Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Indian Giver

This story begins with a blanket, a Pendleton blanket to be exact. When I was 13 I received a Pendleton for graduating middle school. To be honest, I was confused and slightly embarrassed by this gift. Confused, because I had grown up a city kid unaware of what I was given. My father attempted to explain to me that a Pendleton was gifted when someone had achieved something, such as graduating. It wasnt until years later that I was able to fully comprehend that Pendletons are expensive blankets that Native Americans gift one another in honor. My lack of understanding regarding the blanket also contributed to my embarrassment over it. In the 90s, Native American patterns were not en vogue. They looked gauche and cheesy, connected to the Southwest and the 1970s. Additionally, I had no real connection to my own indigenous ancestry having grown up in a suburb of Los Angeles (far away from my families reservation in North Dakota), so I could not connect the Pendleton gift to any prior experience. I share these reactions because they fit snugly within the larger history of indigenous people of North America. My experience growing up was one of cultural disconnection, and it fits neatly into the broader history of cultural assimilation experienced by many indigenous people. My blanket collected dust for a decade, until I was renting my own apartment, in need of warmth during the lonely Los Angeles nights of my early twenties.

Five years after pulling that blanket out of my closet, MGMT release their video for Time To Pretend (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9dSYgd5Elk). The video features a strange amalgam of non-Native looking kids and pan-indigenous fashion mixed with1990s neon. The clothing and the actions of the band are of innocent children playing neo-Indian: they run through tall grass, "hunting" with bows and arrows, they participate in ceremonies, they play drums. The space and place of the video dances between various cultures and locales. On one hand it is a post-apocalyptic anti-capitalism neo-primitivist dream: they literally burn money for warmth, they eat raw meat, their clothing is a scavenged mix of modern clothing and animal hides. On the other hand, the imagery of the video makes nearly direct reference to various eras and cultures of indigenous Americans: there are Mesoamerican buildings with the attendant headdresses. Another part of the video features clothing that looks like the revolutionary era war garb that many indigenous people wore during the eighteenth century.

While the song Time to Pretend discusses the banality of adulthood, the video supports the idea of creative innocence in the face of the normal. The main marker of innocence in this video is the indigenous dress and actions of the videos actors. The band members act like children playing Indian, much like the lost boys from Peter Pan. In many ways, the video explicitly connects indigineity and innocence. This connection between innocence and indigenous people has a long history spanning from highly regarded authors of liberal theory (Deloria:1995,4) to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. On one hand indigenous people are stupid and easily manipulated, on the other their innocence is regarded as something to look up to American Indians have, rather ironically, represented the liberal ideal of freedom. This was largely because American Indian society was thought to represent lawlessness and a people who existed without a social contract. American Indian innocence often accompanies ideas of their lack of scientific progress and their ability to be easily manipulated. These ideas perpetuate the idea that indigenous people had no agency, they were duped into giving away land for trinkets.

I bring up the MGMT video because it had to start somewhere. I dont believe that the current fashion craze for Navajo patterns, Indian headdresses and American Indian war paint has developed entirely from the MGMT video. However, the MGMT video is one of many inspirations for it. I view the cooption of indigenous patterns to be part of a larger issue than fashion this is rampant in music as well. Recent album covers and band names have increasingly had some type of American Indian influence. Here is a list of just a few: Indian Jewelry, Eskmo, Warpaint, Apache Beat (whose album is called Last Chants), Chief (with an album named Modern Rituals) and Neon Indian. Undoubtedly, these names and fashions run the gamut of offensive to relatively benign. I take offense to the wearing of headdresses and faux Indian war paint by non-Natives (who dont understand the cultural significance of either), I dont take offense to a band being called Neon Indian. However, what is and isnt offensive has already been elaborated by several others. I want to understand why this is happening now, when our government is engaged in a war effort and our economy has completely flunked.

American Indians (as well as the other related imagery: wolves, feathers, beads, buffalo, horses) connect to something that is integrally American. But how and why does this happen? There is an obvious juxtaposition inherent in this: American Indians are indigenous and often called the First Americans but they were also viewed as dangerous enemies to the progress of Manifest Destiny. American Indians were once viewed in much the same way as modern terrorists, during the 19th century attempts to exterminate entire tribes by settlers was typically ignored and often allowed to happen without serious governmental repercussion. Currently, American Indians continue to be stereotyped as poor alcoholics who have forgotten their culture, they are believed to be bereft of what once made them great, they are inauthentic and out-of time. The juxtaposition is two-fold: American Indian patterns and things are at the height of fashion even though these things connect to a people who were once targeted to be killed for non-Native land acquisition. Similarly, American Indians today face stereotypes of disappearance, inauthenticity, and alcoholism. Yet, the stereotype of savage innocents persists, these are the Indians seen in the MGMT video: childlike and liberated, so primitive and anti-capitalist they burn money for food and warmth. The crux of the problem is that the savage innocents dont exist in the real world, theyre a progressive fantasy from another era, a hodge-podge of Peter Pans Lost Boys and 1970s environmentalism. They never existed, theyre an entirely culturally created image, and this is what makes them safe for cultural consumption. They are memoirs from our collective childhood of Star Wars, Disneys Peter Pan and our parents impressions of the sixties and seventies. It would be uncouth to add a splash of genocide to this mix, dear, because this is about the children and our collective remembered innocence.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Another part of this story has to do with the era that were currently in. The United States has been involved in two colonial and capitalist wars for several years. These wars involve the creation of the enemy as an other people from countries in the Middle East have been constructed as enemies of the United States as well as enemies of the tenets of the United States, as American Indians once were. While there are very obvious differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the various tribal nations of the United States, the discourse and development of all of these wars has been similar. In a strange embracing of feminism, women are created as the feminist crisis situation. Native American women were viewed as drudges who did all the work, while Native American men were considered lazy. Muslim women who cover are considered oppressed. Similarly, within the United States, it was about how American Indians lived: American Indian women were bad mothers and were treated badly by their husbands, they had no government or they were ruled by despots. In the end, it all sounds the same: these people dont have democracy, choice, freedom, or equality. Moral and ethical problems regarding how people live has been a call to arms for decades and possibly centuries. American policy has dictated that democracy (and capitalism) must be brought to those who are believed to live without it.

The essential difference is that American Indians were conquered whereas Iraq and Afghanistan have not been. This is the reason why moccasins and Navajo patterns can be fashionable, but Rachel Ray cannot wear a scarf resembling a keffiyeh in a Dunkin Donuts advertisement. Once a group has been conquered (or colonized) they are no longer a threat, and allegiance to them is no longer a threat. Once they are conquered, the other becomes assimilated into the story of the nation and onto the very bodies (in the form of clothing) of the nation. A similar pattern has followed with Japan after the United States occupied Japan with US military bases and administered help in rebuilding their country after WWII. At one time Japan was the ultimate enemy of the United States, but after WWII and after theyve established a successful capitalist economy, snippets of Japanese culture has filtered into US consciousness and become fashionable among certain circles. Manga is one iteration of this, as is Gwen Stefanis commodification of harajuku girls (there are several iterations of this that are beyond the scope of this article).

Of course, the figure that Native Americans pose in this story is unique. There is a tension between the reality of the situation (genocide and poverty), stereotypes of that reality (alcoholism), and the childish stereotypes of storybooks and liberal theory (noble savages). In other words, Native Americans face denigration as poor alcoholics with no recognition of the collective historical trauma theyve endured, nor is there much mention made of the economic poverty some tribal peoples have been forced to live in. Similarly, iterations of the Noble Savage stereotype pervade our culture constantly (in the form of childrens movies and liberal theory), as does the simple historical idea that Native Americans have been duped into giving up their land. Phil Deloria discusses this in Playing Indian, in which he points out that American Indians had to be assimilated into the national consciousness while they simultaneously had to be degraded. Because American Indians are indigenous to the United States, in order for non-Natives to feel that they belonged on this land they had to assimilate Native Americans into themselves, while they also had to degrade them through stereotypes and discourse. Native Americans are honored and appropriated for what they once were (or, rather, for what they were believed to be), while they are blamed for being alcoholics, poor, lawless, and for having lost their culture. A frightening amount of paternalism runs rampant in this it is the white anthropologist who understands real indigeneity, it is the non-Native government that knows what is best for them, it is the rich urban youth who now understand the aesthetic value and history of a Pendleton blanket. This is not a juxtaposition, it is a Janus head coin. On one side Indians represent innocence and freedom, and on the other they portray stupidity and lawlessness. This is what happens to indigenous people within a settler society.

Perhaps the current fashion trends are only frightening in how they represent this, a strange co-option of indigeneity and Americana while a war is being fought and constantly elided, while the real history and trauma that Native Americans have faced is simultaneously elided in the stories we tell one another.

Works Cited:

Deloria, Philip Joseph. Playing Indian. Yale University Press, 1998.

If interested in this topic, please read:

Julia Fiesenthal, "The Strange History of the Indian Trade Blanket": http://www.slate.com/slideshows/arts/the-strange-history-of-the-indian-blanket.html

Sasha Houston Brown "An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters": http://www.racialicious.com/2011/10/10/an-open-letter-to-urban-outfitters-on-columbus-day/

Al Jazeera "Don't Trend on My Culture": http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/native-american-bloggers

My Culture is Not a Trend: http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com/