Washington can’t run out the clock: sack the racism

Team’s caricature of Native culture is way out of bounds

Over the past few months, new voices continue to join the ongoing pressure on the National Football League team based in Washington, D.C.  to change their controversial name and logo.

In the past year, politicians like U.S. President Barack Obama, celebrities like Mike Tyson, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman, and even former players on the team have spoken up about the need for a name change.

Websites like Etsy and Canada’s Apple store have changed their policies to ban the team’s name. Several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News, have also jumped on the ban-bandwagon in the recent months.

In June, the United States Patent and Trademark office cancelled six trademark registrations for the team’s name on the grounds that it is “disparaging to Native Americans.”

Now, owner Dan Snyder and his team are attempting to sue the group of Indigenous people who were responsible for the trademark cancellation—a lowball move in an attempt to curb that growing pressure to change the name.

Sorry to break it to him or anyone that supports the team’s name, but that pressure is just going to grow stronger.

The offending Washington NFL team refuses to change their name, despite growing calls of racism.” [Press photo from the Washington site]

For years, Indigenous people have been expressing how they are offended by the name and stereotyped imagery. Unfortunately, when it comes to Indigenous people, society has a hard time understanding how Native mascotry and other forms of cultural appropriation is a form of racism—something that would not be tolerated if it were any other race, ethnicity or culture.

While opinions toward examples of cultural appropriation among Indigenous people are diverse, nothing is more annoying than having non-Natives trying to disprove what is and isn’t offensive to Indigenous people that speak out against the name.

A team’s traditions and their fans’ attachment to the name seems to always trump our traditions and concerns.  We constantly have to defend our own identities from being mocked, used as a trend, a form of entertainment and giving people a false sense of honoring Indigenous people.

 There is no denying that we have “more important” or “real” issues in our communities, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, housing shortages, healthcare, unemployment, etc.

However, Indigenous people are also seen as less than human by some and that is certainly a real issue too.

The problem with sports mascots and logos using Native imagery is that it is the same issue as other forms of cultural appropriation: they undermine the diversity and true identities of Indigenous peoples by creating highly inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals.

Our distinct cultures become a fictionalized and heavily stereotyped monolith rooted in colonial ideology. Those images in sports, on television, on the runway, or even Halloween costumes affect what people know and think about Indigenous people. They add layers of misinformation about who we really are. That really affects how society understands those real social, political and economic issues—and it’s kind of hard to do when society’s notion of Indigenous people is bound to something fictionalized and set in the past.

That is reflected in how we are treated by society and the government and poses dangerous implications on how we see ourselves.

According to a 2004 study by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, when Native youth are exposed to these images, their self-esteem is harmfully impacted, their self-confidence erodes, and their sense of identity is severely damaged.

That impact on our identity is very much prevalent in our communities, such as judging another Indigenous person’s “authenticity” based upon their appearance, internalizing fictionalized stereotypes, focusing on “blood quantum”, or tanning to “look more Native.”

We don’t need our youth dealing those issues. Change the name.


Cultural misappropriation is too present in modern-day fashion

A non-Native wearing a headdress because it “looks cool” is anything but respectful

Whether it’s a fashion designer feeling “inspired” by Native culture or a celebrity slapping on some war paint and feathers, it seems like the practice of misappropriating Indigenous cultures is growing across a vast majority of industries.

There is an undeniable ignorance regarding Native cultural symbols. Photo by “4 colors” Native Arts Gallery, Flickr

The latest culprit of the ongoing headdress-wearing hipster epidemic is Christina Fallin, the daughter of Oklahoma’s governor.

Last week, Fallin joined the likes of Karlie Kloss, Khloe Kardashian, Lana Del Rey, Gwen Stefani, Russell Brand, Harry Styles, and many other celebrities who donned a feather headdress and posted a picture of it to their social media accounts.

In a statement Fallin released after removing the picture from both Facebook and Instagram, she defended her actions and asked critics to “please forgive us if we innocently adorn ourselves with your beautiful things. We do so with the utmost respect.”

Appropriation, or the act of adopting or representing certain elements of another culture, happens everywhere. Unfortunately, there is a greater amount of ignorance among Canadians and Americans when it comes to problems with misappropriation involving Indigenous cultures.

However, as Native Appropriations blogger, Adrienne Keene, pointed out, what makes Fallin’s actions different from most is that it does not stem from pure ignorance. She blatantly labeled her post “Appropriate Culturation” and is therefore well aware of the concept of cultural appropriation, and knew it would be controversial. There is absolutely nothing respectful about that.

In a nutshell, all that her “apology” demonstrated was white privilege, a colonial sense of entitlement and an example of the oppression that Indigenous people continue to face today. If Indigenous people are expressing how they are offended by these types of actions and stereotyped imagery, then accept that, apologize, and don’t repeat similar actions. Do not tell us that you know better about what is and isn’t offensive to us.

Furthermore, our anger is far more than an oversight in cultural sensitivity. In her statement, Fallin mentions how she is “eternally grateful” for coming into contact with “Native American culture” growing up in Oklahoma. Which element of Native American culture does she mean?

There is no universal “Native American culture.” In Canada alone, we have over 50 distinct nations and over 360 First Nations communities, each with its own unique language, culture and traditions. The stereotypical feathered headdress or war bonnet typically worn by various Plains nations is not a staple in every nation’s regalia. There isn’t a single garment or item that can adequately represent Indigenous identity as a whole.

Fallin referred to a headdress as being a beautiful thing. It is okay to find our things aesthetically pleasing, because they are. However, admiration is not an excusable justification for wearing an item that is normally restricted to a specific culture.

If non-Natives admire a culture and want to show respect, learn about that culture. If non-Natives love Native fashion, spare a social media uproar by showing support for Indigenous designers by purchasing authentic Native swag rather than buying cheap knock-offs from stores like Forever 21.

While something like fashion may seem frivolous to many, wearing a headdress just because it looks cool is not only disrespectful to the nations that do wear headdresses for ceremonial purposes, but it also contributes to a fictionalized “pan-Indian” view of all Indigenous cultures. This undermines the diversity of all Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S.. All our distinct nations become a one-dimensional and fictionalized representation that is rooted in colonial ideology, without our consultation.

Not only is it offensive and hurtful, but has dangerous implications for our identities and an understanding by Canadians of who we are, the social, political and economic issues that we face, how we are treated by the government and society and, most importantly, ourselves.


Marketing a culture: dehumanizing Aboriginals

The cultural appropriation of Aboriginals is alive and well. The examples manifest themselves abundantly in our society, from the headdress-wearing hipsters, the students from the Université de Montréal who were photographed during frosh week dressed in red face, and H&M’s bright idea to sell neon pink headdresses. Then there are fashion designers like Nathalie Benarroch and her line “Inukt” that recently got pulled from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and all the “Pocahottie” costume selfies posted on social media this past Halloween.

Photo from

While cultural appropriation happens to just about every culture, there seems to be a greater amount of ignorance towards the problem when it comes to Aboriginal cultures. Hence, the latest culprits,the Warwick-based company Croustilles Yum Yum, a subsidiary of Krispy Kernels Inc. Earlier this month, the chip company brought back its original 1960’s “little Indian” mascot and logo for the holidays.

Not surprisingly, the company was baffled when Aboriginal people expressed their displeasure with the imagery. By the many paternalistic and racist comments that can be found on social media or in the comment sections of news articles on the story, it seems that many Canadians also do not seem to “get it.”

In several interviews, Yum Yum’s marketing director claimed that the mascot was chosen based on a child’s drawing for a contest, that the company’s founder was of Aboriginal descent and the name of the company means potato in Algonquin.

For one, the word for potato in Algonquin is far from “yum yum.” Second, even if the rest of their claims are true, defending the imagery and racism of the ‘60s because it’s “vintage” is not excusable.

The bottom line is that if Aboriginal people say that the caricature is insulting, offensive and beyond inappropriate to use as a marketing tactic, then it is. Please do not tell us that you know better about what is and isn’t offensive to us. As a proud Mohawk from Kahnawake, I can assure you that our anger is about far more than an oversight in cultural sensitivity or political correctness.

Not only is the imagery offensive, but it is a flashback to a very racist era for Aboriginal people in Canada.  Aboriginal women were prohibited from voting in federal elections up until 1960, Aboriginal children were literally taken from their homes and communities without the knowledge or consent of families. Then there was the 1969 White Paper that proposed assimilation.

Today, Aboriginal people are still affected by forms of institutionalized racism and inequality. Many Aboriginal communities do not even have access to clean drinking water, there are housing shortages, and chronically underfunded education.

While something like fashion, a Halloween costume, or a chip company’s logo may seem minor and frivolous in comparison to these issues, cultural misappropriation is still very much a concern.

Cultural appropriation reinforces stereotypes of our people. It undermines the diversity of all Indigenous people in Canada and the United States. There are more than 1.4 million Aboriginal people in Canada alone and that includes more than 50 distinct First Nations, in addition to the Metis and Inuit, all with their own distinct languages, cultures and traditions.

Whether or not Yum Yum had negative or offensive intentions, their actions and the continued acceptance and perpetuation of imagery like their logo dehumanizes Indigenous people. All our distinct nations become a one-dimensional and fictionalized representation without our consultation or any consideration to the fact that we are real people.

That’s offensive, hurtful, and has dangerous social, political and economic implications on how we are treated by the government, society and ourselves.


No fracking with the Mi’kmaq Community

On Oct. 16, the Harper government revealed its agenda for the new Parliamentary session through the Throne Speech. In addition to the paternalistic tone throughout the speech, it also spewed the usual vague promises aimed at First Nations, like promises to work towards building better relationships.

Photo from Flickr user ZOLA MTL

A day later, Elsipogtog happened. For weeks, an anti-hydraulic fracturing encampment was set up outside of a facility owned by SWN Resources in Rexton, New Brunswick. The Mi’kmaqs of the nearby Elsipogtog First Nation were peacefully protesting SWN, which had been conducting seismic testing, a precursor to fracking, a controversial process of extracting natural gas from shale deposits that can lead to land and groundwater contamination.

On the morning of Oct. 17, hundreds of heavily armed RCMP officers raided the group’s encampment and road blockade to enforce an injunction. The RCMP’s actions were overkill to say the least. They arrived dressed in camouflage and assumed sniper positions in the forest surrounding the protesters; protesters that included women, children, and elders.

Beanbag rounds were fired, pepper spray was used, officers had police dogs, and more than 40 demonstrators were arrested, including a band councillor.

Ignorant Canadians and certain mainstream media only focused on the arrests, alleged violent protesters, the images of the burned police cars, and a small group of protesters’ questionable behaviour towards two news agencies’ crews.

As a First Nations person, I tend to wonder why many of our stories and struggles are largely ignored by Canada’s mainstream media. That is, unless violence is involved. In the instance of Elsipogtog, only after the RCMP’s military-style raid did violence surface.

The overabundance of racist articles that present distorted accounts of the situation also paint the people of Elsipogtog as terrorists and capture mainstream attitudes towards Aboriginal people in Canada.

Recent examples of this can be seen by the intolerant and paternalistic writings of Rex Murphy at the National Post and Anthony Furey at Sun Media. Their use of images to accompany their articles emphasize the stereotype of violent First Nations people. The images featured with Murphy and Furey’s articles are of the burning/burned police cars, an image that is used throughout many news articles regarding Elsipogtog.

However, the photograph of Mi’kmaq mother Amanda Polchies, kneeling in front of a line of riot police, a photograph that certainly paints a very different story of what was happening in Elsipogtog, accompanies very few articles.

Nonetheless, the sensationalized response from the media is not a surprise. Since 1990, certain Canadian media corporations have regularly stereotyped protest actions by First Nations within a framework based upon the Oka Crisis. That is, the portrayal and perpetuation of damaging stereotypes, such as that First Nations people are violent and savage.

In their 2011 book, Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, authors Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson argue that when it comes to news coverage about Aboriginal people, Canadian English-language newspapers have turned all of Canada’s distinct Aboriginal nations into “one heavily stereotyped monolith” rooted in colonial ideology.

Perpetuating the stereotype of First Nations inciting violence and terrorism does not do any justice to the complexity of the issues surrounding these “protests.” I use quotations because is it really protesting?

While people like Furey believe otherwise, the Mi’kmaq never ceded their traditional territory. The Mi’kmaq people were exercising their right to protect their land in light of a legitimate concern about the environmental harm caused by fracking.

The bottom line is that what happened to the people of Elsipogtog could have been prevented if the government fulfilled their obligation to consult First Nations and took their promises of forging better working relationships seriously. However, actions certainly speak louder than words. It is clear that the government has put First Nations issues on the back burner, something exactly opposite from what Harper preached in January during the height of the Idle No More movement.

Jessica Deer is a proud Mohawk from Kahnawake and is currently working towards her Graduate Diploma in business administration at JMSB.


Exit mobile version