Native students react to disrespect
By Stephanie Mc Feeters, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, September 20, 2012
Frustrated by society’s tendency to degrade and appropriate Native American symbols, a group of Native American students at Dartmouth uploaded a video to Youtube on Sept. 10 titled “A Letter to Urban Outfitters,” in light of the company’s recent release of a “Navajo”-inspired clothing line. In the video, which had over 5,300 views as of press time, students recite a poem written by Autumn White Eyes ’14 that asks viewers to respect Native American heritage.
The Navajo Nation is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters for intellectual property violations, according to Anthony Peterman, Navajo Nation Office of the Speaker policy advisor. The clothing store recently marketed underwear and other items under the description “Navajo,” which is a name trademarked by the Navajo Nation, he said.
Legally, Urban Outfitters may be at fault under intellectual property law, but White Eyes and others said they view the larger issue to be the company’s disrespect for Native American culture.
“I’m not your f*cking fashion statement,” the video’s speakers said as they recited the poem. “So take those lies off your body and respect me. And me. And me. And what’s never been yours to have. I am a human being.”
That a clothing store is selling underwear identified as “Navajo” becomes more offensive when placed in the context of Native American history, according to Native American studies professor Angela Parker.
“You have a centuries-long context of outright theft and cultural assimilation, and people may see that as in the past, but her video is making the point that people also feel its effects in the present,” she said.
Native American symbols are often extracted and used by people with no knowledge of their history and meaning, Native American studies professor Vera Palmer said.
“For Native people it’s yet one more chapter of stealing the land, stealing our children, stealing our culture, stealing our religion and now stealing our symbols,” Palmer said.
Christina Goodson ’14, who appeared in the video, said she is offended when she sees students dress up as Pocahontas or wear headdresses as part of a Halloween costume. Such traditions and symbols represent culture, not “something you can pretend to be,” she said. Headdresses are sacred in Lakota culture and can only be worn by tribe leaders, and eagle feathers have historically been symbols of honor, earned through achievements such as graduating from high school, White Eyes said in an email to The Dartmouth.
“I have three nieces, I don’t want to them to think that their heritage is a Halloween costume,” White Eyes said. White Eyes, Preston Wells ’15 and Taylor Payer ’15 founded the video production group Savage Media during Spring term as a way to spread awareness about Native American cultures. The group chose the word “savage” intentionally in order to reclaim it for their own purposes, Wells said. “We’re taking a savage approach to the way Native peoples have been portrayed and appropriated by the media,” he said. The group’s first video questions the College’s historical use of an Indian as a mascot, Wells said. In the video, a Native American student confronts a man wearing a Dartmouth Indian T-shirt by painting a red “X” through the offensive image.
Wells said that while not all Native American students at the College find the Indian mascot to be offensive, the vast majority see it as a derogatory caricature.
Stereotypical images of Native Americans exist across the country, from the Cleveland Indians to Dartmouth’s Indian, and attempt to project a romanticized ferocity onto indigenous people, Palmer said.
“To be a Native person at a school that depicts you as something you don’t even recognize and does so in a mocking way, that’s something that nobody should have to put up with,” she said.
Modern use of stereotypical Indian mascots parallels past exploitation and fits into a historical legacy of negative engagement, Palmer said.
“It’s about power — we can do anything we want with these people and now with these images,” she said.
The Dartmouth Review is one student organization that continues to endorse the Indian symbol, Wells said. Although Native American students have contacted The Dartmouth Review and expressed their disapproval of the paper’s use of the symbol, the publication has not been responsive to their requests, he said. Representatives from Urban Outfitters and members of The Dartmouth Review staff did not respond to requests for comment by press time.