Last Real Indians

Controversial Photo of Native Woman in a Headdress Circulates Online

By : Michelle Shining Elk

I’ve been nothing but a huge supporter of both Miss Crissy and Lightning Cloud, but I have to say I’m deeply saddened and disappointed by this photo of Crystle, a Cree woman, in a fake headdress.

Red Cloud commented that the photo is from a photoshoot “none of us know nothing about,” is cause for me to think that perhaps posting it was premature, or better yet…a good reason why he should enlighten us so we can make better informed thoughts and opinions. Especially, those of us who are seriously conflicted over this and are having a really, really hard time wrapping our heads around it.

I get artistic expression…as an instrument of propaganda, a medium for social change and transmitter of one’s beliefs and values. However, the test with artistic expression – such as this – is whether or not mainstream society has the ability to distinguish between what is fact and what is fiction. Sadly, stereotypes about Native Americans remain the same – old or new – and even more sad, is that they end up being internalized by those who don’t know any better; internalized and taken for the way it is, even though not verifiable by the way things are.

I get pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box…and using artistic expression to ignite dialogue and create awareness about issues. I truly do – I work in marketing communications, publicity, social media and promotions. I work, tirelessly, to put us as American Indian people back into the American society equation – as a contemporary force, people of interest, and to be taken seriously and respected and I know all to well that we have to be more creative than other groups to be heard. I struggle, on a daily basis, with complex issues in weighing what is sacred, what is marketable, and most importantly, where to draw the line. As Indian people, we carry the burden of understanding that while we live in a society which dictates success in terms of public perception, success and wealth – our hunger for amassing success and wealth must be tempered with the teachings we know in our hearts to be integrity based, honorable, respectful, true and correct.

Unfortunately, the less direct experience the public has with as specific sector of society (mainstream and American Indians), the more that depictions like this shape the public perception of who we are. The perception of who we are is more often than not shamefully depicted in film, on television, via performances, illustrations, mocking our traditional dress, imitations of speech patterns and more.

We’ve been fighting this fight for hundreds of years. The characterizations can range from superficial to innocent – to hurtful and demeaning. Many times, the images are dangerous and the result is that we are further demonized, denigrated, romanticized and mythologized. So, I’m sorry, but regardless of the fact that the headdress if fake, or that this is okay because Crystal is Native, to me are simply mere rationalizations that obfuscates the reasons why this is hurtful and disappointing to me.

Many Native people who don’t understand why this is upsetting were likely not raised in our traditional settings – amongst the generations of elders who have shaped many of us into the people we are today. We are in the process of revitalizing our languages, songs, ceremonies and stories – not for public display – but for something much greater – our survival. I understand you two are the next generation, but it doesn’t change the fact that we need to support the present, by honoring our past in order to champion our future – to forever respect those who have come before us, and those who are coming behind us.

I made a promise to Georgina Lightning, Crystal’s mother…that I would look at this picture with an open mind and truly try to understand, but frankly, I’m still very much saddened by this and at a complete loss. I need more information as I am truly trying to understand this because it makes no sense to me as I write this, right now…

I still think the world of you both, but I’m just having a tough time with this…

Michelle Shining Elk is a member of the Colville Tribes The Colville Tribes is a confederation of 12 tribal bands that existed along the Columbia River before there was a Canadian/USA border and before the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. She is of the Arrow Lakes and Okanogan Bands. She is a casting director, and the owner and CEO of Michelle Shining Elk Casting, and Shining Elk Entertainment & Production Company, and Michelle Shining Elk Media & Marketing.