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?

“My Indian Name is Runs With Beer”, an example of racism.

Before I even launch into yet another example of mainstream racism, I have to ask: At what point did “political correctness” – or being “PC” – become a pejorative?  By its very definition, it’s a mechanism for cultural sensitivity to protect minorities from being marginalized.  Now I see kids on the Internet every day using it like a slur against one another.  Respect is becoming extinct.

The purpose of today’s piece is to expose an example of racism towards indigenous peoples and why it’s not okay.

This morning, my friend Michelle texted me a picture and her commentary on a cooler design she found on Facebook.  The page is a closed group, called “The Cooler Connection”.  She described it to me as being a page that largely consists of sorority girls sharing cooler designs (presumably for college drinking and whatnot).  She added me to the page so I could see its content: Most posts share designs of coolers people have done, some posts ask for advice on cooler painting, and there are even posted guides to how to paint your own cooler.  Although the idea of college students dignifying all things binge-drinking terrifies me, I also see the page as a neat way to add creativity to ordinary objects.  It’s like an interactive, DIY Pinterest board of cooler art.

Seems harmless, right?

Wrong.

Michelle’s reason for sharing this page with me to day was so I could see a cooler design by student/artist Jess Merry of Appalachian State University.  Miss Merry, from the Raleigh/Cary area, went to school in Boone in western North Carolina – i.e. the heart of Indian Country.  The Tsalagi, in particular, reside in this area on the Eastern Band of Cherokee reservation.  You would think anyone spending considerable time in this vicinity would be privy to cultural sensitivity and the concentration of an ethnic minority in his/her area, but sadly this does not seem to be the case.  I say this because Miss Merry’s design was an example of racism against the indigenous American race:

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“This is gorgeous, but that is INCREDIBLY offensive!!” wrote my friend in a flustered response.  And she’s right: The artwork should be commended, even the Papyrus handwriting, but the truth behind it is none of its content is acceptable.  Well, it shouldn’t be acceptable.  But, as evidenced by the commentary on the post, few people seem to grasp exactly why.  Instead, virtual eye rolls and accusations of “here we go with the PC comments” and “get over it” statements alternated with ones saying “this is not okay”.

“For all of you that don’t understand why it’s offensive [you] are what’s wrong with this country right now,” Michelle continues.  She is referring to the attitude that cultural sensitivity needs to die out and that too many people voice opinions about “getting over it” when there are social-economic-cultural crises so deeply rooted in historic trauma and perpetuated prejudice that there is no “getting over it”.

Not only was Michelle addressing the problem of stereotyping indigenous peoples, desecrating a headdress and chief nobility, and having no respect for one another’s’ culture, she also calls out the unacceptable treatment of ceremony.  “To put it simply, it’s disrespectful because you’re mocking a Native American tradition,” she writes.  She’s referring to “Indian names” – or really, naming ceremonies – which is a very important custom in some, but not all, groups of indigenous peoples.  Mocking this ceremony is not only a religious assault, but it continues the stereotypes through pan-Indianism with which Western film culture has brainwashed the ignorant.  In other words, the design was borne out of a racist interpretation of a homogenous indigenous culture – which simply does not exist.

IMG_2948IMG_2949IMG_2950

Okay, so I’m going to break this down and try to explain exactly why we should be upset about this cooler:

1. Racism.

Before everyone gets all bent out of shape about me using this word, let’s bring up the definition and then see how this fits snuggly into it:

racism

[ ˈrāˌsizəm ]

NOUN

noun: racism

the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

All members of each race meaning we are looking at the overarching, identity-stripped, cultural whitewash that we call “Native American culture”.

Possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race meaning we are using a stereotypical profile (like those being removed currently from mascots across the country), we are blaspheming religious symbols and ceremonies to a limited number of cultures and also applying them broadly and stereotypically (“pan-Indianism”), and we are insinuating alcoholism is an inherent part of “being Indian” (and paralleling it to a religious name-giving custom).

Especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races meaning the ideas entrapped in this cooler design, which are all rooted in outdated stereotypes from Western films and past “Indian policies” (explained in the subsequent points), exist purely as remains from a culture that believed indigenous peoples to be savage, uncivilized, and an amalgamate race far inferior to whites.

So to conclude, this design does in fact perpetuate racism.  What’s even worse: not everyone understands why it is racist against a marginalized race of people in this country, and people continuing to act out of ignorance – that is a very damaging thing.

2. Cultural appropriation.

Cultural-Appropriation3

Race relations is still largely a problem in the United States – in fact, as I experienced through the US’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN this past week, our country is largely frowned down upon for its backwardness in race issues.  In the United States, we tend to look at race rather than at culture and individualism.  This is, in my view, still a product of past, racist policies where someone could be marginalized simply because of his/her skin color.  Slavery is the prime example of this.  So our society still has a lot to learn about culture and cultural sensitivity, which is all exemplified by the cultural appropriation we see talked about more and more these days.

Sure, America might be a “melting pot” and cultures might influence one another, but cultural appropriation takes it a step further.  Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group exploits the culture of less dominant, less privileged groups, often without any kind of understanding and respect for the latter groups’ histories and traditions.  Therefore this cooler, too, is appropriating culture that is not in any way understood by the party-goers who would likely be using this decorated piece.

3. Pan-Indianism.

I will keep this simple: Indigenous cultures are incredibly diverse.  “Indian”, by the concept of “Pan-Indianism”, refers to indigenous peoples from the northern Arctic coast down to the southern South American tip.  Now explain to me how something like a stereotyped “Indian” profile and the contents of the cooler design are not a perfect example of Pan-Indianism?  And the problem with Pan-Indianism?  It washes away cultural identity, eliminates individualism, and allows for stereotypes to branded all over anyone who falls into the category of “Indian” – without any regard for accuracy or respect of someone’s traditions.

4. Alcoholism stereotypes.

If only I could count all the times someone used Cromagnum English to tell me about “white man” bringing over the “fire water”…. Well, actually, alcohol did exist in many of cultures for centuries – maybe even thousands of years – before any “white man” arrived on Turtle Island.  Yet we are constantly making jokes about Natives by building off of these stereotypes of alcoholism in Indian Country.  But none of it is even true.

This is not to say that Reservations don’t face an alcohol problem, because they do – but surely this same trend can be attached to any other traumatized demographic, including those in chronic economic despair (and the majority of some Reservation populations live in poverty).  According to studies by the NIAAA, white people (especially men) are more likely than any other demographic to drink regularly, by a younger age, and drive while under the influence.  A bit ironic since this demographic is also more prone to perpetuate such stereotypes about indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, indigenous populations have the highest rate of alcohol abstinence of any other ethnic group.  Many Reservations and tribal lands forbid the sale of alcohol.

The stereotyping of indigenous peoples in regards to alcoholism, as done by this cooler, is just that: stereotyping.  It is only funny if you believe it is true, and if you have no heart or care about real-world people and real-world consequences of perpetuating such misconceptions.

5. Cherokee royalty defends it.

Any time someone (who does or doesn’t identify as indigenous) states “this is offensive”, a whole slew of people suddenly find red in their veins.  “Well I’m Native American and I’m not offended!” they’ll exclaim, failing to see fallacy in their statements.  I say “Cherokee royalty”, because 9 times out of 10, these people have a great-great-grandmother who was a Cherokee princess.  Well, they claim they do, because there are no “Indian princesses”.  This demonstrates how they either are completely BS-ing, going off of mainstream phrases about “Indian identity”, or they are so disconnected with their might-be culture that their opinion is absolutely 0% indigenous to begin with.

“Indianness” isn’t a costume, a trend, or even a blood quantum – it’s an identity, an identity that includes everything from participating in your heritage, knowing your clan/blood line, enrolling if enroll-able, and promoting your culture.  When you promote your culture, you’re also protecting it.  You understand the true histories about “Indian policy”, you know the current struggles of your tribe and also many struggles of other tribes, and you are familiar with the pieces of “Rez life” that don’t get romanticized by non-indigenous America: commodity cheese, HUD housing, and corruption within your own government.

Furthermore, I consider stating your blood quantum to be a rude attempt at weighting the value of your voice by western society’s concept of how “Indian” you are.  It gives the ignorant a chance to take a stab, saying things like “Well you’re only 50%, so you’re not a real Indian” or “You might be Navajo, but you’re also 50% Lakota, so you can’t have an opinion on anything Navajo”, as an example.  If you’re a dual citizen, you just say your citizenship.  What’s sad is, even when I do this, I find myself inserting “Indian” into my statement to address the blank stares I get.  The flipside to stating blood quantum as a way to identify yourself is when people who are most likely not genuinely indigenous at all (but rather fantasize about the “cool” parts of being Indian, sans marginalization, etc.) make statements like “I’m 6% Native” or “I’m part Native American”.  Umm, what?  Just…just stop.  I already know I have no interest in what you’re about to say.

6. There’s no one left to offend.

You wouldn’t be comfortable making fun of someone to his/her face for something he/she can’t change (physical appearance, religion, etc.), yet this cooler mocks religion, race, and culture.  Therefore we can only assume that this cooler was shared because it doesn’t occur to mainstream society that Indians are not in fact dead, Indians are not in fact savages incapable of technology, and Indians are in fact on social media like any other American sorority girl or other on this cooler page.  This ties directly in to all the studies being done to prove how mascots stereotype and further marginalize indigenous peoples – especially youth – who have to face perpetuated misconceptions of who they are in everyday life, from school to what they see portrayed through national sports team mascots.  Even when these mascots are meant to be “positive”, they still impact these peoples negatively.

If you’re interested in these studies, here are some links to what has been discovered as psychologically damaging to populations that already suffer disproportionate amounts of historic trauma:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2014/07/22/indian-mascots-report-washington-nfl-team/13006145/

http://espn.go.com/pdf/2013/1030/espn_otl_Oneida_study.pdf

https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2014/07/22/94214/missingthepoint/

7. Hate speech platform.

Let’s be real: No one using this cooler has any interest in educating people on why they find humor in it despite the grave realities behind why its humor is rooted in on-going racism.  You’re not going to go to a party and find people saying, “Oh, hey, funny cooler!”  “Oh, yeah, thanks – it’s actually stereotypical, culturally appropriating, etc., but it’s funny because most people don’t know the truth behind why it isn’t funny!”  Nope.  In fact, given my experience, if anything comes from it there will be a following of more stereotypes, like wawawawa, dancing around like idiots, perpetuating this noble savage interpretation of real living human beings.  And, to add to bullet 6 above, all of this would be done as if it were impossible that someone in the room could possibly be indigenous.

examples
Search: My Indian Name Is Runs With Beer for many more examples.

As I conclude this piece, I have learned that the cooler was apparently already removed from the page.  Regardless, I am alarmed that this is not a rare occurrence.  (See relevant post on Newspaper Rock: http://newspaperrock.bluecorncomics.com/2011/01/aim-fights-runs-with-beer-t-shirt.html)  I am also alarmed that too many people have come to defend the racism behind this example.  I hope that the time I have spent writing this piece will speak to two audiences: 1) I hope indigenous friends and allies can identify and roll their eyes at the classic examples of rhetoric used in defending yet another classic example of racism being widely misconstrued as acceptable; and 2) I hope all of the others have found this piece an adequate summary for why we shouldn’t be taking such things so lightly.  Again, I don’t think “political correctness” should be used as a pejorative.  But I also believe such an example steps well beyond the limits of what is or isn’t “PC” and enters the realm of intolerable racial tension.