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Cultural Appropriation: More Than Meets the Eye

Like many of us in Indian country, I caught the latest Victoria’s Secret atrocity that followed closely on the heels of Gwen Stefani’s big blunder. I’d like to move the conversation away from this dominant issue of cultural misappropriation to broaden our understanding of the various ways in which these images and events can be experienced by different audiences. So many individuals from many different walks of life are consuming these pictures, now circulating widely. But pictures don’t just simply present another example of cultural misappropriation for us to swallow. They evoke.

Art, whether it be fashion, performance or photography, is a tool used by an individual or group of individuals who wish to justify, challenge, and redefine their existence in various social categories. I believe the anger that is present among many American Indians is connected to their ongoing plight to talk back and work against past and recent injustices committed toward their people. People who feel an intense obligation or responsibility to challenge stereotypes. People whose experience of the Karlie Kloss in the headdress or the Gwen Stefani video cannot be separated from their historical experience or their cultural traditions and understandings. Having said this, as an Ojibwe woman I can say that if a model walked out on the runway with a jingle dress converted to a skimpy bikini, I would probably be pissed off. However, as an Indian woman who loves to dance, perform, bead, sew—a woman who loves to exercise her creative spirit and is definitely interested in incorporating old Ojibwe styles and designs into my work—these images make me ask myself how far I can and should go.

Again, how can I be innovative, interesting, and free to explore my own creative spirit while still remaining respectful of and connected to tradition? Would I be committing some grave error if I inadvertently crafted a purse that resembled someone’s grandfather’s bandolier bag, which he held as something very sacred and private? Could I make a bikini, attach mini jingle cones to the side tassels and appliqué the bottom with Ojibwe woodland-style flowers, which are on my regalia that I wear as I dance in prayer? When does the relationship between contemporary art and performance and cultural tradition, practices and ceremony become dysfunctional? When it offends a cultural group that has already suffered through years, decades of oppression, misrepresentation and violence and abuse? Or when it becomes another instance of a big capitalist conglomerate monster manipulating and getting rich off Indian culture? We may not always like what it is that art evokes, and it’s likely that we will never agree what it evokes. But art is not about agreement. Rather, art is about getting people to understand something.

But like I said, what’s interesting is that no media outlet interested in the controversy of all these instances (sassy squaw costume, Gwen Stefani video, Victoria’s Secret fashion show) have actually discussed the fact that these images are not new nor are the subjects always white women. In the early and mid-1900s, Indian artist/performers like Princess White Deer and Molly Spotted Elk performed on many national and international stages wearing traditional cultural items, which they made themselves. These women identified themselves first and foremost as performance artists. As such, Princess Whitedeer believed she was accountable to her audience and gave them what they wanted and expected: a pleasurable, entertaining experience. She was well aware that she was enacting the very stereotype they created of Indian people and found it somewhat humorous that she was essentially feeding people their own crap. If we were to juxtapose famous portraits of these woman against Kloss, would people be equally critical of both? Probably not. I believe most would look at these historical Indian artists as victims of a stereotype and the underwear model as a perpetrator of said stereotype. But is this the case? I would argue that labeling Indian woman like Molly Spotted Elk and Princess White Deer as ignorant victims would be doing them a great disservice, it would extremely disrespectful of their artistic talents, and what they did as pioneers to pave the way for future Indian female artists/performers.

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One last thing that fascinates me is the popular opinion is that it’s definitely not okay for a white chick to wear the sassy squaw costume, while we tend to be a lot more tolerant, for example, of Indian musicians who choose to wear something that looks similarly. One may argue that the reason or intent of the white chick for donning her sassy squaw threads is much different than that of a musician, but can this be assumed? Don’t they both want to be attractive, desirable women who like being out, celebrating with their friends? Are they both not performing their sensuality and sexuality? Just some bannock for you to chew and think on.

Celeste Pedri is an Anishinabe and a member of Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation. She is a beader, jingle dancer, performer, and creator of regalia and contemporary fashion. She is a PhD student (visual anthropology) and artist-in-residence at UVIC.