Our cultures have been the scapegoat for colonizers to feel exotic and rebellious since days of the Boston Tea party. When we challenge appropriation we are challenging the privileged colonizer identity which has been upheld since the origins of America. One of the modern depictions of erasure is the Native skull aesthetic. I already went into ways these pictures are problematic in past articles about Kanye West. To sum it up, an image which celebrates genocide is never acceptable.
The use of cultural symbols for profit with no involvement with the communities is an act of exploitation. These celebrities and corporations won’t touch any Native issues with a fifty foot pole but they will put on a Native headdress in a heartbeat.
These acts of appropriation don’t simply boil down to unoriginality or aesthetic choices. That becomes evident when you see certain historical policies or interactions of the United States and Native communities reflected within clothing designs. One flagrant example of this was when Gap came out with “Manifest Destiny” shirts. When the company received complaints the designer Mark McNairy even had the nerve to tweet “MANIFEST DESTINY. SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST”. While he may have thought his assertion of conquest was clever he sure was quick to apologize when there was large outcry. (He was hurt for the wrong reasons, because of the fact his feelings were hurt over being called racist). That’s just one example of white supremacy showing.
Sexualizing native women is also another dynamic of conquest. Pac sun sold Yeezus shirts and has now taken things a step further by selling shirts with a sexualized Native woman (from the brand Riot society).
Complete with all the typical pan-Indian type sentiments the shirt depicts a woman with a headdress and war paint and is even labeled “Tribal girl tank top”. The shirt also comes up after the search term “Aztec”. This same model was also used on another shirt; the war paint was photo shopped onto the image. (Brownie points for originality!) When Natives on twitter left negative reviews on the website it seemed that the reviews were just deleted. Pac Sun’s twitter also gave native twitter users no response.
The most recent attempt was a collection by Ralph Lauren which pictures the typical skull and headdress. Most alarming for me was a tee shirt picturing a Native man in regalia with an eagle over his shoulder, a banner with the words “sacred hills” going across. This design is potentially symbolic America’s presence and ownership over the black hills. Its common knowledge that the United States stole land from natives; but many of the general public isn’t even aware that the Black Hills was promised to the Lakota in the Ft. Laramie treaty of 1868.
To add injury to the insult when Mt. Rushmore was created, it was just another reminder of America’s looming presence over stolen land. This shirt design echoes that sentiment, and it’s interesting to note the design choices at hand. Accuracy was a factor here with the inclusion of the roach on the Native figure and the acknowledgement of the hills as being “sacred”. With that I ask: If Ralph Lauren had this much awareness to know that the Hills are sacred, why execute the design in such a matter? Why with such tacky execution and disrespect when there could have been potential to create something beautiful? Before anyone goes making the good intention argument, Ralph Lauren could be helping natives advocate for reclaiming the Black Hills, but instead he’s just profiting off exploitation.
Also as any fan of fashion knows, a collection is about cohesion. So when I look to the other designs of misappropriation present, disrespect of the sacred war bonnet on a skull which pushes the idea that Natives are dead, and the dynamic of disrespect and marginalization comes full circle. No matter what the intention the problematic ideologies of colonization are being perpetuated by this collection.
To top is off it appears as if this depiction is a rip off of Aaron Huey’s work. Aaron Huey is an example of how to collaborate with Native Americans to create beautiful designs which actually benefit our communities. So this situation with Ralph Lauren further disgusts me. Not only are these designs the typical knock off of the American appropriation culture that has become normalized, but now they have gone as far as to copy designers which actually are benefitting our communities and that is the ultimate insult. While I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of relevancy they seek, I had to say something about these blatant acts of disrespect demonstrated by Ralph Lauren.
There are other incidents that have been brewing, like Harry Styles and Christina Fallin. It’s gotten to the point that appropriation happens so frequently it’s difficult to keep up. In fact I even propose the idea for a segment: “Native Appropriation Soup” in which appropriators will be shamed. On a more positive note we could also counter these depictions and create a space where Native excellence can also be celebrated. This can expand from writing articles to a hashtag or even a youtube channel. I’m pretty confident we won’t be running out of material anytime soon.
While it is tiresome, we must continue to hold these corporations accountable for their acts of appropriation. What we allow is what will continue, and even with all the corrections of other influential companies it seems privilege is still flexing its muscles. While it is disheartening our Native communities are the ones having the last laugh by continuing to persevere. The minor act of existing is a political statement, showing that we were never conquered, WE ARE STILL HERE. No matter how many petty assertions of conquest are attempted via clothing. All is fair in the war of decolonization. So look out offenders you WILL be held accountable. No more tolerating exploitation, we’re coming for you.