Indian is the new Black

Working at Canada’s public broadcaster has allowed me lots of pretty cool opportunities, and one of them is to collaborate on a summer radio show called ReVision Quest. When it launched in 2008, its original concept was to bust myths about contemporary life in Aboriginal Canada, and today it focuses more on the day-to-day issues we face. There’s a great crew of really talented Aboriginal journalists behind it, and it’s hosted by the always hilarious Darrell Dennis. We’re always looking at different things to cover, and last week my fellow producer Ruth pointed us to YouTube for material. It’s a gold mine.

Mainstream popular culture has always had an odd infatuation with “Indians”, even though that’s never really carried over to real life. It’s more of an obsession with the imagery rather than some of the wholesome ideals all of our cultures are based on. Take the following Cher video, for example:

Granted, Cher claims to in fact be a half-breed (half “Cherokee”, as many of them say). But this must have been early on in her own personal cultural renaissance. The video opens with a totem pole, and then cuts to Cher in a Lakota-like headdress and getup – two things that have nothing to do with each other. Pure exploitation of the image. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song. I’ve belted it out more than once at karaoke bars (I’m a half-breed myself). But Cher wasn’t doing any of her native brothers and sisters any favours with this video. For me, the real star is the totally stoic horse, who’s obviously totally gooned on PCP.

Then there’s this gem from Loretta Lynn called “Your Squaw is on the Warpath”

I’ve always been a big fan of Loretta Lynn for blazing a trail for female musicians. And this song is kinda awesome, if you follow the narrative in the lyrics. You can easily argue she’s simply using Indian metaphors for the plight of a frustrated woman. But I can’t excuse the use of the word “squaw”. It’s one of the most offensive terms out there referring to Aboriginal women. I have trouble even saying it. Apparently she’s also part “Cherokee”, which is her supposed license to sing such a song.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find any Cherokees in this crowd…

Shifting from pop music to sports, baseball fans will be familiar with this. It’s the “Tomahawk Chop”, insensitively popularized by Atlanta Braves fans in the early 1990s. This dumbfounded me as a 12 year old, and it blows my mind even today. I made a more comprehensive commentary (see “Indians Finally Win One!) a few years ago on Native American imagery in pro sports (originally an article turned down by VICE Magazine), so I won’t go more into this now. But the chop is alive and well, proving white suburbanites in Georgia still want to be Indian. Scalp those Pittsburgh Pirates!

Such examples are varied and far-reaching, so a post like this could go on and on. But fear not, we’re slowly taking over the mainstream media and we’ll do our best to eradicate exploitation! Cue the pow-wow intro music…