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.”
Now I’ve really seen it all. Michelle Williams is on the cover of AnOther Magazine, in apparent Redface. Michelle burst into the spotlight when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Brokeback Mountain (2005). Later, she was nominated for Oscars for her work in Blue Valentine (2010) and Marilyn (2011). She is now starring as Glinda The Good Witch in Oz: The Great and Powerful (now in theaters).
Dressed in a braided wig, dull beads, and turkey feathers while sporting a decidedly stoic expression, AnOther Magazine and company ups the ante by putting Michelle in a flannel shirt, jeans, and what appears to be some sort of academic or legal robe. I smell an attempt to portray reservation nobility. Are they endeavoring to capture the spirit of the American Indian Movement (AIM) circa 1973? Is this an ad for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) or the American Indian College Fund (AICF)? Nope. It’s a 33 year old white actress hyping her latest Hollywood project by wearing a cheap costume designed to make her look like she’s the member of another race.
Am I glad that unlike most racist, stereotypical caricatures of American Indians in pop culture today (Victoria’s Secret’s Racist Garbage Is Just Asking for a Boycott), Michelle is not practically naked? Yes—but just as Blackface is never okay, Redface is never okay. Ever.