent and purpose of what they’re writing and how that should inform the choice of the form (essay, poem, proposal, memo, analysis, synthesis essay, etc) they were employing to serve that purpose. Equally important, I taught them to think about the audience (who they’re message, essay, writing) is intended for.
When I think of people at the themed Cowboys and Indians frat parties or people who wear headdresses at Coachella and now apparently on magazine covers, I can’t help but ask myself who do these people and editors think is the audience? Obviously, it isn’t us, Native Americans.
This is where my worry, anger, and the importance of why come in to play. In addition to writing, teaching as an adjunct professor, and running my own literary magazine, I also serve as the Director for an Upward Bound program that works specifically with youth from 8 different states, 22 different high schools, and more than a dozen reservations/rural areas. I love my job. I love working with youth. If you’ve followed these letters then you’ll know more about all of the reasons why I do what I do and love what I am blessed to do. But in my line of work there is also fear. I fear for the world we are sending our young Native youth into where their issues aren’t taken seriously and when the only people putting out images of Natives are non-ones putting out harmful stereotypical images that they know nothing about. To all of those people: Some things aren’t meant for you. Period.
I get to travel quite often performing poetry and serving as a motivational speaker. In some of my workshops I’ll do prompts where we name fears. At least once every workshop a young person writes “White People” as his or her fear. This never fails. This never fails to break my heart. I can understand part of the reasons why.
As I said before I don’t have an academic background in these areas. Unlike some of my friends and colleagues, I do not have a PhD in Education or Ethnic Studies. What I know about all of these subjects comes from experience. My experiences teaching Ethnic Studies at UNM, working with & education not only college students but our Native youth, and my own lived experiences as a woman of color all inform my worldview. So while I may not have the same language to talk about what happens when Pharrell puts on a headdress, I do know in my gut that it is wrong.
I know that I want my future children and all of the youth I work with to feel empowered. I know that this empowerment wont’ come from seeing headdresses on non-natives at Coachella or on magazine covers. It won’t come from seeing numerous Pocahotties on Halloween. I know it wont’ come from me writing this blog. I know it won’t come from us in the way we think it will. Empowerment comes from within and I know we need to be focused on creating a world where that empowerment & growth can exist for our youth to succeed and survive with pride in this ever-changing world.
So when things like Pharrell wearing a headdress come up I am driven to words. I am compelled to write. Thanks to the Twitter world and Social Media I was able to connect with some really amazing people. At the time of the Pharrell incident I virtually met Maggie Hundley and Jennie Stockle. Together we compiled the following blog initially published on Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry
(a poem by Tanaya Winder using 23 song titles of Pharrell’s songs)
Call that an apology?
You must be frontin’. Maybe that kind of apology flies when you’re Just A Cloud Away from Ignorance. When you put some commercialized version of Indigeneity on your head check The Message. The Game Has Changed from where people who blindly culturally appropriate just get away with it. Sad thing is it ain’t Brand New; people have been dehumanizing us for years. We’ve strengthened our numbers and whenever this happens we rally. We write, organize, and fight to advocate for truth and we Know Who You Are – someone trying to monopolize our culture by commercializing us with your Show You How To Hustle mentality thinking you’ve got that Swagger International personality. I’m halfway done so Stay With Me – the Number 1 thing to remember is that we are real. We exist. We are more than just some ancient relics or a Gust of Wind. We are still Hunter and gatherer; we carry resilience in one fist and truth in the other. So Come Get It Bae and give – respect. Can I Have It Like That? I think we’ve earned just that. To be respected. Don’t appropriate something you know nothing about. A feather is a badge of honor, each represents an act of bravery. So when you think You Can Do It Too just because you want to don’t expect us to be Happy or Smile because you’re wrong. And when we ask you to Take It Off your headHow Does It Feel? I can only hope that you and everyone else who tries to ‘play indian’ by putting on a costume looks in the media mirror and thinks two words: Despicable Me.
So if that’s your apology, naw, go ahead and Keep It Playa. This Young Girl only has 7 words left for you – I’ve got my culture Where’s Yours At?
Pharrell Williams apologized for his ELLE magazine cover with him in a Native American head dress saying, “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.” It is not the first time apologetic people or businesses whose actions disrespect Native Americans say they respect everyone. Some think they actually respect money and ego more. Doing something controversial to make headlines and add to name recognition is the easy way fulfill the old adage, “all press is good press.”
Despicable-is a great word for what is happening with this Native headdress wearing/mocking trend, and ironic in the Pharrell incident considering his current big hit Happy is featured in the Hollywood blockbusterDespicable Me 2. The actions of these people and companies attack Native American culture and innocent families. Native American culture has been so overtly exploited that people in this country can’t see real human beings-real Native Americans anymore, just perverse mockeries of our people and culture. It is so ubiquitous and harmful that it is having real psychologically negative impacts on Native students.
Persons, like Pharrell, and businesses, like ELLE, are exposing innocent Native children to bullying, scapegoating, and culturally hostile environments by the actions they make popular and get money from doing. Native American families are turning off the radios to his music and vowing to never buy ELLE. They should realize any moral compass that excludes Native Americans will taint anything they touch. Many people in the broader public may one day have no use for such profiteering by monopolizing how Native Americans are portrayed in mainstream by excluding open Indigenous people.
Pharrell is such a big name, and he is so popular in the music and entertainment industry – he is a trendsetter. So, what has saddened many Native Americans is that appropriation displayed on the cover of ELLE, also internationally popular and trendsetting, is going to be emulated the world over. Pharrell and ELLE are telling the world it is “okay” to “play Indian”. They are endorsing wholesale erasure of Native voices and culture. Pharrell has planted a seed that will sprout more and more current and future appropriators, because he is so famous.
The nonapologies are harmful because they do nothing to get to the root of the problem and shift blame from the appropriator BACK to American Indians. Now it is on us to try and convince the world that we are worthy of better treatment because Pharrell, and Fallin, and Stefani, and Coyne, and Cyrus, and…the list goes on…”apologized”. Then the real issues get lost after this blame-shifting because then the hate comes out, the blood quantum stuff comes out, the “I’m part-Indian too and I don’t find it offensive” stuff comes out when we are defending our culture and children by trying to convince people THIS IS NOT OKAY AND NEVER WILL BE.
As people, mothers and teachers, involved with youth for years one mindset to maintain is “separate the person from the act”. If a kid makes a mistake it doesn’t make them a bad person, but the action was wrong, the choice to make the action wrong. If you apply the same line of thinking and separate Pharrell’s-Miley’s-Stefani’s mistaken choices from them as people, some people can say, yea perhaps they are not bad people. But, in their apologies they apologize for their mistake without getting to the heart of why. When kids make a mistake getting to the root of it …why was this behavior wrong or inappropriate? is very important. None of these stars/famous people take the time to get to the root of why their actions were inappropriate and offensive. Why not?-because with stardom comes privilege, the privilege to just get by doing whatever-the-heck-you-want half the time. But it is dangerous, more dangerous than they all even realize.
Tanaya Winder Personal story:
I remember as a child watching Charlene Teter’s documentary about “In Whose Honor”.Coming from the rez I’d never seen anyone “dress up” as a Native American. I wasn’t even in the stadium where Teter’s saw people “playing Indian” and it still struck my core. My young girl self felt somehow “less than” human in that moment. Later, I went to attend Stanford University (a school whose former mascot was an Indian) and would still see people wearing Stanford Indian shirts.
Halloween was the worst. I’d never seen so many people dress up like “Indian Princesses” or the Pocahotties. I’d never seen this growing up on my reservation. We were a tri-ethnic community full of Latinos, Natives, and White people. Maybe it was that my community and peers knew better. Maybe it was because they knew we were real people. I thought at a world class institution that these “educated” people would know better. Now living in Boulder, Colorado, Halloween still involves numerous drunks dressing up as “Indians”. I take instances where people simply “put on a headdress” because they fell like it or who knows why they do that (I still can’t figure it out) as an act of dehumanization. It strips us of our identity when the action of them putting it on by placing feathers on their head makes it seem that anyone can become “Native” through dress up. And now it isn’t just the sports arena or the Halloween Holiday it’s making its way into music and the cover of magazines.
The entire act of cultural appropriation is much more harmful when people take things so lightly. When our culture is stripped and slapped onto some cover because it looks cool or would sell more. It goes back to questioning the action. What is the intent? If the intent is to honor us, not sell magazines, then-why not reflect more about how you think that would be honoring us Pharrell? People should think about how a child feels when they see someone who hasn’t earned the right to wear a headdress places one on their head. Think about people putting on a costume and saying “I’m Native”, and how that makes someone who is still young and developing and growing feels.
The odds are already stacked against us in this society. No matter what others say, the statistics prove otherwise. When we are condensed to a symbol, to a colorful feathered headdress, it reduces us to one image. We as Native people are many tribes, many images, and much, much more deserving than having to sit back and watch other people act from ignorance and not think about the consequences.
The following closing poem for Native American youth was a collaboration between Tanaya Winder [visit her website here!] and her twitter followers:
When You See Someone Dressed Up “Native” On a Magazine Cover Remember These Things:
That being Native American is more than just what you wear.
But should you see someone “Playing Native” with cultural appropriation wearing fake buckskin or a feathered headdress you tell them
You know what it means to wear a headdress when you think about sacrifice. The sacrifices our ancestors made to hold on to what was left, of our tribesmen who still fight overseas for our country
That each feather on a headdress was meant to represent an act of bravery; our own badge of honor.
You know honor. You know it enough to know that it doesn’t come from someone dressing up like you, pretending they can look like you by putting something fake and untrue on their heads.
Telling us they’re doing it out of honor or respect,
to honor you to respect you- how?
Your ancestors were true warriors who suffered to evade conquest and when pillagers try to rape and reap from our culture, Remember that we come from a long line of resilience embodied in your spirit.
The battle and the struggle continue.
Even if you struggle with the reflection in the mirror because the media never who look like you beautiful, Remember your are beautiful.
Remember that we don’t dress up for cultural vultures looking to claim something that wasn’t-isn’t-ain’t-ever-gonna-be-theirs, so if they tell you that you should “shut up” “bear it” or “focus on the REAL issues” like alcoholism, poverty, or apathy
Tell them you have “no apathy, hear”. We can focus on all of those issues but no one outside of our community hears. They’re too busy with their tomahawk chops and cheers wondering if the look hot in their feathers and skinny jeans. And before we can discuss the issues outside our walls we need to be taken seriously as modern human beings, not vague relics.
Remember that you are not a novelty. You are not meant to be fetishized or romantized or continuously commercialized.
Remember that you can be anything you want to be, maybe one day we’ll have the honor of representing ourselves and our own culture in movies or on the cover of a magazine.
So the next time you see someone “Playing Indian” or dressing up in something not intended for them you tell them.
That you forgive them for believing we are relics of the past, that we forgive them for not seeing us. Say something like that and then just walk away. These kind of battles can be fought on other days because
in your heart you know – truth.