Apparently putting scantily clad white women in warbonnets is losing its shock value, because designers are moving into a new phase of cultural assassination, in hopes of making genocide doubly lucrative.
Imagine my horror this morning, upon discovering Ralph Lauren’s latest venture. Let’s call it Assimilation Era Chic.
Old portraits of Native men from the Allotment and Assimilation Era (1887–1943) are displayed like cover models among Ralph Lauren’s latest line for the 2014 Holiday season. I did a double take for an instant, because one of the men pictured looked like my ancestor.
Mr. Lauren, you can’t hide behind terms like “vintage inspired” and “rustic” anymore. It’s plain to see that you’re right back in your comfort zone; the one where Natives are oppressed, voiceless, and extinct, to be used at your leisure to feed the beast that is pop culture consumerism and line your silken pockets.
You see, Ralph Lauren is a repeat offender. He’s been unapologetically making bank off American Indians for years. Just last Spring, we collectively cringed at Ralph Lauren shirts brandishing skulls bedecked in warbonnets, and lest we forget, old Ralphy welcomed Oprah herself into his tipi festooned RL Ranch back in 2012. He seeks to champion classic Americana. Fine. So be it. But, there’s one problem. We aren’t your token Indians. Stop trying to put a price tag on our heritage and sell us, and make a mockery of the genocide our Native ancestors suffered at the hands of your forefathers, by forcing them to represent you just to boost holiday sales.
Mr. Lauren, these stylish Native men in your pictures are not your employees, nor your slaves. They lived. They have names. They come from a proud lineage of Native peoples older than America. Each warrior pictured is someone’s grandfather, and I guarantee they suffered greatly just to survive the genocidal holocaust European invaders inflicted upon them. Why do they look so stoic? They were brave Native warriors who witnessed the massacre of innocents, had their lands stolen from them, and faced an uncertain future after the Federal government broke every treaty they ever made with Native nations in this country. They were fighting for the survival of our kind.
What many people alive today fail to realize is Natives of the Assimilation Era wore western clothes because they were forced to do so. We were hunted by cavalry soldiers and made to give up our freedom and live on reservations. Our culture and language was ripped from us. Our ceremonies and religious practices were declared illegal. My own father and uncles, who were torn from their mother’s embrace and put in boarding school, were mercilessly beaten for speaking their Native tongue. They didn’t want to wear itchy woolen vests and tight narrow shoes made for white children. They had no choice. The fashion Ralph Lauren glorifies arose from oppression.
This is perhaps the worst kind of Native appropriation, where Native imagery and the seasons and cycles of assimilation and erasure are being used out of avarice. A hard working Native from the Reservation couldn’t afford this clothing, yet Ralph Lauren exploits his ancestor’s memory to garnish a profit that Natives, and our progeny, will never see.
Ralph Lauren’s romanticized genocide aids no one but himself and the purveyors of manifest destiny. His colonial wet dream harms Natives by dehumanizing us and once again, those in the fashion industry are attempting to appropriate Native culture while leaving Native people completely out of the equation. Native people have the right to show the world who we are. No one speaks for us but ourselves.
There are Natives who are fashion designers. Why not work with them? Unlike the ‘Pawnee jacket’ in your collection, there are actual Pawnee alive today who make goods and provide services. If you love Natives so much, why not donate a portion of your profits to help Native peoples, many of whom live in abject poverty?
Such behavior is the very epitome of white privilege. Ralph Lauren is not committing an act of ignorance. This is willful exploitation of Native culture and heritage. One also questions whether Ralph Lauren is being intentionally offensive, to garner more attention. If so, this is racist and also exploits Native heritage.