Taking Native Culture For Profit

As Native American Heritage Month celebrated the history and culture of America’s indigenous peoples, several high-profile gaffes involving the use of Native cultural imagery by non-Natives made bigger national headlines than any heritage event.

First it was the release of No Doubt's Wild West-themed music video "Looking Hot," featuring teepees, fire dances and singer Gwen Stefani on horseback, a feather crowning her long blond braids. Then, supermodel Karlie Kloss walked the runway in a floor-length feather headdress, skimpy leopard-spotted bikini and turquoise jewelry at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Both instances sparked allegations of "playing Indian" for profit, leading No Doubt and Victoria's Secret to publicly apologize. The gaffes also reignited debate over where to draw the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation and the extent to which non-Natives should represent Natives in mainstream media and pop culture.

Cultural appropriation is not limited to incidents of "hipsters in Navajo panties and pop stars in headdresses," said Sasha Houston Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska. They are byproducts of "systemic racism" that perpetuate the idea that Native culture no longer belongs to the people who created it over thousands of years. "Despite what dominant society and mainstream media say, Native culture is a vibrant and living culture. We are not a relic of the past, a theme or a trend, we are not a style or costume, we are not mascots, noble savages or romantic fictional entities," Brown said. As the American-Indian and Alaska Native community, which numbers 5.1 million and makes up about 1.6% of the population of the United States, works toward getting a stronger voice in mainstream media, it needs allies, including non-Natives, she said.

"What an ally does is support and help communicate the message of Native artists and entrepreneurs instead of speaking for them," Brown said. "There's a huge market for Native and non-Native partnerships, but there's also an inherent distrust of non-Natives coming into communities because of the examples that have been set in history. It just takes time."

Controversy is likely to resume when Walt Disney releases the newest incarnation of the film “The Lone Ranger” in 2013 – featuring Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto. Although Depp has not confirmed having actual Native ancestry, he has said he "guesses" he may have some distant Cherokee or Creek ancestry. He was adopted as an honorary son by LaDonna Harris, a member of the Comanche Nation, on May 22, 2012; which makes him an honorary member of Harris's family but not an enrolled member of the Nation. Harris, president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, invited him to join her family after hearing he would be reprising the role of Tonto.

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