Native Appropriation Isn’t Appreciation. It Causes Real Harm.

Date: 02/10/2022
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By Sarah Rose Harper

Companies — like Aviator Nation — who exploit the Native communities they say they support need to change their business models and step up for justice.

This week, the news hit that Aviator Nation — a California-based, “boho” clothing brand — was profiting by appropriating and selling Native culture without attribution or regard to the impact on Turtle Island’s original Peoples. Native Instagram rallied together to demand they stop, and Native People led a protest outside one of their stores. Before you read on, we ask that you join the call demanding Aviator Nation stop appropriating Native cultures and take solid measures toward fixing what they have broken.

Some Real History

In the present day, these so-called United States house 574 recognized tribes (along with numerous unrecognized tribes), yet many settlers continue to view Native Americans as nonexistent or extinct. This viewpoint is no accident. Currently, thanks largely to a refusal to teach real history, Indigenous People of Turtle Island are viewed by the dominant U.S. culture as some kind of historical footnote. According to Tara Houska, 83% of references in U.S. K-12 curriculum uses past tense when referencing Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. That’s a huge problem. When Native Peoples are purposefully written out of K-12 materials in any present sense, Native children will naturally feel invisible, invalid, and detached from their culture — and non-Native children inevitably grow up without an understanding of present-day Native culture.

This strategic academic choice also props up so-called America's own propagandized narrative that this continent was a wild, empty, and undiscovered land when colonists arrived. Kids grow up with the impression — and grow into adults who still believe — that the People already here didn’t count then, and we shouldn’t count now.

Notions to the contrary would, of course, force America to look closely at its brutal, genocidal history. The next logical step in that scenario is grappling with how colonization poisons the well, which, in turn, begs examination of how colonization ultimately affects everyone, whether or not they are empowered by structural racism.

Brittany Woods-Orrison (Koyukon Denè, of Rampart Village) elaborates, “We are all Indigenous to somewhere; we all come from an ancestry that had a relationship with the land. While Indigenous people, for generations, have fought to hold onto their identity and community, white people continue to steal from us violently. Whiteness has exploited Indigenous cultures for generations to make up for their own lack [of cultural identity] and to try to make financial gains.”

With that premise, we can start to understand how non-BIPOC folks can act in ways incredibly destructive to BIPOC existence, as recently embodied by the appropriation of Native culture by Aviator Nation. To be clear, this is not an article offering an out for racist behavior. It’s an explanation of how we got here, how we continue on this rotary of racism, and why we are always exhausted by the lack of growth from non-BIPOC folks.

More on the Aviator Nation Problem

To catch you up, Aviator Nation is a California-esque 1970s-inspired clothing company that uses tipis, traditional moccasins, and mascot faces in their marketing material. The owner, Paige Mycoskie, actually seeks to embody white saviorism, asking for gratitude and recognition for her “creating jobs for POC, Paying POC thru [sic] the entire COVID19 crisis, refusing to lay-off POC (even if that means money out of my pocket).” She also expects recognition and gratitude for her painting of “african american murals” on her store walls (she’s white). The list of her transgressions doesn’t end there. It goes on and on.

As Mycoskie herself says, “we build tipis for a living” and “I worked with authentic Native Americans on this design” when referring to her “tipi” covered in neon colors and live-laugh-love chevrons. Such statements are reflective of her privilege. As the sister of Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes, her business and life are propped up by the millions of dollars her brother makes from marketing his products as good for poor, brown children.

On TOMS’ site, only one of every seven models is BIPOC … until you get to their impact report. There, they demonstrate the good they do for communities; suddenly everyone is Brown, Black or Native.

Given the Mycoskies' origin story, it's no surprise they can't tell the difference between appropriation and appreciation. When the baseline for typical behavior includes using tipis and wearing sombreros and feathered headdresses (that's Blake, above, looking like Jake Angeli and his wife with her friends in the sombrero picture below), it's no wonder they’re surprised when asked to stop their racist behaviors.

The Harm of Appropriation and Misrepresentation

Let’s talk a little more about why appropriation and misrepresentation are so harmful. Lydia Poncé (Mayo/ Quechua) of the American Indian Movement says, “Cultural appropriation is not honoring Indigenous People; it is an injury causing harm to future Indigenous generations. Aviator Nation is attempting to brand their innocence with more words of racism, commodification, and white saviorism. We, the Indigenous community, are still here, and it is their obligation to correct this.”

Sepia-toned photographs are the most common way the dominant American culture views Indigenous Peoples. And, in current culture, one of the most common ways Native Peoples see ourselves represented is in mascotry.

On June 8, the Race, Ethnicity and Education Journal published a study highlighting the outcomes from these issues: “Low self-esteem, low community worth, and increased negative feelings of stress and depression are just some of the negative psychological effects Native American mascots wreak on the well-being of Native Americans, especially youth,”

This dynamic becomes particularly significant when understood in the larger context. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among Native Peoples, and is the second highest cause of death for Natives 10-24, according to The National Indian Council on Aging. “Historical disenfranchisement through genocide and institutional racism has resulted in American Indians and Alaska Natives experiencing poorer health and socioeconomic outcomes. These social determinants of health intersect to create a situation that is detrimental to the physical and mental health of Indian communities. Cultural disconnection, alienation and pressure to assimilate all contribute to higher rates of suicide among American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

A chorus of voices is singing out about how Aviator Nation’s behavior exacerbates the larger problem. Courtney Little Axe (Natsista/NiSiWiNwi/Semvnole) says, “Our cultural practices were illegal until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978. Many of our ancestors were killed trying to preserve those very cultural practices and lifestyles that are being exploited. Cultural appropriation has been a problem that we have faced for far too long. Aviator Nation’s unethical treatment is not unique and happens way too often.”

Indigenous Peoples Movement, a global coalition that unites all Indigenous peoples of the world, highlighted that, as Native People, we have many frontlines, including the dismantling of harmful stereotypes and cultural appropriations. “It’s bad enough we are fighting for our lands, our dignity, our waters, our women and men, and our future generations against this colonial system — but to continue to educate over and over again that our culture isn’t for sale is getting exhausting,” they told us. That exhaustion was echoed by others hoping that through education, we could find new understanding that could limit open racism.

“[Paige Mycoskie’s] behavior indicates that she’s never headed to face this. America suffers from amnesia or it has selective memories, and that’s the issue behind this whole Critical Race Theory. When we aren’t teaching what has actually happened we have no idea how to fix the harm,” says NSRGNTS Collective.

How to Fix Some of the Harm

Now that we have covered what NOT to do, we can touch on what those who wish to be allies can do to actually appreciate Indigenous communities and forward the cause of Native justice. Their participation would be welcomed, because there exists an urgent need for accurate and ample representation and visibility of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples in today’s world.

Non-Native folks interested in appreciation must proffer alternatives to the primary way that Americans relate to Natives on Turtle Island, which means ditching so-called Native Mascots, mascotry, and all images and items that dehumanize Native Peoples. “Good ally” representation should seek to dismantle antiquated and harmful stereotypical notions of “Native Americans,” disrupt the dominant narrative about Native Peoples existing only in the past, and offer instead diversified content that is — and this is the most important part — created by and properly credited to Native and Indigenous People with our consent and adequate compensation.

Using their power and resources to increase accurate and abundant representation and dismantle past and ongoing harm, non-Native allies can contribute to a shifting tide, wherein Indigenous voices and representation are brought to the forefront. Native and Indigenous Peoples offer a rich tapestry of language, tradition, humor, and connection, all of which serve as a foundation for building healthier notions of “Native Americans” for non-Natives.

As an ally or accomplice, none of these suggestions, so far, should be scary. No one is getting called out without also getting called in, and that's where the learning happens. The question is, “Will people like Paige Mycoskie listen?”

In conflict, assuming good actors, there exists a real chance to educate, persuade, and build. As Briana J. Castaneda (Apache/Chichimec) said, “We will continue to stand for our Culture and the Land. We ask you to understand that our Culture is not for you and to take accountability for your actions.”

We must point out that this whole anti-appropriation initiative, including a recent direct action outside Aviator Nation’s LA store, was organized by Indigenous youth. They alerted community members, organizations (like ours) and influencers on social media. At the Lakota People’s Law Project, we continue to be amazed and have gratitude for our Native youth.

While some have been critical of the actions taken, others, like NSRGNTS, have embraced the actions saying, “We have to put our own egos aside as the older generation and put our support behind the youth. The youth are doing something great here. They aren't waiting, they are acting (as youth does). We need to stand behind our youth and amplify their voice. We must be hopeful, grateful, supportive, and optimistic for them!”

The youth-led coalition of loosely affiliated people, organizations, and influencers continues to demand accountability from Aviator Nation; no single person speaks for the anti-appropriation movement, which started long before social media existed.

It’s time for Aviator Nation and Paige Mycoskie to dig deeper than is, perhaps, comfortable and make meaningful changes. Such a process demands that ego is set aside and ignorance is corrected. This article is a continued call-in. Despite the hurt, anger, and violence they have created, it’s well within their considerable power to fix this. The process just requires some work.

Taking Action to Support the Whole

Indigenous communities are shaped by value systems that stem from ancestral knowledge and responsibility. We know that we are not accountable only to ourselves. We are accountable to our relatives, our future children, our ancestors, the Land, and our neighbors. These relationships define our relationship to ourselves. Our value to ourselves stems from a collective valuation, and requires alignment with all community stakeholders. Our sense of time and place is grounded in what is best for the whole.

Speaking from my own perspective, I often see that our sense of self isn’t limited to our bodies, our jobs, or even our immediate families. We are the people, the animals, the water, the sky, the Land, the unborn generations, and our ancestors. We are everything that ever was and ever will be. When we look into each other’s eyes, we can see that.

Aviator Nation, whole communities of Indigenous Peoples are asking you to make meaningful changes to how you do business. Please listen, learn, and take the corrective actions outlined in the letters you are receiving.

And to all of you who stand for Indigenous rights and restorative justice, we thank you. To help inspire a positive change from Aviator Nation — to perhaps turn potential enemies into allies for our movement — please take action by sending your own message to Aviator Nation. You can use our words or your own. All solidarity is welcome. As always, we want to build a healthier world together.


Note: We welcome you to share, post, and distribute this blog — please, with credit to the Lakota People’s Law Project. Speaking of credit, a big thanks @aodream for sharing the direct action photos in this blog. And a giant wopila to everyone who provided quotes, is participating in direct actions, and continues to amplify and attempt to rectify this issue!

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