FFB: I'm an Indian Princess...a look at the "going native" fashion trend

Recently, I joined a blogging network called the Feminist Fashion Bloggers. Every month, the group selects a topic related to feminist, fashion, and beauty to post about. After creeping on the FFB blog and listserv for a while, this is the first time I am participating. This month's topic was women in the media and popular culture.    

“Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture,” (bell hooks, 21).

Last year, Kesha rocked a headdress and face paint during an American Idol performance. Last Halloween, my teenage cousin dressed up in a sexy Pocahontas costume. Last month, I found a makeup tutorial on a beauty blog for a “Native American” look, complete with darkened skin and braided pigtails. Last week, nearly every store I entered in the mall was overloaded with shirts and jewelry covered in feathers, tribal symbols, dream catchers, and chief’s head logos (just search "native," "tribal," or "Indian" into online stores like Forever 21 and PacSun for an abundance of examples). This morning, a search for "Native" on weheartit generated mostly images of waif-like White women in various stages of undress adorned with feathers and face paint.

While the “going tribal” fashion trend has been addressed on other blogs (like Racialicious, My Culture is not a Trend, and Jezebel), I wanted to add my thoughts to the conversation since the trend seems to have really caught on this season. Of course, there is a lot more to say on this topic than what I have covered here. Specifically, I am interested in thinking about representations of Native women in the media, particularly in fashion.  More broadly, I want to encourage us to be critical thinkers about and consumers of the beauty and fashion industry.  

First, I should be transparent about my position in relation to this topic. I am part Saponi, though most people read me as solely White. Though I did not grow up fully immersed in native culture (Saponi tribes are not recognized by the federal government and the last native speaker passed away several decades ago), I was raised by a mother who cherishes her native ancestry and is very spiritually connected to her cultural history. I am not telling you this because I think it somehow ups my credibility, but because I feel myself straddling a racial and cultural divide that makes this topic really complicated and difficult to discuss.  I want feather hair extensions and that cute tribal print tee as much as the next girl sometimes, but my cultural upbringing prompts me to question the politics of what is going on here. I should also note briefly that cultural appropriation in fashion is not exclusive to Native peoples (remember when everyone was getting Kanji tattoos? And putting chopsticks in their hair? And Gwen Stefani collected Asian women and had them follow her around?). But that is for another discussion. 

The commodification of Native womanhood, particularly by White women, is far from a new phenomenon. Paige Raibmon, in her essay “The Practice of Everyday Colonialism,” discusses how White women in the late nineteenth century created their own souvenirs while visiting Puget Sound, a place where Indigenous peoples migrated to work in the hop fields and participated in an Indian craft-based tourist market. Referred to as “Kodak girls,” touring White women shot photographs of Indigenous women, and in doing so, Raibmon argues, “literally framed their own privileged status in relation to the women on display. In opposition to the squaw drudge who was forced to labor, women behind the camera were united as consumers of leisure,” (44). In contemporary culture, this commodification of Indigenous peoples has expanded a great deal. For instance, we have the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves and countless other team mascots, a phenomenon unique to the Native American community in that no other racial, ethnic, or religious group is serving as the promotional logo for sports teams or athletic organizations. People of color, like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, are frequently the icons for our food products, and the “Indian princess” trope is a popular incarnation of this trend (think the Land O’ Lakes butter maiden and the Sue Bee Honey princess). Now, indigenous peoples’ spiritual and cultural symbols are appropriated in such a way that the “Indian Princess” is nothing but an edgy fashion statement.

It should go without saying that companies do not intend to insult or alienate consumers through the use of Native people or symbols on their products; after all, their goal is to make money, which is hard to do if you offend potential customers. However, this “going native” trend can only be successful in a cultural climate that harbors at best a great deal of ignorance and insensitivity regarding First Nations peoples, and at worst a deep sense of racist nostalgia. Why do we find this fashion trend aesthetically pleasing? What symbolic meanings have we attached to the “Indian Princess” fashion statement? The Indian princess is often used to represents youth, a connection with nature, and purity. As a Native woman, she is also assumed to be the keeper of tradition and the domestic sphere (think Land O’ Lakes on this one). The image of the Indian princess on food labels is effective because consumers association these characteristics of tradition, nature, and purity and the quality of their products. But the Indian princess has not always been portrayed as sweet and innocent. The Indian princess also exists in the American imagination as a sexually unfettered temptress that offers White colonialists both her land and her body (think sexy Pocahontas imagery here).  When we evoke the “Indian Princess” in our outfits, we are tapping into these symbolic associations to create a style that communicate these particular characteristics. Maybe we want to look natural, earthy, and sweet? Or exotic and sexy? Or perhaps both? What does it mean, what does it say to others when we wear a shirt with a headdress on it and tie feathers in our hair? This imagery is not neutral or meaningless. However, it has indeed been decontextualized by the mainstream fashion industry and media more generally in such a way that their cultural and historical importance is ignored.

A lot of people don’t have a problem with the commodification of Native womanhood, or see it as a form of cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation. In this case, however, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. The “going native” trend fails to honor Native peoples because it turns their identities into goods that can be bought and sold. It strips their symbols of their historical, cultural, and spiritual significance. It taps into a long colonialist history of entitlement and cultural erasure wherein the White dominate group feels that it is acceptable to decontextualize and steal from other peoples' cultures. News flash: Native people still exists. Depicting Native peoples in “traditional” wear and as from an era long lost to history, food labels such as Land O’ Lakes, athletic mascots, and fashion labels maintain the misconception that Native people no longer exist or are frozen in the past. They also contribute to a pan-Indian understanding of Indigenous identity where all tribal and cultural distinctiveness is lost and subsumed under the broad category of “Native.” Our consumption of these products serves to decontextualization Native people’s from their histories and identities and to distance mainstream American from the lived experiences of Native peoples.

As bell hooks states, “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other,” (23). As such, the commodification of Native identity is but one mechanism that mainstream White culture utilizes to maintain current power relations with Indigenous peoples. The neglect of the lived, embodied experience of Native women in exchange for the construction and perpetuation of the subservient, sexualized Indian princess helps to maintains unequal power dynamics instituted in the era of colonialism. The use of Native women’s images in fashion and in other media and advertising outlets is only possible when mainstream White culture envisions itself as distant from Indigenous people.

Works Cited
hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representations by bell hooks. Boston: South End Press (1992): 21-39.

Raibmon, Paige. “The Practice of Everyday Colonialism: Indigenous Women at Work in   the Hop Fields and Tourist Industry of Puget Sound.” Labor Studies in Working- Class History of the Americas 3.3 (2006): 23-56.

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