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Playing dress-up

October 5, 2010

I was reading through some older posts at Racialicious last night, and ran across yet another example of ridiculously ignorant entitlement: Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualization of Native Women, from guest contributor Adrienne K. of the excellent Native Appropriations.

Now can you see why my heart breaks and I feel sick every time I see an image of a naked or scantily clad woman in a headdress? This is not just about cultural appropriation. This is about a serious, scary, and continuing legacy of violence against women in Indian Country. These girls probably thought they were just being “counter-culture” or “edgy,” but by perpetuating the stereotypes of Native women as sexual objects, they are aiding and continuing the cycle of violence.

From one comment, by m.:

The thing about a name like ‘Neon Indian’, is that one cannot really disavow themselves of the actions of their audience, you know?

Exactly. Choosing a name like that, at best, you’re a bunch of ignorant, entitled, disrespectful shits trying to hide behind irony. (Again, I don’t think that means what they think that means.) There seems to be an epidemic of those. (See Hipster Racism, Liberal Sexism, and The Continuance of Sexism and Racism In Our Enlightened Post-Feminist, Post-Racial Era, Featuring More Grabbing–for a start.) If anything, I find that style even more appallingly contemptuously dismissive in some ways than good old straightforward, in-your-face, hatred.

Maybe those fans should get together with those girls who thought it was a great idea to attend a powwow at Stanford in Disney-Pocahontasesque costumes. (Hint: when little kids are laughing at you, maybe your judgment was suspect.) Wait, they already have, in that upper-middle-class Euro-American mythology! *facepalm*

The most depressing thing about this incident is how it reflects on these young women’s immediate social circles–and the wider society those circles are privileged parts of. What plan for gaining approving attention occurred to these women? Getting up and doing a highly sexualized minstrel act. They did not form this idea in a vacuum.

It made me want to weep and smash things, for multiple reasons. Seriously.

Another thing worth pointing out here, besides the appalling continuing history of spoils-of-conquest* sexualized violence against Native women? Val comments:

It’s amazing how the stereotypes you mention mirror the one’s associated with African American women.

Sexy Sq*aw – Jezebel
Wise Grandmas – Mammy
overweight ogres – Sapphire

And I think all women of color are painted with this same racist brush to a certain extent. Which to me means that we all should be more united in fighting this sort of thing.

I’d noticed that similarity before. It’s very convenient to claim ignorance.

One thing that’s rarely mentioned in connection with non-Native people feeling entitled to play dress-up these days: the motives may be different, but it’s hardly a new thing. From the first chapter of Barbara A. Mann’s George Washington’s War on Native America, which I’ve just started into (emphasis mine):

The Volunteers regularly dressed as Iroquois, donned war paint, and took up Iroquoian customs.38 The Americans, ever apt to exaggerate and sensationalize, consistently presented these Tories as bona fide Mohawks. The ploy of dressing up as Natives to commit criminal acts was quite commonplace among the eighteenth century European colonists. The Boston Tea Party was only the most famous example of these tactics. 39 In his 6 August 1779 report to General John Sullivan, for instance, Colonel Daniel Brodhead frankly admitted that he dressed and painted his troops “like Indians” for the purpose of scalp-taking.40 Colonel John Harper, sent out by the Americans in 1777 to treat with Oquaga, a neutral town, dressed up in paint, wampum, and Mohawk apparel, and General Sullivan himself dressed his scouts up as Natives .41 Upon sending a young Moses Van Campen and a companion ahead to reconnoiter the road to Chemung, he had the youths dress in a breechcloth, leggings, moccasins, feathered cap, and war paint.42

The British did the same. Sir William Johnson was well known for dressing as a Mohawk, painting his face, and performing ceremonial dances.43 After the Battle of Newtown, 29 August 1779, the Americans took two prisoners, one of whom was a Tory in black war paint, that is, a Volunteer, who was only “found to be white” after the Americans “stripped, and washed” him.44 All eighty of Thayendanegea’s Volunteers dressed as Mohawks. Although little publicized, it has been common historical knowledge since 1778 that “hundreds of Tories mingled with the Indian bands, dressed and painted like Indians,” as Tory 45 historian Howard Swiggett noted in 1933.

This “Indianizing” technique was highly favored on both sides specifically for the plausible deniability it lent their European commanders. Whenever troops masquerading as Natives grew a bit too warm in their savagery, the ruse allowed their officers to point the finger of blame away from the Europeans and at the “savages.” Thus, both the British and the Americans ensured that at least a small cadre of genuine Natives were with every foray, to deflect the blame for war crimes away from their painted soldiers and onto the “savages.” A one-sided blame game continued for the next 200 years as American historians excoriated the British, not for exploiting Native stereotypes, but for employing Natives at all, thereby corrupting otherwise stalwart Europeans into “committing the same foul murders which the Indian’s conscience permitted him,” as Swiggett grimly characterized 46 the matter.

This tactic was not limited to the Revolution–nor even the 18th Century–by any means. Gangs of robbers and slavers, and people hoping to benefit from stirring up hostilities, would dress up this way to commit crimes. Sometimes they were also trying to blend in and deflect the suspicion of real Natives (easier to sneak up that way), but most of it was aimed at blame-deflection, scapegoating, and general shit-stirring among the other colonists. Nice!

The way the Boston Tea Party usually gets presented makes no sense whatsoever; as often as it’s crowed about in American history settings, I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to have been going on until I read Thom Hartmann’s take on it (at more length in Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights). Yeah, the concerns about public-private partnerships given monopolies–and who was quite literally making killings off them–were particularly not mentioned in schools in the ’80s and ’90s. Wonder why?! The popular takes for adult consumption aren’t much better, rarely going into why the Stamp and Tea Acts were so distasteful.

What is pretty consistently brushed over, if it is mentioned at all, is that these guys were trying to blame their little spree of property destruction on their self-declared enemies who were already being subjected to genocide (this was Massachusetts, FFS!)–in a remarkably strong conspiracy that didn’t get talked about for decades. If the dressing up is mentioned at all, it’s made to sound like some fun variety of cosplay. At best, “[t]he costumes also helped to create the mystery of who were the exact participants.” # You could put it that way.

Hint: it’s not an unambiguously laudable act of protest if you are trying to make sure a group of people you hate, and your society is actively trying to kill off, gets credit for it. (I guess it doesn’t have to make sense for a bunch of Mohawks to do that, when their irrational motives not making sense is a common justification.) That sounds more like a particularly nasty twist on terrorism, and would be prosecuted as such these days (likely with the hate crime elements still ignored). Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Not surprisingly, this continued glorification of such a morally and ethically ambiguous incident with the reek of genocidal racism makes me even fonder of the modern Tea Party movement. Even worse, I strongly suspect that a lot of the people embracing it would not have a problem with the idea if they did know more about the historical Tea Party. Rand Paul may be one of the worst examples, but he’s far from the only one.

If these folks were not drawing from a pretty deep and murky cultural pool, choosing this name to describe what they’re getting up to would not have occurred to them in the first place. It says a lot to me that I haven’t seen much, if any, discussion of some of the more troubling connotations here. When, as a nation, you’re continuing to laud openly genocidally racist founders–and get all defensive and weaselly when someone points this out–there’s something bad wrong.

And one of the things that disturbs me in popular discourse these days is that this movement is presented as some kind of risible-if-still-kinda-scary anomaly. It’s not. It’s part of a long-time continuous stream of hatefulness, greed, and lack of regard for consequences that most people in the US just don’t want to think about. Very much like the right-wing racist, misogynist, and generally mean-spirited, groups in Europe; in a way, I’m very glad that most people feel a need to distance themselves from these ideologies, but there’s no use pretending that they’re anything new. And, while I have basically no sympathy for these hurtful people and their morally bankrupt ideologies, I am frustrated by the way they get scapegoated, when they are only embracing extreme versions of some common cultural threads.

Mr. U was very upset about the recent Swedish elections, in which some very obnoxious people with a very objectionable nationalist party got seats in Parliament. I consider it a really bad sign too. I just wish I were more surprised, especially after reading some of (multiracial American) Susanne Heine’s 2001 observations of the way some tensions have kept getting papered over, just during the 30-odd years she’d lived there. (“How does all this relate to the race issue?”, about 2/3 of the way down; I’m not prepared to comment on the general economic musings.) Have economic problems, blame darker immigrants? Classic. Ignore it while it heats up? Eventually, you get political candidates saying crap like this: “Line the immigrants here on the film up against the wall and put a bullet between the eyes, then put them in a bag, stick a stamp on them and send them back to where they come from”–apparently thinking there are enough people who agree that they’re not going to get nearly as much negative attention as was the case. (Reminds me of the hideous mainstream party “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” billboards here. I was sorely tempted to do a little revision, myself, and I’m not even British.)

And guess what: that was before the election, and SD still had a frightening number of voters. And some really-in-touch chairman of another party tried to blame this shit on “a social infection carried from mainland Europe”:

Instead of confronting the problem as something Swedish, because it is. It is Swedish when Swedish people are voting in a Swedish election for a Swedish party that wants to preserve Swedishness at the expense of non-Swedes. Ohly wants to blame Europe. He wants to blame the others. He wants to blame the non-Swedes. It’s time to step up and realize that blaming the other only sows more distrust. More stereotypes. More hatred.


* In spite of the continuing “these things were inevitable, if uncouth, individual actions” apologism, sometimes very organized. Also from George Washington’s War on Native America, Chapter 2:

American officials coyly avoided the sexual issue in the eighteenth century, and Victorian chroniclers prudishly sidestepped it in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, especially after the Geneva Convention outlawed rape as a war crime, historians became downright tight-lipped on the matter, but it deserves frank scrutiny in the twenty-first century…

Having read through more period journals, histories, memoirs, letters, reports, orders, novels, and diaries than I care to recall, it is my contention that Native women were taken by the Revolutionary Army for precisely the same reason that Korean women were taken by the Japanese Army during World War II, as “comfort women,” that is, forced prostitutes under armed guard. This was common, though seldom spoken, knowledge at the time.

Not the first nor the last time, though possibly on the largest and most organized scale. It wasn’t only adult women, either, as some recorded gang rapes of captives illustrate. (When you are paying your soldiers through looting, and reward them by setting them loose with a bunch of rum and the prisoners? And repeatedly go and get more largely female prisoners, rinse, repeat? Yeah.) OTOH, propaganda aside:

“Bad as the savages are,” [General James] Clinton observed, “they never violate the chastity of any women, their prisoners.”…
Among eastern nations, the concept of sexual violation was a grotesque aberration, held to be on the same level as wanton child murder. Woodlands men were famous for their refusals to rape.12

Then again:

Uncounted in the official tally of prisoners were a number of toddlers. Always inconvenient on a forced march, oral tradition states that these small children were killed, the soldiers taking them by the heels and dashing their brains out against trees, a commonplace European way to dispose of unwanted Innocents at the time.36 One American officer was said to have ordered his men to “kill them” on the grounds that “nits make lice.”37

36. See, for instance, the brain-dashing accounts, in Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs, 334, 339; and in Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, 76. Tossing unwanted infants into a nearby river was also popular; Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs, 341.

(“[Moravian] missionary, John Heckewelder, who lived through the Revolutionary War on its very battlegrounds and witnessed much of the slaughter, was loud and long in his condemnation of genocide.”) Kinda changes the interpretation of the reported infant-braining in a local piece of settler captive hate literature from the New River Valley–and that is as “neutral” as it gets. Among other factual problems, women captives did not run the gauntlet, and they totally brush over Mary’s having killed her own baby later to keep it out of the horrid clutches of the Shawnee.

OK, maybe not directly relevant here, but the reading I’ve been doing recently has really been getting to me, even though I thought I knew about a lot of brushed-over atrocities already. It’s kinda bubbling out. Some things you just can’t unlearn, even if you wanted to.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Nigel permalink
    October 5, 2010 3:44 pm

    Note that the SD that worries me and the SD Susanne Heine write about are NOT the same. I worry about “Sverigedemokraterna” (party “short code” SD), while she writes about “Socialdemokraterna” (party “short code” S).

    I don’t think it was intentional, although SD seem to have been founded in 1988. Unfortunate, however, that it’s not entirely clear (especially to those of us who have the party short-forms pretty much engraved in our brains).

    • urocyon permalink
      October 5, 2010 5:58 pm

      Skimming an article I remembered from a while back, I missed that she referenced either SD, actually. 😉 I was more interested in her perspective on street harassment while a generic brown immigrant, which is easy to miss if you don’t experience it yourself and are not specifically looking for it. The later founding of the relevant SD kinda reinforces the “don’t look for it, end up with a mess” idea.

      But thanks for pointing that out!

  2. October 9, 2010 1:12 pm

    thank you so much!!

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