Humboldt County T-Shirt Controversy that's all up in my Facebook OR Native American Mr. Potato-Head -- now with Aztec Parts!
I wasn’t going to weigh in, because I’m busy, but also because many of my fellow Native community members were doing an awesome job offering reasoned responses to yet another example of cultural appropriation gone wrong. (This implies, of course, that there is cultural appropriation gone right, somewhere, out there, in the land of cultural appropriation. It probably has something to do with the Cheesecake Factory making Navajo Tacos, though I hear their frybread leaves something to be desired…)
First – a quick and dirty run down history. There is a company. This company wants to make a tshirt. The artist at the company designs one. It’s has an Indian looking guy on it with some feather headdress and earrings and whole bunches of generic “Indian” looking designs in the background. And underneath it says “Chief Life.” A bunch of people respond. Some like it, some don’t, some are concerned, some are concerned about people being too concerned. Friends of mine get involved. The artist asks for honest feedback about the design. People give it to him. He says some people are rude, some people aren’t, but mostly he thinks they are rude. He is surprised by the response so he “redesigns” it to be an Aztec guy, and not some generic Indian guy. (This seems to mean from the pictures I’ve seen that he changes the generic designs in the background to Aztec writing symbols and also adds some Aztec design looking earrings and an Aztec shield to the guys forehead. Everything is the same. It’s like, Mr. Potato-Head Indian Style. Exchange your cultural appropriation parts for others, make an entirely new Indian Mr. Potato-Head.) Again he asks for feedback. People still aren’t happy. And suddenly he’s writing on Facebook that:
“I think it kind of comes down to what happened to Native Americans in the past That makes this so sensitive… The thing is I wasn’t here for that and neither was my genetics.. And what happened to the Native Americans was simply a byproduct of war that happens in every culture and region that has war…”
“Native Americans are not the only ones that have gone through genocide… Many many cultures go through it… Like I said before sometimes it’s a byproduct of war… So when I’m having fun with art I’m not trying to read bring up bad memories of genocide that did not happen when I was alive..
“And I also think it’s unfair of you to say that the Aztec people are the same as Native Americans when they are by far completely too different cultures…”
And of course
“I think this is just a really sensitive topic for you…”
With a little
“I know other Native Americans that I can enjoy the art piece that I did…”
“The past will always be the past and I say never forget the past but always look for brighter future… I think optimistically…”
Okay – so I write this as an open letter, not trying to be “rude” so as to make him believe that he is a victim of all these rude Native people calling him and being rude but to provide him some of my own insight into this issue.
Dear Guy On Facebook:
To be fair, I’d never heard of your company before this, and I probably wouldn’t have had this not been passed around Facebook. Also, I was born and raised in Humboldt County. I get how it kind of works there. I know we have this big, fantastic, emerald triangle, legendary existence that makes people give me high fives or nods or thumbs up when I’m wearing a sweatshirt that says Humboldt on it. We cool. I get it. I lived there my whole life, though I was never really that cool.
Now, as a Native American person I don’t like the shirt. You can put me in that category. I don’t know if you’re adding it up and waiting to take a poll to democratically decide on using your artwork, but if you are, I’m firmly in the no, don’t do it, it’s not a good idea, yes it’s problematic, yes it’s sad, and no it’s never going to work, no matter how many different sets of earrings you stick on the poor man, it’s not going to ever be an image that portrays “respect”, “dignity” or even “honor.” It’s just going to be a stereotypical, Native image that you are using to make money, glorify stereotypes and continue to ignore why these problematic images are damaging, destructive and ignorant.
Also, truth be told I had no idea what “Chief Life” was. According to my younger, cooler friends (and Urban Dictionary) to “chief” is to smoke marijuana. Me, as an old person, I want to over analyze it. I’m assuming it has something to do with the old stereotype of “smoking the peace pipe” and how Chiefs were supposed to have been big smokers who smoked the peace pipe and did all that smoking (all, completely distorted by the way and in many ways totally wrong, but that’s an entirely DIFFERENT letter). Blah blah blah, it’s “chief” dude. I’m probably using it wrong.
I haven’t seen you at all address that side of this issue. So far it seems like you’ve been focusing on the image. To paraphrase (quickly): Oh you don’t like the feather earrings? I’ll replace them with Aztec earrings? Oh you don’t like the weird generic designs, I’ll replace them with Aztec writings. The image is too “Plains Indian” and not “Humboldt”, why don’t you look at some Humboldt stuff? Etc. etc. It looks like a mascot, mascots are honorable, no they’re not, yes they are, why aren’t Buccaneers offended? Pretty soon Vikings will start complaining. Something about how anybody can be offended by any image but Chief is an honorable image, etc. etc.
Except, we’re talking about “Chief Life.” Which, for your company, I’m assuming has something to do with marijuana, and drug culture, and drugs. I ain’t mad atcha dude. I know that this whole “weed” thing sort of lives where we live. I get it. I’m not trying to play super narc-y innocent girl who “oh my word” “I declare” I can’t believe you’re talking about drug stuff. But, Chief Life – it’s just sad.
It doesn’t make me angry, it makes me sad. Drugs are a huge issue for Native communities. Huge. They aren’t just an issue because people like to do drugs. They aren’t just an issue because Native people can’t handle their business and they turn to drugs. They aren’t just an issue because of the rampant poverty of Native populations. All of those reasons are important. But they are also an issue because of history. They are an issue because of trauma. They are an issue because of what happened at the founding of this very county that you love so much you want to make a tshirt for it and sell it to people. Did you know that it used to be policy in Humboldt County that you could hunt Indian people? There were Indian hunting days. Did you know that it used to be policy in Humboldt County, that it was easier to exterminate Indian people then to have to deal with them? Did you know that on the very places you walk, or live, very near where your business is located, there were massacres of Indian women and children. There were rapes of young Indian girls. And after all that, there were continued attempts to erase a people from the land. And then after that, there were reservations, there was poverty, there was trauma, and there were drugs. It’s health thing. It’s hard to separate sometimes from what we think of as “recreational” but lots of our “recreational” habits, are ways of coping with trauma that passed itself along through generations. This is the part of our people that is overwhelmed when we stand at the edge of the bay, look out and realize that one night, as a tribe was holding a world renewal ceremony, a group of people showed up and tried to kill every single one of them.
Now, you weren’t there. I know that. This doesn’t mean it isn’t written on the landscape where you live. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feel it every single day. It doesn’t mean that it never resonates in our waking lives. Because it does. In policies, in ignorance, in forgetfulness, in the way we talk about ourselves, and each other. Maybe your “genetics” weren’t here, but you are here – now. It’s time to know. It’s time to know where you are. And to “know” this place, is to listen. And to “listen” is to realize that we aren’t talking about an ancient history, we are talking about a recent history. And maybe, just maybe, what you consider “simply a byproduct of war” is, surprisingly, not. Genocide is not a byproduct of war - Genocide is tool of an aggressor. Genocide is a choice. It doesn't just happen because war is hell. Genocide is systematic. Genocide is deliberate. It is not a "byproduct" of aggression, there is intent- an intent to annihilate a group of people. We should not tie genocide to just another "byproduct of war" and erase this intent. Systematic murdering of a people, enslavement of children, raping of women, massacres, these are not byproducts of war, these are tools of genocide. The "byproduct of war", is the trauma. The byproduct war, is the destruction. The byproduct of war is the loss of life, land, resources, brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters. And for many, many Indigenous peoples the byproduct of war has been survivance. It’s been strength, it’s been coming together, it’s been healing. The byproduct of war has been a culture that refused to die.
You can go to two museums right now in Humboldt County and see the “byproduct of war.” You’ll see that this “imagery” of Indian people it’s not about what’s “cool.” It’s not about a “Chief Life.” You can see that, and you can draw that, and you can learn – you can read Genocide in Northwestern California or The Tule Rivers Struggle for Sovereignty, or Custer Died for your Sins. You can sit with a Native Elder, or a group of young artists and you can talk, and you can learn. And you can draw and create, and you can still put sunglasses on it. But you still have to answer that one hanging out there, waiting for a response question…
Is the image tied to drug culture? Are you trying to get Native people to tell you it’s okay to use an image of a Native person tied with drug culture? Are you trying to get Native people to say that there is some “image” that they could give you, that you could tie with drug culture that would be “respectful?” Are you trying to get Native people to find some compromise, of semi stereotypical, easy to access, generic images that will somehow be tied to drug culture and then allow you to use that image to tie to drug culture and make money off of that image?
Let’s say, no. Let’s say “Chief Life” is just like the “Good Life.” It probably is, if you consider responsibility, respect, reciprocity and consciousness to be the “Good Life.” Let’s talk a little about that then, you’re just telling me to live the good life. Chief Life, Aztec Life, whatevs. So then let’s take it another step –
Sambo Life. (If you don’t know much about Sambo, you should check out here, or here, or watch this.) If you want Sambo can wear sunglasses. Of course he should have big red lips. Super dark black skin. Maybe a backwards cap, some gold/ diamond teeth. How about some watermelon earrings? How about some chicken and waffle earrings? How about he just looks like Kanye West. Although Kanye’s gone all Kardashian so he may not be stereotypical enough for your more discerning audiences who expect to recognize right away what image they are trying to appropriate.
Ooo, Jew life. Let’s put a dude in a Holocaust outfit, complete with tattooed number on his forehead. Some star of David earrings. If you want you put menorah’s as your background. Genocide is a byproduct of war after all. A lot of other cultures go through it. You’re just trying to have fun with your art, so Jewish people should understand. You’re not trying to “bring up bad memories of genocide that did not happen when [you] were alive.” And we all know that the “Jewish Life” is the good life too – like a Chief Life – because Jewish people have money and own Hollywood.
Asian Life. They’re all the same anyway right? We wouldn’t want to get too specific with the whole Japanese life or Chinese Life or any other number of “Asian” cultures. So let’s go generic. Slanted eyes. Big straw hat. Maybe some buck teeth. If you want they can be kung-fu-ing something. The background can just be “ching, chong, chang” written over and over again. If somebody doesn’t like it you can just change the earrings and make it “Bangkok” life, cause that’s different right?
Mexican Life – sombrero, something to do with gardening, maybe a taco.
No matter how many compromises you make – these images won’t work. These images – don’t work.
You have a right to draw whatever you want. You have every right to put it on Facebook and ask for feedback. You have a right to put out 1,000 of them if you want to. You will be making the wrong decision if you do that. Because images, no matter who you are, come with responsibility, and that is the difference in how many Indigenous people see the world. We live in a world of responsibilities, not rights. What are you responsible to? If you choose to use a certain image, you are responsible to understand what repercussions that image has. I know people have shared with you the studies which have found that these types of images have negative effects on Native children. I know people have told you about the history that informs on why they are so “sensitive” to these issues and portrayals. But I want to tell you something very clearly, if you want to put this image out as part of your company, then you should also be very clear about the kind of responsibility you have to it. And you should learn about that responsibility. And should listen. And then maybe, just maybe, you can start to understand. And when you understand, you're going to make a different decision, I just know it. It takes work and time, but it's worth it, because what you will create from this, if you choose to do it in a "good way" will be much more then this generic shirt you've been so intent to defend.
Am looking forward to the possibility as I too - am an optimist.
PS – Aztecs are Native Americans. And most every Native nation in the Americas had completely different cultures from each other. But the Aztecs are in the Americas. Much like Mayans, the Oneidas, the Iroquois and the Hupa, Yurok and Karuk. It’s still offensive.
*Spelling issues are directly from what is written on Facebook. I’d blame auto-correct myself, but I haven’t actually talked to the guy to see if auto-correct wasn’t really doing him any justice in this case.
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, volunteer Executive Director for the Native Women's Collective and is currently re-watching My Name is Earl...
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