Ralph Lauren has made his life and career off of selling “Americana” style, with healthy doses of cultural appropriation and exploiting Native aesthetics. He even owns a big ol’ ranch with several teepees in his backyard, if his obsession wasn’t clear enough.
Before my first cup of coffee Wednesday morning, as I was scrolling through my social media, I got a notification on Twitter from artist Gregg Deal. I clicked the link and literally said, “WTF?” (the real words) so loud my dad had to look:
Ralph Lauren has reached a new low. Welcome to the Ralph Lauren Winter Catalog of Cultural Appropriation (you’ll need to view the link on a desktop — the mobile version doesn’t load to the problematic page), but we do have screenshots for that:
Yeah. About that. So what do we have here? Let’s break it down. An old west-style catalog harkening back to the days of a western outfitter perfect for pioneers and gold rushers, sparse products displayed on a sepia-toned background, accented by historic photos, playfully colorized, of Natives. The Native “models” have no names or context; they’re just props to fulfill a settler imperialist nostalgia fantasy.
There are many problems here, obviously. But a big problem is one that Dr. Jessica Metcalfe at Beyond the Buckskin identified two years ago. To Ralph Lauren, Native peoples are dehumanized props to support his design and lifestyle; they are not human beings with lives, histories and families.
Case in point: During Oprah’s “Final Chapter” show or whatever it was called, Oprah visited Lauren’s ranch, and took a tour of the grounds. During Oprah’s teepee tour, Dr. Metcalfe screenshotted this moment, of a picture frame with a picture of a little Native girl staged on a side table:
Dr. Metcalfe said:
Who is she and why is she in a frame in Ralph Lauren’s teepee? (the fact that I’m even asking these questions is an indication of how ridiculous the world is right now). It’s like the ultimate form of appropriation. That little girl is someone. She’s someone’s daughter, sister, auntie, niece, mother, cousin, granddaughter, grandmother. With greater accessibility to photographic collections, Native people are starting to reclaim the images of their family members that have been held hostage in archives for over 100 years. On Facebook, I see friends post pictures of their great-grandmothers, their great-uncles, people who served as leaders of their communities, their relatives. These are images of people we know – or worse, of relatives and children who we don’t know because they have been taken away through government boarding school policies. So what is Lauren doing with this picture? It’s like when you go to Target and buy a frame, and decide to keep the picture of the happy couple in it instead of putting in your own picture. Why would you do that? You wouldn’t. You might buy a picture at Target and keep it in the frame if it was an art image. So, are we no longer people with names? Are we just … decorative? Something to be consumed? Sold? Flaunted as status symbols and of achieving the American Dream?
And now Lauren has done it again, on a much grander scale. He has used de-contextualized Native men, without names, without tribes, without timeframes, to sell his clothes. In the words of Hayden King on Twitter, Lauren is “exploiting the ancestors. To sell shitty jeans.”
Cultural appropriation takes away our symbols, our art and our designs, and with it, takes away our power over our cultural markers. This is dangerous, because not only is it blatantly disrespectful to the places, people, and traditions these images come from, it continues the colonial mentality that Native peoples, lands, and traditions are free for the taking.
We become commodities — objects that can be bought and sold. I mean, the heading of this page says “featured stock,” referring to the clothing, but when there are images of Native people right next to the $265 headdress t-shirt, it’s hard to separate the people from the products. Additionally, when the word is “stock,” one can’t help but think of animals (or slaves) for sale.
There’s also this piece that I can’t quite put my finger on, and don’t know if I can adequately express. The photos are all men in (mostly) western clothing, with “tribal” accents here and there. I feel like there is a subtext here of “civilizing”— even the “wild Indians” can look dignified in these clothes. You can have your Americana aesthetic without the savage overtones! It just reminds me of the “Tom Torlino — Navajo” photograph, which is representative of the cultural genocide of government boarding schools.
Finally, there is the economic piece at play here. Look at the prices. A $265 T-shirt featuring a sacred headdress, a $1,300 plaid coat, $400 sweaters — and all of this money is going straight to building Lauren’s personal wealth and empire, none of it is going to the communities he is directly exploiting to sell his product. How American of him: seeing Natives as inherently disposable and exploitable, and using Native resources to build his personal wealth, while simultaneously yearning for the romanticized past when Natives roamed the plains, and ignoring his own complicity in the ongoing settler colonial project. Pretty much the story of the United States.
I get so frustrated and angry by these injustices, and I could be writing every minute of everyday and never attack all of the companies exploiting Native peoples. But this instance goes beyond the use of our tribal names and designs — this is the actual use of our bodies. It’s not just our cultural markers; it’s our entire being. There’s something especially sinister about that to me, and Lauren is not even trying to hide behind the usual “inspiration comes from everywhere” arguments. It’s all out in the open, yet there is still little recourse to fight back—and that to me is the most frustrating part of all.
But I want to bring it back to our relatives in those photos, and I’ll end by echoing Dr. Metcalfe’s refrain: who are these men? Whose grandpas, uncles, fathers, cousins? What communities do they represent? What did they accomplish in their lifetimes? What did they stand for? What did they do to survive?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know that they didn’t fight and survive so they would end up on the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalog.
Adrienne Keene is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a postdoctoral researcher, and has a life mission to provide a critical lens on representations of Native peoples. She also blogs at NativeAppropriations.com, and tweets about her breakfast and other exciting topics at @NativeApprops.