With identity misappropriation being a regular occurrence these days, my duties as a Native activist have kept me fairly busy. From being depicted as mascots, to Anglos wearing red face and war bonnets, and of course my favorite “I’m a Cherokee” claims, I’ve cracked down pretty hard on White America for their lack of respect for my culture. So it is only fair that I call out every instance of misappropriation, no matter who commits the act.
A couple of days ago I became aware of an up and coming rapper known as Emerson Windy. Now I may be late to show, but many who know me know this. I am an avid fan of Hip Hop. I love conscious rap, neo-soul, and street poetry. But I loathe what has happened to the rap game in recent years thanks to the likes of Lil Wayne and the Young Money crew, as well as 2 Chainz and their other consorts. They have co-opted a beloved form of art and desecrated it. And it comes as no surprise that the aforementioned “artists” (and I use the term loosely) have collaborated with this Emerson Windy fellow, another “artist” who will now be known for his desecration of Native culture.
“Peace Pipe” is the video that Emerson Windy released this week. In this video he is dressed in “indigenous attire” and raps about passing a peace pipe. Let’s start with the fact that Emerson mixes the regalia of a headman, medicine man, and a brave all together. Really Emerson, you wanted to be all three? Talk about an identity crisis. This is the problem with wanting to play dress up; people can’t even get that part right. If you wanted to portray a football player, would you also carry a baseball bat or a hockey stick? Why in 2014 is it still trendy to put on “Indian” costumes? But then again, just go to any typical Midwestern Pow Wow, and all you will see are non-Natives in costumes. That’s another issue we need to address in Indian Country, but I digress.
So you want play Indian? You want “smoke ‘em good peace pipe?” Please, pile on the stereotypes. A peace pipe is not a recreational tool to give you a good buzz. The pipe is a gift from our Mother Earth to be used ceremoniously only. It is not a plaything. When you portray it as just another vehicle for getting high, you perpetuate the negative imagery that society paints on Natives, that we are all drunks and like to “smoke peyote.” News flash, we don’t smoke it. What you are doing is equivalent to someone using a rosary or prayer beads in a sacrilegious manner. It demeans our spiritual beliefs.
I read Mr. Windy’s bio on his official site. He appears to enjoy philanthropy and spreading awareness about causes such as homelessness. Those are very commendable acts. The bio also states that Emerson likes to “push the limits.” Well, he has indeed pushed the limits with the Native community. Not even Native rappers would dare insult our elders or ancestors by playing dress up in a music video. Take for example Frank Waln, who gifted the anthem “Oil for Blood” to the Anti-Keystone XL Movement. While many of his videos depict the poverty stricken reservation life, never does he pose as a holy man or pervert his own culture to turn a dollar.
Has our society learned nothing from the countless incidents of “black Face” or even “Yellow Face” in cartoons and movies? There was internet outrage over the group of white students who threw an MLK party by dressing up as “thugs with watermelons.” Did Mr. Windy condone their behavior? In a society where people of color continue to be pushed to the margins and still face racism from majority groups, it is unacceptable to have to face discrimination from one another. We should be in unity against the wider scope of oppression and identity misappropriation. The battle cannot be won with a “you can’t beat them, join them” mentality. I strongly urge the Native community, Hip Hop enthusiasts, and the general public to put the pressure on Emerson Windy to remove his video and issue an apology. We cannot move forward when we still condone playing dress-up as children do. It’s time for America to grow up.
Carolina Castoreno is an enrolled member of Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, also Mescalero Apache and Yaqui. She is the president of the Native American Student Alliance at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, as well as the Indiana contact and outreach board member to Indigenous Latinos for AIM-IN/KY. She is a writer, activist, student and mother who is dedicated to social justice, Native identity, and education for and of American Indians.