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Fashion Exploiting Native Wear Is Racist

Karlene Hunter
3/5/15

There has been a lot of media lately regarding cultural insensitivity and/or ignorance at the Oscars and New York City’s Fashion Week. There's always media attention when celebrities are involved. But this is nothing new to the Native community regarding its language, its art, its traditions and now, its products.

Even here at Native American Natural Foods, we are not immune to this veiled form of racism. We see it. We know it. And we are not going to stay silent.

These copycats create fashion designs stolen directly from Native artists. They name and create logos for their products using Native spiritual icons. They create pretend "tribes," invoking Native spirituality where none exists. These "products," designed only to cash in at the expense of Native creativity, ignore the resources they are siphoning away from people who are suffering.

These practices totally disrespect Native American people and tribes. This is a discreet form of racism and a not-so-discreet form of exploitation.

Here are a handful of examples (out of many) in just the last year:

Bethany Yellowtail 'Gutted' by Crow Design on Dress at New York Fashion Week

Ralph Lauren Apologizes for Native American Ads

Oklahoma Gov's Daughter: A Woman in a Headdress Is 'a Beautiful Thing'"

Pharrell Williams Sorry for Wearing First Nation Headdress

And even in our own industry, knockoffs of our traditional foods are being marketed with Native iconography and language. They pretend to be "inspired" by Native recipes and then intentionally wrap them in a Native fiction. There are more on the way, some of them backed by millions of advertising dollars in an attempt to crowd out Native originators.

After 100 years of oppression, being placed on reservations, our total society and social systems taken away (language, spirituality, economy, land) Native people have finally come to a point in history where we have learned a whole new system and have begun to rebuild our society.

So now, appropriators and exploiters are trying to take that away from us again. We see it. We know it. And we are not going to stay silent.
Because history does repeat itself, if we let it.

Karlene Hunter is CEO of Native American Natural Foods and CEO of Lakota Express Inc. She co-founded Lakota Express in 1996 and Native American Natural Foods, home of the Tanka Bar, in 2007 and serves as CEO for both companies. Hunter has a Master’s Degree in Leadership/Management from Oglala Lakota College and more than 25 years of experience in customer care, direct marketing fundraising and management. 

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