Student class exhibit on view from May 9, 2012
From cigar store Indians to reality TV, American popular culture has reflected, created, and perpetuated stereotypical representations of Native Americans. Museums have helped legitimize and solidify these stereotypes, freezing American Indians in a primitive, ahistorical past. As part of the class “Thawing the Frozen Indian: Native American Museum Representations,” we have created an exhibit about the (mis)representation of Native Americans both inside and outside of museums. This exhibit is confronting the complex, and often painful, history of cultural appropriation in order to foster conversation. As part of that process, we created a Facebook page and crowd-sourced comments from individuals who identify as Native American.
We have organized our research into three categories: racist stereotypes, mass-produced cultural appropriations, and contemporary Native art. In this last and final section we provide examples of the “unfrozen Indian,” art that combines the traditional and the modern in Native American life today. There are no easy answers to the questions raised here, but we believe that the conversation itself matters. We encourage you to participate and share your thoughts on our exhibit cases and our Facebook site.
From Tobacco to Top Model
“Indian-ness” in American culture has always been more about white fears and desires than about Native American lived experience. The stereotypes of the noble savage, the bloodthirsty warrior, the Indian princess, and the alcoholic linger in our public consciousness.
In this section we display a variety of stereotypical representations of Native Americans that span the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, from a cigar store Indian to America’s Next Top Model.
Photograph by Nigel Barker, 2012
America's Next Top Model is a reality TV show focused on competitions between young women entering the world of fashion modeling. A recent episode sparked some criticism when the show's first Native American contestant, Mariah Watchman (Umatilla), was given a historically and culturally inaccurate Pocahontas costume. One of the judges, in his review, said: "First of all Mariah, I think you had a very easy thing to do. You're Native American? [she nods] But I don't feel that you've committed. I just don't see the angst, I don't see the feeling, I don't see the passion. I just see you looking pretty." She was forced to embody a reductive cultural stereotype and then criticized for doing it wrong.
Action Figure, 2011 Courtesy of Elizabeth Hoover
This action figure, found recently at a convenience store on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, literally packages and markets the act of “playing Indian.” This smiling figure, dressed in buckskin leggings and white gloves, with his totem pole and covered wagon is an incoherent montage of cultural stereotypes. The cheerful Indian and his companion silence the history of violence in the American colonial encounter and “freeze” Native Americans in an inaccurate and unspecified past.
“Indian Princess”, c. 1950 Courtesy of Anna Links
Illustrator Adelaide Hiebel created prints for the popular Gerlach Barklow calendar company through the mid-1950s.
This pastel image, entitled simply “Indian Princess” is one of Hiebel’s numerous works depicting Native American women. Her pieces generally do not include the names or tribes of the subjects, creating a generic, romanticized Indian woman.
Her figure embodies the fantasy of American colonial expansion: she is both sexualized and “pure,” desirable and one with the virgin landscape.
What is cultural appropriation? What’s wrong with it? Isn’t imitation the highest form of flattery? On the blog “Native Appropriations,” Adrienne K explains, “ ‘Playing Indian’ has a long history in the United States, all the way back to those original tea partiers in Boston, and in no way is it better than minstrel shows or dressing up in blackface. You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so...you're collapsing distinct cultures, and in doing so, you're asserting your power over them.” The appropriation of Native designs today is part of this ongoing tradition of erasing contemporary communities through seemingly benign imitation, meanwhile flouting the cultural connections and meaning imbued in these original, handcrafted objects.
“Navajo Hipster Panty”, Urban Outfitters, 2011
“Navajo Flask”, Urban Outfitters, 2011
Navajo Child’s Blanket, c. 1860 Gift of Alfred J. Walker, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology
In Fall of 2011 the Navajo nation sent Urban Outfitters a cease and desist letter and threatened to sue if they did not eliminate their line of “Navajo” themed clothing. In an open letter to Urban Outfitters on the popular blog Racialicious, Sasha Houston Brown explained that these products are offensive because none of them “are actually made by Indigenous nations, nor were any Native peoples involved in the production or design process...On the contrary, you have created cheap knock-off trinkets made in factories overseas. Selling imported plastic and nylon dreamcatchers disrespects our history and undermines our sovereignty as Tribal Nations.” While these objects were made recently in a factory in Asia, the blanket displayed above was woven by a Navajo woman in the 1860’s.
“This season’s fashion includes a lot of ‘tribal’ prints/patterns/themes. I was a bit excited to find some of these pattern in the stores, as long as it didn’t get to [sic] close to anything spiritually/tribally significant or insulting. Urban Outfitters didn’t do anything tastefully or respectfully and definitely pushed the limits, with this particular product and other products as well...”
“Ew, sacred booze, yeah, this shows a lot of respect for Native Americans and their cultures...what’za up Urban Outfitters, couldn’t come up with a disgusting facial image like most sports team?”
“This is terribly ironic. It is the perfect indicator that our country has conveniently ‘forgotten’ the racial and cultural genocide of Native peoples in this country over the last 500+ years.”
Cigar Store Indian
Collected by Rudolf F. Haffenreffer, 19th c. Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology
This cigar store Indian, carved in the 19th century and collected by Rudolf Haffenreffer in the 20th, embodies the stereotype of the noble savage.
Although his clothing does not actually reflect the dress of any particular tribe, he is attempting to sell “authenticity.” The manufacturer implies that by purchasing this tobacco, you can experience the fantasy of the wild and free Indian.
“I saw a ‘wooden white guy’ in a smoke shop on the Pima/Maricopa reservation in AZ. I liked that a lot more than this!”
“this is a mockery of our race, our appearances, a mockery of the buffalo, tobacco, and our clothing and feathers. this is an image of an indian that more people in america would recognize as an indian than anyone here.”
Poster of Kaya (American Girl Doll), 2012 Courtesy of Margaret Hanson
Nez Perce doll Collected by Emma Shaw Colcleugh, 1884, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology
The poster of Kaya, made by the American Girl doll company, is meant to represent a Nez Perce girl in 1764.
This doll, however, was handmade in the 19th century by a member of the Nez Perce tribe for a young child.
What does it mean to turn a people into a mass produced product? What do these two dolls communicate about what it means to be Nez Perce?
“I...wonder if drawing differences between a fake-"Nez Perce" doll and an actual doll made by a Nez Perce person in some way implies that the problem is the inaccuracy. In my view, the problem is the entitlement required to believe that one has the right to co-opt or appropriate another person's cultural tradition.”
“ I don't think she even looks or is dressed like Nez Perce. Someone made up a doll, wrote a series of booklets so they could make money & didn't even care if it represented the Nez Perce.”
“ All of these [American Girl] dolls are problematic, in my book. They infantilize, romanticize, and over-simplify every culture (and by extension, the women from every culture) they portray.”
“...I have to say, as a young Native girl growing up, I was starved for toys like this one. I loved American Girls, but the only one my mom would allow me to have is Addy, the African American doll (since she was the only non-white doll at the time). It is important for young girls of ALL races to see positive representations of themselves (even if the backstory isn't totally accurate).”
Breastplate, c. 1920 Gift of Walter G. Brown, Loaned courtesy of the Museum of Natural History, Roger Williams Park
Available evidence suggests that the Comanche invented the hair-pipe breastplate in the mid-19th century. Breastplates were not meant to stop projectiles such as bullets and arrows; they were and remain ornamental and are an important piece of the dance regalia in the Traditional Dance Style category performed at powwows throughout North America.
“Distressed Beading Tee” Forever 21, 2012
This breast plate t-shirt was made by Forever 21. It was invented in the early 21st century by this Los Angeles based fashion company. It will not protect you in battle.
“An online advertisement for the “Distressed Beading Tee” imported from Guatemala by retailer Forever 21, described the shirt as “A lightweight tee featuring a distressed tribal beaded graphic. V-neckline. Short sleeves. Heathered knit.” The appropriation of a key piece of the Traditional Dance Style costume strikes many Native Americans as offensive: I find it to be tacky and distasteful.”
“wear a hairpipe breastplate if you really want one. the t-shirt doesn’t do it justice... people who buys such things long for identity and culture but have little of their own that is really theirs.”
“sadly, this is nothing new. I just wish we could get past the ‘play indian’ stuff and just have some respect...”
Unfreezing The Indian
In the 19th century, while the US government attempted to eradicate Native America, museums collected Indian artifacts, preserving the remnants of a “disappearing culture.” The resulting exhibits represented living peoples as part of a vanished past.
By collecting predominantly “traditional” artifacts, many anthropology museums have maintained the illusion that Native culture is static.
The objects in this section reflect American Indian life today, and challenge the very notions of traditional and contemporary. These artists change the public conversation by reappropriating and remixing stereotypical images. They playfully and confidently declare that American Indians are still here.
“Staging the Indian” Marcus Amerman, 2001
This photographic series by Choctaw artist Marcus Amerman is a response to the turn of the century portraits of Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis. Capitalizing on the fear that Native Americans were a “vanishing race” that would soon disappear, Curtis photographed highly stylized, and often posed, profiles of “authentic” Indians throughout the country. Amerman’s tongue-in-cheek counter to these images plays on the affected quality of Curtis’ original works and challenges the lingering stereotypes of contemporary Indigenous Americans. By ironically mirroring these canonized images of Native America, Amerman dynamically declares: “We are still here.”
“White Man’s Moccasins” By Lee Marmon, 1954
In 1954 Lee Marmon photographed and titled his piece “White Man’s Moccasins.” As a Laguna Pueblo photographer and author, Marmon captures the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary mixtures of Native American life.
“White Man’s Moccasins” has become Lee Marmon’s signature, an iconic piece commenting on the shift in the Pueblo Culture as the culture incorporated more modern and western influences.
“He probably got the sneaks from someone who gave some clothing & articles to the people of his nation. He was lucky to get Converse Sneaks. It became quite hard to get skins to make moccasins as hunting for game to obtain skins was not possible anymore due to the unavailability of the animals. So they resorted to the White Man's shoes.”
“I like it just because the guy looks happy and real in a photograph. Rare.”
“I love this photo--not only because I'm another Indian who rocks chucks, but because it's from an Indian perspective.”
“shows the long standing history of the Harvey company and tourists all infatuated with the SouthWest and dudes waiting for pics to be taken or change to be given?”
Fightin’ Whities T-Shirt, 2011
The Fighting Whities mascot was created and adopted by the University of Northern Colorado’s multiethnic basketball team in February 2002. Designed to protest the local use of Native Americans as sports mascots (Eaton High School’s “Fighting Reds”), the image gained widespread popularity and was championed by groups fighting the use of Indian sports mascots nationwide. Some who were sympathetic to this cause argued that the dapper and cheerful “Fighting Whitey” was not inflammatory enough to successfully convey the message that Native American mascots are racist and highly offensive. Ironically, many white Americans actively embraced the character, leading the UNC to add the tag “fighting the use of Native American stereotypes” onto its own merchandise. The team apparel was so profitable that the University of Colorado established a scholarship for Native American students with the proceeds.
Beaded Chief Wahoo Pendant, c. 2010 Courtesy of Steve Ferreira
Despite protests of Native Americans and Non-Natives who find the Chief Wahoo mascot offensive, the Cleveland Indians baseball team continues to use the same logo that it last modified in 1950. Steve Ferreira, a 34-year-old member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewas, forces a fresh look at Chief Wahoo by remixing his image in a traditional drummer’s necklace. It challenges and reclaims the reductive notion of the tamed, cartoon Indian.
Beaded Chuck Taylors, Susan Dubray, c. 1989
These beaded Chuck Taylor shoes exemplify the dynamic and contemporary nature of Native American culture.
The Converse are used as an example of a typical “white American” object, while beading embodies traditional Native American craftwork. The sneakers emphasize that Native American culture and crafts are still very much alive and well and are adapting to the changing world. By combining traditional beadwork with a sign of contemporary American life, the artist Susan Dubray demonstrates the way Native American communities have both adapted and maintained cultural continuity.