Harjo: Open Letter to Michael Powell, Andre 3000 and Big Boi

Suzan Shown Harjo
2/13/04

Dear Gentlemen: I usually watch at least part of the Grammy Awards. It's always an interesting show and an easy way to catch acts I've heard but not seen, or never heard of at all, and to check in on old favs.

The 46th annual Grammy show had me from the beginning, with Prince and Beyonce performing the 20-year-old (gasp!) "Purple Rain," and held my attention through the lovely tribute to Warren Zevon.

Then, as I was about to turn in, I heard a Native song, saw a tipi and thought the show was about to feature an Indian act (perhaps even this year's Best Native American Music winner, Black Eagle from Jemez Pueblo, which was awarded, but excluded from the telecast). I could not have been more mistaken.

A fog machine worked overtime and greenish impressions of primordial ooze began to appear through the haze,

All of a sudden, OutKast's "Hey Ya!" exploded and the stage filled with black and white performers in Indian drag.

There was a DJ decked out in what appeared to be a white buckskin outfit and a feathered headdress of a kind that non-Indians call a "Plains Indian war bonnet."

There was Andre 3000 wearing a waist-down sarong in a sickly green color that's marketed as "sea-foam." Shredded material flowed from his costume and wrists, presumably to suggest "Indian fringe."

He wore the kind of wig that white guys wear in movies to "look Indian" - straight-cut, shoulder-length, pow-wow-black-dyed hair, with long bangs to hide the heaviest of eyebrows - and a chartreuse bandana and dark glasses.

Each of the women dancers wore a wig of long braids, topped with a headband and a solitary green feather, standing upright. Above knee-high silver boots, they wore sea-foam tops and shorts with shake-your-tailfeathers fringe.

And, there was the Trojan Marching Band, not in the usual helmets and burgundy and gold colors of the University of Southern California, but in green and white uniforms and plumes, with green and yellow paint on their faces.

Whoever dreamed up the production was going for an Indian effect, but it more closely approximated the Jolly Green Giant and dancing vegetables on crack.

I felt like I'd been mugged in my own home.

The performance unleashed a firestorm of criticism in Indian country, most in the nature of a primal scream.

A group in California called for a boycott of OutKast and their record company, the Grammys, CBS and everything else in sight. Native fans expressed their disappointment in the group's performance and circulated a petition calling on everyone to apologize.

The Oneida Nation was quick to issue a statement decrying the performance for using "racial stereotypes in a hurtful way" and undermining the "entertainment industry's dedication to diversity."

The Oneida statement laid the greater share of the blame on the network. "CBS required Justin Timberlake to once again apologize for his role in the Super Bowl halftime show that ended in Janet Jackson exposing a breast.

"Yet, CBS had no problem with a production number that lampooned American Indians."

Meanwhile, the Grammy Web site touted the performance as one that "had the audience on its feet as Andre 3000 of OutKast pumped through a high-production-value version of 'Hey Ya!,' complete with sci-fi stage set (and) fluorescent green Native American costumes."

That description is not wrong, as long as you overlook the part about them wearing "Native American costumes." The performers and audience were having a great time and were clueless about any possible offense to actual Native people.

A couple of lines of the "Hey Ya!" lyrics could not have been more fitting: "Oh, you think you've got it / But got it just don't get it."

Their attitude didn't get it and the people involved in the production certainly didn't get it.

Here's the thing. Non-Native Americans are so used to the appropriation of Native symbols and the stereotyping of Native people that they seldom notice it's happening and rarely snap to the fact that it's wrong.

The most common complaint about the Super Bowl incident or accident (depending on your take on who did what and who knew about it when) is that innocent children and other unsuspecting people were taken by surprise by the crotch-grabbing and breast-baring halftime show.

That's the way a lot of Native people feel, not only about theatrical performances, but about the mascoting of Native America generally. Our children are confronted with unsavory, injurious images and actions, and oftentimes we adults don't see the offenses headed in our direction until it's too late to avoid their impact.

Janet Jackson's right breast was exposed for three-quarters of a second and both the House and Senate convened hearings immediately.

Vulgarisms about Native Americans are primetime fare during an endless sports season and no one does anything. A marching band with face paint and feathers? It's so familiar it must be right.

National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was called to testify on Feb. 11 before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet because the NFL had contracted with MTV to produce the halftime show.

Tagliabue tried to lay the blame on MTV, saying that the NFL holds itself to the "highest standards" and "brings families and communities together."

But, what about American Indian families and communities?

Leaders of a dozen Native organizations wrote to Tagliabue on May 26, 1999, to urge him to change the "contemptible name" of the Washington football team "to something that will not disparage Native Americans or any other segment of American society."

The NFL and Tagliabue have yet to respond to or even acknowledge that letter. Among the groups still waiting for an answer are the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, Native American Bar Association, Native American Journalists Association and the Native American Rights Fund.

Commissioner Powell, as you are looking into indecency on television and what the Federal Communications Commission will do about it, please go to the tape of the Grammys and to any game of any sports team with Native references and think about the emotional violence they visit upon our families and communities.

Think, too, about the Native American community standards of decency and how they are being ignored.

Andre 3000, you gave the best acceptance speech of this year's Grammy show ("Thank you") and one of the funniest ("Stank you, stank you, stank you very much.").

Andre 3000 and Big Boi, I think you are enormously talented. But, until you rid yourself of stereotypes you probably picked up from your home team in Atlanta, I have to say, "Stank you."

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.

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