Native American culture struggles with cultural appropriation

The more attentive viewers of Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show on December 4th may have noticed that the calendar-themed event neglected November. But it was not pure neglect that kept Victoria’s Secret from honoring the full twelve months. Instead, the world’s largest lingerie retailer landed in hot water with the Native American community.

The fashion show itself took place on November 7th, and preview photos were released to the internet. The model representing November was Karlie Kloss, who strut down the runway in a leopard-print bikini, turquoise jewelry, fringe-covered heels, and a feathered war bonnet.

The outfit not only homogenized Native American culture, but used a very important part of it for commercial gain. This, of course, all happened in a sexualized manner.

Immediately following the pictures’ release, various independent writers and bloggers publicly denounced Victoria’s Secret for cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of a culture’s symbols, rituals, or ideals, frequently used for commercial gain. The cultures stolen from are typically those of a marginalized group.

Blogger Adrienne Keene, who runs a blog called “Native Appropriations” was one such blogger. In previous posts, she had explained the offense of wearing Native American headdresses, explaining, “The image of a war bonnet and war paint wearing Indian is one that has been created and perpetuated by Hollywood and only bears minimal resemblance to traditional regalia of Plains tribes.

It furthers the stereotype that Native peoples are one monolithic culture, when in fact there are 500+ distinct tribes with their own cultures.”

Basic research on the war bonnet also indicates that it was reserved for warriors who committed particularly brave acts in battle, worn only on special occasions as a sign of great respect. It is arguable that its use by a non-native person with little understanding of the culture trivializes and condescends the Plains Indian culture.

Victoria’s Secret is not the only offender of cultural appropriation in the past few months. It has been a hot topic as of late, with another recent controversy sparked by No Doubt.

Their music video for the single “Looking Hot,” featured Gwen Stefani and other band members dressed as stereotypical Native Americans, playing along with a “Cowboys vs. Indians” narrative. The incident ought to have provided a warning for Victoria’s Secret, given the parallel results within one week of each other. No Doubt pulled the video from the internet and issued a formal apology.

Fashion designer Paul Frank also found himself in the cultural appropriation doghouse, and handled the apology more proactively than others have. Following a backlash to a “neon-Native American powwow” themed party featuring glow in the dark glow paint and countless other offenses, Paul Frank Industries had a mess on their hands.

They issued the standard apology and pulled all of the offending products, but also released a statement announcing that they will hire a Native designer to help with a new line, with proceeds going to a Native charity.

The people over at Paul Frank will never manage to make everything okay, but they did set an example for an ever-offensive American society where Urban Outfitters decides they can sell “Navajo” panties, and musical icons Lana Del Rey and Ke$ha decide they have the right to wear headdresses.

This is all before discussing the sexual aspect of it. To put this as simply as possible, there are two facts to consider before exploiting this culture in a sexual manner. First, rape and sexual assault of the indigenous Americans was extremely prevalent in the European invasion of the Western world.

It spans as far back as Christopher Columbus’s personal letters to the king of Spain. Second, it has not stopped. Currently, one in three Native American women will suffer from rape or sexual assault, and non-native men commit 86 percent of those crimes. Furthermore, in 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that tribal governments cannot prosecute any non-Native criminals, regardless of where the action took place.

According to the press, though, this is all beside the point. On November 10th, Victoria’s Secret tweeted to over one million followers “We are sorry that the Native American headdress in our fashion show has upset individuals. The outfit will be removed from the broadcast.”

This solves almost nothing, aside from preventing the worst-case scenario. Removing the outfit was the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a broken leg. It will do little to resolve the deep seeded issues surrounding the use of Native American images in popular culture. It is only by giving the indigenous people the respect they deserve that the many wrongs can began to be fixed.