Navajo Hipster Panties Gone Awry
As you browse through Tumblr or Instagram, step into Urban Outfitters, skim through a high fashion magazine, or attend a music festival like Pitzer’s Kohoutek or Coachella, chances are high that you will observe people wearing headdresses, war paint, and organic T-shirts silkscreened with teepees and dream catchers.
While mainstream media has not covered the recent trend of adopting specific aspects of Native American culture that can be very offensive to native peoples, indigenous bloggers and digital social justice publications have been diligently covering this trend.
Native Design in Mass Retail
Often hailed as the “hipster-Mecca,” the widely popular Urban Outfitters began to sell Navajo themed clothing, accessories and home goods. These items included the “Peace Treaty Father Necklace,” “Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt,” “Navajo Hipster Panty,” and the “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask.”
Critics pointed out that the word “Navajo” is a nation, a group of people, not a trend or pattern. To many, the flask was seen as particularly offensive, since indigenous Americans have historically had troubles with alcohol abuse and it is banned on many reservations, including the Navajo Nation.
Scott Scoggins, the Native American Program Coordinator at Pitzer’s Community Engagement Center (CEC) found Urban Outfitters’ “Hipster Panty” particularly offensive. Scoggins is of Pipil Nahuat, Pocoman Maya and Scottish ancestry. He feels that this product, along with other products and photos posted on the internet sexualizing Native women, are inappropriate. He regards these types of products as demeaning to the females in Native American society, who are regarded with great respect and are given important tasks. In particular, he emphasizes that “women in most [Native American] cultures elect the chiefs.”
Scoggins also disapproves of the fashion trends, and pointed out that specific patterns and colors hold spiritual meanings and are linked to specific families and tribes.
Many noted that these products could, in fact, be deemed illegal based on The Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a law that prohibits falsely marketing arts and crafts as made by Native Americans. The Navajo nation agreed with this assessment and sued Urban Outfitters for violating this law.
A more recent controversy emerged in early September when the clothing company Paul Frank held a party titled, “Dream catchin’ with Paul Frank: a Pow Wow celebrating Fashion’s Night Out,” to promote their new line of products featuring their trademark, Julius the Monkey, clad in war paint and a headdress.
As Adrienne K., member of the Cherokee Nation and creator of the popular “Native Appropriations” blog explained, Paul Frank invited guests to “play Indian” by providing war paint, plastic feathers, bows, arrows, and tomahawks for guests to use in photo shoots. The bar served drinks titled, ‘Rain Dance Refresher,’ ‘Dream Catcher,’ and ‘Neon Teepee.’”
“[Inviting guests to] play Indian is exactly akin to providing props for party guests to dress in blackface for photos, a practice that I’m sure would not bode well for [their] brand,” said Adrienne.
After writing a letter outlining why Paul Frank’s “Pow Wow” was offensive and explaining the history behind Native American stereotypes, Adrienne wrote on her blog that Paul Frank responded by removing all Native-themed clothing and design from their website and stores. In addition, the company invited Adrienne and another blogger to speak at a panel about the use of Native imagery in the fashion world at an industry event, and wants to “collaborate with a Native artist to make designs, where the proceeds would be donated to a Native cause.”
Adrienne wrote that she is optimistic that Paul Frank’s response has “create[d] a model for any company in the future to follow.”
The History of a Stereotype and Trend
Christa McGowan, a senior at Claremont High School and a member of the Iowa tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, notes that the image of Native Americans used in contemporary fashion was popularized by the era of “Cowboy and Indian” western films. In these films all Native Americans were grouped together and portrayed as Northern Plains peoples riding horses, using bows and arrows, and wearing headdresses.
Bill Anthes, Associate Professor of Art History at Pitzer specializing in Native American art, noted that there is a very long tradition of American manufacturers using Indian names and motifs for profit. Some examples include the American Spirit cigarettes, the indigenous woman of Land O’ Lakes butter, and cars such as the Jeep Cherokee and the Mazda Navajo.
“The image of the Indian has kinda’ come and gone, it’s something that the counter culture throughout the 20th century has fixated on,” said Professor Anthes.
During the 60’s and 70’s, the idea of Native Americans was “trendy” for the hippie counter culture. Anthes noted that Native Americans were used “to signify something about closeness to nature and purity,” ideas that were attractive to hippies that advocated for communal living and connecting with nature.
Scoggins described this trend as the “romanticization” of indigenous Americans.
Clearly the appropriation of Native Americans into recent trends has made a strong comeback since the 1970’s, especially within the “hipster” community. There are hundreds of images circulating on websites such Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram of people dressed up as Native Americans and mimicking them.
Many images from high fashion magazines also appear on these websites. These images often feature scantily clad, caucasian, skinny females who are sitting in teepees and casually smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. Such images are captioned with phrases such as: “Feathers in my hair! #hipster” and “My spirit name is ‘Drinks with Vodka’”.
Looking to the Future
Scoggins suggests the best way to counter disrespectful appropriation of Native American fashion and culture is to educate people about Native American history and explain to non-Natives why this trend is disrespectful.
“Some people don’t know that that’s offensive…you are desensitized to it,” said Scoggins.
McGowan agrees that education on the topic should be promoted, but warns that people should not be approached forcefully about the issue.
“You just don’t go up to them and say ‘hey, don’t do this’ because then you aren’t a good ambassador…because [by doing so] you are putting on an aggressive face yourself,” said McGowan.
Anthes hopes that the movement towards the acceptance of the LGBT community can be used as a model to approach this trend.
“Twenty years ago… it was acceptable societally to make homophobic jokes, to just assume that these people were not going to hear you say these hateful things… that population has become a lot more visible so we understand and have empathy,” said Anthes. “Most people [can] go through their life without ever having to look an Indian person in the eye and say… ‘it’s fine if I’m joking about it.’”
Arguably, the best way to combat the problem of cultural misunderstanding is through fostering intercultural connections. Native Americans are a minority of the American population, and can easily be marginalized. Efforts such as Addrienne K’s Native Appropriations blog and social media campaigns are where indigenous Americans can have their voices heard.
The ultimate goal of these efforts is to educate non indigenous Americans about the appropriation of Native American culture and breakdown the stereotypes many hold. Many non-indigenous Americans will also be able to learn the opinions of Native Americans themselves and hopefully stop the trend of naively using Native American culture in their own.