Depp Sauvage: the scent of appropriation

On August 30th, Dior tweeted about the newest version of a long standing scent titled, “Sauvage”. In the ten second clip, a Native fancy dancer danced in slow motion while Johnny Depp played guitar. The backlash was immediate and spread quickly through Native Twitter and beyond. There are some very big issues involved with this campaign, how businesses view Indigenous cultures as commodities, and how important proper representation is for our diverse cultures.

The first thing that needs to be cleared up is the assertion, primarily from non-Natives, that Johnny Depp is Native American. He is not.

Yes, we’ve all seen the video clips in which he claims to have a Cherokee or Creek grandmother and he’s “oh so proud” of that.

Why are non-Natives always “so proud” of their supposed Native ancestry, and yet they know nothing of the cultures associated with those tribes, let alone the histories of them? How can you be proud of something you know nothing about, therefore have no basis for respecting that/those heritage(s)?

Returning to Mr. Depp. According to The Root, while he doesn’t have Native American ancestry, Depp does have African American ancestry from ancestor Elizabeth Key, “…Johnny Depp’s eighth great-grandmother was Elizabeth Key, the first African American woman in the American colonies to sue for her freedom from slavery and win.”

This info has been available since before the 2013 Lone Ranger movie. Please take note, Depp fans.

What exactly was wrong with this video and the inclusion of Native themed imagery and the Native persons? We’ll tackle them by section. The name and racist tones, the consulting organization, the pretendian actor, the perpetuation of anti-Indigenous stereotypes, and the company along with their problematic ideas of Indigenous people.

The name and connotations toward Indigenous people.

The perfume line came about in 1966, supposedly the result of Dior hearing his friend Percy Savage’s name in a French pronunciation, “Sauvage”. It was a perfume for men and marketed to men. The French word, “sauvage” has meanings ranging from ‘wild’, ‘untamed’, ‘feral’ and ‘primitive’. There isn’t a direct relation of the name to Native Americans for the perfume’s origin, but in subsequent years, the word itself, both in English and French, became a slur toward First Nations people. In the United States, the word ‘savage’ is an oft used slur. In either language, it’s meant to be derogatory. The Declaration of Independence has a line in that refers to Native Americans as, “merciless Indian savages”.

While it’s important to note that the perfume’s origin didn’t have anything to do with Native Americans, it is equally important to note that the French word, “sauvage” came to have derogatory meaning toward First Nations and Native Americans.

In 2014, Johnny Depp became the face of the Sauvage perfume. The original commercial for Sauvage featured Depp cruising through a desert and passing a buffalo and a wolf, stereotypical associations with Natives already. Many Natives commented on these problematic associations. This event following the Lone Ranger movie made those Native ‘vibes’ more obvious as well. A lot of Natives had issue with it, given the association of the word “savage” and how it’s been used against our people. It’s a dehumanizing word and a slur.

Which is why so many people were baffled by Dior’s decision to incorporate actual Natives into a 2019 commercial for an already problematic anti-Indigenous term, regardless of the perfume’s origin. Then again, Dior didn’t seem to take Native voices seriously the first time around…

The consulting organization, the dancer and the “maiden”.

According to Dior and multiple news publications, Dior and Depp consulted with the non-profit organization, “Americans for Indian Opportunity”, or AIO. The purpose, according to Time Magazine, was “in order to respect Indigenous cultures, values and heritage.” The problem is that it didn’t.

AIO’s founder, LaDonna Harris, adopted Johnny Depp to her Comanche family. This adoption doesn’t make him Native American, which is an important distinction.

It seems as though this controversy was orchestrated by AIO to ‘raise awareness’. Per AP News, Laura Harris of AIO said, ““Our aim was hopefully that the controversy would do exactly what it’s done on social media and raise people’s awareness,” she told The Associated Press.”

This runs counter to what Dior had released to the public. It raises questions as to whether they trolled Dior into stepping on a landmine without warning? If so, to what end? It certainly wasn’t for a respectful dialogue. Was it a play on notoriety and a spike in public attention for themselves? It can’t have been ignorance given that AIO seems to claim this ploy as intentional.

Did they force Dior into unwittingly creating an offensive video in which public outrage would draw negative attention, but attention nonetheless, toward Dior’s product. Could that possibly have been the intention instead? A number of people, especially right wing, have pledged to purchase the perfume over the “faux outrage”. Or will this end up damaging the brand?

It also places the rest of Native Americans in front of that proverbial bus to being forced into educating the rise of ignorant people attempting to speak over us. There was no positive from what followed in the teaser video, nor the ‘behind the scenes’ video that included some of the Natives involved. What you don’t see is some weak claim that the public needs to have a conversation on anti-Indigeneity and cultural appropriation -oh, by the way, buy some perfume. The Natives in the ‘behind the scenes’ seemed sincere. That’s part of the problem. In the video, they make a claim to want positive representation, yet their statement during the controversy was to now claim to want to intentionally provoke a fight -I mean “conversation”- between Dior and Native Americans for the public benefit of social awareness?

The conversation over cultural appropriation has been ongoing for decades. One moment of outrage wasn’t going to spark a revolution. It didn’t happen when Victoria’s Secret had a model wear a floor length headdress in culturally appropriating, sexualized garb. It didn’t happen when Pharrell donned a headdress for a magazine cover. It most definitely didn’t happen in the decades that Cher has worn Native style headdresses and hyper sexualized costumes. It didn’t happen when Dior and Depp unleashed this tone deaf ad that only contributed to negative stereotypes and racism against Natives.

On September 4th, AIO issued a statement via tweet that can be read here:

Now the problem with their statement is that it contradicts Laura Harris’s statement to AP News that they knew of the backlash that would come.

Actress Tanaya Beatty also went into a long winded Instagram post attempting to distance herself from the controversy.


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I am inspired by the conversation happening in our community and beyond and want to participate in it #sauvagedior

A post shared by Tanaya Beatty (@tanayabeatty) on

“What I believe to be the crux of this debate and what I hope people take away from this is: the way indigenous culture is shown in film is a byproduct of settler colonialism. In order to dismantle it we need to keep calling into question the ways in which indigenous people are treated off screen and how that continues to be reflected on screen.”

Tanaya goes on to praise ‘the conversation’ and encourages people to read about issues in our communities, including Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Bears Ears; pretty cheap attempts at playing innocent. What she utterly fails to realize is that she, along with Canku One Star who has remained silent up to this point, have only added to the negative ways that people perceive us as a people and playing ‘noble savage’ for a fragrance. It’s been a week and there are still plenty of overzealous Depp fans are still whining about how he’s Native and is a much needed representation. AIO, Tanaya Beatty, Canku One Star helped Johnny Depp and Dior do this to us.

When it comes to this commercial in particular, the Indigenous peoples involved knew the name of the fragrance and what they were signing on -and being paid- to do. They agreed with it. There was no public protest about the name and how it would relate to First Nations and Native Americans because of the association of the word and our people. If there’s any doubt on that being a known controversy, let’s take a look at what another well known fancy dancer has said about this.

Someone got snowed, but who? Dior, Native Americans and the public? Was it just supposed to be Dior?

The Pretendian Actor.

In recent days, a number of Depp fans have upheld the lie that Johnny Depp is Native, or “has Native blood”, or “part Indian”. He’s not Native and does not have any Native ancestry. While his fetishization seems apparent, it’s rooted in an era where Native Americans were seen as ‘savage’, were called ‘savages’, and killed in savage manners. Fetishized renditions and ideas are not a positive representation.

The majority of modern Natives don’t live on reservations. Those who do, still have a mostly modern environment – cable television and the Internet. Our present day inclusion in society doesn’t really exist when the romanticized Natives most desired from non-Natives are the ones their ancestors wiped out. The concept of what people have of our rich cultures needs an update

We can be the people we are who are concerned for the world we leave our next generations. We are the people who still uphold traditions, seek to learn about them and share that knowledge with our youth and reconnecting relatives. We are still fighting for our treaty rights to this day. We are artists, musicians, actors, environmentalists, scientists. Our representation shouldn’t be rooted in the romanticized version of the “noble savage”.

People like Johnny Depp -and Elizabeth Warren, Otep Shamaya, Kaya Jones- need to stop perpetuating the family lore of some long lost Native ancestor. There are plenty of examples over the years of how damaging it is to keep pushing this fantasy. Celebrities (and Kaya Jones) bring to light how common this myth is and yet it’s never questioned no matter how absurd some of the stories seem. It emboldens the ‘average person’ to cling to theirs even more because non-Natives find it relate-able and want to be something they’re not either.

The perpetuation of anti-Indigenous stereotypes

When most companies release something meant to be “Native-esque”, you will rarely find a “modern Native” in modern clothes staring stoically into the distance. Our regalia is considered the more “authentic” look. There is no one look for Natives that apply to our hundreds of diverse cultures. More often than not, northern Plains garments and regalia are the most recognized. Tipis and headdresses abound, often paired with turquoise and other Southwestern tribal aesthetics that are rarely authentic.

None of our cultures are free from exploitation, however. In Depp’s short film, the story line is dependent on the Navajo legend of the creation of the Milky Way. In the film, a person seems to be wearing a coyote skin, something a Navajo would likely not do in the first place. In fact, in Dior’s Sauvage commercial, the “maiden” wears a coyote skin.

Were any Navajo consulted on the use of their legends? I highly doubt it.

Dior and its anti-Indigeneity

Dior isn’t an innocent party in this disaster either. Take a look at some shots of their “Native themed” launch party, full of appropriating costumes, classically offensive chicks in headdresses, and tone deaf decorations. Respect for our cultures for them doesn’t seem to extend to beyond that horrendous commercial.

Here we see the classic mashup of various Indigenous cultures with the tipi, headdresses, scantily clad men and women that hypersexualize our people as exotic savages for consumption, physically and aesthetically. What they fail to fully grasp -or maybe they don’t care- is that these types of depictions erase our existence and replace it with mockery. The combination of the offensive launch party aesthetics with the tone deaf commercial of the “noble savage” and Depp’s movie that exploits Navajo legends with a sexualized movie that doesn’t reflect those legends makes the entire campaign irredeemable.

What now?

It would be nice to hear what Canku’s view is on this travesty. His Instagram and Twitter have been silent on the issue. It would be damned interesting to hear Johnny Depp’s excuses over the choices made for this campaign. What would be awesome is for him to simply admit that he’s not Native so his aggressive fans bitching at us about how he’s Native will drop that, too. Since Elizabeth Warren and other pretendians never manage to own up to this, it’s doubtful that Depp will either.

Dior and Depp set up a campaign supposedly celebrating “the Native culture” when neither has an understanding of the many First Nations and Native American cultures. Depp in particular seems stuck in the romanticized version of Native Americans from generations past with zero acknowledgement of our histories between then and now and that we are still here. If he wanted Indigenous stories told, he does have the power to make room for Native storytellers rather than attempting to speak over us.

Depp needs to stop fetishizing our cultures and pretending to be us and acting like he can become “Native enough” through these derogatory gestures.

AIO et al can do some educating for their adopted son.

Everyone can learn that representation matters to us. Will this campaign really illustrate that to pretendians, celebrities and creators with the power to make decisions?

After a week of arguing with Depp stans about accepting a white savior and/or pretendian, I’d say that’s a solid ‘no’.

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