When it comes to mainstream appropriation of another culture’s imagery, few groups seem to be targeted as often as Native Americans are. One of the latest examples to make a splash is No Doubt’s video for “Looking Hot,” which featured singer Gwen Stefani—who has borrowed from cholo, seapunk and Indian (dot) cultures before—dressed up in stylized Native garb.
The period piece set in an alternate, Instagram-approved Wild West, also showed Stefani in all her squaw glory tied to a wall by the wrists as she writhed about, dancing by a tepee, sending smoke signals to the hipster gods and even riding a horse.
Ill-fatedly released on Nov. 2 (the second day of Native American Heritage Month), the video was pulled soon after, when comments like “[It’s] very insensitive and very discourteous. Stefani, you have disrespected and slighted the entire Native American people with your counterfeit portrayal of our heritage,” multiplied on the band’s YouTube page. On the flip side, messages like “[T]here is NOTHING wrong with this video…otherwise what would happen to all the Village People videos? Where does this end?” were posted in the band’s defense.
With tastemakers ranging from Ralph Lauren to Victoria’s Secret doing the same on a seemingly never-ending loop, was Stefani’s crime that grave? Gardena, ND-based Dr. Jessica R Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), head of Native fashion blog Beyond Buckskin and the offshoot Beyond Buckskin boutique, weighs in on this and other topics.
How do you explain the fascination that certain mainstream, non-Native American designers have with Native imagery?
Non-Native people have been fascinated with ‘the Native’ since contact. I think one of the reasons has to do with the fact that, whenever we as a country feel threatened from outside forces, we look inward for strength, and we look at America and grab the thing that separates us from other countries—and that’s the indigenous people. This is the thing that makes us completely unique. If we are a ‘nation of immigrants’—which is false, because it completely excludes Native American people—we can always call to the Indian (in movies, in fashion, in patriotic imagery) to make us unique: ‘Kill the Indians, then copy them.’
Who’s on your shit list?
[Laughs] That list is mighty long! Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, Dr. Phil, No Doubt (yeah, they apologized, but the crime was far worse than the small apology issued afterwards), [model] Karlie Kloss and Victoria’s Secret, Columbus and people who think that a holiday in his honor is totally fine, people who dress up as Indians for Halloween, schools who are down with promoting a racist environment with Indian mascots, Lalaloopsy, Glenn Beck, Gap, Blondfire, Flo Rida, Matt Lauer (whoever the fuck that is) and a ton of other no-names.
That’s a long list.
But let’s keep in mind that these bad folks only suck up about 10 percent of my time. The rest of my time and energy goes to supporting and promoting Native American fashion designers—honestly, they’re the ones who keep me sane and bring me back to a good place after I look at the nasty things the folks above have done to disrespect Native American people and our cultures and traditions. Paul Frank Industries were on the list, but they have graciously removed themselves by collaborating with us on various projects. They are now on my ‘Hey, you are awesome’ list.
On the flip side, you also deal Native products on the Beyond Buckskin Boutique; how is this different?
Dude, we’re not even in the same league. 1) I work with Native American artists – folks who are active members of Native communities. 2) These artists are exceptionally talented. 3) They are also very knowledgeable and smart about their cultures and cultural values and know which items (ie sacred items) are off-limits and shouldn’t be sold. 4) They know how to translate the artistic traditions of their Native communities to be shared by people from ALL backgrounds. 5) They don’t resort to stereotypes, and they present a new vision and a new version of ‘the Native’ in fashion. 6) They are incredibly respectful of Native people. 7) Profits from the Beyond Buckskin Boutique go directly to these artists and support small businesses, many of which are in Native communities and represent economic development strategies. I could go on.
Do you think the Native American community should be more proactive in targeting these people and staging boycotts against their products?
The Native American community is awesome. Everyone should keep doing what they’re doing. Individually, we can’t fight the current headdress outbreak alone; it’s too much. We are the minorities of the minorities; we are few, but we are strong. We are smart, and sassy, and we sure do know how to have a discussion; when folks get sick of our voices, countless others step up and share their powerful words. We’re rolling deep.
Why is it OK for someone like Johnny Depp to play a Native American character on the big screen, but not OK for Gwen Stefani to do it in a music video?
Depp is an actor who may or may not have Native ancestry, he may or may not be fighting stereotypes in this yet-to-be-released movie, and he may or may not be working with Native consultants on the set. There are too many factors…I haven’t written about the No Doubt video because I still haven’t seen it. She’s on my shit list because I grew up with her and her music, and I saw how this video affected my friends in the Native community, and it was heartbreaking. She was someone I looked up to, and now I see her as just another inconsiderate person who is perfectly fine with perpetuating racist stereotypes. She fell hard, in my eyes.
Based on this, what do you think is in store for cultural sharing and appropriation of Native imagery?
I have big expectations for the fashion industry. I want to see them collaborating more with Native American fashion designers and artists. Beyond Buckskin was founded as a means of educating. The Boutique was born out of the idea of action and economic development. You need to be able to talk the talk (educate and bitch about the offenders) and walk the walk (offer alternative representations of ‘the Native’ in fashion). It’s not easy, but we already have a group of strong, smart, sexy and talented Native people who are figuring parts of it out, and we’re hitting this really cool moment in history where we are realizing the potential of our voice. And it’s only going to get bigger and better because we all know we owe it to our People—past, present and future.