In a headdress, dancing in a teepee with a wolf at her side, Gwen Stefani drew a lot of controversy in No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” music video, released Nov. 2. No Doubt removed the video and issued an apology within 48 hours, but this case of Native American stereotyping in pop culture was far from an isolated incident.
At a Nov. 7 runway show, Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss wore a leopard-print lingerie set and war bonnet, and Victoria’s Secret recently pulled the footage from the show’s broadcast in response to public outcry. In the last two months alone, singer Lana Del Rey, fashion designer Paul Frank, and Gap clothing stores have been embroiled in Native American stereotype scandals of their own.
“I feel like right now, we’re not really in control of our image in the media,” said Racheal Whitehawk Strong, a graduate student in the Native Daughters project in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s College of Journalism. Strong is also a member the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and works at the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs on the Sovereign Native Youth Leadership Program.
“There are other people who have more power in the media who are able to portray Native people, and they don’t do it in a very accurate way,” she added.
Strong said scandals like No Doubt’s don’t come from overt racism, but from an unawareness of the meaning beyond the images represented.
“I don’t think that the members of No Doubt are racists,” she said. “I think the general frustration with the video was that there was a lot of misuse of culturally sacred objects, like the eagle feather staff and the headdress. In order to understand why that’s offensive to Native people, you have to understand what place those things hold in Native culture.”
Just as military medals might be considered a restricted symbol in the United States, wearing a headdress without knowing its significance can be considered unfair appropriation. In the “Looking Hot” music video, Gwen Stefani throws eagle feathers to the ground. Strong said that in Lakota culture, eagle feathers symbolize fortitude and bravery, and casual mistreatment like this is highly inappropriate.
“It’s a proud thing to have an eagle feather,” she said. “With little kids, parents will tie really tightly the eagle feathers onto their regalia, because if you drop the eagle feather at a powwow, you can’t just pick it up. They have to do a dance and special ceremony before you can even pick it up off the ground. Because you’ve mistreated it, and that feather no longer belongs to you. You then have to give it to somebody else. You give it away because you’ve dishonored that.”
While No Doubt pulled their video and issued an apology, singer Lana Del Rey defended her choice to wear a headdress in her music video for “Ride,” released in October, calling the video an “ode to the spirit of dance and freedom” she experienced working on Indian reservations.
Princella Parker, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and associate producer for the 2009 documentary “Standing Bear’s Footsteps,” said even well-intentioned uses like these are dangerous.
“It’s not an honor to our culture to mock our sacred and respected ways of life by objectifying it,” Parker said in reference to the Lana Del Rey video. “It may be personal to her and what she believes, but how does that honor the ‘spirit of dance and freedom’ when it’s ripped, copied and duplicated in mass quantity? It loses this spirit when it becomes an object worn by a non-native with no conception of what it’s intended for in the first place.”
Parker has directed her passion for filmmaking toward combatting the limited and negative portrayals of Native Americans she’s seen as the norm in media.
“I grew up mainly in Omaha off reservation,” she said. “What I would get asked is ‘do Natives live in teepees?’ and ‘what do they wear?’ and I (didn’t) have long hair like they thought Indian people do. The stereotype I hear again and again are of drunken Indian, non-existent or extinct Indian, poor Indian.”
While these stereotypes are very much alive, Strong pointed out the significance of No Doubt, Paul Frank and Victoria’s Secret apologizing and removing their offensive material. The popular fashion company Paul Frank, which in September hosted a “Dream Catchin’” event, including neon headdresses and war-painted employees, announced they were hiring a Native designer for a fashion line whose earnings will go toward a Native American charity.
“Inaccuracies are still happening,” Strong said. “But I feel like it’s going in a positive way. We’re using social media and other forms to have a voice to express ourselves, that it’s not OK to do that.”
Dialogue is more possible than ever and awareness is improving, but Parker said the public has a long way toward understanding what is and is not appropriate in Native representation.
“It’s perceived as harmless because America is a melting pot and we have shared cultures in diversity,” Parker said. “But this is not diversity. This is a bastardization of Native culture.”