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What not to wear

Native American looks being misused in popular culture

January 08, 2013|By Georgia Garvey, RedEye

If it seemed to you that lots of celebrities celebrated Native American Heritage Month in November by dressing in offensive American Indian garb or getting shot down for using cultural imagery in ways that turned off a lot of people, you're not alone.

"I definitely think that there have been more kind of blatant instances in the past couple of months," said Sasha Houston Brown, a Santee Sioux tribe member and adviser to the American Indian Success Program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. "I also think a lot of it has to do with they are getting attention for it, for once."

Witness the band No Doubt under fire for cultural appropriation of Native imagery in its video for "Looking Hot" and Victoria's Secret getting flak for sending Karlie Kloss out onto the runway in a sexified American Indian outfit. It's enough to make people like Joseph Podlasek, executive director of American Indian Center of Chicago and a member of the Ojibwe tribe, shake their heads.

Podlasek said though he doesn't think the offenses are done purposefully, many depictions of Native Americans wind up mocking or degrading religious, meaningful traditions. He mentions that often people like Kloss wearing "war bonnets"—long, feathered headdresses—have no clue about the significance of the headgear.

"There's a lot of sacredness to those eagle feathers, so making them pink or purple or those other colors is just not appropriate," Podlasek said. "The ('war paint') makeup, the way it's used outside the Native culture, there's no rhyme or reason to it. It's just used because it looks cool."

Houston Brown vividly remembers seeing the movie "Peter Pan," in which there's a scene where American Indians speak pidgin English, smoke peace pipes and sing a song about "what made the red man red."

"I remember seeing it and not having the skills to understand why it made me feel embarrassed," she said. When Native children see people dressed as sexy Indian princesses for Halloween, she said, they are taught very damaging lessons.

"What does that do to a child's formation of identity, even if it's subliminal and subconscious?" she said. "The message is, 'You're not human. You're a trend. You're something that can be commodified and bought and sold.'"

Though many sports teams have been criticized for adding to that environment, Podlasek said the Chicago Blackhawks are a welcome exception.

"They do not have a mascot. It's actually Chief Blackhawk that is the picture, their imagery, [and] he was an important part of the history in Illinois," Podlasek said. He adds that the team has partnered with the Native community in Chicago and the surrounding area to raise awareness of Native history and culture. A page on the Blackhawks web site has information about Chief Black Hawk and the American Indian Center.

Houston Brown also said she's also been encouraged by President Obama hosting the Tribal Nations Summit at the White House this year, and Podlasek said the administration has made strong efforts to recruit American Indian staff.

Podlasek said he hopes some of the recent headlines may prompt people to learn more about Native American culture, reducing these kinds of mistakes in the future.

"We're not in the blame game, and we don't want to take that approach," he said. "We don't want to condemn them, we want to educate."

ggarvey@tribune.com | @gcgarvey

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