Explaining things like cultural appropriation and racial oppression are ongoing, everyday endeavors of which non-Natives seem to keep needing super-specific examples.
We’ve told you to stay away from headdresses and not get the dreamcatcher tattoo. We’ve asked you to burn the Indian princess Halloween costumes and stop referring to everything as your spirit animal.
Trust me: Your attempt at irony has failed.
Still, even when it clicks with things like mascots, y’all keep finding new ways to twist the knife. The line between casual and overt racism is getting thinner and thinner, folks.
As I write this, there are a few such anti-Native gems circulating across pop culture, from movies, to politics, to fashion.
“Savage” slang, fashion’s legal thievery of the tribal name “Navajo,” and politicians and superheroes going “off the reservation” are some of the most despicably buzz-worthy items happening now.
Good-intentioned people keep coming up with new ways to prove racism isn’t going anywhere soon, especially when they dig defensive trenches full of dismissive and self-centering rhetoric like, “But I’m honoring you!” or “Stop limiting my creativity!” and “It’s just a movie – stop being so sensitive!”
Here, we’ll discuss why these items (and excuses for them) are problematic and where you can go for better Native representation.
1. ‘Savage’ Slang
I see this word being used a lot on places like Twitter to describe when someone does something badass or gutsy or without remorse, i.e. “Damn @KimKardashian did @taylorswift13 dirty. #savage” (actual tweet referencing Kanye/Kim/Taylor beef).
I remember people using it back in high school (late nineties) for the same reason. Its recent resurgence can be traced back to the British, which is interesting considering their ancestors used the term in colonist propaganda to describe Indigenous people the world over.
Savage, meaning wild and untamed, was a term to dehumanize; it excused everything from land occupation and Native genocide to slavery.
While I despise Disney’s Pocahontas on several levels, the scene in the film where the bad guys sing “Savages” is pretty accurate in terms of how the British felt about Native Americans.
More to the point, the term spreads the systemic racism Native Americans experience here in the United States. The founding fathers called us “merciless Indian savages” in the Declaration of Independence, a document paraded out every July while Natives continue to flail at the bottom of every socioeconomic ranking imaginable.
If you’re operating under the impression the term no longer applies to people, think again: A quick glance at “savage” on Thesaurus.com shows “aboriginal” and “native” as relevant synonyms.
It’s not a term welcome among Indigenous communities. Stop using it.
2. Tribal Names as Fashion Trend
In a decision that left many of us who follow cultural appropriation issues angry and confused, New Mexico Federal Judge Bruce Black ruled in July to accept Urban Outfitters’ fair use defense in an ongoing suit filed against them by the Navajo Nation in 2012.
According to The Fashion Law, Urban Outfitters claims the term “Navajo” has “acquired a descriptive meaning within the fashion and accessory market… the fashion industry has adopted ‘Navajo’ to describe a type of style or print.”
Before I get into how gut-wrenchingly awful this perspective is (I mean, can we talk about reducing a whole tribe of people to a style or print?!?), some backstory.
It’s important to note many Navajo people refer to themselves and their language as Diné; some prefer Diné over Navajo, and some use both terms.
This is common in tribal communities. We have “legal” names made official by the US government and these names were often given to us by outsiders. When in doubt, ask for individual preference.
For better or worse, Navajo is the official, legally recognized name for which the tribe has many live trademarks.
A few years ago, Urban Outfitters came under fire primarily for featuring a set of tribal print (cringe) underwear they called – wait for it – “Navajo Hipster Panty.” At the time (2011-ish), the company sold more than 20 items with “Navajo” in the name.
After the retailer ignored a cease and desist order, the Navajo Nation filed suit.
The largest federally recognized tribe in both land and citizenry alleged the use of the word “Navajo” on products like panties and flasks violated trademark laws and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which 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.
This isn’t the first (or last) time we’ve seen tribally-specific cultural appropriation used by mega brands (the automobile industry loves driving over us, i.e. Pontiac, Jeep Cherokee, or Dodge Dakota).
It’s also not the first time tribes have taken these companies to task: The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina recently dropped a suit it had filed earlier this year against Anheuser-Busch for using its tribal trademark in advertising its beer products. The company took the ad down and agreed to make “a substantial donation” to a tribal nonprofit.
The Navajo case is different. A decision like this has the potential to open the door for companies to plaster their products with whatever tribal-themed trend comes their way.
Our culture and spiritualities and languages are not a trend. We’re not panties, flasks, t-shirts, cars… The fact that we even have to spell this out highlights the systemic oppression we face.
A government whose policies brought our lands, bodies, and cultures to the brink of extinction via colonialism, genocide, and assimilation now uses its judicial system to not only arrest, kill, or imprison us at rates well above any other racial demographic, but to also decide that not even our names and images are our own.
3. Going ‘Off the Reservation’
Both Hillary Clinton and Ironman’s Tony Stark were recently heard using this phrase against their rivals.
Clinton said she has worked with men who go off the reservation in behavior/speech and can therefore handle a political challenger like Donald Trump; and Stark said Steve Roger’s Captain America had gone off the reservation in rescuing his one-time-bestie-turned-brainwashed-villain Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier.
In most cases, people use “off the reservation” to refer to someone deviating from the expected or authorized. This is similar to using the phrase “gone Native” to describe a defector sympathetic to uncolonized/enemy ways.
In all cases, regardless of intent, it’s an oppressive throwback to anti-Native sentiments of yore.
Too many people called out for using it, including Clinton, claim ignorance to the phrase’s racist origins. Well, here you go.
From the nation’s founding in 1776 through the late 1800s, the US government treatied, swindled, and stole some 1.5 billion acres of land from tribes. During this time, the government forced tribes onto reservations and promised government assistance for food, housing, protection, education, healthcare and more (not welfare but a bill of sale; assistance in exchange for land).
Reservations, as well as the promised assistance, were assimilation tactics meant to subjugate Natives and turn them into dependent white people. No really. These reservations were monitored by the US federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Natives needed federal permission to leave the reservation. For those tribes removed from their traditional homelands and sacred sites, reservations were like prisons, and many tribes, like my Lakota people from the Great Plains, resisted, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Essentially, the phrase “off the reservation” was US government code for “escaped captive.”
In this 2014 story from NPR, the phrase’s origins and usage are described, including:
Many of the news articles that used the term in a literal sense in the past were also expressing undisguised contempt and hatred, or, at best, condescension for Native Americans — “shiftless, untameable… a rampant and intractable enemy to civilization” (New York Times, Oct. 27, 1886).
Besides its problematic origins, there are other issues with the phrase.
“Off the reservation” has a negative connotation. And yet today, though many face extreme socioeconomic disparities, reservations are filled with positivity, which outsiders can fail to recognize due to mainstream media’s poverty porn fixation. Interestingly, urban Natives like me will often say we’re “going back to the rez” to reconnect with families, lands, and spiritualties, especially during this time of year.
The phrase also furthers the stereotype that all Natives lives on reservations and all tribes have reservations. Both assumptions are harmful in that they erase many Native people’s lived experiences in urban areas and devalue “unrecognized” tribal people.
Not every tribe has a reservation. There are 567 federally recognized tribes in the US; hundreds more tribes are not federally recognized. Just 326 reservations exist.
Hearing someone—especially popular public figures—use “off the reservation” is an unwelcome reminder of how little we and our histories and our contemporary selves matter.
The message in all these examples is Native Americans aren’t living, contemporary people. To the average American, Natives look a certain way, act a certain way, and are neat props for trendy vernacular, fashion and politics.
Acknowledging our humanity doesn’t have to cramp your style.
Stop shopping at stores like Urban Outfitters that appropriate Native cultures and designs. Side-eye that generic, tribal print t-shirt, then head over to Native-owned enterprises like Beyond Buckskin, NDNcraft, and Eighth Generation, and buy something that truly represents that tribal spirit you love to honor so much.
Invest in a thesaurus. If you’re called out for ignorantly using a phrase like “savage” or “off the reservation,” listen, learn, remove from vocabulary, and continue on with human decency.
Uplift Native voices and demand better from your heroes, be they politicians or ironmen. These tips will help ensure your trends don’t tread on real people.
Taté Walker is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is Mniconjou Lakota and an enrolled citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She lives in Phoenix and is the editor of Native Peoples magazine. Contact her at www.jtatewalker.com and read her articles here.
Search our 3000+ articles!
Our online racial justice training
Used by hundreds of universities, non-profits, and businesses.
Click to learn more