What were your initial thoughts after seeing the music video for the first time?
The main concern I had was with the objectification and sexualization of a person depicted as a Native American woman. The whole tying her up and so forth, together with the provocative lyrics, is a timeworn trope. It made me think of a video game launched in the early ’80s by Atari called Custer’s Revenge . The object of the game is to navigate your character, which is General Custer, through a barrage of arrows as he makes his way toward a Native woman tied to a stake. The goal is for him to have forceable sex with the woman. I present this to my class in the context of a long, sad history of the sexualization of Native women, who face the highest rates of sexual violence of any discrete group of women in the entire US. I’ve written on this subject and had a piece published in The New York Times. So seeing Gwen Stefani tied up as a Native woman with lyrics that say, “Go ahead and look at me/Do you think I’m looking hot?” was just pretty revolting.
What other aspects of the video did you find disturbing?
Well, the video continues the tradition of popular media treating Native culture as if it’s part of the public domain, as if one can simply go into this reservoir of stereotypical images and draw from it without any kind of limitation or concern. When lands have been lost and cultures have been decimated, one of the last things left to be appropriated from Native cultures is their very dignity. And this is what videos like this do — they exhume and exploit and pull away whatever shreds of dignity may be left. It reflects our historical amnesia.
I know some people think this is overreacting and Native people are just whining again. But for those who find this a waste of time and don’t understand Native cultures as living, breathing, thinking societies that are worthy of people’s respect, it’s pretty hard to have a serious conversation about concerns such as the return of Native land. So if the attitude still exists that Native cultures don’t mean anything, don’t count, don’t deserve respect, it’ll translate into destructive action.
And I do give credit to No Doubt for their response. You don’t make a video like that on the cheap, so for them to yank it was a big deal. I applaud them for responding very promptly and thoughtfully, and basically saying: “Look, we did it, we made a mistake and we’re yanking it.” So kudos to them.
As cultures across the globe continue to mix, how would you even begin to differentiate between cultural appropriation and cultural hybrids? How would you define exploitation as opposed to cultural blending?
I think that depends on one’s purpose. Are you trying to sell records or T-shirts? If it’s being done to push products, which is often the case, then the bar should be higher in terms of paying attention to the context, message and history behind these kinds of depictions. I would imagine we’re going to see similar disputes when The Lone Ranger movie comes out, with Johnny Depp playing the role of Tonto.
It’s not like I see myself — or any native scholar or activist or tribe — as a gatekeeper for the nation’s taste. It’s not that you have to get permission to use anything that involves something Native. It’s about assuming responsibility and not being surprised if people react by saying, “You screwed up.” It’s not about censorship; it’s about being clear on the motivations that are inspiring the appropriation.
Do you find that other cultures in the US receive the same kind of treatment as Native Americans?
To be honest, I really don’t see a parallel with another culture that is so widely held. All you have to do is look at the plethora of mascots and symbols that are used for sporting teams, whether high school, college or professional. For example, we would never have the San Diego Blacks.
Again, this idea that Natives are part of the public domain has longstanding roots. During early contacts between European societies and Native Americans, in many contexts the Natives were seen as part of the flora and fauna — not as societies. If you’re seeing people this way, you aren’t seeing them as rights-bearing people, and you don’t see the land as their land. You see it as empty land.
Historically speaking, when did people start considering it unethical to appropriate Native American culture?
I think Native peoples found a voice during the ’60s. They were armed and inspired by the civil rights activism found in the African American community and women’s rights movement. It was an important moment.
Also, I think for many Native peoples, the advent of social media has meant that groups and individuals around the globe can now participate in this push back. Within minutes, people from all over can join the conversation, which provides a quick reading on the popular reaction to certain events and activities.
As with No Doubt, will social media help other artists and public figures gauge what’s exploitative and what’s not?
The downside is that people aren’t always writing the most thoughtful things on Facebook or Twitter. It can be a quick flash in the pan “I hate you” or “I love you” that doesn’t provide a lot of depth or context. It’s very different than a book where someone has probably lived with the project for years. When temperatures are very high, you don’t always get the best kind of exchanges.
Also, you don’t want to make decisions about whatever you’ve put out there based on the fact that at one moment people are upset about it. Sometimes it’s going to be the issue du jour, and by next week people will have moved onto the next issue. The core problems, such as sexual violence against Native American women, are still going to remain when the furor over Gwen Stefani and the band dies out. Gwen is going to have a nice career and make millions of dollars, but meanwhile those of us who care and work in Indian country are still going to be looking at ways to help turn things around. In the historical backdrop, this is going to be seen as yet another distraction to the real ongoing problems.
We recently celebrated Halloween. What are your thoughts on Native American costumes? Should they be condemned?
One big difference between dressing up as a Native American as opposed to a pirate or astronaut or cowboy is that the latter are occupations, not societies. You don’t try out for a job as an Indian. It’s your culture; it’s your way of life.
If my kid said, “Dad, I’m going to go out trick-or-treating as a Jew,” I would wonder what he was going to look like and how he was going to dress. Likewise, if he said, “I’m going to go out as a black person,” would that mean blackface and an afro? When you put the issue into this context, it sharpens the nature of the appropriation and hopefully invites a conversation about whether that’s a good thing or not.