Guest Blogger / MuseumMinute

Misappropriating Culture: Where “Playing Indian” & Cultural Sensitivities Collide

In less than a week the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will air on CBS. I wasn’t formally introduced to the show until my freshman year of college – and I will always remember that evening as the quietest night I ever experienced in my college career in the dorm. I didn’t hear any loud music, no boys were playing football in the hallway – and I believe it was the one night all year that popcorn wasn’t burnt on my floor. Since that night, my interaction with the show has been virtually non-existent. I couldn’t tell you when it airs, who the musical performers are or even who half the models are. It just isn’t normally on my cultural radar – at least it wasn’t until earlier this month, when one of the models, Karlie Kloss, walked down the catwalk dressed in a headdress and turquoise jewelry, with the word “Thanksgiving” projected behind her. In response to public outcry of the lingerie wearing model in Native garb, the company, and Ms. Kloss, have both issued public apologies and agreed to cut the segment from the telecast. This event got me thinking – there’s been a lot of this going on lately; from the Gap’s recent Manifest Destiny t-shirt to No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” music video.

I reached out to Raney Bench, Curator of Education, at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine to discuss and comment on these and other recent events of “playing Indian,” the idea of cultural appropriation and how museums can be an active partner in dialogue around these issues. Raney has a BA in Native American Studies, and a MA in Museum Studies and has worked with Native issues and in the museum profession for over 15 years. Below is a reflective and informative guest post from Raney:

The United States has a long history of non-Native people “playing Indian,” dressing in feathers and fringed leather, in an attempt to honor, exploit or recreate some imagined past. Invariably there are others who find playing Indian offensive, pointing out that cultural and religious appropriation of Native history and culture does not actually honor Native people, history, or culture. Indians are accused of being too sensitive and are often told to “get over it,” which implies that “it” is in the past and people need to move forward, into a future that does not include the issue or damage that occurred. A recent series of events, reflective of long standing national trends, highlights why “getting over it” is so hard to do in Indian country.

In September Paul Frank Industries made the mistake of hosting a “Dream Catchin’ Pow Wow” party. For more information on the party itself, check out the September posts in Adrienne K’s blog, Native Appropriations. The outrage sparked by pictures of children dressing in war paint and feathers and cocktails, like the Neon Teepee, forced the president of Paul Frank Industries, Elie Dekel, to reach out to the Native community and apologize. This is not a new trend, but what makes this story unique is that Mr. Dekel made a financial commitment to correct the wrong.

The band No Doubt recently stumbled into the same kind of hot water for their video “Looking Hot,” released November 2, and pulled only two days later. The full story can be read here. After claiming the band had consulted with Native people to make sure the cowboy and Indian-themed video was not culturally insensitive, an apology was issued and the video taken down.

Not all of the recent issues have been handled with respect and/or a financial commitment to correcting mistakes made. Gap released a tee shirt with the motto “Manifest Destiny” emblazoned on the front. When faced with criticism the designer, Mark McNairy, tweeted “Manifest Destiny. Survival of the Fittest.” This unpopular response forced him to issue a second “apology” tweet, in which he stated that he was hurt at being called a racist. “I AM SORRY FOR MY SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST COMMENT. IT HURT ME DEEPLY TO BE CALLED A RACIST AS THAT IS NOT ME. I REACTED WITHOUT THINKING,” he tweeted (in all caps). Gap pulled the t-shirt. To read the full story click here.

Spirit Halloween Stores felt there was no reason to apologize for the 50 Native American themed costumes sold on their website.  The defense can be read here, where they explain that “when your kids want to don a traditional Indian costume with frays and a feather, don’t look at it as disrespectful. See it as a way to teach your little one about American history.” I encourage you to take a look at the company’s idea of historically and traditionally rich Native dress and judge for yourself.

And, most recently, Victoria’s Secret joined the fray by dressing up model Karlie Kloss in leopard print underwear, a Plains Indian headdress and Navajo turquoise jewelry.  Behind her the word “Thanksgiving” was projected on a large screen.  The company and model issued apologies and will not air the segment during the December show, which sparked a second firestorm of criticism for pulling the item. Native people were accused of suppressing freedom of expression and being too politically correct and sensitive. Comments ranged from “She’s pitching a teepee in my pants,” to “The lack of exposed skin greatly offends my nudist heritage.” In an on-line poll asking people if Victoria’s Secret was right to pull the segment, over 83% answered that Indians should “get over it.” To read more, click here.

All of these are examples of cultural appropriation. So, what is that, you ask?  Katie J. M. Baker cites Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi in her article “A Much Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation” at Jezebel, saying that it can be really difficult to nail this down. Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

Bruce Duthu, Chair of Native Studies Department at Dartmouth College said “It’s not that you have to get permission to use anything that involves something Native. It’s about assuming responsibility and not being surprised if people react by saying, “You screwed up.” It’s not about censorship; it’s about being clear on the motivations that are inspiring the appropriation. I think for many Native peoples, the advent of social media has meant that groups and individuals around the globe can now participate in this push back. Within minutes, people from all over can join the conversation, which provides a quick reading on the popular reaction to certain events and activities.”

These occurrences cannot be understood independently of the multitude of similar situations that are happening every day. As I write this, for example, McFadden’s in Washington, DC just issued an apology for their themed Thanksgiving party with the tagline “Party like a pilgrim, drink like an Indian!”. Rather, we need to understand that these continued examples of cultural appropriations are happening as an extension of colonial dominance and perceived ownership over Indian history and culture.

Museums are an important place to foster this kind of understanding. The Abbe Museum, where I work, as Curator of Education, has a mission to inspire new learning about the five Native communities in Maine, known collectively as the Wabanaki. The national trends mentioned above impact all Native people, and therefore we at the Abbe feel it is important to address issues of cultural appropriation. We have created new teacher resources about Thanksgiving and stereotypes, teach classes to students and adults about contemporary stereotypes and the impacts they have on modern Native people, and we have led workshops for the public suggesting techniques for standing up to stereotypes and bias we all encounter every day. By doing so, the Abbe and our communities are taking action to create a more inclusive and respectful society where racism like we have seen recently cannot be confused with political correctness.

Thanks for sharing your perspective and expertise on these recent events, Raney!

To learn more about the Abbe Museum and its programming, click here.

As Native American Heritage Month comes to a close (you do know that November is Native American Heritage Month, right? President George H. W. Bush made the designation in 1990) and we reflect on these recent “playing Indian” gaffes – it is important to remember, as Raney stated above, that these events “impact all Native people.”

I highly recommend reading, “Just say no to ‘playing Indian’“, an opinion piece by journalist and documentary filmmaker, Jenni Monet. Monet says, “The national observance [of Native American Heritage Month] is not unlike America’s commitment to African-American History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month, a time of year that major brands have come to commercialize in recent years. But little recognition has been paid to the original inhabitants who represent 1% of the U.S. population. Instead, this November, there has been a series of cultural gaffes made by celebrities, journalists and large companies during a time set aside to acknowledge and honor Native people.”

So what do you think? Does your institution address cultural appropriation issues? What is your reaction to the instances mentioned above? Where do we go from here?

About the Abbe Museum
The Abbe Museum opened in 1928 as a trail side museum in Acadia National Park.  We now operate two facilities, our original location, and a year round museum in downtown Bar Harbor, Maine. We offer educational programs, changing exhibits, and public programs and events to meet our mission, to inspire new learning about the Wabanaki Nations with every visit. For more information visit:

15 thoughts on “Misappropriating Culture: Where “Playing Indian” & Cultural Sensitivities Collide

  1. The whole notion of cultural appropriation is something I’m having trouble swallowing. Who exactly do you “ask for permission” if you’re taking something that belongs to an entire culture? How does a culture possess something, anyway?

    Isn’t the free spread of ideas between cultures one of the most vital ways in which cultural change occurs, and one of the dominant factors lending vitality to the world’s social interactions? To me, “cultural appropriation” as a concept is a crude attempt to apply intellectual property concepts to cultural contact, and it is stunningly intellectually empty.

    • Well, as Bruce Duthu said, you don’t have to ask anyone, but be prepared for people to be critical of the effects when someone from one culture interprets another culture- often times incorrectly. I believe the line in these situations comes into play when Native religion is defiled, as in the case with the bonnets; or when genocidal policy is romanticized, as in the case with the Gap; or when chronic issues related to poverty are trivialized, as in the case with the “drink like an Indian” campaign; when sexual assault of Native women far exceeds that of other women and is directly linked to colonial dominance as in the case of the hyper-sexualization of Native women costumes; the list goes on and one…and there in lies the problem.

      I often hear that Natives are not the only people to encounter racism or cultural appropriation, with examples like the Fighting Irish, etc. but I have a hard time being ok justifying racism with other examples of racism. People also often argue that Native people are too sensitive, but given the on-going attack on cultural values in mainstream American society, how can we expect anything else? Native people have consistently expressed the communal value of NOT assimilating, not allowing invasive cultural change, but rather the desire to control how aspects of their culture, values, and religion are understood, practiced, and disseminated. These are the actions of sovereign nations, that retain aspects of cultural and political sovereignty despite hundreds of years of targeted policies to bring about cultural and physical destruction. It is past time to honor Native desires, as expressed by Native communities.

      • I didn’t argue any of those things… did you read the post? I’m not one to trivialize rape, or alcoholism, or genocide. I wasn’t even suggesting that “Native desires” should not be “honored”. I merely stated that I think that “cultural appropriations” is a totally nonsensical term, not one that fits the discussion, and then I gave my reasoning why. Does that really justify a two hundred word scolding about the ills of Native culture?

      • Let me put this another way: is it offensive for me to cook a Thai meal unless I have Thai heritage? Is it somehow disingenuous for someone not of Native American descent to play the flute? These things are both examples of cultural spread that enrich our lives and bring people great joy, but they’re both “cultural appropriation” unless we first ask the entire populations of Thailand and Native America for permission. Considering that culture has always changed by the free exchange of ideas between neighbors, it seems unfitting for greedy, grasping hands to say “this is my idea, and you can’t have it”.

        Victoria’s Secret angels dressing up and playing Indian is still offensive, but that’s because it’s blurring, oversimplifying, and objectifying Native cultures, not because the designers and models aren’t native.

    • Siyo dtohitsu, Dekanogi Ulogilv AniSahoni Tsalagi
      It is as simple as this, if you decide to “take, use, appropriate someones culture” at least know WHO, and WHAT, you are taking. Do NOT, “mix and match”, that is perhaps the one most upsetting thing. If you want to “play” Indian, at least know WHICH “Indian Nation” you are “playing”. The Cherokee, are as DIFFERENT, from the Lakota, as the French, are from Germans. How do you think the French People would feel seeing people dressed up in Lederhosen, and claiming to be “French, saying they are HONORING, the French Heritage”? Or SPEAKING RUSSIAN, and “claiming” it is Polish, Italian….ect. I mean AFTER ALL, they are ALL from Europe “Right”? Or how would YOU, and others FEEL, if a Holy Man/Woman, of one of the MORE than 500 Nations, dressed up like a Catholic Priest, and began to PREACH, like an Evangical, or a Morman, or even one of the Snake Handling Holy Rollers from Eastern Ky. and “claimed” this is how ALL “Christians” act, and WE, are HONORING them, come to us and for just $4,000, we can “cure you” of all ills. Because that is EXACTLY, what IS HAPPENING TO NATIVE PEOPLE AND THEIR culture’s. Please think about how you would feel if someone decided to “honor you” , by taking things you hold precious, or Holy, or Sacred, and making a joke out of them.

      adadoligi ale nvwadohivnv(peace and many blessings)

  2. I am director at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa located on the grounds of a prehistoric Mississippian culture temple mound complex in Memphis Tennessee, US. After 50 years of often times rather scripted and stereotypical “cowboys and indians” portrayals of Native Americans (often Native American being the actors), we moved to asking the Native Americans to create or inform on exhibit content. Really quite simple. Now, at a minimum, all exhibits and programs are reviewed by the tribal descendants of those who lived in the area at contact – the present day Chickasaw and Choctaw. Optimally, the tribal groups will provide detail that answers the question “What do you want the people of Memphis to know about your culture?” I have likened this shift as moving Native American voices from that of Actors to one of Directors in the presentation of their culture. Below is a link to a summary article I published on this in Practicing Anthropology. I think it costs to download, so if you are interested based on the abstract, I will be happy to send along an ms version if you contact me.

  3. This is a great post and topic for discussion. As Director of Museum and Library Services at the Ohio Historical Society, one of my duties is Native American outreach. I am working to build relationships with nine Native American tribes in Oklahoma who were forcibly removed from Ohio by the mid-19th century. We at OHS have had several discussions over the last 3 years with tribal representatives about building trust and the need to respect tribal rights to represent their own cultures and histories. Cultural and historical appropriation is a real issue in Ohio. Because there are no federally recognized tribes living in this state, there are several non-federally recognized groups that try and claim that history in order to gain credibility for personal or economic reasons or to get state and federal recognition. It is important to understand that the federally recognized tribes did not just leave; they were forced out. We need to allow tribes to represent their own histories and cultures and identities and not dismiss that desire as trivial. Especially during this period when tribes are reawakening/reclaiming their cultures and languages, we need to (as Robert Connolly says) allow the tribes to be Directors in the presentation of their culture. If anyone is interested in the projects OHS is working on with the tribes (grants and exhibits), please let me know. I would be happy to share.

    • Sharon, thanks for your comment! The work that you’re leading at OHS is incredibly important. I think it would be great for you and Robert Connolly to connect (he commented above). I look forward to joining you on a trip to Oklahoma in the near future!

    • Siyo Sharon Dean, sunalei osdv, I am glad to see your work, but there IS something you should think about. Yes, MOST, of the “tribes”, Nations peoples WERE, FORCED out, but many ran, many hid, SOME, hid among the emmigrants, claiming to be (in the case of the Cherokee, “Black Dutch”), that disguised the “coloring”, accented English, and other “differences”, while the Nations Peoples learned to keep their secrets, and HOW to be more like the Europeans, so they could STAY on Traditional Lands. So, saying these people are “claiming” to be this or that, you make them sound like ALL are “fakes, or “fraudes”, and they are NOT, some, can PROVE, exactly who, and what they are, the ONLY reason they are NOT accepted? The “WHITE MANS” “ROLLS”, if your ancestors ran, hid, to stay in their homes, and would not “sign the “rolls” they are not considered “deserving”, while there were MANY, people of color, and outright WHITES, who DID, “play” Indian and signed the “rolls” pretending to be “mixed”, so they could be included thinking they were getting “fourty acres and a mule”. Blood Quantum is a “white” thing, NOT something OUR Peoples EVER had BEFORE “colonization”.

      adadoligi ale nvwadohivnv

  4. Came across this link through twitter and it’s really nice to see these issues being talked about like this! The question of cultural appropriation is a complicated one, and a difficult one to teach, I think, partly because it requires an understanding of what it means to be a minority in America (or anywhere) in 2012 and what it means to come from a place of privilege. I work for a multicultural children’s book publisher called Lee & Low Books, and this question comes up a lot for us, especially with regard to cross-cultural publishing. Who is entitled to tell which stories? Is it acceptable, for example, for a Non-Native person to write a book about Native Americans? Or is that inherently cultural appropriation?

    I believe that cross-cultural writing (or cross-cultural sharing in general) is possible to do well, but it is HARD. It requires research, and it requires getting to know people from that culture. It is a process that takes time. When we publish something by an author who is not of the same ethnicity as the culture about which he or she is writing, for example, we hire a cultural expert to vet the manuscript and make sure it is accurate.

    To me, cross-cultural becomes cultural appropriation when that work and careful research isn’t done, because it’s dismissive and patronizing to the culture that is being appropriated. It’s disheartening to see so many huge companies, like the Gap and Victoria’s Secret, skip over that step completely. But I think the visibility that a lot of the protests/reactions have gotten is a sign that enough people care to change things. I hope it begins to make a difference!

  5. Great post. We are not challenged often enough to make such reflections. There are so many other ways we misappropriate other cultures that we stop think about wondering about the consequences.

  6. Pingback: Media | Fashion Law Institute | Page 333

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