Can I Wear “Tribal” Prints?

On Tuesday I showed you my recently thrifted tops for fall.  One of those pieces is a “tribal” top from Xhilaration, meaning it features a print drawing from the art of some sort of tribal culture, often indigenous to the Americas or Africa.  (This phenomenon also happens with Indian, Polynesian, and Asian cultures, although I haven’t seen those labeled “tribal”—I’m thinking henna as decoration, fish hook necklaces and puka shells, Chinese character tattoos…unfortunately the list is pretty long.)

In the case of my shirt, we’re talking about a riff on a Navajo pattern:

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Similar patterns are easy to find on the Internet:

Laramie Blake wears a biil, a traditional woven dress.  Source
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Anita Bekay with her prize-winning rug from 2012.  Source1279-Bitsie-Style-Navajo-Weaving-600x546

Alice Roy in front of a rug she wove.  SourceAliceSpinning-620x627

You can google “Navajo weaving” and see a bunch more of these style that look even closer to my shirt, but I chose pictures with the women who create and wear this pattern to make a point: patterns like this mean something in their original context; they weren’t created in a vacuum but instead are tied to the lives, beliefs, and values of real people—real people who are at best obscured by such representations and at worst oppressed by the culture that appropriates them.

What’s cultural appropriation, you say?  So glad you asked!

stenberg-579x322
Thanks Amandla!

I am growing in my understanding of cultural appropriation by White people of Black culture, and thanks to a badass high school history teacher, I’ve been aware for even longer of the crippling, centuries-long oppression facing Native peoples in the US and how their images and artifacts have been used to turn a profit without their permission.  (Thanks Ms. Davis!)

In other words, there’s a reason you’ll never see me do the “Tomahawk Chop” even though I live in Atlanta.

But, to be honest, I had never realized how very directly connected the fun, funky “tribal” patterns at Target (or in my case at the thrift store) are to the appropriation of Native cultures.  In fact, I was waiting for just the right “tribal” print to make it through to the thrift racks so that I could make it my own.  Ahem.

Thank God for the Internet, because a guest column on a style blog I read highlighted some particularly egregious examples of high fashion cultural appropriation, and a light bulb went off:

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From KTZ.  Source

isabel-marant-cream-georgette-navajo-print-dress-product-1-1455367-598152345_large_flex  Isabel Marant navajo print pants isabel-marant-beige-navajo-suede-fringe-dress-product-1-2129915-925589967_large_flex
From Isabel Marant.  Source.  Source.  Source.

Hits a little too close to home in the “let’s dress up as Indians!” department.

That first post led me to Native Appropriations, where Dr. Adrienne Keene wrote about the appropriation of Native imagery by non-Native couture fashion, including an instance where a designer blatantly copied from a dress by Northern Cheyenne/Crow artist Bethany Yellowtail with no credit attributed and with no understanding of the spiritual or social significance of the images used without permission:

bethany-KTZ-579x579
Different color scheme; same shapes, cut, and general pattern.

Maybe you don’t see a direct enough resemblance here to merit outrage; after all, there is “nothing new” under the sun and all fashion is basically a riff on what’s come before, right?  Just like pop drawing on hip hop, right?

It’s true that art forms of all kinds are always borrowing from, drawing off of, others’ creativity.  But to me it comes down to a power difference.

When those of us who have more power in this society make something our own that has its origins in the creativity of a group with less power, that group is never in a position to control how their art, fashion, music, etc. is used.

It becomes a monologue instead of a conversation, and a monologue borrowed without permission at that (one might say stolen or cribbed or plagiarized), a piece performed as one’s own without recognition of, or respect for, the place it came from.  (See: Iggy Azalea.)

As Dr. Keene suggested, non-Native designers can work with Native designers to produce original content for their fashion lines, highlighting that collaboration and the origins of the imagery they use.  But few, if any, ever do.

 

So.

 

I’m not sure if I “can” wear a so-called tribal shirt.  I know its origins, I regularly educate myself about other issues facing Native peoples and the brutal history of violence and betrayal perpetrated by my country that led to those issues.  I’ve even advocated about some of those issues.  (Did you know you can celebrate the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day? And you can ask the White House to do the same?)

But even if I could somehow prove that I’m one of the “good” White people who “know better” and have taken the time to bone up on Native culture, my shirt doesn’t come with an asterisk explaining all that to the average passerby.  All they see is a fun, funky “tribal” print making me look hip and chic, and no one has to acknowledge that those patterns came from somewhere, a “somewhere” that is rarely celebrated or even represented in the dominant culture in a positive way.

And that’s not so chic.

 

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I’d love your thoughts on this—particularly if you identify as belonging to an indigenous culture.

 

Resources:

More of Bethany Yellowtail’s goregous work

Beyond Buckskin: supporting Native designers through resources, artist profiles, a shop, and a roundup of Native-designed brands—thanks Stephanie!

8th Generation, the first Native company to make wool blankets—they’re incredible, check them out!

Just a taste of the oppression of indigenous peoples in the US

Ankara (West African wax-resist fabric)

Batik prints

Kenji Yoshino’s similar argument re: wearing ivory

Interesting article on Pendleton’s collaboration with Native communities–when does it veer into cultural appropriation?

(Please leave more resources in the comments!)

 

2 thoughts on “Can I Wear “Tribal” Prints?

  1. Hi Leah, this is an interesting and important discussion. I don’t think there is any one, clear-cut answer. I don’t think that all indigenous people would necessarily want you to not wear anything drawn from their cultural heritage. In many ways, wearing something from another culture really is paying tribute to its aesthetic and symbolic elegance. And sometimes people from that culture see it that way, as this interesting post by a second-generation Indian-American woman points out: http://www.xojane.com/issues/my-indian-parents-are-fans-of-cultural-appropriation

    I also think that insisting on preserving indigenous fashion as only appropriately worn by indigenous people can be a way of indirectly asserting a notion of cultural fragility or patronizing them in their “purity,” when in fact these cultures often participate in the global cultural exchange of ideas, fashions, customs, food, etc., with just as much complexity, resilience, influence and influenceability as other culture groups, like Italians or British or Japanese or what have you.

    Yet I also understand that the situation is quite different when a minority culture is oppressed by the dominant culture where they dwell, and on their own bodies their fashions are cause for discrimination and stereotyping whereas on other bodies their fashions are cool or beautiful. Not to mention the issue of misappropriation and profanization of symbols and designs that have deep significance in their original context but are just to “look cool” on white and other privileged bodies. You mention all this, but I’m just reaffirming that I agree, it should give us pause before wearing fashiong inspired by any minority/oppressed culture group.

    So like I said I don’t think there is any one clear-cut answer, but I would hope for those who do choose to wear a Navajo pattern shirt or something of the sort, it could be a conversation starter they would use to verbalize the missing “asterisk.” And even more importantly, they could listen to the thoughts of anyone who does identify with that culture and that could shape their decisions about if, when and how to wear such clothes.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Sari!
      I love your point re: fragilizing/patronizing indigenous cultures by implying their designs can never be worn by non-Native peoples as they’re somehow not strong/mature enough to participate in the global exchange of ideas, designs, etc. (this is of course different from objects/clothing designed specifically for religious purposes or given as gifts with heavy symbolic meaning, i.e. eagle feathers).

      So I think there’s a case to be made for non-Native people wearing Native patterns, designs, etc.—but in the way that Adrienne Keene talks about it, i.e. items that have been designed by or in collaboration with Native designers and artists. That way you’re supporting Indigenous artists. …but again, how is the average passerby going to know you’re any different from the hipster wearing Urban Outfitter’s latest Pendleton marketing scheme?? Ah, it’s definitely complex! (btw just added article on Pendleton to resources at end of post)

      Can’t wait to read the xojane article, thanks for sharing!

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