Tribalism as Pop Culture Phenomenon and the Perpetuation of Offensive American Indian Stereotypes

Ruth Hopkins

While the misappropriation of American Indian cultures and imagery by western society has persisted for decades, there's been a gradual uptick in the misrepresentation of Native peoples in the past several years. "Tribalism," a mainstream trend largely based on false, stereotypical notions of who indigenous people are, has become a pop culture phenomenon. Celebutantes, pop princesses and hipster wannabes have been donning gaudy, exaggerated war bonnets and headdresses, wearing "war paint," and playing dress up in Native American "inspired" costumes in record numbers. The perpetuation of stereotypical images of Native peoples is unacceptable and discriminatory for a myriad of reasons.

Non-natives who wear American Indian costumes are pretending to be someone of another race. Just as wearing blackface is repugnant, appearing as a stereotyped caricature of an American Indian is patently offensive. Those who play "dress up" by wearing an American Indian costume, headdress or war bonnet are not only failing to acknowledge the existence of over 500 recognized native nations, each separate and distinct from one another, they are making light of centuries of suffering, oppression and genocide endured by the indigenous people of this country. Enforcing racial stereotypes of Native peoples as savages in nondescript feathers and fringe also perpetuates the myth that American Indians are not active members of modern society and questions our very existence.

Perhaps the most deplorable version of stereotypical American Indian ensembles is the "sexy Indian" costume, a.k.a. the "Pocahottie." Such costumes, like the one Paris Hilton wore last Halloween, depict Native women as sex objects to be desired by non-native men (and perhaps women). Considering that American Indian women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other race of women, that one out of three of all American Indian women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and that as many as 4 out of 5 of these acts of sexual violence are committed by non-native men, the very idea of perpetuating the image of Native women as a sex object is reprehensible.

Not all American Indian Tribes include war bonnets or headdresses as part of their traditional regalia. Of those who do, headdresses and war bonnets were worn by men, and have nothing to do with fashion or the sexual objectification of women. Each eagle feather contained in a war bonnet is individually earned, often bestowed upon the owner through ceremony, and represents a significant event or acknowledged act of bravery, leadership, or self-sacrifice. War bonnets are specifically worn by powerful, respected American Indian men with a history of valor who are leaders in their Tribal community. In other words, the only people who should be wearing war bonnets are chiefs or well-respected warriors, like Tatanka Iyotanka, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota—not Chloe Kardashian, or the pop star Ke$ha. Can you imagine the outrage if a celebrity was featured in scantily clad photos with a Medal of Valor or a Silver Star or the Congressional Medal of Honor that they didn’t earn? Such an inconsiderate display would be akin to the wearing of a war bonnet by someone who hasn’t earned it. This disgrace should be included in the Theft of Valor Act.

Natives have made repeated efforts to educate the public on American Indian identity, as well as explain why stereotypical depictions of Native people are offensive, yet willful ignorance pervades. Instead, we are met with defensiveness and told that we should feel honored. Those who perpetuate false, negative images of Natives are unwilling or unable to grasp the concept that honoring Native people does not involve making Natives into insulting caricatures. Furthermore, stating that the misappropriation of our cultures and identities isn’t important is an attempt to diminish Natives who are against such misuse.

Still, there could be more to this pop culture phenomenon than meets the eye. Many western countries, including the United States, are in the midst of wars, social upheaval, dwindling resources, and economic uncertainty. People, especially the young and disenfranchised, are looking for something sacred. Sociologists have theorized that the decline of mainstream culture and its institutions, along with a breakdown in social structure, would cause people to embrace nostalgia for that which the world now lacks, while seeking out social networks to fulfill a need to belong. This movement has been coined, "Neo-tribalism."

I sympathize with the lost westerner who is searching for the sacred, who only wants a Tribe to call their own. However, these individuals need to recognize that stolen images based on inaccurate, offensive stereotypes of ancient cultures that they have made no effort to understand will not give them the fulfillment they seek. As Native people, we do not belong to you; therefore, we are not at your disposal or available for your misappropriation. Befriend us, don’t insult us. If you listen to us, we’ll show you the ways of Earth. In the process, you might uncover the sacred that was within you all along.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at cankudutawin@hotmail.com

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michaelmack's picture
We have to recognize that American culture is still in its adolescent phase. Unlike for example, China, India, and the ancient American Indian cultures that existed for thousands of years and reached points of maturity, the countries of Europe never truly reached maturity due to their constant religious and economic interwarfare. The ancient cultures of the Middle East, Greece, and Rome considered Europeans to be barbarians, and it was only with economic successes of the 1400's-1500's that England, Spain and the other central European countries BEGAN to lose their barbarity. European history from that time up to the present has not provided good examples of higher levels of human development - it is only in the material/economic realms that Euros and Americans became "successful" by their measures. American still looks primary to England as its role model, but England itself is only now beginning its maturity phase. When Euros reached the Americas, these "nouveau riche" Euros valued only material wealth, and ignored the thousands of years of cultural, ethnical, agricultural, health, religious, philosophical and non-material accomplishments here. At a deeper level Euro-Americans know our cultures have the substance that their material-based cultures don't. They knew and still do that we didn't NEED them, but they needed us, they still do, to reassure themselves that their American endeavor was "right". This lack of Euro-American maturity is particularly evident in difficult economic times as in today's very evident petty political squabbles that consume America's political, economic, and social establishments. On the Euro-Americans part, there is the persistent historical unacknowledged guilt that most persist in trying to rationalize away. Their rationalization is a constant reassurance to themselves that they "won" over us, and also serves to keep us in "our place" - making us and our cultures mascots reassures them of their "righteousness". Until Euro-Americans as a whole start to mature, which is doubtful given the U.S.'s current problems, don't expect to see much change, in fact, if U.S. problems get worse, we might see more.
izabel's picture
I'd like to respond to your reply Michael, I was surprised by it. >> The ancient cultures of the Middle East, Greece, and Rome considered Europeans to be barbarians >> As far as I know being a native north european my ancestors were living off the land thru agriculture, fishing, hunting etc. the romans who occupied half of my country considered them barbarians as they didn't have a written language, loved to dress in the showiest brightest colours, and our men all had long hair. Yes, I'm sure they were savages, after all cultures have never been misrepresented by their enemies and those that have conquered them. >> it was only with economic successes of the 1400?s-1500?s that England, Spain and the other central European countries BEGAN to lose their barbarity. >> That was the time of the witch hunts, and my country "invented" the first multinational corporation, from then on fullblown patriarchal corporate evil would from be unleashed, landing on your shores in 1609, shipping slaves, colonisation, trade (not fair-trade, mind you), what not. Women of course had no rights. Where exactly do you see that bit about losing barbarity? >> Unlike for example, China, India, and the ancient American Indian cultures that existed for thousands of years and reached points of maturity, the countries of Europe never truly reached maturity due to their constant religious and economic interwarfare. The ancient cultures of the Middle East, Greece, and Rome >> Maturity of a culture, you mention ancient Rome, Greece, Middle east, China, India. What made these mature in your view: these are all cultures with powerful imperialistic traits, big empires that expanded by taking the lands of neighbouring peoples and tribes. Women in these ancient cultures had virtually no rights (except maybe in India in some time and place). They had some great architecture and roads and stuff, but built those? Well paid contractors? Volunteers? Not really! I'm a great admirer of the ancient Chinese, for sure they knew (in theory) what balance is. But I guess these empires are basically just built on crime(s against humanity). Science and literature are good but these are mental achievements. Wouldn't maturity imply balance, and compassion and giving spirit the space to lead? I doubt that can be done in such large empires, as they would need to have totally different priorities in order to survive and expand even further. >> At a deeper level Euro-Americans know our cultures have the substance that their material-based cultures don’t >> Well your historical overview doesn't make sense to me, but I agree with this, I think it means there is hope, as people are finally beginning to make the shift from being externally driven towards having an internal locus of control. Good luck with your europeans, I have myself and my own here to take care of on the other side of the pond.
shotwell77's picture
"White" isn't a heritage. Are you Irish, Finnish, Polish, Greek, Basque, or ?? Every culture has something to offer and accomplishments to be proud of.
kinajin's picture
The native young may also be guilty of perpetuating stereotypes. Many parrticipate in ceremonies without any knowledge of the native language. Many young natives are wannabess, you can tell when they say the are this band or that band. Many attach themselves to Sitting Bull's band. Ceremonies are personal and private, part of being humble. But many young are beginning to listen to their relatives and display behaviors of a new strong cultural identity.
koolkila's picture
Great piece.
michaelmack's picture
This subject could (should) of course be developed in a much larger forum but the limited amount of commentary space necessities keeping it short and simple. The article is about "misappropriation of American Indian cultures and imagery by western society", and the "willful ignorance" of white Americans in doing so. Western society meaning white or Euro-Americans and "misappropriation" referring to how they manipulate A.I.'s for their own purposes. My point is that in order to understand why white Americans persist in doing this, we need to understand white Americans cultural indoctrination. Countries are like individuals, they evolve according to what they're taught and what they learn. Willful ignorance is a clear lack of maturity. Maturity means the ability to learn from the past and the ability to incorporate those lessons into the present, and to grow in awareness such as perhaps others know more about something than I/we do. Most white Americans has not yet reached this point, rather they still think they know everything. The U.S. never matured to the point of developing lasting concepts unique to itself - law, religion, philosophy, etc. because everything came from somewhere else. Older cultures like American Indians had sufficient time to develop significant mature characteristics, such as A.I. spirituality, that even some white Americans try to emulate today. Of course, no culture operates in a vacuum, but the U.S. has not yet developed its own significant mature cultural characteristics. Hot dogs, baseball, videogames, and Ipads don't count. Although since 1776, the U.S. has established itself as "the world power" due to military and economic "success", that does not = culturally maturity. Economic success can "buy" entire castles from Europe, etc. but the need to buy such things demonstrates immaturity, yet American persists in doing just such things. Particularly today, America's immaturity is even more evident. Although it claims a Judeo-Christian moral foundation, per capita it is characterized by more divorce, violence, abuse, personal debt, tax fraud, bankruptcies, more pollution, and an increasing prison population, in short, by any measure, America shows increasing neurosis in all areas. America has always relied upon constant acquisition of material things (borrowed, stolen, or manipulated from others) and the need to show them off. Today, that "success" is being revealed for the thin plastic layer it always was. One reason white Americans perpetuate the stereotyping of and appropriation of A.I. culture, is the white Americans have since 1776 been desperate to have a substantive cultural history, not based in the "old world", to truly claim as their own. But lacking anything close, they have tried to various degrees to reshape and mold A.I.s into their versions, with unfortunate results. Mature people/cultures - does not need to impose themselves on others. Since Euros first landed on these shores they looked for things to glorify themselves, no less than today's "Real Housewives of _______" they needed stuff to show off, they needed to impress others and flaunt themselves. Mature peoples and cultures don't NEED to show off, even when they have it, they just have it, it simply IS. don't try to change or control others - they recognize and respect that other people have to go through their own internal processes, in order to achieve their own maturity. Mature people offer their experience and wisdom, and know you can't "force" anything on anyone any more than one can force someone to like something. want others to mature, they don't try to confine others into some kind of box or stereotype. Mature people know that if others are allowed to mature, they will come to contribute to the collective wisdom. Knowledge is largely temporary, wisdom is the goal of mature people. On the other hand, immature people/cultures: - find it necessary to make fun of others, others' traditions, try to control others, try to bully others into thinking and into being like them; bad-mouth and put down those they can't control; and strive to cheapen the other to make themselves look better. Willful ignorance reveals something deeper, a fear of something, usually a fear of being confronted by the truth - objective facts about themselves. Looking objectively at these descriptions, which better describes white Americans and their attitudes and behaviors toward American Indians? Rationalization is also a sign of immaturity.
anarchistmelanie1981's picture
Well I wish I was Native American! I hate the races that make me, Me!, I believe the Native's are proud people and I love everything they believe in and especially that they respect this land they call home. They hold animals in high regard. I wish I could be proud of my ancestry but I'm not. I hate what the White man did to your people, I am truly sorry and If I could do anything to change time I would. I really want to learn many things Native because I love everything about your culture. Not all white people are ignorant. My mom also wanted to be Native when she was young and I think I inherited this from her. I hate that the white man's diseases and alcohol have tainted your people. In my eyes your people are the most beautiful people I know and I hope one day I'll be able to spend time with a tribe and learn everything they have to offer. I hope your children keep their heritage in there hearts and minds because I know I would.
Anonymous's picture
i like this post and agree with all that is said i also find this is informative and also as you say that the war bonnet is like a badge of honour to be earned not just put on as you feel . a bit like martial artist that sell black belt for easy money instead of really earning the belt anyway thanks for this posat