Ep #7: Native Appropriations

MATIKA WILBUR: Hi, I'm Matika! I belong to the Swinomish and Tulalip people. I'm a photographer and the creator of Project 562.

ADRIENNE KEENE: And I'm Adrienne, I'm a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a scholar and the writer behind the blog Native Appropriations.

MATIKA: This is all my relations, we are glad you're here. Thanks for joining us today.

ADRIENNE: Today we're gonna be talking about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, something I have literally been writing about since I started writing publicly so it's been over eight years at this point so we're going to talk about cultural appropriation, about representations, about Native appropriations.

MATIKA: Absolutely. I mean, I can't think of a better topic for us to talk about Adrienne, you've written about it for years I've uprooted my entire life and live in a van for this topic so we might say you know we feel a little passionate about this subject.

ADRIENNE: The plan is we're going to start out by kind of reading some definitions of cultural appropriation, and I pulled a bunch of them together from a lot of different types of writers they're not just Native writers to sort of get our heads around this concept and the ways that we think about it.

MATIKA: So from Lenore Keeshig-Tobias in 1990, taking from a culture that is not one's own intellectual property, cultural expressions and artifacts, history and ways of knowledge.

ADRIENNE: Just as a note that's my kind of go to definition that I use in most of my presentations because Lenore Kesshig-Tobias is a First Nations writer, and she also said this in 1990, a lot of folks think that this conversation on cultural appropriation happened in the last four years, I think it's important to note that Native writers, Native thinkers have been talking about this since at least the 90s, and then in terms of cultural appropriation the phrase, but have been thinking about these issues of representations and cultural theft, since contact, obviously. So, this, this one comes from a really great packet that's called “Think Before You Appropriate”, which was created by Simon Fraser University's intellectual property issues and cultural heritage project, which the abbreviation is IPinCH. They say cultural appropriation describes a one sided process where one entity benefits from another group's culture, without permission and without giving something in return.

MATIKA: Yeah, well let's read from Wikipedia, cultural appropriation is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.

ADRIENNE: The power part is really important and we can definitely return to that too. This is another quote I use in my presentations all the time because I think it kind of brings everything together in a very succinct way, and it comes from a writer named Sonny Singh, “Turbans On the Runway: What does it mean for Sikhs?” and it was from this cultural moment when people were literally like putting Sikh turbans down the runway. They say the thing about cultural appropriation is that the appropriator does not have to face the same consequences that we do for practicing our culture or faith. For them it is an accessory that can be taken on or off at will, well for us. It is a way of life. I'm not saying cultural or religious garb or practices should not be shared. Culture never exists in a vacuum and is never pure, nor should it be is ever changing evolving and growing, but in a society where immigrants and communities of color are marginalized at every level, we can't pretend that power relations do not exist when we have this conversation about appropriation. Sharing and exchanging cultural and spiritual practices is great, but it gets more complicated when we're not all on equal footing. It gets more complicated when meaningful things are taken, commodified and exploited for profit, with little respect shown to the community they were taken from. Yes. Well okay so I do want to call. I want to read this, this part from [name]. When white folks are always asking like, Oh my god, how do I avoid appropriation? How do I avoid it like what they're actually saying and she says, When well meaning white people say, help me define cultural appropriation so I know what to do and what not to do what they're actually saying, even if they aren't aware is helped me understand how to continue in this system of privilege and oppression, without feeling bad.

MATIKA: Preach.

ADRIENNE: Yes. And then the last one on here I'm not going to read because it's long but Minh-Ha Pham, who is an amazing, amazing scholar who writes about fashion and about specifically Asian American communities and fashion, she has coined the term racial plagiarism to talk about this phenomenon, rather than cultural appropriation, because she feels like cultural appropriation has gotten misconstrued and sort of taken away from the original understanding of it to the point that now it's just sort of a buzzword that we don't often interrogate enough, so she talks about this idea of racial plagiarism, which puts in to conversation that idea of power, that idea of stealing, she kind of opens the door for us to start thinking about like, if cultural appropriation is a term has sort of lost its meaning and the ways that we use it, what is a term that we can use to replace it?

MATIKA: And how do you think about cultural appropriation. Can you, Can we take a moment to think about what is culture and how we're defining that and then also you know when we've heard that with appropriation what we're really talking about?

ADRIENNE: Um, if we want to talk about what is culture I think that could be an entire other episode and that's where this gets sticky, is that there's no easy boundaries on a lot of these things there are some things that are super clear where it's very it's like sacred there are only certain people who are supposed to wear it. Or there is something that is clearly belongs to a designer or a community or whatever it is, but then there's a lot of gray area, and there's a lot of ways that our communities interact with each other and have shared things through the years or whatever it is and so that's where it gets sticky and complicated so there's no one easy answer for what is culture and culture is everything, culture is everything that surrounds us. So the first part of how do I think about it, I take pieces from all of these definitions, I think the most important thing is to think about the power element to it, and that's the thing that I want to drive home to audiences a lot when I'm doing talks, is that this isn't just us hanging out and sharing things like that we're all on the equal footing, equal playing field. This is situated in a system of power, and for Native folks that's a system of settler colonialism, so when we're talking about settlers taking from Native people, it's in this entire context in history of ongoing settler colonialism, it's not just like we're all friends and everyone's okay, it's that we constantly or a position where we lack power and this continues that process. So what are the ways that you think about cultural appropriation in your spaces?

MATIKA: I think of cultural appropriation first as a [Native nation] person, as a person of the tide, as a person that is my grandmother's granddaughter and as a person that is Swinomish and Tulalip, and so there's not. When we talk about identity, we have to acknowledge all of those things right and for me at least and. And so I think about ownership and protocols and traditional belief systems that we carry out in our own communities. And so, one of the first teachings that I think about is this teachings with with songs and the way that we carry songs and hold song. And so, when I was growing up, and also in the name also. So when I was growing up, we would go to different ceremonies or to different doings as we call them in Indian country, and people sing at our funerals at our weddings at the blessing of the fleet and, and before any song is sung or after it is immediately stated whose song that belongs to where that song came from, we and we don't sing other people's songs like, I wouldn't go out onto the floor and sing a Muckleshoot song, or an Anishinaabe song without saying out loud. So and So gave me this song on this date and these were the witnesses, and I'm going to honor those people by singing the song and I'm grateful to have the ability to do so. And so there's very formal protocols in my community that we've been raised with and how to follow that, same with a name. So, when we get our Indian names. We go to the eldest in our community and we ask permission to give the children, a traditional name that maybe is a hereditary name that's passed down maybe it's a place name, but that is, we have a very formal way of bringing gifts and asking permission. And so when I think of cultural appropriation I think of a non Indian taking those songs or taking those names, or even an Indian, and using them without going through the proper channels or proper protocols because they weren't raised right because they're spiritual infants, and that's how we think of them it's like when somebody doesn't behave properly and with those in those circumstances. We don't think of them, you know we're supposed to have the ability in ourselves to go oh that’s a spiritual infant, like a baby. So, like when a baby cries you go over and like nurse them and help them and teach them, you know, so it's like these these spiritual infants running around that don't have any teachings, poor them, you know. And that's how I think of cultural misappropriators. And in my own life. Given that my mom owned a Native American art gallery for the majority of my life and I have been fielding conversations around this topic for a really long time with before I called it cultural appropriation. We used to call people culture vultures. We had a number of other different ways of describing it. Yeah but, you know, and in my work, I just want to see brown people through brown eyes. I want my children to have the opportunity to learn about themselves from themselves. And I would like the ownership to go back to the people, like if I take somebody's image or portrait. I want to make sure that they feel good about that that they have ownership and agency in the way that they represent themselves. And that when I go into their community or leave, it stays with them, you know it's not mine but there's a shared ownership and respect and a traditional protocol follows and I'd like to see that honored outside of our longhouses.

ADRIENNE: I think I first encountered the concept of cultural appropriation from a very academic space which is totally different, um, because I was an undergrad who was studying anthropology and was really interested in Native art and the Native art world from that sort of academic place and perspective initially, there were conversations in those spaces about like who has the right to create Native inspired art or, if we're creating a exhibition at the campus museum, what are the ways that we make sure we honor Native voices rather than white folks who were collecting Native objects or collecting Native stories or whatever it was, but it wasn't until had personal experiences with it directly in college, or in grad school that I finally started to make those connections between the ways that non Natives see us and cultural appropriation and that's like what I hearing your answer about wanting the youth to see themselves through others from their community like through our own eyes, and through their own understandings.

MATIKA: I've often been told by folks that that I'm wasting my breath, or that this doesn't affect people in real life, or to get over it or we have bigger issues or to stop being so sensitive. And so to those that I come in I have a few different things I'd like to say. So I very frequently give public lectures. And oftentimes, when I start talking about these misrepresentations, is when I start to get a little bit of pushback. One of the common experiences that I have when I talk about misrepresentation I talk about the Google search. So if you Google an African American, what you will get is an image of people smiling, the President of the United States, people and contemporary suits. If you google Asian American you'll get the same sort of representation, a lot of families. If you Google Latinx what's interesting to me about that is that you get only maps, you don't get people. Yeah so you Google Hispanic and then you get a bunch of families, and like a lot of people taking selfies and then you Google Native American and what you'll find is a one dimensional stereotype of Native people in headdresses situated in a historic past. And, you know, with-

ADRIENNE: I’m laughing because that's my exact phrase that I used to, “situated in the historic past” it’s like my go-to line.

MATIKA: The thing to me about about that representation and the way that it's so damaging and the way that I've seen it unfold in real life scenarios because we can talk about the statistics and the statistics are there right

ADRIENNE: Reclaiming Native truth project.

MATIKA: Why don't you read a few of the statistics that we know for sure.

ADRIENNE: Sure, so Reclaiming Native Truth is a multi year project to really change the narrative around the ways that we think of Native peoples in the media and popular culture and just the national narrative and Matika and I've both been involved in that project, and part of that was they did some really upsetting but in depth research on using focus groups and surveys about what non Natives, think about Native peoples. According to the 2015 report 95 was the first 100 Google Image searches for Native American or historical representations. 62% of non Native americans report not knowing a single Native person.

MATIKA: Okay. Say that again, 62% of Americans report, not knowing a single Native American, even though. Everywhere you go in North America and Turtle Island is Indian land.

ADRIENNE; A majority of Americans don't know a single Native person.

MATIKA: And then those people go on to vote, create legislation, make Supreme Court decisions, create policies, vote on ICWA. That affects our lives. They also refuse to pay taxes on Indian land or illegally inhabit Indian land or misappropriate imagery.

ADRIENNE: Aaron Huey and Edward Curtis, two figures that I know play in a lot with your photography work and that you're often positioned in opposition to these folks, which I think is a disservice to your work in so many ways. I know you've written about Edward Curtis and your relationship to him, you want to talk a little bit about that or maybe read a little bit from that post if there's a way?

MATIKA: The thing about the Edward Curtis blog post is that I'm continuously asked to represent alongside Edward s Curtis is a guy that photograph Native people in the early 1900s at the turn of the century, and his work still sells at auction houses for some $70,000, $150,000 I think his highest grossing one was like $600,000. The Seattle Art Museum just had an exhibition of his work. And they really wanted me to participate in that show and I refused because I don't think that 500 pieces from Curtis and five works from contemporary Natives is doing a service to the narrative. I, when I think about what's happening with Curtis I think about the fact that he had a New York Times bestseller, I think about the ways that he represented Native people and that the people were nameless, and that he would take photographs of people and ask them to wear different artifacts. He has one of his highest selling image that sold at auction was an image of these seemingly Native people walking through Monument Valley on horses, and they're wrapped in blankets.

ADRIENNE: The vanishing race.

MATIKA: Yeah, and but they're not Native people at all, and those images, those are not Indians in those images. And so the problem for me is that I've created this large collection of work of Native America. I've been traveling throughout Indian country for six years now I've been to nearly 400 tribal communities. I have like 1800 images that are waiting to be shown in that collection. I don't think that the work needs to be shown in contrast to a 19th 1900s photographer to have and deserve space in a public arena. I also don't care for the way that those images are sold at auction and, or sold through private collections, or shown in exhibitions. And that's the only time that Native artists are invited to be a part of that conversation. I think that there's photographers like Ryan Redcorn, and Will Wilson and Wendy Red Star, and, you know, Josue Rivas and Tomas Karmelo and Thosh Collins, and there's these incredible Native photographers all over Indian country who are doing really beautiful profound work, and they deserve to have a show at the Met on their own, or at the Brooklyn art museum or at the Smithsonian or down the street from your neighborhood coffee shop that deserves to be shown and talked about as the concepts that they're choosing to present, because it is powerful just as it is. And so I wonder if Native peoples work and Native imagery doesn't have space in blue chip galleries or, if, if it's not valued in that way, then how do we respond as Native artists because oftentimes we're not paid to be a photographer we're paid to talk about being a photographer. And so if the conversation is continuously the same conversation I was asked to have 15 years ago which was in contrast to Curtis, then how are we really moving the dialogue forward? Where is the space for innovation? How is photographic works going to go to the whole next level of creativity. If we're constantly being brought back to this to this basic space of trying to just undo some negative shit that was done to us? You know what I mean? So-

ADRIENNE: And you shouldn't be put in a position that you have to turn down these opportunities either, but the fact that rather than just turning it down you can say, No, this is, this is wrong on a lot of levels, and it just is strange to me that we hold as a society holds so tightly to these outdated stereotypical images, and it just reflects that that is what the majority of non Natives think of us and so that's what they want to see in a gallery, they want those stereotypes reinforced, they want to feel good about the fact that Indians were something that existed in the historic past and are not being actively disenfranchised by voter laws in North Dakota, or potentially having the rights to keep our children in our communities taken away through ICWA or whatever it is. They don't want to think about that. They don't want to think about their complacency in genocide.

MATIKA: and how they play a role, and in the active settler colonialism, of our society.

ADRIENNE: I mean they're still on Indigenous land.

MATIKA: Right. For the last 15 years I've been photographing and sharing stories to Indigenous communities in the United States. Since 2012, Project 562 has allowed me to do this work with folks from all over Indian country and so far I've been to about 400 tribes. In the next couple of years I hope to complete my mission because of my dedication to photographing Native Americans. Some people call me the modern day Curtis. Each time I hear that, I want to throw up. Curtis was funded by JP Morgan to photograph the vanishing race. This photographic hired gun was the original Indian Miss appropriator notorious throughout Indian country for artificially representing his subjects with objects and apparel belonging to different tribal regions. He’d nstruct his subjects to stand away from modern infrastructure, aiming to capture the savage qualities and lifestyles. In fact, his most famous image, an image of people traveling through the Southwest underneath great big mesa was actually not a photo of Native people at all, but a photo of non Natives dressed up as Natives. He titled his images as Indian number three Chumash woman, and Headhunter. He described his images as though the people in the photos didn't have names, as if they weren't worthy of distinction. To his credit, I can appreciate that Curtis was bold and committed and gave up everything: his home, his wife, his family. All the photograph Native people. In some cases, his work has been meaningful to people I know in various Native communities. A friend told me that elders of her tribe were able to source Curtis images of ceremony, and repatriate that element of the ceremony back into their community weavers have told me that they look at basket images in his photos and are able to draw inspiration from them. Carvers have used his images in their approach to carving canoes, in these ways Curtis's work has played an important role in the reclamation of Native American culture. Let's acknowledge that this is only necessary because our culture was purposely attacked and in some cases, eradicated. The danger in Curtis’ legacy despite its incidental and not intended cultural preserve bias and has lasting effects on our collective consciousness. If you Google Native American right now you will find a historical Curtis image, a stark contrast to googling African American or Asian American in which you will find a contemporary image. His images have imprinted our minds, we think that the Curtis Indian is what real Indians are supposed to look like. This is damaging in so many ways and Native American scholars such as Dr. Stephanie Fryberg and Dr. Adrienne Keene have written extensively about the ongoing harm from the leathered and feathered stereotype caused by these dated, and in many ways inauthentic images. In everyday life, what happens when kids can't relate to each other's expectations of real Indianness? How can we be seen as modern successful people, when we are still viewed as one dimensional stereotypes? How do we strengthen our nations and lobby for sovereignty and most people don't understand basic Indigenous identities, concepts, and life experiences? It's perplexing. We now on the whole that, offered as real, Curtis's work is damaging to modern Indigenous people and to the understanding and connectedness we all deserve, and yet we continue to perpetuate the harm in the service of art? My fine arts career was launched years ago at the Seattle Art Museum where I exhibited a series called We Are One People, a photo narrative of members from Coast Salish tribes in Washington State. These portraits were put in the same gallery with Curtis images, and considered a fitting contrast to the Curtis narrative. After the Seattle Art Museum, the exhibit traveled to several other high profile museums and since then. Dozens of museums have asked me to do the same variation of that show. I've been given no choice but to do my best to explain that the bodies of work I've created deserve to stand alone, while trying not to come off as an egotist. Or to put it plainly, I explain that my work has value without needing to be contrast it to a dead white man's perspective and creativity. I've been to museum boardrooms, armed with statistics and facts, explained Curtis harmful impact. I connect them to other Native photographers work. Inevitably, the institution's leaders will murmur that their patrons want to see his work on the walls, and that their hands are tied. In fact, I decided to publish this piece because the entire city of Seattle is celebrating the Curtis sesquicentennial celebration, as if it isn't enough to celebrate him every 100 years, it needs to be done every 50. Curtis’ photography continues to sell its high end auction houses for astronomical amounts and those sales profit his foundation. And to my knowledge, none of that money makes its way back into Indian country in an impactful way. Meanwhile, while Indigenous photographers such as Thosh Collins, Nadia Kwandibens, Ryan Redcorn, and others are yet to have standalone exhibitions at the Met or be represented by blue chip galleries in Chelsea or become staff photographers at the New York Times or be able to represent their peoples and photographically in National Geographic because non Indian photographers such as Aaron Huey get that job. Recently Josue Rivas participated as a magnum fellow and realized the inadequate representation of Indigenous photographers and all these elite photo spaces and lost Natives photograph in the New York Times wrote an article about it. Books about Curtis, some of which have been your best sellers aren't concerned about the ways in which the Curtis legacy impacts Native people. The lack of representation, and consumption can raise a question if work that I offer is seen as good or worthy or if the continuing preference for his vision is just the manifestation of the racist construct we live under? Without having the answer to that question, I do know that the Indigenous image, the profit and aggrandizement from the Indigenous image, and the consumption of the Indigenous narrative have remained in the control and bank account of non Indigenous people. Until we start seeking and appreciating different images of Indigenous people is wonderful creative transformative contemporary human beings. The narrative will stay the same. The dehumanization of Indian people will continue. We saw this at the mass media’s depiction of the people as Danny Brock. We see it in our intolerable achievement gaps with our students, and we see it in the brutal life expectancy of Native populations. And earlier today as I wrote this post, a curator called me and asked, Have you ever heard of Edward S Curtis? End post. A lot of times people say to me, Well, I didn't mean it. When she I don't mean it that way I you know like I love everybody I don't even see color, you know, uh, you know like, I don't mean any disrespect you know that about me I'm not racist I grew up on Indian land you know like I grew up on the rez you know I love Indians. Um, at which point, you know, how do you respond, how do you respond to that Adrienne?

ADRIENNE: I mean, so when people, there's a couple of things like people often say like, well, don't you find these artists who were trying to represent Natives or this whatever representation, isn't it honoring to you, and of course it's not, I would much rather I would much more be honored by folks respecting our sovereignty, letting a Native artist do that letting a Native designer represent themselves by showing true and real portrayals of who we are, like that to me is honoring, that to me is respect. Fake mis representation is not honoring. And so then when people are like, oh well but, but it's not me like I'm not the one. Even if you think that you are not participating in settler colonialism, by the nature of living in this society, you are benefiting from colonization. And you can't escape that, and it's a process of needing to own that and understand that and then work actively to dismantle it, so you can't just say I'm a good person, you need to recognize that there's a power structure at play, which goes back to these definitions of cultural appropriation that it's about power, and by their position in society as a, as white folks, as settlers, they are benefiting from settler colonialism and need to understand that it's not this equal exchange like it's not just everybody happy sharing that they are in that position of power, and that's really hard for a lot of white folks to understand.

MATIKA: And for anybody to understand. I mean, it's hard in any circumstance to say out loud, this is my part, I mean it's for me personally, being a person that attempts to live with principles. It's never easy for me to say, yeah, this was my part what the where was I self seeking where was I dishonest Where could I have done better? You know, all of us are in this human experience together, aiming to do better than those that came before us and make a better world for our children and so, you know, my thought about that is, all right. If it's hard for me and it's hard for you, we both have a role to play. And I can be 50% wrong. I can take ownership for my part, but I can't take ownership for yours. You know, and so nobody can do for you what you can do for yourself. And so please stop expecting the brown folks in the room to do for you, what you can do for yourself and if you benefited from an education system where you were not required to take Indigenous Studies or African American studies or Asian American studies or Latin American Studies because you had the privilege of reading in English and reading great European literature and you were not actively in pursuit of an Indigenous education, then you have a responsibility later on in your life if you want to call yourself woke and call yourself an ally or an advocate or if you would like to in fact be an accomplice, then you have a responsibility to go learn some of these things about the Indigenous and actually become an advocate or an ally-

ADRIENNE: Or a co conspirator

MATIKA: Or a co conspirator.

MATIKA: Adrienne, I know you have your blog pulled up there and, and I'm wondering, what is it?

ADRIENNE: It reminded me of a blog post that I wrote, I think in 2012 or 2011 like early days of the blog. It was in this growth learning process for me. I was writing a ton about Tonto. I wrote like seven different posts about the Disney Lone Ranger movie that was coming out so that I guess it was 2014. And it was. We're in this moment now four years later, where people kind of understand that representations matter, a little bit more. But at the time, Native folks and non Native folks were coming after me being like, Why does this matter this is so silly that you're talking about this. I finally had to write this blog post and I called it very simply “Why Tonto Matters”, but there's a part of the end of it that I still return to like as just a kind of succinct way to think about why this matters. And it starts with a quote from Ryan McMahon who is a podcaster writer in Canada. He's Anishinaabe and he quotes his grandma, and he says, everything you do grandson is going to be political, because you're Anishinabeg. The way that we represent ourselves is therefore inherently political; these trivial issues are representative of deeper darker larger issues within Indian country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and mis representation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the quote real issues in Indian Country. I've said it many times before and I'll say it as many times as I can until it sticks. Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women every day, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality, but we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior. That's the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples to ignore and erase our existence. We're taught every day explicitly in classrooms and implicitly through messages from the media that our culture is something that exists in negative contrast to quote Western values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp's Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle and until we demand more, our contemporary existence, and therefore the quote real problems in Indian Country, simply don't exist in the minds of the dominant culture. How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self determination, nation building, tribally controlled education, health care and jobs. When 90% of Americans only view Native peoples a