Dressing up to “play Indian” isn't cool. It reinforces damaging stereotypes, makes a mockery of the oppression native people endure and violates the sanctity of cultural traditions. And yet people still say it's “just for fun.”
At least, there's a glimmer of hope. One company went beyond issuing the standard non-apology apology after its outrageous fashion faux pas. Last September, Paul Frank—the OC-founded company that gave our teen selves monkey pajama pants—hosted a Native American-themed “Dream Catchin'” party complete with neon tomahawks, glow-in-the-dark war paint, feather headdresses and cocktails with names such as Rain Dance Refresher. Backlash ensued quickly thanks to Facebook and Twitter, with folks blasting the event as racist.
Blogger Jessica Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin, a site dedicated to Native American fashion, put out a call for action.
“If a company wishes to participate in the 'native trend,' then they should work with native artists,” Metcalfe says. “If they are truly 'inspired' by our cultures, collaborate with us. If they are profiting off the misrepresentation of our cultures, then they should donate at least a portion of their profits to native youth or art programs.”
So that's what Paul Frank did. It collaborated with four Native American designers on a rad collection of T-shirts and accessories. Each piece has an authentic touch—a tote bag by Nooksack tribe member Louie Gong features the design style of formline, while a pair of sunglasses by Candace Halcro of the Plains Cree/Metis tribes uses a classic American Indian beading technique. Elie Dekel, president of Paul Frank's parent company, Saban Brands, says the collaboration has been “an opportunity for us to help raise awareness about cultural misappropriations, which unfortunately happen too often in product, promotion and fashion.” The limited-edition items are available at Beyond Buckskin (www.shop.beyondbuckskin.com).
Metcalfe says the project “represents a very important moment in history.”
As Paul Frank has learned, it's never too late to get it right.