Northwest Culture and the Recently Pulled Vans Totem Pole Shirt

Recently, a Canadian petition sought and succeeded in removing a t-shirt from the Vans line.  Vans gave a feeble apology online, and so the petition continues to urge Vans to make a bigger statement regarding the offense it caused.  The t-shirt was a drawing of several beer cans taped together in a stack with wooden wings on the side, making a totem pole out of the cans.  Under the picture, “Vans” was spelled with a tipi sketched in as a capital A.  While many Canadian First Nations citizens and allies alike are quite relieved that this product is at least discontinued, many others are retorting with the typical “get over it” statements.  I’ve decided to use this opportunity as an excuse to educate readers – Native and non-Native alike – on the anti-shirt perspective in this case, and the tribal histories involved.

  
RECAP: PAN-INDIANISM

One of the biggest, underlying issues in a lot of Native “imagery” being used on products/mascots is “Pan-Indianism”.  I know I’ve written on this before but, just to reiterate, “Pan-Indianism” is when you call any indigenous person in North and South America an “Indian” and stop differentiating the cultures.  Ignoring the mixed feelings surrounding the continued use of this misappropriated racial title, “Pan-Indianism” has a significantly deleterious effect on the portrayal and understanding of a very diverse racial category of peoples.  Instead of “Indians” being regarded by their tribal Nations and cultural identities, they are classified as one “monoculture” – generally something most closely resembling Plains tribes.  When non-Indians think of “Indians”, therefore, they likely conjure up images like headdresses, tipis, war paint, bows and arrows, tomahawks, and horses.  These images are so prominent because they are the stereotypes portrayed by Cowboys vs. Indians films, largely produced in the 1950s, which portray the western frontier with a largely inaccurate and biased adaptation of culture and the “savage warrior”.  How comfortable would you feel drawing a caricature that represents all European/Middle Eastern peoples from the last 1,000 years?  “Indians” are even more culturally diverse, considering all of these Nations occupy two continents.

NORTHWEST CULTURE

Regions are often the best way to vaguely classify the variances in cultures in the Americas, much like regions of Europe and Africa can be used to loosely categorize kinds of peoples.  Much like you have the Baltic region or Slavic region of Europe, or West Africa, you have the Northeast region or Southeast region of the United States.  A lot of tribes in certain regions have cousin cultures.  Think of the Romance languages, like French, Italian, and Spanish all coming or being greatly influenced by the domineering Romans in ancient history.  Cultural evolution and relationships exist like this all around the world.  In the Great Lakes region, languages like Ojibwe fall under the Algonquin umbrella which covers a lot of the eastern parts of North America.  Certain aspects of Algonquin culture are, too, unique to these areas.

  
Well, we also have what we call a Northwest Culture.  This region is most specifically identified in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and the western coastal region, climbing up into southeastern Alaska.  The Northwest Culture is very distinct from the cultures in other regions, largely on account of the influences and contact the tribes have had over the years and also their local resources.  The Haida and the Tlingit are two examples of tribes living along this coastal area.  Because of their natural resources in this region, they are well-known for their use of red cedar and of their ties to fishing.

  
Red cedar was useful for building plank houses, which these tribes generally lived in.  The lumber resources were also ideal for making dugout canoes for fishing.  In fact, fishing has always been a central part of many tribes’ cultures, depending on their traditional location.  A lot of Tlingit artwork and design, like from other tribes in the region, reflects this by using designs in often red, black, and white of fish and whales.  These tribes do not wear headdresses, not any of their members; however, they are known for their unique, woven basket hats.  

  
Finally, with all the lumber in the area, these tribes are also known for their carving – including their carving of totem poles.

TOTEM POLES

“Totem” actually comes from an Algonquian word odoodem, meaning “his kinship group”.  These poles had many different purposes among the tribes known to use them in their cultures (e.g., Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nuu-chah-nulth).  Sometimes they were used as a welcome sign, sometimes they were placed in front of a residence to shame someone into paying a debt (called a “shame pole”).  Generally, six kinds of totem pole categories are identified that vary by their purpose of construction and placement when erected.  The poles were not regarded as religious artifacts, per se, but they could hold great importance in telling a story or representing important events in one’s life.  

  
Sometimes the stories told might be mythical, and many times they told about the experiences of a living person’s life or a known ancestor’s.  No tribe ever worshipped these poles, as once misunderstood to be the case by settlers, but the specific interpretation of each pole can vary greatly between tribal cultures that use them.

CONCLUSION

After looking over this broad view of Northwest Culture, it should be pretty clear that “Pan-Indian” symbols do not come even close to representing these diverse tribes.  Looking back at the t-shirt Vans pulled, we can immediately pick out the totem pole – a symbol of many of the cultures along the western shores of the country the shirt was produced in.  Yet, there is that tipi again in the Vans name.  Why is that?  It is very out-of-place.  But the real kicker is the totem pole being comprised of taped-together beer cans.  What is Vans trying to say?  Is this a shame pole?  Are all Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nuu-chah-nulth citizens drunks?  Is this a family history pole, telling us that beer was an essential part of all Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nuu-chah-nulth family lives?  Is this a mythical story, telling us that all Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nuu-chah-nulth worship beer?  Are we now disregarding the amazing craftsmanship of carvers from the Northwest tribes (who didn’t have metal knives until European contact) and paralleling their work to made-in-Canada aluminum cans held together with tape?  Seriously, what do you think it means?  What would you think if you were shopping?  Would you even recognize the great totem pole as a cultural identifier of Northwest peoples?

 
Above: Another example of how Clevelanders are taking stereotypes way too far and mocking cultures. 

It is a commonly known fact that whiskey and other alcoholic products were used to trade with many tribes during settler expansion – a tool to addict and manipulate the populations at the time.  This has led to the stereotype of the “drunken Indian”, accelerated by the continued alcoholism experienced in many impoverished tribal communities.  However, a lot of pieces to the modern story are ignored today.  One of these pieces is the connection between alcoholism, as a coping mechanism, and poverty.  With the majority of North American tribal members living in poverty, and the high rates associated with any community’s alcoholism to poverty, this is not strictly an “Indian problem”.  It is a human problem of substance addiction, concentrated by race on concentration camps Reservations and Reserves.  Furthermore, here are two more facts for you to consider, provided by SAMSHA: 1. Natives have the highest rate of ABSTINENCE, and many Reservations forbid the sale of alcohol on tribal land; 2. The highest rates of alcoholism (in at least the United States) occur in white men – not Native, not black, not anyone else, but white men.  Yet Natives bear the stereotype, largely put on them by the historic majority culture – white men.

Well, I hope you’ve learned a little about indigenous diversity today.  I also hope you can see how inaccurate a lot of stereotypes are to indigenous cultures.  Although I understand a t-shirt isn’t going to be the weapon being used to murder indigenous peoples, I do believe the false imagery and associations are a microcosm of traumatic experiences.  Like many other inaccurate depictions, images like these demonstrate how indigenous peoples viewed by dominating society (microaggression) and how the stereotyped indigenous peoples end up viewing themselves in an already often-depressing environment.  Finally, the symbols used on the shirt borrowed from different cultures of a diverse race and labeled that race with a negative characteristic of alcoholism; this, by definition, actually constitutes as racism, regardless of Vans’ statement that it was not Vans’ intention to offend in any way.

What do you think?

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ON-GOING: The Rainbow Family Threatens the Black Hills, Tribal Members

While the country is busy talking about a Kentucky Fried Rat and making memes of Rachael Dolezal’s habitual blackface, another sort of alarm and cultural appropriation is flaring up in the Black Hills.  Yes, the sacred Black Hills, a place under constant threat for its resources since 1874.  This time the Lakota are fighting off a different kind of enemy: The Rainbow Family of Living Light.

First, a short lesson on the Black Hills.

Mount RushmoreThe Black Hills were once desecrated by carving the Mount Rushmore monument as a way to increase tourism in Lakota traditional land.

In 1776, the same year the United States formed back on the eastern seaboard, the Lakota conquered the Cheyenne and took over the Black Hills territory.  They called the hills Ȟe Sápa, “Black Hills” being a literal translation of Pahá Sápa for the black appearance the isolated mountain range has from a distance on account of the trees that cover them.  These hills extend from the approximate areas of western South Dakota into Wyoming in the heart of Indian Country.  They have become a central part to the culture of the Lakota people.

In 1868, nearly 100 years after the Lakota secured the Black Hills territory, the US government signed the Fort Laramie Treat of 1868.  This treaty exempts the Black Hills from ever being settled by whites (well, non-Indians).  However, in 1874, after George Armstrong Custer’s Black Hills Expedition, European Americans swept into the area in a gold rush after having discovered gold there.  The US government’s response?  Oh, forget the treaty, there’s gold!  Lakota people, you will now be relocated.

The Lakota have fought for decades to uphold the treaty that gives them the rights to their sacred territories.  But history repeats itself.  They have been currently battling against the Keystone XL Pipeline that threatens to tear through their hills and pollute their territories beyond the pollution already caused by tourism, mining, and the lumber industry that has taken over these parts.  How is any of this legal, you might ask?  Well, quite frankly, it’s not.

Like most of the issues (especially environmental) that we have in Indian Country.  The US Government has no honor when it comes to upholding international treaties (and tribes are sovereign nations, so that is exactly what these treaties are).  Furthermore, the government ended its treaty making and refuses to resume it.  Congress ended treaty-making with tribes in 1871, despite their sovereignty allegedly continuing to be acknowledged.  The last treaty made was with the Nez Perce and was broken just a few years later, leading to the Nez Perce War.  But enough about treaties.  Let’s move on with the new enemy threatening to invade the Black Hills.

So now, who is this Rainbow Family?

People are allowed to be free and believe what they would like to believe.  However, cultural appropriation is where Freedom of Speech has its limitations.  The Rainbow Family of Living Light is an example of where this freedom becomes harmful, disrespectful, and out of line.  To sum it up quickly, I would describe and generalize this self-proclaimed “tribe” as being a cult-like group of “free”, “loose”, and often marijuana-smoking non-Indians/Pretendians playing at “being Indian”.  Sadly, the first time I became introduced to this group was at an actual Native gathering.  (Even in Urban Indian communities, you have to be weary of the “Indians” and the “Elders” who try to lure you into faux-Indian groups, customs, and ways.)

rainbow family

Wikipedia defines these people as a “loosely affiliated group of individuals committed to principles of non-violence and egalitarianism” who “put on peaceable assemblies/free speech events known as Rainbow Gatherings”.  According to therainbowfamilytribe.tribe.net, their beliefs are more than just this: “We also believe that Peace and Love are a great thing, and there isn’t enough of that in this world.  Many of our traditions are based on Native American traditions, and we have a strong orientation to take care of the Earth.  We gather in the National Forests yearly to pray for peace on this planet.”

But how does one base their traditions on “Native American traditions” when we are so diverse…and when “outsiders” aren’t exactly on the “inside”?  That’s just it: they don’t.  They bastardize what they think is our “tradition”.  Yes, cultural appropriation.

If you look at photos from the gatherings, you will see a lot of naked people covered in mud, dancing, singing, doing whatever – and also smoking an enormous pipe/bong of what is most certainly marijuana.  Internationally, even, these people gather.  You will see photos of cult-like circles upon circles, usually with a Plains-style tipi in the background.

Damage

But there are more consequences than just cultural appropriation; there are also financial problems.  The Forest Service Incident Management team costs federal taxpayers considerable amounts of money, allegedly because they must monitor these gatherings and the Rainbow Family refuses to pay what they owe for the permits to operate in these National Forest Lands.  The Burning Man festival is not connected to these gatherings, but attendees at that festival are charged as much as a few hundred dollars to buy a ticket to attend – a cost that goes directly to securing the $750,000 permit for operating in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada each year.  That is the same permit that the Rainbow Family refuses to acknowledge and pay, according to sources I have found.

The environmental impact of these gatherings is often great, including unpaid medical bills and local animal control agency costs for treating dogs in attendance.  The Rainbow Family does pick up trash after events, but this does not include open latrine trenches, compost piles, fire pits, and other significant damage that occurs from their large, rambunctious occupation of protected lands.

Ironically, there were also three non-fatal stabbings in a 2014 Colorado gathering and one fatal shooting in a 2015 Florida gathering.  Yeah, “non-violent”.

And what does this have to do with the Black Hills?  You probably guessed it by now.  Finally, here’s what’s been going on:

The Rainbow Family wants to gather at the Black Hills.

Yeah, you read that right.  The culture appropriating semi-Pretendian tribe with recent violence and historic environmental damage wants to freely occupy the sacred and protected lands of the Lakota people.

Needless to say, the Lakota have said No.  Online groups have been formed to gather supporters and petitions have been made because the Rainbow Family doesn’t seem to get the picture.  They argue they have Freedom of Speech rights.  On cantetenza.wordpress.com, a letter was shared which expressed the seriousness of the Lakota people’s refusal to allow the Rainbow Gathering to come.  This is the Lakota’s issue notice of complaint that denies the Rainbow Family entry to the Black Hills:

Lakota Notice

The gathering may have well over 20,000 people, so this unwanted trespassing will certainly risk desecration of holy lands and interruption of Lakota ceremonial practices.

Yet, these “peaceful” people will not listen.

Instead, they have responded with lies of being Indian shamans, and some have even given death threats to Oglala Lakota Lance Brown Eyes and others who have spoken out.  Don’t believe me?  Watch it for yourself:  https://redpowermedia.wordpress.com/2015/06/17/rainbow-family-of-light-member-threatens-to-kill-native-americans-video/

Other comments have been received through various boards, including this person’s response to a Native trying to reason with him:

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The bottom line is, these people have no right entering and desecrating this territory.  This goes beyond just their typical cultural appropriation.  They are not welcome, they should not be granted access, but then again neither should the Keystone XL Pipeline.  The Lakota deserve respect for their wishes of keeping their land sacred and unharmed.

If you wish to support as an ally, Cante Tenza asks to write or call to these people:

U.S. Forest Service Black Hills director Craig Bobzien phone   (605) 673-9200,  fax: (605) 673-9350, email to cbobzien@fs.fed.us

U.S. Forest Service Washington DC Chief Tom Tidwell phone (202) 205-8439 and email to ttidwell@fs.fed.us  Copy Tina Baily at tcbailey@fs.fed.us

In Rhode Island: “I Am Not Your Mascot” Presentation

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The mascot issue doesn’t just get attention on Opening Day, although that is probably when you hear about it most.  One of my fellow members of the Lake Erie Professional Chapter of the American Indian Science & Engineering Society recently shared with me an event she helped run in New London, Connecticut to educate people on the issue.  The event, called “I am Not a Mascot”, was held June 9th at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist congregation (http://www.allsoulsnewlondon.org).  Alex is the Task Force Chair for the Growing Racial and Cultural Equity group (G.R.A.C.E.) in the congregation, and the presentation was a G.R.A.C.E. event.  Many UU congregations, which focus on respect for everyone and everything despite their differences, have been adapting similar programs.

The “I am Not a Mascot” presentation was given by Lorén Spears, a citizen of the Narragansett Indian Tribe which is surrounded by Rhode Island State.  Lorén is also the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, dedicated to indigenous education and located in Exeter, Rhode Island.  She received a Bachelor’s of Science in Elementary Education from the University of Rhode Island, a Master’s in Education from the University of New England, spent years teaching in public schools and also as an adjunct professor at the University of Rhode Island (Native literature), and even founded the Nuweetooun School.  She works to educate the public in traditional knowledge passed down from her Elders, including traditional cooking, beadwork, language, basketry, weaving, traditional dance, music, and oral history.  The Tomaquaq Museum (http://www.tomaquaqmuseum.org/home) also has a number of podcasts and videos on its website.

Alex provided some notes for how the presentation went and what was covered.  Some highlights included discussions of the term “r*dskin” – a racial slur that came from a time when Natives were skinned and the skins were exchanged for money.  This led into talking about the Washington team and its refusal to change the name despite the fact that the name is offensive and comes from a violent part of American history.  The history of the Cleveland team was also discussed, its logo having started with just a “C” which progressively became offensive (a pictured slide is shown below with the logo changes by year).  High schools are still using stereotypical and offensive mascots and names, though that is starting to change.  (Several State school boards have outlawed such things and require schools to make a change in the next couple of years.)  Social Media has made It easier for Natives to combat these stereotypes as they can rally from far and wide and made an online presence where they would otherwise be left unheard.  Finally, psychologists have proven that these negative (and allegedly “positive”) stereotypes, misrepresentations, and cultural appropriations have all caused psychological harm to indigenous peoples.  Lorén also gave examples of other logos that have been changed, like the Golden State Warriors, but also examples of mascots with African-American references that have been terminated.

On one slide, some facts are shared that counter the argument often heard that nothing’s going to change.  Rather, 2/3 of over 2000 “Indian” references in sports have been eliminated in the last 35 or so years.  28 high schools, to date, have changed their “R-word” name.  In addition to this information, the Cleveland baseball team is largely phasing out to a Block C logo.  The Washington football team was stripped of all its trademark rights.  Oregon has recently joined the growing list of states that ban Native mascots in schools, including California’s advancement of the bill to ban the “R-word” name at schools.  In Madison schools, clothing with Native American logos have been banned.  Furthermore, public statements have been made by dozens of tribes and national organizations, such as the American Psychological Society and the American Sociological Society, which share the position that these mascots are unnecessary, harmful, and should be immediately eliminated.  This is especially crucial as these organizations are capitalizing on stereotypes, making these images seem acceptable, perpetuating the feelings of inadequacies in Native youth, playing a role in racial inequality, and most certainly contributing to before battling against the suicide rates and race crimes experienced by Native people, statistics which are all alarmingly the highest by far than any other group, despite being a minority among minorities.

Alex said that everyone who attended the workshop say they learned a lot.

Below are photos provided by Alex from the educational event:

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