Mar 4, 2015 - #Dsquaw: Fashion as Conquest Propaganda, By Danielle Miller


The relentless acts of cultural appropriation of Indigenous culture continue so frequently that it’s starting to look like a contest for conquest. Who can simultaneously exploit and disrespect Indigenous Cultures the most? A most shameless attempt for click bait somehow fashion continues to claw at the opportunity for notoriety built from disgusting displays of cultural imperialism.

For Milan Fashion week Canadian Designer DSquared decided to put out a line replicating Indigenous Descriptions of the line: “An ode to America’s Native tribes meets the noble spirit of Old Europe” And “An ethnic makeover”. It’s pretty obvious why this juxtaposition is problematic. Culture and take their assertion of conquest even further by hashtagging their “Tribal” inspired outfits as #Dsquaw on IG and other social media. Milan Fashion week is covered by all the major news outlets and fashion platforms, with thousands of people viewing these designs, the blatant appropriation and casual normalization of the slur matters. So many people are going to look at this line and decide that it’s okay to exploit Native designs instead of upholding authentic Native designers and artisans.

Anyone who knows anything about Indigenous Cultures would know the dehumanizing connotations of the word squaw and the way it has been used to subjugate Indigenous women. It’s linked to a violent history of sexual violence to enact conquest and has been used as a tool for genocide.

The use of the squaw slur by the Canadian designer is very telling considering the ongoing discourse on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada and the refusal for an Inquiry by Stephen Harper as well as all other Canadian authorities. It says a lot that people refuse to see the humanity of Indigenous women but it’s so easy to exploit their culture and further disrespect and dehumanize them by promoting the use of one of the most historically dehumanizing slurs. In essence this isn’t just a display of unethical designing but an inherent complicity to a system which perpetuates violence towards Indigenous women. That violence escalates from symbolic imperialism, through appropriation and erasure, to the literal violence of the thousands of murders and daily instances of violence that are ignored by the status quo.

Erasure is not just something that happens on a hypothetical level, when speculating on the causation of the use of a slur and the undeniable statistics which stem from that dehumanization the slur perpetuates. But erasure is something that happens right before our eyes, like the dynamics of assimilation and cultural subjugation that happened through boarding schools and other mechanisms of colonization throughout history.

One example that can demonstrate this is the use of furs by DSquared. We could recall the #sealfie hashtag which was created by Inuit people as a response to the Ellen DeGeneres last year after she posted a selfie of an anti seal hunting organization in response raised $1.5 mil. The hunting of seals was condemned by Ellen but without acknowledgement of the Traditional cultures which rely on such for their traditional lifestyles. For Indigenous people’s it was about preservation of culture, sustainability and sustenance.

The same shaming has occurred to other Natives online. I have witnessed Natives shamed for use of real fur in their moccasins by Non Native, vegan, hipsters. Notice how Natives are shamed for furs while Non Natives can do the same without dissent? My whole point in alluding to this conversation was not to start a way among vegans and fur activist but to show the dynamics of privilege that goes on. Natives are shamed for their culture while fashion yuppies can exploit it without a second thought. I know some people may approach this analysis much more literally with the argument that it might be “fake fur”. The principle of the matter is not semantics but the larger dynamics of cultural imperialism that is going on. The fur paired with other traditional elements such as faux beadwork was meant to emulate elements of Native Culture.

We can have this same conversation, fill in the blank with the appropriation with the war bonnet, tribal print, beadwork. The impact of the appropriation is always the same and it’s always that attitude of entitlement. Cultural imperialism says “I can take what I want, I can disrespect your culture, and there is nothing you can do about it because I have the privilege to do so.” That intent of perpetrators posturing their own motives over preservation of culture becomes even clearer when the culture itself faces stigma for elements of their culture while privileged can appropriate them out of context and be free of criticism. That’s the power dynamic going on when the outsider affirms their power through the degradation and misappropriation of those symbols. That’s when it becomes clear that the issue is not about “sharing the culture but about people from the actual culture having to fight the erasure of their culture because of appropriators.

At the end of the day a majority of this appropriation stems from cultural disconnect. Complete outsiders misunderstanding a culture and cherry picking elements to innovate. That’s what appropriators misunderstand. Traditional cultural symbols are not for innovation, they have sacred meaning and to take them out of context for self-gain is also a contradiction of communal, traditional values. Every instance of appropriation is an act of injustice and colonialism.

You know what would be innovative? Non Native designers actually integrating Indigenous people when they feel “inspired” or at least having the decency to do a little research to ensure ethics and human decency before just pillaging from other cultures.

There is no excuse for this complete disrespect and endless assertions of conquest. No matter how many excuses you can come up with. This isn’t an instance of cultural diffusion when erasure and power dynamics are involved. It isn’t an instance of “sharing” when Native people were never involved in the first place. Ultimately if you are dehumanizing Indigenous people with use of the word squaw and describing them as primal then that is a red flag that you are an outsider and know nothing of the culture you are exploiting. Native people have enough pressures just trying to reclaim accurate representations throughout the fashion industry and art world. We shouldn’t have to also be fighting against the normalization of a slur that promotes violence and conquest.

Stop committing cultural imperialism, stop exploiting traditional culture and symbols for fashion’s sake. Start educating yourself on the history of genocide and ask yourselves how not to be complicit in that. Dehumanization and exploitation of marginalized people is not trendy it is disgusting and anyone involved should be ashamed.

Last Real Indians