I’ve been very fortunate to cultivate a nice, sizable student/academic following to my writing. I was lucky enough to go through undergrad and on to law school, still I never considered myself to be an “academic.” The way I was raised, school was a luxury reserved for the extremely privileged who can sit and pontificate about anthropologists and law and math.
And yes, clothing.
This past week, I got a series of emails from some of my student readers asking what I thought about the Native girl on a show called America’s Next Top Model. Apparently, she wore some Pocahontas clothing on the show and some American Indian Studies students were uptight because they thought she should wear a Pendleton pencil skirt or an AIM button or something or other on the show. Evidently there was also some hubbub because “she [Mariah Watchman, the model on America’s Next Top Model] was not even the same Tribe as Pocahontas” and she is therefore furthering the notion “all Indian people dressed the same.” My response?
“That show comes on the same time as River Monsters and I don’t have DVR. So I’ve never watched it in my life.”
Still, it led me to think—is it bad that, as the folks who emailed me represented, this young lady dresses up as a historical figure and gives the impression to millions of non-Native people that Natives still dress like this?
Well, maybe. But probably not.
Here’s the thing—Natives get adorned in old style/historical clothing and perform for non-Natives (and Natives as well) every single weekend. It’s kinda a big deal. Those places, where these beautiful performances happen, are called “pow-wows.” Moreover, all pow-wow styles come from certain geographical places that have very specific stories behind the style of dance. Therefore, when a Lakota competes in a chicken dance competition, for example—chicken dance is a Blackfeet/Blackfoot style—that person is 1) dressing up like, and also 2) dancing in a style that does not originate amongst their own people. Similarly, when a young Colville woman jingle dress dances—an Anishinaabe style—they are likewise participating in a style of dance and dress that is not their people’s own style.
So what? They look good. Plus, it’s a good thing to learn from other Native (and non-Native!) cultures—we all have a lot to learn from each other. Pow-wows are the ultimate mish-mash of Native cultures and it’s amazing—I hope those Native students will someday just appreciate the beauty of our ways without always feeling shame.
As another example, when Native leaders go to Washington, DC or to meet various non-Native public leaders, those leaders wear headdresses and (pan-Indian) ribbon shirts—I NEVER see those tribal leaders randomly at the post office or at the video store in their headdresses or (pan-Indian) ribbon shirts!
But that’s ok—they look good in those headdresses. Plus, if those tribal leaders capture the imagination of their U.S. Senator and squeeze a few extra bucks out of them for law enforcement simply because the headdress makes the senator romanticize Indians, then that’s a good thing, right?
See, Pocahontas gets a bad rap because of the Disney movie and because, invariably, anyone who plays Pocahontas is very attractive. If the young ladies who played Pocahontas were not so attractive, my guess is that these young militant American Indian Studies students would not be so adamant that that these Indian women absolutely should not portray her. But why shouldn’t they? Pocohantas is kinda the John F. Kennedy of Native people—although she really didn’t do anything noteworthy, she is still an important historical figure and pop culture cannot seem to forget her.
The difference is, a few Native people wanna forget their iconic historical figure—Irish people don’t get mad that John F. Kennedy is on the half-dollar.
Anyway, yeah, I understand the arguments that Natives should be able to play other roles besides Pocahontas and Squanto and whoever else (not Tonto though—that goes to racially ambiguous white guys like Johnny Depp). Of course we should be able to get those other roles. But as with the tribal leaders who dress up when they go to Washington DC to get money to help their people, I’m hoping that this young model’s opportunity leads to more opportunity for our people. A little “dress-up” in 2012 to let Hollywood know that Natives can be well-spoken, attractive and fun might go a long way toward creating goodwill and more contemporary roles in 2013.
Hopefully. In the meantime, I’m glad there’s a Native doing her thing on prime time, network television (even though I’ll be watching River Monsters).
Let’s make sure to support our little sister who’s doing her thing–it’s a big deal.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) which you can get at www.dkmai.com. He is also co-authoring a new book with Robert Chanate coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called The Thing About Skins, and the website and publishing company for that handy, dandy book is www.cutbankcreekpress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi