Photo courtesy Sarah Crawford
Students from the Biloxi High School band from Mississippi parade through Washington, D.C. in headdresses.

Houska: 'I Didn't Know' Doesn't Cut It Anymore

Tara Houska

Springtime in Washington, D.C. is a beautiful season. Tourists flock to the city in droves to document the cherry blossoms take over the streets and monuments. Fragrant petals of pink and white fill the air; the District is transformed into a place of beauty. Every year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival runs for three weeks, culminating with a massive parade featuring performers coast to coast.

I was at the Georgetown waterfront enjoying the sun when I received a message from my friend Sarah Crawford, a citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. The Biloxi High School band from Mississippi was marching in the parade, and every single student was wearing a faux headdress that would be the envy of Coachella. Sarah sent me a video of nearly two hundred students clad in bright red and white headdresses, expressing her shock and discomfort at the display.

Here, in the Nation’s Capital, home of the most prominent Native mascot debate in the country, an entire brigade of high school students proudly wore the embodiment of cultural appropriation. Immediately the question of whether it was intentional came to mind – not one of these students had a fleeting moment of hesitation? Not one envisioned the subsequent petition denouncing their choice of attire?

Pharrell Williams, Christina Fallin, Alessandra Ambrosio, No Doubt, Juliette Lewis, Chanel, Victoria’s Secret and many others have all experienced varying degrees of backlash for donning a highly sacred piece of Native culture like a fashion accessory. The accompanying apology has become rote.

Yet, there it was. Surely the school administrators were aware of the increasing pushback by the Native American community against such behavior, weren’t they? Lancaster High School in upstate New York made national news in March for dropping its ‘R*dskins’ moniker and logo. A month prior, a private Maryland school banned use of the term on its campus.

Cherry Blossom trees in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Tara Houska.

The chorus of Native and non-Native voices against the Washington football team grows louder by the day; from large-scale protests, lawsuits, community forums, to Congress introducing legislation revoking the tax status of the NFL. Numerous media outlets have featured segments on the issue; many reporters have elected to refrain from using the team name. The Associated Press is currently evaluating whether to categorize the term as offensive, while social media trends tags like #NotYourMascot, #NoHonorInRacism, #ChangeTheName, and #RightSideOfHistory.

For me, the question has become a matter of timing. How much longer will Dan Snyder insist he’s honoring us, how many more “accidental headdress incidents”, how many more Halloween Pocahottie costumes until the public realizes Native Americans are not commodities?

The history of playing Indian in the United States is a long one, harkening back to the days when government-sponsored genocide of Native peoples was the norm. Sentimental racism is difficult for many to let go of; love of team, love of romanticized Native American cultures is far easier to accept than the harsh realities of the historic and ongoing treatment of a people that continue to exist. 

But frankly, at this point it’s getting old. Sentimental racism is still racism. With every new appropriation incident, with every new protest or educational event organized by Native communities, it becomes more and more difficult to legitimately claim: “I didn’t know.”

Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Jason Daniels.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP and a founding member of Follow her on Twitter @zhaabowekwe.

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