"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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tribal Chic: Native Appropriation Appropriation?

Who wouldn't want to live in a psychadelic post-apocalyptic techno-colored tribal music scape?

Seriously who?

Because if this video appeals to you then you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself!

I've learned a few things since I started this blog of mine over 8 months ago.  First and foremost, there is a ton of stuff out there to fill the endless digital pages of Drawing on Indians.  People just can't seem to get enough Indian!

Second, it's almost impossible to separate the aesthetic and the ethnic.  True originality is damn near impossible to achieve so we are instead forced to draw upon all the various pre-existing aesthetics to construct something new.

But when you combine all these elements together you are not just mixing color and fabric and shape, you are also combining meaning, symbolism, and culture.  You are inherently bringing into the equation your own impression of that culture, whether you are conscience of it or not.

Most people don't stop to think about the deeper meaning inherent in all the aesthetics around us.  It can be a personal memory or feeling imbued in the touch of a soft blanket or the taste of a favorite meal.  Or it can be a collective or cultural memory of a national tragedy or a communal triumph.

For the sake of academic soundness, I must give credit where credit is due.  A few weeks ago I stumbled on this tumblr post:

One question for fans of the “hipster indian” look

The author goes on a rant questioning the aesthetic of the "hipster indian" look in so many current photo shoots.  And I quote:

My theory? Its because the culture being appreciated is not any particular Native American culture. It is the culture of middle class America from 30 years ago, back when if you dressed your kid up as an “indian princess” for Halloween no one would think twice about it (I’m looking at you, mom.)

You can tell because all these pictures also often exhibit artifacts of the 70s, like feathered hair and tube socks pulled up to your knees, or have orangey red faded color palettes or excessive lens flare like a flashback in a Wes Anderson movie or something.

The “more innocent time” these images are hearkening back to is not to some imagined time of pre-colombian noble savagrey but the time from my childhood when middle America felt free to stomp all over Native American culture without guilt.

And this brings me full circle back to the video.  Is the tribal chic aesthetic of the Hot-n-Fun video a true appreciation/appropriation of Native culture or just an attempt to connect with an earlier era of appropriation when playing dress up was still groovy, cool, and not only acceptable but encouraged?

What does it say about our current state of affairs if young people today are grasping for this earlier innocence?

Such is the power of memory.  If Mad Men has taught me anything, it's that earlier eras only seem happier and saner in retrospect when in fact they were just as dysfunctional as today!

I just don't understand why these young people don't complete the appropriation.  What about the violence and the oppression and the historical reality of being Native in America?

Oh yeah, that wouldn't be very "hot-n-fun."

For more on the Hipster Headdress check out this earlier post:

Hipster Indians

For a thoughtful write-up on vintage fashion check out:

On the Politics of Vintage


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