We've seen offensive t-shirts that make light of Native suffering and depictions of sexualized Indian maidens. But the hugely popular metal band has combined the two in a Thanksgiving themed item that it has defended as an image that will raise consciousness to the Native side of the Thanksgiving myth.
The t-shirt depicts a smiling man in Pilgrim garb aiming a shotgun at a Native woman in skimpy clothing who is on her knees, wearing an expression of shock, and offering him a Thanksgiving turkey.
In the wee hours of the morning on November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, LastRealIndians sounded the alarm with a Facebook post entitled "LOOK AT THIS B.S." (We do not know when the shirt went on sale, but a writer at ChartAttack.com says it was early November.) Commenters jumped on the image and a serious backlash began brewing. While the image is no doubt shocking, it took a female Native Mastodon fan to put into words not only the anger but the disappointment in both Mastodon and the band's fans. In a long and poignant open letter to the band at idolatrine.tumblr.com, Mastodon fan Erica wrote:
My heart sank when I saw the new Mastodon “Thanksgiving” shirts. … I want to believe that the shirt was designed with the intent of trying to disrupt the lie of American Thanksgiving; a holiday based on the story of Pilgrims and Indians coming together and sharing a nice meal, when in reality what occurred was genocide. And of course, a critical element of “conquering” Indigenous people used in the United States and Canada is the rape and enslavement of Native women. I want to believe that you knew all of that when you approved this shirt. But there are better ways to make political statements than printing t-shirts with disturbing imagery that reinforces racist myths rather than challenging them. … There is nothing subversive or edgy about a scantily clad Native American woman on her knees serving a white man who is pointing a gun in her face.
Mastodon addressed the controversy on its own Facebook page — well, sort of. The band's statement defends the shirt as a challenge to the Thanksgiving story — which didn't seem to have upset too many people — while ignoring the concerns raised by Natives about the choice of imagery:
"whether you choose to believe or not, the American Indians were massacred by the white settlers who became the Americans we are today. this shirt represents this atrocity and celebrating in the face of this atrocity is chilling. we may have a sick sense of humor, but we are far from being 'Racist' as some of you who might not get it are calling us."
Following Mastodon's response, Erica updated her original post with some choice comments from Mastodon fans:
“All I know is that I’m thankful for smallpox blankets lol”
"Fuck em, they all just drunks anyways"
“No the Indians gave us the land… And now they want it back… Indian givers… Who cares it’s a shirt u don’t like the shirt, use it for a diaper u cry ass cry babies”
"I’m sorry some of my ancestors were smarter, more industrious and slightly more ruthless than the peoples they found when they got here."
"Grow up and quit be bitches. If the Indians wanted to land,they should of fought harder. Fuck em"
"Rock and roll mother fuckers, man the fuck up! Dude has a gun pointing it a hot Indian with big tits!"
Erica also included several rebuttals from the Facebook thread, as well as this one, a great rule of thumb:
"Protip: if you have to publicly come out and say 'I’m not being racist!' you probably are."
As of Monday, December 2, Mastodon has not issued any further comment on the shirt.