Apr 20, 2015 - Pull Ralph Lauren Clothing that is Offensive to Native Americans, By Danielle Miller
One of the most typical responses to cultural appropriation is the apologetic rhetoric that offenders acted out of good intentions and are ignorant. But what happens when a perpetrator is aware of the harm they are causing and continue to be a repeat offender? This is the case with Ralph Lauren, despite multiple cases of Native Americans calling out his exploitative designs; the imperial assault on Native cultural capital has been unrelenting.
Romanticism is the underlying theme in Ralph Lauren’s appropriation of Native American culture but it signifies the need in understanding the way that romanticism can actually harm Native cultures. In 2012 Jessica Metcalfe began acknowledging Lauren’s problematic infatuation with Native American Culture with an article about an Oprah show. The show took place on the Ralph Lauren ranch inside a teepee where Ralph speaks of the “Navajo stuff” he collects. It was all a demonstration of the erasure that takes place even when good intentioned romanticism is acted upon. Metcalfe also mentioned a photograph of a Native child that Lauren had in his collection. Ultimately the photograph reflected the dynamics of dehumanization and privilege. As Metcalfe mentioned the photo was of someone’s child, wife, mother, sister. The way Lauren framed a Native person as some sort of decorative object, was the ultimate form of appropriation. This moment foreshadowed the pattern that Lauren would continue to fall into over the years, of using Native people as props, or an imperialistic trophy for the American Dream. In March 2014, was the release of a Last Real Indians article, which pointed out Ralph Lauren’s problematic use of Native American imagery. The clothing line depicted photos of Native skulls in headdresses. Within the same line was a shirt with the image of a Native with the banner “On the road to the sacred hills”. The design is highly symbolic of American presence and ownership of the Black Hills. The Black Hills were promised to Native Americans in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, so the specific allusion to the Black Hills in juxtaposition the other themes of Native extinction present in the line was particularly painful. Where was Ralph Lauren during the campaign for Natives to reclaim land in the Black Hills? If Ralph Lauren could take the time to acknowledge the US ownership of the Black Hills within designs and capitalize off that, then there is no reason why there shouldn’t be some inclination to help Natives reclaim that land. It’s extremely problematic that designers are capitalizing off romanticizing the trauma of the loss of the Black Hills, while Natives have been actively campaigning to reclaim land.
In December Ralph Lauren was called out for beginning a campaign revolved around an “Assimilation Aesthetic”. It was a repeat of the same disregard Lauren showed with the photograph of a Native child from his collection. Only this time it involved a mass display of antique photographs of Native ancestors who were forced to go through assimilation to showcase his holiday collection. The website display was an atrocious act of disrespect and denial of bodily integrity of Native Americans. Using photos that are typically difficult even for Natives to access and then trivializing the historical trauma of assimilation era for capitalistic gain. In one fell swoop the website demonstrated the way cultural appropriation banks off historical trauma while managing to erase modern Native Americans from their own history and culture for privileged motives. The assimilation aesthetic criticism made waves through the media. Eventually Ralph Lauren pulled the images from their website and was quoted with an explanation on CNN: “Ralph Lauren has a longstanding history in celebrating the rich history, importance and beauty of our country’s Native American heritage,” the company said in a statement. “We recognize that some of the images depicted in the RRL look book may have caused offense and we have removed them from our website.”
After so many offenses especially from a brand that claims to care about “importance and beauty of Native American heritage” on would think that Ralph Lauren would have halted the appropriation antics or at least began some type of collaboration but there is yet to be one.
Appropriation ensues: Imagery from Ralph Lauren’s current line sold in various stores online and in Macy’s department store depict the same unoriginal elements of appropriation such as eagles and dream catchers. The most troublesome designs involve imagery that echoes sentiments of conquest.
Several examples of American flags juxtaposed with altered images of Native Americans. The faces are cut out or covered with shrubbery leaving only the headdress. Slogans like “land that I love” “Live in the here and the now” with statue of liberty and “Victory” over the image of the American Flag Speak to the sentiment of American Agency over Natives. Also notice what appears to be a teepee juxtaposed with a confederate flag. When the imagery dehumanizes Natives by cutting out their faces or depicting them as nothing but skulls in headdresses one could argue that “vanishing Native” trope which originated during termination and boarding school era is still being perpetuated. American fashion brands want the cultural symbols but want nothing to do with the people they are taking them from. This very attitude is exemplified through the lack of contact or collaboration with Natives in these “Tribal” inspired endeavors.
Image of extinction: Skull and headdress with the color labeled as “war path” to further the savage trope. Another image with the color labeled “antique” ironically alludes to the frozen in time approach Ralph Lauren has to Native culture.
“Property” encompasses the root of entitlement of appropriating of Native culture.
“Festival” has also become the new context in which American society has normalized cultural imperialism. Ralph Lauren has not passed up the opportunity to also push the ideal, with a “festival inspired” fringed purse from their Facebook”
“#FestivalApproved” Shorts with replication of Native American Ledger art; Another deliberate reference to Lakota cultural history. It is quite telling that the brand would choose to take one of the art forms which depicted some of the largest acts of Native resistance in history, and attempt to reduce it to festival wear.
When there are so many allusions to history but a consistent pattern to depict agency in favor of Native subjugation and erasure, the signs show that there is no ignorance involved. There is a distinct Narrative which upholds American conquest and continued cultural genocide of Native Americans. The difficulty for Non Natives to recognize the colonial elements of domination lies in the fact that this paradigm is what is enforced throughout all facets of American society, from education, to the holidays we celebrate, to the media and fashion industry. The way cultural appropriation and harmful stereotypes are justified through “American Tradition” or the “American Dream”, is troublesome. This begs the question does the existence of modern Native Americans threaten the American dream? The only unity that can be found among all cultures and nations will be through acknowledging history of injustice and addressing the ways in which our Nation is complicit in perpetuating cultural genocide. Romanticism or American Pride that is relies on the subjugation and extinction of Native Americans is not an honor but colonial violence that cannot be tolerated and normalized. Why Boycott?
Many have had an apathetic response to the criticisms of Ralph Lauren, remarking that he hasn’t been relevant since the 90s and many Natives cannot afford him anyway so what is the point in a boycott?
With a system which has set Natives up for poverty it is a constant fight to reclaim economic sovereignty and sustainable systems. However the fight for our identities is one that is also significant and one that will not come with ease without assertion of agency and reclamation. After a history of genocide cultural preservation should be the number one priority, which means not allowing the perpetuation of cultural appropriation and exploitation. While the privileged may see cultural appropriation as a theoretical or politically correct rhetoric, the impact of economic exploitation is very real.
The knockoff bead work and Tribal Prints are taking away revenue from authentic Native artisans and are an act of erasure. Images have been put together in a collage to show the amount of faux bead work being sold online and in stores. Notice that even the beadwork is whitewashed with a beaded white woman wearing the headdress.
I also might add that the poor craftsmanship reiterates why it is important and worth your money to support authentic Native artisans. One negative review on the Macys website complained of the poor beadwork.
Dilution of Tribal Trademarks and symbols is a tangible concern. A violation of Native American Arts and Crafts act seems likely with the way Ralph Lauren has used the “Navajo” trademark for various clothing items on an online site called “Harrods”.
One shirt sold at Marshalls alludes to the connection between economic exploitation and genocide with the imagery of a Native skull on a nickel. Regardless of arguments from coin collectors about this “hobo nickel” being an item, it’s still problematic within context of Ralph Lauren’s other designs and the way they depict Native Americans.
Ralph Lauren sells its products through extended retail operations. TJ Maxx was ranked one of the best retailer stores by Fortune in 2014. Time also referred to TJX brand as one of the most powerful in the US, “It’s the most consistent, most powerful apparel retailer in the United States,” -Howard Davidowitz, who ran own retail consulting and investment banking firm for 33 years. The brand even got a mention from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: “Company X—make that TJX—may well be the biggest enigma in an industry so fragile and capricious that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz once likened it to the “human condition.”
Ralph Lauren prides itself on being a lifestyle. “It’s all about understanding who you are, telling your brand story in a compelling way, and finding the right technology and campaign to tell that story.” “We don’t just sell clothes: we sell a dream and a lifestyle,” Lauren said. “When you shop in our stores and online, you’re inspired by this dream and lifestyle and want access into that world.” This lifestyle slant is one that is being promoted from the lens of the American dream at the detriment of Native Americans, just as it has been for all of American History. It’s clear that fashion designers would rather exploit the trauma than move away from it. This brings us full circle, back to the Oprah interview where Ralph Lauren referred to his Native themed ranch as a life style. The only lifestyle that is being embraced is the imperialistic mechanisms of consumption. What Ralph Lauren and other appropriators are failing to recognize is that when they are inviting themselves to consume and capitalize on Native American culture without any sense of reciprocity that is an act of consumption. There is no being “inspired” by us without us. What can you do to help? Clearly reaching out to Ralph Lauren has been unsuccessful so the next effort is to reach out to retailers to ask them to pull the offensive clothing line. How can you help? Sign and share the petition asking two of the top retailers TJX and Macys to pull the latest line.
Contact retailers, through email or surveys to let them know that there is not a demand for cultural genocide aesthetic. Continue to support Native Artisans, whether at local events or through websites like Beyond Buckskin Boutique. Also continue to refer people to websites like ours or Native Appropriations blog which educate on issues of Cultural Appropriation to prevent these occurrences or to call out offenses when you see them.