(Far) Beyond Hollywood: Native American Style

I recently caught the Beyond Hollywood: American Indian Identities exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology in Valencia, Spain. As a white male, I know where my allegiance is presumed in the ongoing Cowboys and Indians saga of (de)colonization. The promo video featured a cross-generational take on the subject by Valencians: all feathers and battle-cries, facepalm. The evidently needed exhibition affirmed Indigenous resistance to massive cultural genocide undertaken by White Imagination in the Americas since Columbus Day One. Well, I’m paraphrasing… The curators referred to confrontations and counterpoising viewpoints. Weaving centuries of data and artefacts from the Great Lakes region, the exhibition covered much conceptual ground up to #noDAPLweighing-in on the side of Native perspective(s). Canadian-Cree artist Kent Monkman queered things up with his film Group of Seven Inches which played under a crystal tipi/chandelier. It upended the racist anthropological portraiture canon by chronicling the efforts of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle to catalog “authentic examples of European males.” For a  public European institution addressing non-American audience, this was a commendable curatorial exercise in introspection and shifting paradigms. That said…

At the exhibition I reflected on how much of Indigenous American style has been appropriated by White Imagination to the point of ubiquity/oblivion. The luxury moccasins, the punk mohawks, dreamcatchers galore. Music (festival) industry is notorious for its embrace of Native American cultural appropriation. [See this great High Snobiety story by Alec Banks]. In 2018, Victoria’s Secret still puts feathers on skinny white girls in its “stubbornly irrelevant” annual show as if Coachella Era will never end. However, this year marked a change in agency when it comes to Native American style and representation. For the first time (!) in its 229-year history, Native American women were elected to the United States Congress: Democratic Representatives Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas while Ruth Anna Buffalo joined state legislature in North Dakota. What they wore to their historic swearing-in ceremonies made headlines from National Geographic to Vogue. It was a stunning visual reminder that Native American women are largely excluded/absent from the public space and discourse. Nearly two and a half centuries into American democracy, how many state, municipal and corporate governing bodies do not engage indigenous voices?! According to National Crime Information Center database, over 5000 Native American women go missing every year (!), a traumatically disproportionate statistic. We will never know what they wore.

Last month, Arizona writer Niyá DeGroat Henry wrote: “Despite the emergence of Native Fashion, successful indigenous designers remain trapped in display cases.” He made this poignant observation in his Indian Country Today piece on Phoenix-based brand ACONAV, by designers Loren and Valentina Aragon who fuse their Acoma Pueblo and Navajo heritage in couture work. [Sidenote: as a media instructor at the Academy of Art University (where Niyá is getting his Master’s in fashion journalism) I am wicked proud to see strong voices emerge from the program!] Keep reading …


In a moving Teen Vogue op-ed, daughter of Rep. Haaland, artist Somáh Haaland made another point on “how museums and historical spaces disrespect Native American history”. She recalls a visit to the Indian Village cosplay site at the Jamestown Settlement Museum in Virginia: “I was suddenly brought to tears, both by the thought of pre-colonization and by the concept that this is how Indian people are still showcased: as primal, exotic attractions. These people, my people, continue to be talked about like far-off legends who lived in the past and no longer exist.” The Valencian exhibition, while socially progressive  and culturally more sensitive, works within a system of knowledge created and maintained by White Imagination. Subversion from within is one way to challenge status quo. Beyond Hollywood concludes with a subtitled screening of a TED Talk by tribal attorney Tara Houska. The first word she uses in her speech is “trauma”. The deep trauma is real and every appropriative Halloween costume, racist sports team mascot and whitewashed jewelry line actively perpetuates it. I am excited to see growing commitment to collective healing by un-teaching of Indigenous histories, fashion history included! 

2 thoughts on “(Far) Beyond Hollywood: Native American Style

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s