I recently had a friend – a nice white lady I’ve known for years – ask me whether buying moccasins for her infant son would be considered cultural appropriation, and therefore offensive.
She has read my many rants on things like hipster headdresses and Native American mascots, and she wanted to make sure that she wasn’t doing anything to warrant my Lakota wrath or a hashtag like #NotYourBabyFootware or whatever.
I’ll tell you what I told her: There is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation.
When Natives decry the wearing of faux headdresses at music festivals and in fashion spreads, or when we protest the use of our imagery on underwear and football helmets, we’re asking people like Ted Nugent and Pharrell Williams and institutions like the Washington Redskins to stop profiting from stereotypes proven to harm and dehumanize Native people.
Of course Nugent, Washington NFL team owner Dan Snyder, and an unfortunately long string of others would tell you they are, in fact, honoring Native Americans with their dictionary-defined racial slurs and fake, mocking accessories.
But the savvy among us know appropriation encourages the dominant culture to forget Natives are modern, contemporary people struggling to overcome nearly 600 years of campaigns to wipe us off the map. Who cares about epidemic rates of unemployment, academic failure, or youth suicide when your football team wins, am I right?
That said, there are many ways to truly honor and appreciate each of the 566 unique, federally recognized tribes in the US, and that includes adorning your kid’s toes in some comfy mocs (but not their head in a headdress).
With that, I give you four ways to honor Native Americans without dehumanizing them.
1. Support Native American Artists
There are some pretty stiff and costly penalties for those who violate the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which essentially says you have to be a member of a federally or state recognized tribe or certified as a Native artist by a tribe in order to sell items marketed as Native-made, or tribally-specific products.
And before you claim that this law gives some kind of special treatment to Native artists or takes away from free market enterprise, consider all the ways the government has tried to wipe Natives from the map, including criminalizing our spirituality until 1978 and restricting our living and movement to isolated reservations.
Neither of these actions was good for business, especially when many of our wares are connected somehow to our spiritual foundations. We continue to fight for fair access to that same free market you value, and the IACA is our best chance at leveling the playing field.
Despite this, folks still misrepresent our wares, and faux headdresses and made-in-China dreamcatchers proliferate the “Native American” marketplace. This not only offends many of us on a racial level, but it takes away the livelihood of authentic, Native artisans who learned their craft through many generations.
Let me tell you: There is no comparison between a rug manufactured in an overseas shop and one handmade by a sixth generation Navajo weaver.
So go ahead and buy those cute moccasins for your kiddo, but make sure you’re buying from a legit seller and ask to see an authenticity certificate or other form of tribal identification.
That will ensure you’re honoring a specific Native heritage and getting the best product. For more, check out Nooksack artist Louie Gong’s Inspired Natives Project.
2. Learn About (and Consider Backing) Native-Led Movements
In addition to protesting racist mascots and offensive fashion accessories, Native communities are also fighting to end violence against women, staging huge rallies to protect the environment, reforming justice and education, revitalizing indigenous languages, teaching spirituality, and so much more.
We often support these movements simultaneously and understand the relationships and connections between each of these issues our communities face.
I personally advocate for four solid organizations, three of which are led by strong Native women — including Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, the Save Wįyąbi Project, Tatanka Wakpala Model Sustainable Community, and the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies.
In addition, I’m what my people call winkte, or Two Spirit, the tribal equivalent of LGBTQ. It is a vitally important issue for me, and I often speak and present on issues relating to sexual identity/orientation within Native cultures.
I encourage you to check out these groups and consider supporting one or many movements.
If you seek out others, a few tips: Before involving yourself with an organization, do some research on its board of directors, its founder or CEO, and its outcomes. Ask around about it, and make sure it mirrors your personal values.
3. Call Out Appropriation Because It’s Offensive (Not Because You Know I Won’t Like It)
A white friend recently posted a short rant about an offensive Halloween magazine advertising, among other things, an “Indian princess” costume.
She didn’t say, “My Native friends will hate this!” or “I have Native friends and I’m appalled!” She simply noted all the offensive material (Halloween needs some work, folks), and said she planned on burning the magazine and using the money she saved on costumes to buy more candy.
Posts like these, in which people call out the offensiveness of mascots or headdresses without making the problem my responsibility to fight (there are those who simply link me to a post – “Taté Walker, did you see this? What do you think?” – without necessarily being offended themselves) make me want to hug someone.
I love when a non-Native person gets something others would see as a Native-specific issue.
Dehumanization is an issue for everyone to be concerned with, and I am proud to say I have many non-Native friends who step up to hipsters and sports fans alike to call out misappropriation when they see it.
Not sure what qualifies as appropriation? Check out the site Native Appropriations by Adrienne Keene, the lady I want to be when I grow up. She does a wonderful job informing the public about a wide range of indigenous issues.
4. Support Non-Native Companies or Organizations That Actively Honor Native Culture and/or Creations
It’s easy to get caught up in all the ways that celebrities and companies and organizations are screwing over Native people. But it’s also important to promote and support those doing good by their indigenous fans, followers, and customers.
Canada’s Bass Coast Festival banned headdresses at its music shindig earlier this month in a move that had many of us cheering.
Similarly, after a “Native American Heritage Night” fiasco in which some Natives were detained by security and police for challenging a rival fan for wearing a fake warbonnet, the San Francisco Giants added “culturally insensitive” garb and behavior to the list of things like foul language that could get baseball fans ejected from the ballpark.
A few years ago, after hosting an offensive Native-themed party (we’re talking glow-in-the-dark war paint and plastic tomahawks, folks), Paul Frank Industries apologized and immediately collaborated with Native American artists to design a collection of clothing and accessories. I have no problem buying those monkey shirts for my kid knowing this company champions contemporary and authentic Native design.
And I have to throw in a plug for my girl Shoni Schimmel, who is tearing up the hardwood and helping draw mass crowds at every WNBA game she plays for the Atlanta Dream. The Thrilla from Umatilla isn’t the only indigenous player in the league, which is why I suggest checking out a game and supporting an institution that knows its Native players — and fans — are an integral part of their success.
Many Americans have a disconnected relationship with indigenous peoples: We’re fine as romanticized historical centerpieces and entertainment props, but mocked and ridiculed when we decry the materialistic use of sacred objects like headdresses or call to remove a dictionary-defined racial slur like redskin from the NFL lexicon.
The message is clear to Natives: You can feel honored, or you can shut up.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are ways you can honor us that don’t diminish the uniqueness of 566 federally recognized tribes down to a few, pan-Indian, stereotypical images that insult, degrade, and dehumanize my people.
You don’t have to dehumanize us to appreciate our many wondrous, individual cultures.
Taté Walker is Mniconjou Lakota and an enrolled citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in the Colorado Springs area. She blogs at Righting Red and can be reached on www.jtatewalker.com.