Hipster Appropriation: Why your Urban Outfitters ‘Navajo’ panties are putting everyone else’s in a bunch

By on September 11, 2012

Jean Paul Gautier began the Native American craze back in 2002 with this piece.

By Rae Hodge–

Dear white girls,

Let’s talk for a second about that new overpriced  t-shirt/hoodie/nail paint/scarf/pair of moccasins/bikini/sundress/dreamcatcher that you just purchased from Urban Outfitters, the Gap or from some obscure Etsy designer that I’ve probably never heard of.

It’s lovely and has a southwestern-region semi-native design; maybe it has feathers dangling delicately from it or a symmetrical print zigzagging across the top in muted incongruous primary colors. You reached out and grabbed it off the shelf, thinking, “How exotic!” You swiped your card at the register, then Instagrammed yourself, then uploaded and tagged it “Indian” on Tumblr.

If it was a headdress, you put it on and pranced around at a house party, feeling like you’d slipped into Disney’s Peter Pan and were finally able to live out a childhood fantasy of being a “savage” little lost boy in Neverland beating on a tom-tom, free from your growing-old parents back in civilization.

I’m afraid there’s just no way to put this delicately. One white girl to another, that’s racist. I’m going to need you to put down the culturally appropriated warbonnet. Like now. I’m here to collect you.

What!? How dare I play politically correct thought police to your fashion choices? You don’t actively hate Native American peoples! You’re just trying to celebrate Native American culture in your own way. Every culture in the world has borrowed from another culture at some point, right? Besides, your great great great grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee princess! Your best friend is Chickasaw and he doesn’t care! You spent time on a reservation and you’ve met real-life Native Americans. Why do I have to rain on your parade? We can’t just say that one particular group is off limits for parody, can we? That would be reverse racism, wouldn’t it? After all, you don’t even see race, right? You just see people!

Nope. Sorry, white girls, but this is one of those times when you’ve just got to shut up and listen to what actual native groups and individuals are saying on the topic. It’s their cultures that you’re adorning yourself with, after all. I’d say you can spare a few minutes for them.

From Adrianna K. of nativeappropriations.blogspot.com:

courtesy Urban Outfitters

“‘Playing Indian’ has a long history in the United States, all the way back to those original tea partiers in Boston and in no way is it better than minstrel shows or dressing up in blackface. You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so. Like my first point said, you’re collapsing distinct cultures, and in doing so, you’re asserting your power over them.

By the sheer fact that you live in the United States you are benefiting from the history of genocide and continued colonialism of Native peoples. That land you’re standing on? Indian land. Taken illegally so your ancestor, who came to the U.S., could buy it and live off it, gaining valuable capital, both monetary and cultural, that passed down through the generations to you. By dismissing and minimizing the continued subordination and oppression of Natives in the US by donning your headdress, you are contributing to the culture of power that continues the cycle today.”

From apihtawikosisan.com, author Chelsea Vowel describes herself as Métis from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta:

“Unless you are a native male from a Plains nation who has earned a headdress, or you have been given permission to wear one, sort of like being presented with an honorary degree, then you will have a very difficult time making a case for how wearing one is anything other than disrespectful, now that you know these things. If you choose to be disrespectful, please do not be surprised when people are offended…regardless of why you think you are entitled to do this.”

Some of the things we wear are not just ‘fashion’. They mean something very important, and if you do actually have an interest in our cultures, you will respect those items by not wearing them unless you have earned them. If you are interested in our cultures, you should make an effort to learn about these items and purchase them from our artisans rather than from big box stores that have nothing to do with any Native American nation.”

From whebrhotub.blogspot.com, where our nameless author of Navajo descent keeps a long-running and well-respected critical media analysis blog:

“Native Americans are REAL people that don’t live in Never Never Land, Fantastica, or some stupid Indian Cupboard. Need Proof? Well I am your proof! I live in Apartment in Arizona. Yep! I even wear shoes! Shocker!”

White girls, I know that some of you won’t care what this article says or what any person of native decent says. You’re still going to wear whatever you like, and you’re going to claim that wearing these ridiculous and offensive trifles is a righteous act of free speech and synonymous with a rebellious American sense of self-governance. You’ll make the typical trite apologia about how no matter where you shop or what you buy, you’re exploiting someone, which will excuse you from having to think about the effects of your choices on others. You won’t have to deal with the reality of these issues, because to you, they aren’t real. The only thing that’s real to you is the stereotype on the rack. Far removed from the impact of appropriation, the only thing you have to think about is the pricetag. Whatever. Keep dancing to MGMT. I hope you choke on your thanksgiving feast.

But not all of you are cretins. The enrollment demographics for our Anthropology and Humanities departments are telling enough: we’ve got plenty of smart, white girls on campus who are more interested in understanding culture than appropriating it. And to you ladies, I tip my pen and charge you with the responsibility of calling these culture vultures when you see them. For you, Adrienne has a bit of advice though:

“If you choose to wear something Native, buy it from a Native. There are federal laws that protect Native artists and craftspeople who make genuine jewelry, art, etc. (see The Indian Arts and Crafts Act). Anything you buy should have a label that says ‘Indian made’ or ‘Native made’. Talk to the artist. find out where they’re from. Be diligent. Don’t go out in a full “costume”. It’s ok to have on some beaded earrings or a turquoise ring, but don’t march down the street wearing a feather, with loaded on jewelry, and a ribbon shirt. Ask yourself: if you ran into a Native person, would you feel embarrassed or feel the need to justify yourself? It’s ok to own a shirt with kimono sleeves, but you wouldn’t go out wearing full kabuki makeup to a bar. Just take a minute to question your sartorial choices before you go out.”

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