Dec 13, 2013 - Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld Jump on the Native Appropriation Bandwagon, By Ruth Hopkins

As a girl, fashion held my interest. I loved paging through my big sister’s issues of Vogue and Elle. My eyes still seek out beauty. Like many women (Native ones included), I enjoy looking at beautiful clothes.

I was an admirer of Karl Lagerfeld’s designs, so you can only imagine my disappointment when I saw photos from the Chanel’s Wild West inspired pre-Fall Show held in Dallas, Texas this past Tuesday eve. The show featured Native prints and white feather headdresses. Turquoise, feathers, fringes, and beadwork were also on display, along with plenty of cowboy hats and boots.

First, let’s get something out of the way. I don’t care what you’ve seen in old Hollywood movies or what pop media has told you: pairing cowboys and Indians as a matching set is trite and problematic at best. Being a cowboy is a profession. Being American Indian is about what race you’re born into. When someone dresses up like a cowboy, they’re taking the guise of someone who wears chaps and rustles up cattle. When a person wears an ‘Indian’ costume, they’re mocking an entire group of human beings based on their skin color and heritage. What’s even more disturbing is when society as a whole seems to encourage this practice, given that collectively, anyone with a colonial or pioneer ancestor is descended from someone who was agreeable to the stealing of Native lands as well as the massacre of Native women and children ala Manifest Destiny.

Yes, cowboys and Indians existed during the same time period and occasionally fought one another during western expansion, but American Indians are still very much alive. You don’t get to leave us in 1899. No matter how much the powers-that-be would like to pencil in our extinction, we remain. American Indians live on reservations, in cities, and everywhere in between. We walk among you. We are part of American society here and now, in 2013. We work, shop, and pay taxes like everyone else. Brand new American Indians are being made and born as I write this.

Unlike everyone who immigrated to this continent that embraced the idea of assimilating into the melting pot that is mainstream society, American Indians held onto their ancient cultures, languages, beliefs, and ceremonies; ones that predate the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, our ancestors fought for them under pain of death, and hid them when they were made illegal- for us, their children. Because our ancestors loved us, the Federal government’s policies to terminate and assimilate us failed. We haven’t lost touch with what is sacred. It is now our responsibility to keep these ways, see that they are respected, and hold those who attempt to exploit and abuse them accountable.

Over the past several years, Native appropriation in popular culture has become an epidemic. I don’t understand why this practice continues, despite protests from many Natives and their allies. With each incident followed by outrage and demands for the offensive behavior to end, as well as an apology and request for some remediation, it gets harder and harder for appropriators to feign ignorance. This leads one to believe new incidences of Native appropriation are purposeful, i.e. grandstanding on one’s white privilege by the offending party.

 Some are speculating that Karl Lagerfeld’s appropriation of Native patterns and sacred objects like the headdress is not as severe because they’re high end items. No. Exploitation is exploitation, I don’t care if the headdress is made out of solid gold and dripping with rubies and emeralds. Actually, one could argue that what Chanel and Mr. Lagerfeld is doing is worse. He is taking what is most sacred from an impoverished people, stealing from them, and making money from it. He’s producing knock-offs of our ancestor’s creations, ones meant to honor our bravest warriors, and hawking them to rich people- ones who’ve never been to a reservation and seen the shacks some Natives are forced to live in, had to experience their child being stolen from them by corrupt state social services who turn a profit from the placement, or been persecuted because of their ethnicity.

It’s not like there aren’t American Indian designers, textile makers, beaders, jewelers, or other artisans in the fashion industry. How difficult would it have been for Mr. Lagerfeld to reach out to anyone of them and ask for their advice or assistance? I assure you that their Native artwork is better, because it’s intricate and filled with meaning built on millennia of rich, vibrant, and legitimate cultural heritage. Now that’s inspired design.

Even so, Mr. Lagerfeld, you will never have the right to make or wear the headdress or war bonnet, because you haven’t earned it. Every feather in a real war bonnet signifies an act of bravery and self-sacrifice for your people. That’s why only chiefs and warriors wear them.

To anyone reading this, why assume you can take our imagery and exploit it for your own benefit without consulting us in any way, shape or form? On a basic level, what happened to being considerate?

Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel, it’s a shame you jumped on the Native appropriation bandwagon. I hope you’ll reclaim your integrity by reaching out to American Indians, especially those in the fashion industry. Apologies are nice, but they don’t mean anything unless they’re backed up by deeds.

Last Real Indians