"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hipster Indians

Remember this photo?

It shows Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Whitney Isleib in black face pretending to be rapper Lil' Wayne at a Halloween party in 2009.  It made headlines across the nation as at best an ignorant Halloween costume choice, at worst a completely racist and insensitive one.

For many people, this photo stirs up strong emotions about our nation's history of discrimination towards African-Americans and the racism that still continues today.  People were rightly offended and it was a good thing that Ms. Isleib learned her lesson.

Now, look at this photo:

(click to super-size!)

What we have here are six young ladies from northern California decked out in their finest fringed leather, long braids adorned with feathers, and an occasional splotch of warpaint.  This could be anywhere in America come October 31st.  These young ladies clearly passed on the store bought sexy Indian costumes and instead went the do-it-yourself route to become just another sexy Sacajawea or provocative Pocahontas.

Except it's not...

This photo was taken just last week at the student Powwow at Stanford University.  I first discovered this little gem of a photo thanks to Adrienne at the Native Appropriations blog:

When Non-Native Participation at Powwows Goes Terribly Wrong

This trend is part of a wider trend of playing Indian that has sprouted up in recent years.  It is centered mostly on young, affluent, white Americans- or as they are sometimes known HIPSTERS!!!

The current fashion trend is the Hipster Headdress which you can read about here:

But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?

And you just have to check out the site of one Mr. "Howling Wolf" (if that even is your real name [hint: it isn't]): I Am Howling Wolf

To all this I'd like to add another startling artifact to this growing collection.  I was watching some recorded shows on my DVR the other day when I fast forwarded through a commercial.  I immediately noticed the unique headwear of the participants.  That's right, the Hipster Headdress has gone commercial.  Check it out:

I could go into a long tirade about why wearing these headdresses and outfits is at best misguided, at worst racist and insensitive, but I feel I'd just be repeating Adrienne at the Native Appropriations blog.  Therefore, I will foolishly attempt to answer the larger question at work here...

Why do these seemingly well-educated, upper-middle class, mostly white, young people don this type of headgear and outfits?

I'll admit that I didn't know a whole lot about Native Americans and Native American culture before I got to college.  Like most upper-middle class white suburbanites, I received a typical native education that ended at Wounded Knee and then I filled in the gaps with Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas.  "But aren't Indians all about feathers and Nature and hunting buffalo?"

Well, no.  But in many ways I am the exception.  I've been lucky to learn a lot through my teachers, friends, and co-workers but as someone who once wallowed in the darkness I also have that experience to draw upon.

I wonder if the six ladies at the Stanford Powwow had ever attended a powwow before or if this was their first one.  My experience has taught me that most Powwows do a decent job of educating the general public on at least the basics.  It's regalia not costumes, the different styles of dance/dress, and usually something about the significance of the Powwow as a religious/cultural/community event.

Clearly, somebody didn't get the message.  I was originally going to make a pithy comment reminding the ladies that, "It's all fun and games till the minorities show up" but then I realized it wouldn't work.  They were not at a music fest or hippie commune free from the prying eyes of "real Indians."  Instead, they chose to go to the Powwow dressed like that.

That takes ignorance and guts!

Indians = Freedom and Rebellion:
When you grow up in the lily-white suburbs, the people are just as cookie cutter as the houses.  Anything "ethnic" that breaks away from that white majority pumps those little teenagers full of excitement.  What better way to escape the suburban desert than to play Indian.

Dressing in Indian attire has so much allure because Indians are the ultimate symbols of freedom and rebellion.  Throughout American history, Native people were seen as perfectly exemplifying the American ideals of unlimited personal freedom and rebellion.  (I mean the original Tea Partiers did dress as Indians after all and we put their likeness on our currency)  It was only when they got in the way of our attempts to act out our freedom (by moving west and settling their land) that Indians suddenly became the vicious savages ready to be put down and neatly boxed into a reservation.

The history of Indian perceptions also shows another aspect to this conundrum.  It was exactly the places where Indians "no longer existed" (read: at least no longer in a primitive "Indian" state) that this idealized image of the Indian particularly took hold.  When you live on the frontier, you're not exactly going to glorify the guy who is trying every way possible to get his land back from you.  Historically, this began among well-educated, well-to-do white easterners who created societies and charities to help Indians.

Zoom forward to today and there are not any "Indians" left.  Since our media and culture insist on reminding us that Indians are those feather-wearing, war-drum beating, tree-hugging stoic figures, then clearly there aren't any left so we can wear all their stuff.  Well everyone, "it's all fun and games till the minorities show up."  But the thing is...

...they were here the whole damn time!

I believe that the MGMT music video for Time to Pretend perfectly exemplifies this Indian escapism run amok.  Notice the fine use of furs, body paint, bows and arrows, Mayan temple, and crazy "Dances with Wolves-esque" dance around the campfire:

Whoever has been to an awkward elementary school Thanksgiving pageant raise your hand!!!  I bet it didn't look like this one:

Go Wednesday Addams!

Seriously though, these pageants are commonplace throughout our American schools.  And if it isn't a full blown pageant, it's at least construction paper headdresses to go along with the plastic Pilgrim hats.

Oh, and it doesn't always have to be young people or white people either...

Then let's throw in Scouting (a whole topic on it's own):

And Summer Camp:

So, um when you think about it.  Isn't playing Indian kind of like mainstream?  No, wait, what am I saying.  The stereotypes are so powerful that Indians can never become mainstream.  They will always be that other, whose likenesses, clothing, and culture will forever be ripe for the picking.


  1. Hi - I've just been reading about archetypes and framing. If one believes that most archetypes are formed by emotional experiences before the age of seven, I'm wondering what archetypes are being formed about Native Americans by non-Natives today? In the past, Indians were stereotypically portrayed in Western movies, comics, advertising, Boy and Girl Scouts - these stereotypes were awful, but at least Indians were in the consciousness of mainstream America. Now the only places I see Natives mentioned in mainstream media are South Park, Family Guy, King of the Hill, and the Simpsons - and young children aren't really watching these. There's tons of independent books, movies, and comics by Natives about Natives today, but they aren't widely distributed. It seems the lack of Native imagery in mainstream media contributes to the unspoken perspective by many Americans that Native Americans don't exist in the 21st century.

  2. It is strange how many people seem comfortable wearing native attire. Much of it is offensive and totally insensitive as this blog explains but some of it seems reasonable extrapolation of the wearer's own association with an ancient history (the MGMT video and the Skate 3 advert for instance). Not all white faced people (as this blog post suggests?) are devoid of historical and cultural links to ancient wisdom and traditions. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery only if the imitated didn't suffer in the recent past.

  3. This place is bullshit. I hate hipsters.