In a week already fraught with offensive and dangerous cultural appropriation (we're talking some of the Kansas City Chiefs fans' dressing up in Native regalia at the Super Bowl, sometimes going as far as redface), Santa Fe hotel El Rey Court has drawn backlash from locals for its use of appropriative Native language on its roadside sign.
"My spirit animal is a sloth," read the sign—just another in a long line of micro-aggressions and offensive uses of the spirit animal concept, among others, in Santa Fe and beyond.
Granted, the El Rey Court has become known at this point for using its sign to form pithy or silly statements. A recent configuration included a quote from a semi-negative Yelp review and was meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek, for example, but for many, the sign simply went too far.
Within minutes, edited versions of the sign began appearing on social media, including "My spirit animal is appropriation" and "My spirit animal is white privilege."
"This is not unusual in Santa Fe, or anywhere—look at the Super Bowl," Carrie Wood (Diné) of Three Sisters Collective tells SFR. "Racism against Indigenous peoples is so normalized that there are racist mascots and people dressing up as racist stereotypes and it's not only acceptable but encouraged. To be Native and live in Santa Fe is having to put your blinders on and pick your battles because it is everywhere and you will go crazy if you are constantly calling it out. We need non-Natives to care and do the work too."
Bowing to pressures following the online criticism, the hotel pulled the sign down, replacing it instead with the flip "Our sign guy is currently grounded, be back shortly."
For Wood, the change was "annoying" and "disappointing."
"I think they did the bare minimum," she says. "It makes me feel like they actually don't care or get it, that they only changed it because they got called out on social media."
Still, Wood is adamant that she understands the power dynamics at people's jobs, and hopes people can use the sign as a means to educate themselves.
"I first saw what was happening through social media," says Jade Begay (Tesuque Pueblo and Diné). "Initially, it was kind of this feeling of exhaustion, just so tired of seeing these micro-aggressions pop up in places, especially like Santa Fe where our culture is more prevalent, it's more visible than in other cities or places across the country…there's this disregard, disrespect and lack of knowledge that seems surprising—but maybe not."
Begay is the creative director for South Dakota-based organization NDN Collective, and she's a lifelong Santa Fean.
"I think these little sayings, if you will, like 'my spirit animal' or 'my tribe,' you see that a lot in lifestyle branding or the yoga/workout community," she continues. "People always talk about their tribe, and this culture around community, and it's using these words without really thinking about the impact. It also just so happens that this thing happened around the Super Bowl weekend, which was already loaded with a lot of awful narratives and wording and portrayals of racist things toward Native people."
In other words, many people use these concepts without thinking about their origins or intent.
"It signals a bigger problem, which is nationwide and not specific to Santa Fe or New Mexico, of this erasure of Native people," Begay explains. "All of these things stem from how people don't know we exist, and how can you respect of have knowledge of people when they don't exist?"
As for the grounded sign guy thing, Begay considers it more like a non-apology.
"It goes to show there is this…it's privilege," she says. "I would never perceive that as an apology. It's insensitive."
"We got careless with that sign, and we're lucky, in a sense, that we have folks in the community who can point out where we got off track," El Rey Court partner Jeff Burns tells SFR. "It's…an embarrassing learning experience, and we're very, very sorry for it. They were 100% right to call us out on it."
Burns says he and the partners' ultimate goal is to take a beat to reflect, followed by actions they hope will be considered more meaningful than whatever they put on the hotel's marquee. To that end, he says, the "grounded sign guy" sign is meant as a means to take a moment to breathe.
Begay suggests a call for Native artists who could take part in the El Rey's artist residency. According to Burns, that program is rather loosely defined, and while artists of many stripes have indeed spent time at the El Rey for extended periods of time, there's no official program. Still, he says, whether it's creating something more substantial along those lines or supporting a local organization, "the way you overcome this is to make it part of your awareness, and I think we can do that in an impactful way."
Begay says the artist part would be a good start.
"There are so many people to consult," she says. "[The Southwest Association of Indian Arts], IAIA, Three Sisters Collective, the School for Advanced Research—it's as simple as fleshing out a program on their end and working with people to create the language for it."
Meanwhile, 3 Sisters Collective's Autumn Gomez (Taos Pueblo and Comanche) says she's "bored" by the situation. "It's casual racism," she says, "and it doesn't do any of our Indigenous people any good."
Gomez says she believes the days in which Indigenous people take on the role of educators are coming to a close.
"It's 2020," she says dryly. "People are starting to evolve, and it's time for the rest of the community to start educating each other and really thinking about how they're treating the Indigenous residents of our town—not only the Native Americans, but the immigrant communities from the south—and there are plenty of resources; the All My Relations podcast [episode] with Amanda Blackhorse will tell you a lot in an hour."
Gomez also points out that the El Rey's proximity to the Santa Fe Indian School could have caused damage for young people who saw the sign.
"It might seem cute," she says, "but this is not the end of the story."