Other posts on this blog have worked to show the vastly numerous and varied representations and misrepresentations of Pocahontas and how many of these different accounts have contributed to the inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans throughout history. Many people who grew up watching Disney’s Pocahontas can remember how strange it was to learn how historically inaccurate the movie actually was. For many, it was even a laughable moment. However, nothing is laughable about the fact that the same kind of problem still persists. Similar to the way in which many aspects of Pocahontas’ story have been deeply skewed, Native Americans continue to face offensive misrepresentation today.
In 2009 and 2010, Urban Outfitters started selling products, including the “Navajo Hipster Panty” and the “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask,” using the name “Navajo.” The Navajo Times reported that, in a letter written by the Navajo Department of Justice to Urban Outfitters in June 2011, Urban Outfitters was ordered to “cease and desist” using the tribe’s name. The Navajo Department of Justice also stated that the use of the word “Navajo” violated federal trade laws by implying that Urban Outfitters’ products had a connection to the tribe, which was not the case. The case gained increased awareness in October of 2011 when Sasha Houston Brown, a Native American woman, wrote a blog post about the incident. Urban Outfitters initially claimed the company had not done anything wrong, but removed the name “Navajo” from its products a week later. In some cases, the company substituted for “Navajo” with the word “Indian.”
In November 2012, the band No Doubt released a music video for their song “Looking Hot.” The video featured stereotypical Native American images and received negative feedback from Native American communities. The band removed the music video from YouTube a couple of days later and issued an apology. In a statement, No Doubt said, “Our intention with our new video was never to offend, hurt, or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history. Although we consulted with Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California, we realize now that we have offended people.”
Also in November of 2012, Model Karlie Kloss appeared in a Victoria’s Secret fashion show wearing a leather fringed bra with matching underwear, high-heeled moccasins, and a headdress. After widespread negative reactions, including a post by website nativeappropriations.com, Victoria’s Secret issued an apology stating, “We are sorry that the Native American headdress replica used in our recent fashion show has upset individuals. We sincerely apologize as we absolutely had no intention to offend anyone. Out of respect, we will not be including the outfit in any broadcast, marketing materials nor in any other way.” Kloss also issued her own apology through her Twitter account saying, “I am deeply sorry if what I wore during the VS show offended anyone. I support VS’s decision to remove the outfit from the broadcast.”
As evidenced by these examples, misrepresentation of Native Americans is prevalent throughout society today. These types of instances consist of using an actual people and their culture for entertainment and fashion purposes. In a post on the blog Racialicious, Sasha Houston Brown writes, “Despite what dominant society and mainstream media say, Native culture is a vibrant and living culture. We are not a relic of the past, a theme or a trend, we are not a style or costume, we are not mascots, noble savages or romantic fictional entities.” Such instances also usually constist of somebody claiming to simply be honoring or appreciating Native culture through their offensive use of it. Brown addresses this in her open letter to Urban Outfitters when she writes, “All too often industries, sports teams and ignorant individuals legitimize racism under the guise of cultural ‘appreciation.’ There is nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt or the Navajo Hipster Panty. These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures.” These types of instances are not only offensive, but they also ignore the real people that make up the culture they are (sometimes inadvertantly) mocking.
What are some of the problems that arise out of such incidences? What kinds of things can be done to educate people and prevent such things from continuing to happen?