I often feel invisible. When I tell people that I grew up on an Aboriginal reserve, they look at me like I’m a mythical unicorn, even though more than a million people in Canada identify themselves as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. I probably wouldn’t have thought we existed either if I hadn’t grown up on the Six Nations reserve in Southwestern Ontario. Back then, I only saw people who vaguely looked like me on CBC’s North of 60. It was slim pickings as far as cultural references were concerned.
But today, instead of homages rooted in realism like the CBC offered in the ’90s, all I see in the mass market is a shiny commercial version of “Native Americans” rooted in stereotypes from westerns, Disney cartoons and sports mascots.
It’s disheartening that so few people are aware that headdresses, bonnets and totem poles are still spiritually relevant to vibrant Native cultures. To glamorize—or make light of—the misuse of dated and cartoonish images is to support a legacy of genocide and racism. The after-the-fact apologies aren’t enough. While groups like No Doubt may say they never meant to “offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history,” they did.
How can anyone assume that referencing “Indian” motifs without care or caution wouldn’t be hurtful, trivial or, indeed, racist? I was dumbstruck when I saw the spring/ summer issue of AnOther Magazine. The biannual fashion and culture publication photographed Michelle Williams wearing black braids, a sad expression and what could arguably be considered redface. (Imagine your reaction if she’d been wearing blackface and cornrows.) In response to an immediate backlash, the magazine echoed those other apologies, writing “While we recognize the seriousness of this debate, the image in question in no way intends to mimic, trivialize or stereotype any particular ethnic group or culture.”