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Gwen Stefani and No Doubt: Lack of Sensitivity Caused by Ignorance

Did you get a chance to see No Doubt’s new music video for their song “Lookin’ Hot”? It was only out for a couple of days before they took it down and issued an apology to the American Indian community. I finally got a chance to hunt it down myself and take a look at it. Basically it consisted of a very bleach-blond Gwen Stefani in a stylized Plains Indian costume playing what can best be described as cowboys and Indians. My non-Native boyfriend made the mistake of asking what I thought about it. So here’s what I think about it.

I think that within this country a very unique sociopolitical demographic exists that is the country’s indigenous people, which is by and large misunderstood by the majority of American citizens because of a blatant lack of education and a bias history penned by ethnocentric colonizers. The result of this is a lack of sensitivity spawned from ignorance.

Am I angry at No Doubt? No. I think they are victims of an unbalanced political and historical dialogue. Rather, I am proud of them for taking responsibility for their ignorant approach and doing the honorable thing – taking down the video, which, in this situation, is perhaps the most powerful move they could have made. They’ve acknowledged that they were wrong, which validated their naysayers, which gives that much more power and credence to the American Indian voice and that of the global indigenous community.

I’m all about the big picture. And to me the big picture is this. Because of this lack of well-rounded education, the average non-Native in this country knows about as much about their indigenous neighbors as they do about the Pygmy tribe in Africa. This is never more evident that in tripe pop media such as the “Lookin’ Hot” video.

Pop culture homogenizes all Native tribes and cultures into a singular conglomerate of long haired, feather wearing, turquoise selling spiritualists riding horses and living in teepees, stripped of individual values, culture or identity. We are no longer Diné, Lakota, Ohkay Owingeh or Anishinaabe, we are “Indians.” But, while we share cultural similarities, such as the French may be similar to the Portuguese, we are peoples of individual, sovereign nations.

By assuming that all “Indians” wore feathers in their hair and rode horses is like an Italian assuming all Americans wear Hawaiian print shirts, eat cheeseburgers and talk with a twang. And the danger in that is overlooking the cultural uniqueness that every demographic possesses that make them valuable and significant. Just as Texans are in some ways a world away from New Yorkers, American Indians nations each possess profound differences. Whether it is in their languages, their art, their songs, their dances or their traditional clothing, it is within those differences that these nations survive as individual, valuable cultures.

While the rest of the world may be trying to cross the ocean and become a turnip in the American soup pot, believe it or not there are many thousands of people rights here in their homeland that do not wish to be “American,” in the sense of a homogenized melting pot. In fact, they happen to be fighting tooth and nail not to melt, and, rather, to more fully recognize their singularity as sovereign nations with sovereign cultures and political identities.

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Because of a lack of education in regards to the importance of the cultural differences of American Indian nations, and by attempting to disrespectfully stylize so-called “regalia” that may be scared to certain Plains tribes, No Doubt perpetuated the cultural homogenization, or, what some might call cultural genocide, of America’s indigenous nations.

I do not think No Doubt intended to be offensive, rather, I think that by not having a well-rounded education in this matter they were unable to make a well-rounded decision. So the blame, I think, is not on No Doubt—though they made an excellent example and I thank them for that—but on mainstream American educational institutions, which, even in 2012, still insist on misinforming the public.

That said, the even bigger picture is the issue of homogenization, and the misconception that being the same is best. Look no further to see the error in this thought process than in our schools, where the most vicious of pecking orders take place and people who are “different” are marginalized by their peers to the point of psychosis, school uniforms or not.

While it is important to cherish the similarities between peoples for the purpose of shared understanding and peace, to erase individuality is genocidal, for all walks of life. You see, pop culture, owned by advertisers, seeks to not only homogenize Natives, but to homogenize all people. It’s called globalization and it’s based on a very simple concept: When everyone has the same fears, desires and aesthetics, they are an easy market to sell products to. Therefore, I commend No Doubt for producing a video that sparked controversy, admitting error, and opening the door for deeper thinking and realization.

American Indian activist Russell Means once said that what befalls American Indians will eventually befall all people. Therefore, nothing is really a “Native issue” anymore, to be hidden behind the antiquated walls of the BIA and Indian agencies. As sovereign nations, our “issues” must now be recognized as an undeniable presence in the global dialogue of human affairs. Native issues are global issues.

This column was originally published in the Valencia County News-Bulletin.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila studies creative writing and indigenous studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.