In the music business summertime is prime season for B-list and “nostalgia” acts to go on tour with an abundance of venues, from county fairs and festivals to the usual Indian casino gigs. The Village People have been making the most of it with their current tour which has had them on the road since June and scheduled to perform all over the US and beyond until November. Nearly four decades since they first appeared on the American pop scene as the “Kings of Disco” with their hits “Y.M.C.A.,” “Macho Man,” “In the Navy” and others, the Village People have sold over 100 million records, have earned many international music awards and can still pack in the crowds. Love them or hate them, they are an enduring and uniquely American phenomenon.
With its origins in New York’s Greenwich Village the group drew upon common American stereotypes in a fantasy act geared toward the gay community, founded in 1977 by the Indian character, played by Felipe Rose. To Rose’s Indian were added a cowboy, construction worker, cop, leatherman and a soldier. By 1979 the group’s fame had peaked and like the disco craze its popularity began to wane; but they recorded numerous albums with high-rating hit singles and their earlier successes were enough to sustain their fame for years to come.
The popularity of the Village People clearly owes to its roots in disco, but also in gay entertainment (in an interview, original member David Hodo once referred to the Village People as a “gay group” and their 1977 album Village People, “possibly the gayest album ever”). Much of their music and dance is overtly sexual (which doesn’t make it wrong or even unusual) and its burlesque-style combined with the campy costuming lends an element of humor—intended or not—to their performances. I mean, how can you watch a video of “Macho Man” or “Sex over the Phone” and not find it funny? In that respect it’s good entertainment.
But let’s cut to the chase. Why on earth, after American Indians have for decades been successfully waging war against the use of Indian stereotypes in popular culture, is Felipe Rose still parading around on stage in an Indian costume like a character in a Mel Blanc cartoon come to life? The humoristic use of costumes and play on stereotypes in Village People’s act is not offensive in and of itself, but Rose’s Halloween-style Indian is the only character to play on the identity of a living culture. What if there was a caricaturized Hasidic Jew, a Japanese Samurai, or, god forbid, a guy in blackface? It wouldn’t be tolerated by any of those groups for one second, not in this day and age.
I might be able to argue that back in the 1970s when the Village People first came out the social awareness was not quite there, which was why Rose could get away with it without much criticism. But that doesn’t explain why he continues to exploit the stereotype today, except to say that it no doubt is still a good living for him. It’s doubly perplexing assuming it’s true that he is, as he claims, of Lakota heritage. I’m not even questioning his identity claims. But I can’t help but wonder how he can continually justify perpetuating Indian stereotypes reminiscent of the ridiculous and now defunct Chiefs Illiniwek and Wahoo mascots? The only thing worse than a parody of an Indian by a non-Indian is a parody of an Indian by an Indian.
I once met Felipe Rose back in my artist days and remember him as a very pleasant man. He is well regarded in some Native circles, particularly in the Hollywood/entertainment Native community. He is represented in the National Museum of the American Indian, has won a NAMMY for his solo music contribution in 2002, and according to his website he has been honored for his work by other Native groups. I think it’s great that he puts energy into working in Native communities and for Native causes. With the influence that comes from his celebrity he is in a position to make a difference for people who need it.
Rose’s website claims that it’s “not just a costume. It is also his public statement of where he comes from and his long association with Native American groups across the country.” However, the questions remain: how does Rose’s campy use of the Indian stereotype in the Village People contribute to the Native community? Is it ever more acceptable when the stereotype is perpetuated by a Native person than a non-Native person? And where is the dividing line between the appropriate and inappropriate use of Native dress and culture in the entertainment world, especially by Natives themselves?
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and freelance writer.