Home / Appropriation of Native American Iconography in the 21st Century

Appropriation of Native American Iconography in the 21st Century

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Native people and friends filled the pews and stood along the walls of Reed College chapel on Wednesday, listening in rapt attention to Louie Gong (Nooksack), Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation) and Jessica Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) discuss U.S. companies who “are guilty of misusing Native American sacred iconography,” and pointing out who is doing good work. I’ll simplify the argument as good-vs-bad.

According to the panel, these shoes are good:


And this outfit is bad:


Why? They seem so similar. Both are items of clothing manufactured in factories (probably in China). What’s the difference?

The shoes are good because they were painted after-market by Louie Gong, a Native artist. But the totem pole outfit is bad primarily because it was designed by a non-Native artist.

Appropriation of Native imagery is an insult to Native people. I agree. Gong argued that we should buy Native iconography only directly from Native artists. That sounds like a good idea. 

But it’s not the end of the discussion. What about when Native American artists are appropriating from Native people in other parts of our Mother Earth, known among the indigenous people of the Andes as Pachamama?

Here’s a “good” story the panel presented, which I find has “bad” hidden within it.

Back in September Paul Frank threw a racist powwow fashion event and sold tee shirts about it. Both Jessica Metcalfe and Adrienne Keene wrote blog articles protesting this appropriation of Native sacred iconography and asking for apologies. Metcalfe suggested that Paul Frank collaborate with Native designers in the future. To their great surprise the president of Paul Frank talked with them on the phone, apologized and agreed to hire a Native designer to its team.

Of course Metcalfe and Keene celebrated this great victory of having Native voices heard by someone in the oppressors’ power structure. Perhaps it will even be co-panelist Louie Gong who will soon be designing for Paul Frank. While this does indeed seem like a cause for celebration, can it actually be a cause for concern?

What if we ask who manufactures Paul Frank products?

It turns out that at least some of Paul Frank products are made in China—most likely by oppressed Native people.

A quick look at Naomi Klein’s book No Logo quickly sickens the heart of anyone who cares about our human family. The documentary Manufactured Landscapes shows us how we as consumers are unwillingly oppressing our brothers and sisters. Capitalist globalization (including Paul Frank) is appropriating Native people’s labor in China and elsewhere to manufacture commodities for consumers to buy, and generate profits for the 1%.

Native Chinese peoples, especially young single women, are driven by desperation to go to barricaded fortresses of Free Trade Zones and offer long hours of exhausting labor in exchange for un-nourishing food, overcrowded shelter, and a mere pittance of money. Suicide is rampant in the Free Trade Zones. But China is not alone. Capitalist globalization has a domino effect on oppression. China then oppresses Taiwanese with Free Trade Zones there that demand structural adjustments, much like those the International Monetary Fund demand from colonized Native peoples in Third World countries around the world, structural adjustments that allow imports of products from more powerful countries, which will cripple then eliminate local production. This is an economic colonization that creates dependency.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? How different is it from the way colonizers have treated Native people for centuries? If we didn’t give in to bribes, which create dependency, then we were kidnapped, enslaved, slaughtered, or relocated.

Relocated like the desperate Native people in China, Taiwan, Nicaragua and elsewhere, whose labor and bodies have been relocated into Free Trade Zones to grease the wheels of capitalism.

Is it truly something to celebrate that Paul Frank will collaborate with a Native designer? No. I argue that it is a cause to mourn—for Paul Frank now has the blessing of Adrienne Keene, which allows the company to continue oppressing Native people in Third World countries who have been driven by desperation to work in factories in Free Trade Zones.

By the way, Native designer Louie Gong suggested boycotting Pendleton because they are not Native-owned and have been appropriating Native designs for more than a century. The audience gasped. Meanwhile, Gong specializes in painting Native designs on shoes, especially canvas tennis shoes. Where are those shoes manufactured? Most likely they are made in China.

What ethical difference is there, if any, between a non-Native appropriating Native iconography, and a Native appropriating the labor and lives of Third World Natives in Free Trade Zones to produce his or her designs? Are we unintentionally adopting the same mindset as the oppressor?

I suggest that instead of competing to get to the top of the heap on the sinking ship of globalized capitalism, we could better honor our Native traditions by looking to the sustainable wisdom of our ancestors, like our brothers and sisters are doing in Bolivia.

President Evo Morales is the first Indigenous president in the Americas. He proclaimed a new era, Pachakuti, in his December 21, 2012 speech, “Manifesto of the Island of the Sun.” In this speech he spells out 10 Commandments for dismantling capitalism and for living well based on ancestral wisdom.

I greatly admire Louie, Adrienne and Jessica’s struggles to protect, revitalize and disseminate Native culture and identity. And I hope we will each read and reflect on President Evo Morales’s speech, reconsidering what is truly worthy of celebration.

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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.
  • Jessica R. Metcalfe

    Hi Lynette!

    Your concerns are ours as well – the topics you bring up have been brought up before, and we do not have a clear answer of what is good vs. bad.

    Staying ‘local’ is an ongoing challenge (and sometimes buying US/Canada-made raw materials isn’t even an option!), but it is one that keeps us pushing to find and promote better options. In fact, there are no clothing, jewelry, or shoe manufacturing companies located on or near our reservations that employ predominantly Native American/First Nations people (except for Manitobah Mukluks).

    Right now, building a clothing/shoe manufacturing company on a reservation would require a multi-million dollar investment – and that’s just to build it; hundreds of thousands of dollars more would be required to support the basic operational costs. We don’t even have that kind of support in the US (think of the declining local garment industry) let alone on reservations.

    Please read the following article with an open mind to get a better understanding of the challenges we face in this industry

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    To reverse some of these trends, people need to begin buying from local small businesses. This will build up neighborhoods, provide more local jobs and keep the wealth locally. It’s not so easy to do. Once the trend starts-it can steam-roll forward.

  • I agree, Dr. Joseph S. Maresca. In fact, I offer some suggestions how to build community and live more simply (often based on indigenous ways of living) in my book “72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%.”

  • Hello Jessica,

    Thank you for posting. The Blogcritic’s comments feature was out of commission for awhile, but now it seems to be working again. I read your article. It seems that you are arguing that buying items in Walmart designed by a Native American is a high and worthy goal for celebrating Native Identity. I did not find any mention of “all” the issues I raised in this blog above, especially the point I raised at the end – on page 3. There I point to alternatives based on ancestral wisdom that were presented by our brother in the South, Bolivian president Evo Morales. In the blog I invited you (and everyone) to read and reflect on his recent speech. I offer the invitation again here. Would you be willing to read Evo Morales’s Manifesto of the Island of the Sun and then comment again?

  • Lou-ann Ika’wega Neel

    correction – the totem pole was carved by my great grandfather, Charlie Yakuglas James. Tony Hunt Sr restored the pole many years ago.