Why I Would Buy the Target "Sturgeon Back" shirt OR What's the difference between cultural appropriation and your Mom? Kidding. We won't be doing any your Mom jokes today...cause you're Mom is not a joke, your Mom deserves respect. Call your Mom!
Last week I went with my daughter to her Kindergarten class so she could talk about her Native American Culture. She's been trying to explain to the kids in the class that she is an "Indian" person who is not from India. She tells them that she is Hupa Indian and that she does ceremonies, and sings, and makes baskets and sometimes she has to go places, stand for a long time, and not play in the dirt. (That is one true thing about being an Indian kid, sometimes you have to go places and stand for a long time and not play in the dirt.)
People think I'm a card carrying member of the cultural appropriation police. Sometimes people come up to me when I give presentations at different places and they say "is this okay?" and show me some picture from the internet, or their phone, or their tumblr. It's usually of some girl wearing some kind of tribal headdress at some kind of festival. And I say "Okay? As in - does it make me want to buy what that girl is selling? Or okay like it represents Indian people and supports our continued fight for decolonization?"
I don't know what it means for cultural appropriation to be okay? Although - as I said before - I think it has something to do with the Cheesecake Factory serving Indian Tacos on their menu. There's a lot of reasons why cultural appropriation is a whole lot of different things...problematic - degrading - disappointing - sad - infuriating - exhausting - icky - off putting - annoying - rage inducing -funny.
Yes, sometimes cultural appropriation is funny. Actually, most of the time it's kind of funny. It would be like if Preppy McPrepperson (let's call him Justin Bieber) all of a sudden started dressing up in pseudo hood-gangsta style clothing and yelling things at random Black people on the street like "my brother! Wassup! You wanna go? How about a dance off? I'm bad! You bad! Fo shizzle!" All while standing behind big, ethnic body guards. And then he wondered why people didn't take him seriously. That's funny. Justin Bieber (I mean, Preppy McPrepperson) you are a tiny white boy from Canada. I'm not saying you can't be "bad" in your own way. But why you gotta be "bad" in someone else's way?
At it's absolute best (if we are trying to draw some paradigm between best and worst where best is still bad, but better than Peter Pan singing what makes a red man red), cultural appropriation is hilarious. At it's worst it's red-face and t's just another demonstration of how Native people are still considered relics of the past, how genocide is erased and how privilege is paramount.
But then all you do is go around being offended all the time!
That's true. That's mostly what we talk about at our big meeting of all the Indian people. We mostly talk about what we want to be offended about that month. If we don't have anything new on the agenda, we just go with the Redskins. Because, you know, we hate sports. It's not like Indians are good at sports. It's not like they haven't been good at sports for-oh-ever. And it's not like "Redskin" doesn't recall a time when this term was utilized to degrade Indian people in a manner that would dehumanize them so that it would be easier to massacre them. But I digress.
I'm not offended all the time. I could see how that happens. Someone (or me) doesn't really feel the need to write long blog entries about how not offended I am about some tshirt and/or movie and/or music video. I haven't written, say, about how I have a Pendleton jacket that I wear and how Pendleton was founded by an English weaver named Thomas Kay in 1863 in Oregon and it wasn't until 1895 that they started weaving what they called "Indian trade blankets." But man, I have me some Pendleton - even though I'm allergic to it, sort of. It's itchy.
I also sell jewelry to non-Native people with Native designs on them and I feel proud that they want to wear them. I like that I sold this one pair of earrings to a lady who has shared with me what luck they have brought her and that she wants to know more about them so she can tell people when they stop her on the street to love on her earrings.
I appreciate that people are curious. I'm more of someone who (though while I am occasionally flippant about the subject) likes to use "cultural appropriation" and "Indian dress up" to start a conversation. I think there is what I can best describe as "wiggle room" in the whole "redface" versus "look at those feather earrings" versus "I wear abalone because I'm from the Northcoast and I want to support Native artists." Wiggle room - a spectrum - what not. And I think that it's more complicated then just "everything is offensive" or "nothing is offensive." Which brings me to my most recent Target shopping expedition where I found a tank top featuring a Native design that we use in our area, posted it on Facebook and then tried it on. After the post I had both Native and Non-Native people asking me "Is it okay that I wanted to buy the t-shirt and wear it?" So here goes...
Is this okay? (A totally biased opinion by a totally biased Native woman who thinks too much and who hasn't brought any of the following as agenda items at our "Meeting of all the Native people so we can decide on how we feel about something"... yet)
Because I said so. (No, but really, it's mostly because I said so.)
This design is what we (up in Northwest California) call "Sturgeon Back" or "Sturgeon" or "Sturgeon's Backbone." It's pretty cool. Look at it again and think about the grand Sturgeon swimming past you. This design is strong. I know a lot of strong women with this design tattooed on them. I know a lot of strong women who weave this design into their baskets. The design reminds me of the strength of culture because millenniums later we have this design and it is passed on - generation to generation.
So Target bedazzled it and put it on a tank top. This doesn't bug me much. Cause it's a nice design. The whole "copyright" and "Who Owns Native Culture" thing is a very long conversation that scholars and tribal peoples have been talking about for a while now. It's complicated. In many Native cultures there were clear ideas about ownership or "copyright" and they often ran through families, if not villages, if not tribes. However, there were also concepts of "gifting" or "borrowing" or even "loaning" some of these copyrights. In some cases, there were other things that weren't really "owned" by anyone, instead they were owned by themselves, or by the land, or by the First People. And still in other cases, people made the same types of designs just with slightly different flair. Some of these designs could probably be found in other parts of the world, made totally independently of two cultures coming in to contact with one another. So, it might be a little fuzzy who "owns" this design or even if it's entirely just a "Native American" design.
For me, I could see one person wearing it and feeling very geometrically stylish. Another person could wear it because - hey, it's got sparkles. And I could wear it because it reminds me of Sturgeon Back and all the strength that comes from that design. This does not feel "costume" to me. It doesn't feel like we are all trying to dress up like an Indian because that's possible - or even necessary. It feels mostly like we can appreciate a good Sturgeon Back...
NOW - if Target goes and starts suing Native people (especially those in, say, Northwest California) saying that THEY are taking TARGET's design and how dare they? Oooooooo-weee will that be a fight that I will get in on. That's part of the problem when you get big, nameless, faceless, but apparently "personhood" corporations involved in "copyright" and Native culture. They start wanting to make claim. That, to me, is the danger here of not acknowledging that these designs are "Native inspired" and knowing where they come from, or what kind of history they have. It's dangerous and it once again uses current culture to erase Native culture and Native people. But it hasn't happened... yet. Let's hope it doesn't.
PS: All that being said - I'm not going to buy it because I tried it on and it's unflattering. The design isn't unflattering - the shirt is. It's the weird lines on the side of the shirt that make it unflattering. If they weren't there, if it was just the design, I would buy it and wear another tank top under it because I was blessed with a long torso and short legs. Therefore - most target shirts are a little too short for me. And that is my "really important information about me" PS of the day. I hope the NSA is enjoying this and adding it to my file. "And she has a long torso, so her weakness is - SHORT SHIRTS!"
Is this okay? (In which I now must remind people that while the above example was my one personal opinion about one particular shirt that in no way makes everything else okay.)
No. Just -- No.
In the video Gwen Stefani is dressed up as an Indian woman and tied up to a wall by cowboys, who just massacred her tribal group for no reason, and she is being threatened with weapons and she looks over at them and she says "Do you think I'm looking hot? Do you think this hits the spot? How is this looking at me - looking at me?"
How is it looking at you? It's terrifying Gwen Stefani. During the whole "expansion of the west" thing while the Lone Ranger was apparently coming back to life and blowing up railroads, Native people were being forced off their lands, murdered in the hopes of exterminating them, and kidnapped and put into slavery. Women and children were often taken. If they weren't raped and left for dead, they were sometimes forced into marriages, other times forced into concubinage or slavery. Cowboys tied Indian women up to make an example of them. And if a woman fought back and won - she was then punished by the "law" with prison or death.
Gwen Stefani is tied to a wall dressed as an Indian woman. That really should have been the first part of the storyboard/ proposal for this video that stopped No Doubt in their tracks. "I'm sorry, did you just say Gwen is tied up to a wall dressed as an Indian woman? No- just - No." (Want to read more - I wrote about it here)
Cause it's too obvious? Cause it's disrespectful? Cause it doesn't look as good as you think it looks? Cause it's hot? (As in physically hot - young people- not HAWT like "dang baby you look HAWT today!")
Hipsters - it is the summer time. This will make your head sweat. It will also make you break out in pimples all over your forehead. It will also make people stop in their tracks, look at you and think "really? did you just straight up go full on "red face" here at this random music festival? Are you hooting and hollering? Are you drinking and throwing up and dancing way off beat? And now you want to tell me how you are just showing Native people how much respect you have for them?" Wanna know more? Read - "But why can't I wear a hipster headdress?" on Native Appropriations.
Wait what? I thought you said stuff at Target is okay? Isn't that what this post is about? Sort of. I do most of my shopping at Target because it's quick, easy and I can get cleaning supplies and cute summer dresses all at the same time.
I took this picture at Target last season. So now - all of these things are SOOO last season (point number 1). Also, they are ugly and they look, as Nina Garcia might say "so catalog." (point number 2).
And finally, they are trying too hard. They border on costume. That is the delicate balance to consider, IMHO. The idea that we are "dressing up as Indian" rather than paying homage to Native design. Also despite what you may think it is possible to have TOO much fringe.
I could spend a lot of time telling you why or you could just read this other thing I wrote about why.
NO! (In poetic form)
Johnny Depp likes to play it weird.
He thinks it's super cool.
That's why he had scissors on his hands.
And never went to school.
Johnny says he is probably a Native
Cherokee, Creek or something
That's why he wants his Tonto to be different
Although he's mostly just mumbling
Just because Johnny got to put a bird on it
doesn't mean you get to - dear.
You also don't get to blow up railroads and come back from the dead
Just to make that clear.
copyright 2013 :)
That's right Target. copyright 2013!
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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