Appropriating Indigenous cultures has been going on for a very long time. Anytime something appropriating Indigenous cultures or racist comes up, it doesn’t matter what Natives might say in protest, most often the person doing the wrong thing claims it’s to “honor” us. Much the same way people think that Native mascots honor us.
Before we go into one specific situation, let’s go through what generally happens when things like this come up. First, the person is educated by Natives who detail why xyz actions were in poor taste or racist. Sometimes that education can come with some foul language. Questions of racism are often asked. Second, the person doing the wrong thing is inundated with a whole lot of people who make claims such as “I’m Native and I’m not offended”, or how “everyone is so PC these days and it’s harmless”. Once the fake Natives engage with the actual Natives, inevitably the person doing the wrong thing decides to listen to the voices that excuse them – the fakes and sellouts. In the end, the fakes and sellouts along with the original offender decide what REALLY happened was that they were HONORING us and that we should be honored that they did. No joke, this is how it goes down 99% of the time. Like this:
Recently, I saw a member of a Facebook photography group called Fire and Ice Photography Society, post this photo. She then asked if it were a child role play or cultural appropriation.
Two things. The first part of the question, ‘is this a child role play’ suggests that this innocent and blameless child merely wanted to play dress up. The problem with this framing is that it’s an outright lie. The reason the toddler is in the headdress is because she, Lynne, the photographer, was doing an alphabet themed shoot and lacked a word for the letter “i”. She figured “Indian” would be a proper “i” word. It still kind of fits with “i” because “IGNORANT”.
Thus, this was not the child’s choice or even option. On top of that, this is the photographer’s child and her choice to sock a giant headdress on him was so he could wear our cultures as a costume. The disrespect for this shoot is 100% on the photographer. Here’s the timeline from fact to fantasy and the manipulation white women in particular go through when actual Natives advise that what she’s done is cultural appropriation.
Lynne Williams of Windermere Images had a personal project that was alphabet themed. One caption that she had was, ‘remember that alphabet project I was working and got stuck after “H”? Here it is, “i” is for “Indian”’. This is already a pretty poor choice. While the majority of Natives have stopped using the term, it’s still part of a lot of legal designations especially with the government such as Bureau of Indian Affairs and we’ve used it for National Congress of American Indians. It’s still largely an outdated term.
The photo was in a different photography group with a caption of ‘wild and brave’. It’s quite possibly been posted to other photography groups in various pretense and until the Fire and Ice Photography Society, it probably didn’t meet with general acceptance and Lynne eludes to as much by admitting, “this has sparked some debate in other groups”.
If it’s being debated in multiple groups, maybe it’s because multiple people see it as wrong.
The Fire and Ice Photography Society’s post had well over 200 comments to it when I saw it, ranging from, ‘this is appropriation’ to the obligatory, “I’m Native and not offended” or how this was just PC bullshit and no harm done. When I spoke up, I had plenty of people to reply to and with and did so. I defended my culture and how this was cultural appropriation and disrespectful. After a few hours, without warning or any other type of communication, the admins chose to ban and silence me, one of the only real Natives in the discussion. Here’s a link to their group: Fire and Ice Photography Society
Current members from this group have messaged me about what’s being said about me behind closed doors after the ban. I have plenty of screenshots showing false claims that I have treated people with hate. I did poke fun at a couple of the fake Natives claiming that it wasn’t offensive, but shouldn’t this misappropriation of Native identity also be considered a lie or at the very least in very poor taste? I can at least prove my ancestry and that I belong to my culture. I’ve been accused of calling someone an asshole and that was why I was banned; where and when? I read the rules of the group. I did not receive a single communication from the admins about my behavior. Neither have I heard about anyone else being nasty or racist to me as being banned. From screenshots shared to me by multiple people of that thread, I’m still the only one that’s been banned. To top this off, one accusation is that I shared screenshots of the group publicly. I never did. The one screenshot that I have shared on Facebook was shared after I was banned and in the post itself that I made about it, I even start out by saying, “I’ve been banned from…”
Just like appropriation tattoos, there’s usually two parties at fault for racist and appropriation photos – the client or whoever came up with the concept and the photographer who went with it. In the case of “i” is for “Indian”, the photographer was also the client. Where else she got backlash before ending up at the one group that would absolve her of any disrespect was, SURPRISE, a bunch of other photographers.
There were a few good people, awesome allies and a couple of other Natives in the discussion. Yet it seems that I’m the only person targeted and booted despite this being MY culture that was being shit on by the collective. What it did was starkly bring to the forefront of how photographers in general refuse to listen or respect Native voices when we speak about what is and isn’t respectful in regards to honoring or “honoring” our cultures. Why non-Natives think the “but i’m HONORING you” is an all encompassing get out of trouble free card is astounding. If you visit Windermere Images, you’ll see in this post that this is what this white woman is claiming.
Here’s a collection of screencaps taken before and after I was banned because there are some good people in the group who have messaged me out of the group to warn me about being banned and shared comments with me. In them, I’ll pinpoint certain arguments and claims and take them apart. Names of allies have been smudged. I assume everyone else won’t mind their names being shared with their ignorance.
A professional photographer took the majority of the following pictures. Some are more obvious than others that they were planned photoshoots with props and the whole nine. Many are celebrities, but not all. This is how rampant the problem is that people not part of our cultures don’t even consider respect when it comes to us.
Let’s take a look at a post that Lynne Williams posted to her Facebook about this situation. I quote.
Facebook has apologised and restored the original post.
Freedom of expression lives again. 🙂
A long post but please read….
This picture! This post below with my son, a five year old boy, in the woods with his teddy bear. Acting out heroic adventures with the innocent imagination that belongs solely to childhood, an intrepid explorer, brave warrior and ultimate hero.
But not so, it seems. Online trolls have tried to intimidate me into withdrawing my work deeming it offensive and branding me a racist (amongst other names). I did not withdraw and now Facebook has forcibly removed it.
This is a sad day, not just for myself but for artistic freedom for everyone. The freedom to imagine, create and distribute diverse cultural expression free of governmental censorship and political interference.
In Sept 2015, 57 UN member states re affirmed the right to freedom of expression including creative and artistic expression. But it appears to mean nothing today. Democracy as we know it is dead, freedom of speech is dead and art as we know it is bound, gagged and thrown in the pit!”
By “online trolls”, Lynne Williams means primarily Natives. Probably some allies too.
In her own Facebook, Lynne again tries hiding behind her son when it was her choices that put him in a headdress in the first place. The child was simply another victim and it’s tragic that a parent would put their own child through this and they won’t even know or understand it until they’re much older. The boy was not out on some whimsical adventure. Lynne has already established that she took him out with the bear, needed an “i” word, picked “Indian” and decided to dress her son up as a culture that she doesn’t understand. Not only that, she admitted that the child had complained the whole time. Everything about this shoot is a reflection of her choices. Everything after publicly showing the picture, listening to feedback from actual Natives and dismissing us is white entitlement, pure and simple.
The argument against being restricted is also flawed when you consider what kind of photographs photographers can take that would be in extremely poor taste. Rape fantasy for one. Murder. Dressing up as virtually any other culture or ethnicity. Dressing in mockery regalia or Indigenous art is another. Use your imagination.
Photographers, like any other creative, have a responsibility to what they are creating. There should be morality and ethics guiding how you want your vision presented and perceived because the finished piece is also a reflection of you. When Natives argue for respect of our cultures, we are appealing to one’s sense of respect and honor, if they have it. The overly paternalistic attitude of non-Natives, and primarily white people, toward Natives are so entrenched that we see the results of white privilege the world over, just like this situation.
About the offensive regalia. There is the The Indian Arts and Crafts Act to consider in this country.
“The Indian Arts and Crafts Act (Act) of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States.”
But but what about Party City/Yandy/tourist trap costumes??
Yeah, those should not exist and we protest against them often. They are made by people who don’t respect our culture and believe they know better than we do on what’s good for us. Sound familiar? It is also a long and arduous process to fight those who flippantly appropriate our regalia and symbols commercially.
But but it’s pretty and you should share your culture!
No, we don’t have to. You’re not entitled to it. We have never collectively consented to the appropriation of our cultures. Some of you photographers hopefully understand what consent means. If we are killed off to the point of extinction, you’re still not entitled to it. You can choose to learn, respect the cultures and take photos of Indigenous people though. Some might be open to being photographed in regalia. There are plenty of ways to admire and respect our culture without stealing it. Bear in mind that until the 1970s, we weren’t even permitted to perform our cultural ceremonies or practices legally in this country and yet non-Natives could wear us as costumes the entire time.
In closing, between a number of groups, only a small amount of photographers understand how cultural appropriation is wrong. I’d like to take a moment to thank you for speaking up for respect of Indigenous cultures. It was moving and gave me a lot of hope that more photographers will understand how inappropriate these kinds of shoots are. If anyone had any doubts as to why I got banned, I offer you these: