Art Interrupted: Where are the Indigenous Women?

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In my research to better understand the influence of Native American cultures on the art created by artists of the United States, I read about the history of contact between the indigenous people of North America and the ongoing appearance of immigrants from Europe. Through North America’s history of interaction between these two groups, there have been poles of promotion towards cultural extinction contradicted by mass amounts of cultural appropriation from Native American cultures. This becomes quite evident when reviewing the effects of the Removal Period on the eastern parts of the United States. Along with the absence of indigenous people first from east of the Mississippi River and then from most areas of the United States outside of government reservations, the lack of indigenous people leaves room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. From the absence of interaction with indigenous people, myths about the Native American people snowballed into stereotypes that fall into three main categories: the doomed warrior, the wise elder, and the princess or squaw. In this paper, I will focus on the objectification of indigenous women as they are portrayed, moving on to the true history of several indigenous women and, finally, conclude with where we can find indigenous women making a difference in today’s world.

The Objectification of the Indian Princess

The stereotype of Native American women was not only prevalent in the past but is still seen today. One can head to the grocery store and still see these stereotypes on packages of butter, cornstarch, and, even, hair products. The objectification of Native American women has been part of the culture in the United States for more than a century. In the article, “Images of Native Americans in Advertising”, William M. O’Barr explains that:

Native American women are typically presented as one of two quite different images: the American Indian princess (of which Pocahontas is perhaps the most familiar example), and the squaw (typically depicted in gendered roles like collecting and preparing food, caring for children, and so on). Advertising imagery, in particular, alternated between these two depictions of Native American women. (O’Barr, 20)

Later in his article O’Barr writes, “By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become commonplace in American advertising. Almost all of these images had nothing to do with the real lives of Native Americans nor even advertising products and services to them” (7). Further evidence of this objectification can be seen in S. Elizabeth Bird article “Savage desires the gendered construction of the American Indian in popular media.” She details that:

From early times, a dominant image was the Indian Princess, represented most thoroughly by Pocahontas, the seventeenth-century sachem’s daughter who, according to legend, threw herself in front of her tribe’s executioners to save the life of colonist John Smith. (78)

This role of the Native American woman being represented as Pocahontas has been portrayed throughout cinema and media alike. We see this in movies such as Walt Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan and the 1956 movie White Squaw. The question then arises, why does Pocahontas epitomize the indigenous women in North American culture? Bird answers this question when she quotes Robert S. Tilton:

The Pocahontas/Princess myth became a crucial part in the creation of a national identity. The Indian Princess became as important, non-threatening symbol of white Americans right to be here, because she was always willing to sacrifice her happiness, cultural identity, and even her life for the good of the new nation (79).

Tilton’s quote gets to the heart why this role was so important to the people that killed, stole, and removed the indigenous people from their lands. If Pocahontas is portrayed as this selfless “Indian Princess” willing to give up her whole life for this new nation, then others among her people should be willing to do the same. This convoluted story allowed the American people to legitimize the horrific policies and practices that the American Government was then enforcing on the indigenous people of North America.

Indigenous Women as Heroes

While viewing the documentary The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen, I heard a word that to this point in my research into Native American history I have never heard used. That word was “hero”, and the narrator was not talking about a European settler, but instead a Native American named Tecumseh. It was a word that through all my years of education was never assigned to an indigenous person when written by a person of European descent. Native Americans were always depicted in film and literature as evil savages that were always taking advantage of situations. They were the enemy of the U.S. Cavalry and the cowboy. They were never portrayed as heroes; instead, they were relegated to the role of the adversary. For this reason, I chose to write about several indigenous women that are heroes, even though they don’t show up in any history books used in schools when explaining the contributions of strong individuals to the U.S.

The first of the three indigenous women I want to discuss is Nancy Ward. She was a member of the Cherokee people and amongst her people is seen as a great hero, and is known by her designation as “most beloved woman”. In the article “3 Historical Native American Women You Might Not Know, But Should” by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, she writes about the amazing things Ward accomplished. She details how:

In the early 1750s, Nancy Ward married the noted war leader, Kingfisher of the Deer Clan, and was at his side when in 1755 he was killed by Creek warriors at the battle of Taliwa. She immediately picked up his weapons and rallied the Cherokee warriors to overwhelming victory. (Gilio-Whitaker 2)

It’s also important to understand that Ward did this while only being seventeen at the time of this battle. By showing her bravery in battle, the Cherokee saw Ward as a powerful and important person among their people. For this reason, Ward was chosen to take part in the following events:

  • Ward was the only female among the voting members of the Cherokee General Council and was the leader of the Women’s Council.
  • As a “beloved woman” she served as a negotiator in important meetings with whites. When the Cherokees met with U.S. officials, Nancy Ward was present, often to the surprise of the assembled white men.
  • In 1781, she addressed the U.S. treaty commissioners after settlers attacked Cherokee towns. She believed that peace would come only if Indians and whites saw themselves as one people, and she thought only women on the two sides could make this happen. (New York Historical Society 1)

Ward’s bravery, intelligence, and experience helped her lead her people, and due to her incredible accomplishments, she is still celebrated by the Cherokee today.

The second indigenous woman that stands out as a hero is Toypurina. She was born in 1760 into the Kumvit tribe of Southern California. By age 24, she was a respected religious leader and medicine woman amongst her people. Where Toypurina truly shined was in her ability to lead her people. This becomes evident when learning how she dealt with the mistreatment of her people by the Spanish. Gilio-Whitaker explains:

In addition to rebelling against the violence of widespread rape, forced labor, and conversion, the final straw had been the banning of traditional dances. Toypurina, widely known as a powerful Tongva medicine woman, 25 years old and pregnant at the time, emerged as one of the primary planners of an attack against the mission. After receiving word of the plan, the Spanish launched an ambush, thwarting the revolt. (2)

When questioned about her involvement in the attack, Toypurina bravely admitted to her part in the planned coup, which took her captors by surprise. For her bravery, Toypurian is celebrated today with murals of her in the Los Angeles area; one of them is 60 by 20 feet in size.

The next hero’s name is Mourning Dove, and she was from the Upper Columbia River Plateau region and was born a Colville Indian around 1884. Unlike the two other indigenous women mentioned who were recognized for their bravery in battle, Mourning Dove was a writer. Originally named “Morning Dove, she changed the spelling to “Mourning Dove” after a trip where she observed a mounted bird of the same name and wished to reflect the mournful nature of the bird. Gilio-Whitaker explains that Mourning Dove thought of herself as a woman between two worlds, “Her first language was Salish, but her Catholic mission school education and later at a business school gave her enough command of the English language to compose manuscripts that would be published into books” (3). Her ambition was to break the stereotype of Native Americans as unintelligent savages. She felt by that writing books she would show how stereotypes of indigenous people were false. Jack and Claire Nisbet document Mourning Dove’s journey to this goal, in their biography of her life. They write:

By 1915, she had completed a draft of a novel with a mix-blood Indian girl named Cogewea as the protagonist. In that same year, she met Yakima businessman and tribal advocate Lucullus McWhorter, who had founded the American Archeologist and encouraged Mourning Dove to tell her peoples’ stories. At her death Mourning Dove left behind 20 folders of miscellaneous writings, which it was discovered that they included many autobiographical fragments. These writings later appeared in 1990 as a book titled, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography. (3)

Although she made not have lived to see her goal of the breaking of a stereotype happen, I believe she helped others in accomplishing that goal.

With plenty of evidence of past heroes found, I look to our present to find where modern heroes are. All one needs to do to find these indigenous women is an Internet search of “Native American women today” and evidence of different women breaking the stereotypes of the past is easily accessible. One example of the ways that indigenous women are leading the world today is exemplified in the federal government; two indigenous women are the first to be elected into the United States Congress. In the article “First Native American Women Elected to Congress: Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland” by Eli Watkins, it’s evident how these women have been heroes. When researching the accomplishments of both women, it’s obvious that their lives have been devoted to helping others. Several of the accomplishments that I found on Sharice Davids’ (Ho-Chunk) website include:

  • Sharice was raised by a single mom, who spent more than 20 years in the Army followed by a career in civil service at the US Post Office.
  • Sharice is highly trained in martial arts and has competed as both an amateur and professional in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
  • Sharice was one of 16 selected to participate in the prestigious White House Fellowship program (2016-2017).
  • Sharice has lived and worked on Native American reservations, working with tribes to create economic development opportunities, programs, and initiatives.
  • Sharice regularly speaks at conferences as a nationally recognized expert on economic and community development in Native communities.
  • Sharice, along with her brother, created Starty Pants – a video podcast that highlights entrepreneurs in the Greater Kansas City area with a focus on women, people of color and LGBTQ founders. (

Accomplishments, such as these, allow others to see the impact that indigenous women are having in our society today.

When viewing the accomplishments of Deb Haaland one can see her commitment to change. Her website lists:

  • Deb was theDemocratic Lieutenant Governor nominee of New Mexico in 2014.
  • Deb served for one year (2012-2013) as Native American Caucus Chair for the Democratic Party of New Mexico (DPNM).
  • She was the New Mexico Native American Vote Director for Organizing for America NM (OFA NM) in 2012.
  • Deb was the Native American Vote Manager for the Diane Denish gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
  • Deb volunteered full-time for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
  • Deb has volunteered for dozens of local and statewide Democratic campaigns and, for over a decade, has worked to engage the Native American community as voters and active constituents.
  • In 2005, Deb led passage of SB 482 in the New Mexico Legislature, whichshe authored to allow members of New Mexico Indian tribes in-state tuition at higher education institutions – regardless of their residency.
  • In 2017, Debpartnered with state LGBTQ civil rights leaders to help pass a ban on Conversion Therapy in New Mexico – one of few progressive legislation signed by the Governor. (

Considering her past achievements, there is no doubt that Ms. Haaland will go on to do great things for the American people.

While searching other indigenous women who have made a change, I was lead to the biography of Wilma Mankiller. Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation but her life was filled with activism. After overcoming several setbacks in her personal life, Mankiller became energized with a new sense of purpose in her life. She soon found the perfect project for her drive and talent in the tiny community of Bell, Oklahoma. Bell was a small village on the Cherokee reservation where most of the residents were poor and spoke only Cherokee. Most were living in unsafe, run-down housing without running water. Using money from grants and the federal government, Mankiller organized a community self-help project. Volunteers from Bell constructed an 18-mile long water system and repaired the dangerous housing.  As Chief, Mankiller focused on education, job training, and healthcare for her people (“Wilma Mankiller Biography” par. 2). What all three of these women have in common is that they weren’t only making a difference within their culture but for all American people. They show that they are willing to give of themselves to benefit the lives of others. These women and many others like them should emody the stereotype of what it is to be an indigenous woman in The United States.

Indigenous Women in the Art World

I will conclude with viewing how indigenous women who are visual artists convey their messages in the works they create. The three women artists that I will discuss are viewed as three of the top indigenous artists in the United States today. They are Merritt Johnson, Wendy Red Star, and Margaret Jacobs.

Merritt Johnson is of mixed Mohawk, Blackfoot, Irish and Swedish heritage. Her artwork falls under mixed media since she uses numerous types of materials, including placing herself in her art pieces, which also makes the artwork a performance piece (Turner 1). One of her artworks that stand out to me is titled is Figure 1.

The power of this art piece comes from the implications it conveys to the viewer. Without being able to see the character, the viewer must use his or her own assumptions based on the dress that she is wearing. Johnson is pointing out how in today’s society there are still stereotypes made about different cultures.

Artist Wendy Red Star works across mediums to explore the intersections of Native American ideologies and colonialist structures, both historically and in contemporary society. Raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana, Red Star’s work is informed both by her cultural heritage and her engagement with many forms of creative expression, including photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance (Wendy Red Biography 1). Her piece here titled, White Squaw (permission to use image was not received) has the artist returning to one of many pieces of media the objectified indigenous women into a stereotypical role. S. Elizabeth Bird wrote, in her previously cited article, that these roles were never given to indigenous actors, but instead were played by people of European descent (76).

The last artist whom I’m introducing is Margaret Jacobs, is from the Mohawk tribe. Jacobs is a recipient of the Harpo Foundation’s prestigious Native American Residency Fellowship and works almost exclusively in one style, which is an abstract metal sculpture (Margaret Jacobs Biography 1). One critic says of her works that they are, “Emotive and sharp edge with knowledge and heavy with history, but not violent or threatening” (Sullivan 1). The piece I found iconic is Figure 2, which shows her talent and proficiency in metal.

My original goal was to show how far indigenous women have traveled to overcome the stereotypes introduced at the beginning of this paper. I would like to say as a society that we have moved past the earlier centuries’ stigmas of indigenous people, but unfortunately, it has not changed. All one needs to do is to Google images of “Native American woman” and along with photos of a proud people, you will still see stereotypical comics and costumes amongst them. Critics might say that this happens within all cultures. I would respond by asking them to do an Internet search of other cultures that reside within the United States and let me know how many derogatory images they find.



Works Cited

Bird, S. Elizabeth. “Savage Desires: The Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media.” Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures, Edited by Carter Jones Meyer and Diana Royer, University of Arizona, 2001, 62-98.

Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. “3 Historical Native American Women You Might Not Know, But Should.” News Maven. 26 Sep. 2017, Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Margaret Jacobs Biography. 2018,, Accessed 1 Feb. 2019.

New York “Nancy Ward 1738-1822.” Women and the American Story. Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

O’Barr, William, M. “Images of Native Americans in Advertising.” Advertising & Society Review. Vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-51.

Sharice for Congress. 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019

Turner, Jordyn. “Art with a Voice: A Profile of Merritt Johnson.” Inspiring Indigenous Youth. 2018.

Watkins, Eli. “First Native American Women Elected to Congress: Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland.: 7 Nov. 2018. Accessed 27 Jan. 2019.

Wendy Red Star Biography. 2018, Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.

Wilma Mankiller Biography. 2014, Accessed 19 Jan. 2019.

Fashion as Protest: Conversant Imagery in Jared Yazzie’s Protest Fashion Line

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Protest fashion presents an external visualization of an interior life that should lead to a meaningful dialogue that leads to tolerance and understanding if not affirmation and agreement.  Sarah Maisy noted that “the outfits we choose- or refuse- to wear becomes the front we offer the world…what we wear tells everyone who we are” (Maisy).   However, issues facing contemporary protest fashion seem to grow from the idea that protest creates commodification of dissent, exemplified by the proliferation of goods that bear various protest images and slogans of revolutionaries such as Che Guevara.  The production of these goods allows individuals to purchase designer labels signifying a transgressive expression that becomes, as Thomas Franks recognizes, a:

Capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on an ever-faster cycling of the new; its taste for self-fulfillment and its intolerance for the confines of tradition now permitting vast latitude in consuming practices and lifestyle experimentation. (34)

Promoting lifestyle experimentation capitalism constructs a corporate story for consumers designing them as reactionary suggesting protest fashion is a one-sided conversation.  Unfortunately, when this one-sided conversation becomes a trend, the corporation, through the individual, homogenize cultures.

Homogenization has been a constant issue for Native American communities, in particular where fashion provides a cultural context for protest.  Non-Native designers appropriating Native culture to produce protest fashion inevitably divorce the style from the issues further denigrating Native Americans.  Connie Wang, quoting Adrienne Keene, suggests that:

The public needs to shift their thinking and realize that knowing the story behind a piece- the community it comes from, the meaning behind it- is far cooler than buying a cheap knockoff that will disintegrate after a few washes.  Respect is letting Native peoples represent themselves in fashion, rather than having outsiders represent us. (Wang)

Knowing the story behind a fashion piece suggests that meaningful conversation must take place stylizing fashion protest as a dialogue.

One such contemporary pioneer of protest fashion as dialogue is Jared Yazzie (Dine).  Beginning his fashion line while attending the University of Arizona in 2009, Yazzie began designing cultural misrepresentation experienced by indigenous peoples, filled it with irony and wordplay, and “spits it back out onto a tee shirt” (Bais-Bille).  Yazzie’s fashion line bridges the chasm between Native American culture and mainstream American culture at the benefit of the indigenous designers (Bais-Bille).  Yazzie uses OxDx (overdose) to describe the state of modern society, “Sometimes we need to pull back and remember our culture, tradition, and those who have sacrificed for us” (Yazzie).

Considering Yazzie’s protest fashion as dialogic, this paper examines how a deaf and blind Western-controlled narrative has dictated Native American voice for the last five hundred years through considerations of counter-history.[1]  Secondly, Yazzie’s work raises a voice for Native women and the abuses that they have and continue to suffer at the hands of a racist judicial system.  Finally, Yazzie’s unique protest fashion provides a voice for the greater Native American community by opposing the fetishizing of Native cultures through mascots.  Overall, Yazzie’s fashion protest confronts historical discourse intentionally revealing the reality of the present by unveiling a counter-history in the past.  However, before considering Yazzie’s unique conversational protest, a brief discussion of underlying philosophies of Native American fashion appropriation must first be considered.

Appropriation through Photographic Projection

Perhaps one of the hardest projections to overcome is the romanticized view of Native Americans through photography.  Photography of Native Americans promoted a sentimentalist fallacy that romanticized the “noble savage” from a realist point of view.  Consider, for example, John Riis photography of the destitute in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century.  Riis framed the “realistic” vision of poverty that became a voyeuristic window for the middle class and the wealthy to safely view what was socially problematic without endangering themselves.  While Riis may have, eventually, moved some toward action, the majority of viewers seemed to have been emotionally moved to superficially consider the injustice of the situation without acting superficially.  Protest without action represents, as Christopher Voparil suggests, “the lack of connection between ideas and action” (104).

Just as Riis contributed an awareness of poverty leading people toward sentimentality rather than action, photography captured the idea of Native American identity.  However, photography negatively preserved and projected that identity.  One photographer that excelled at Native American photography at the turn of the twentieth century was Gertrude Käsebier who was known for her softly allegorical images of women and children (Carr 207).

The Red Man, Figure 1, taken in 1900, captures a contrary vision of Native Americans.  It captures a gentle warmness as there are no feathers, no war paint, and no jewelry of animal bones, merely a relaxed human wrapped in a blanket (Carr 208).  Käsebier imagery evokes healthy skin with rough folds of the blanket.  The Red Man inhabits a maternally gentle sphere.  What Käsebier, captures, however, can also be considered a separation of the Indian from humanity projecting an “innocent child” in need of maternal compassion (Carr 208).  Thus, the romanticizing of Native Americans takes the shape of a photograph contextualized by a vision of romantic simplicity characterizing “the noble savage.”

Another eminent photographer who sought to capture and preserve American Indians as traditionally as possible was the Seattle based photographer, Edward S. Curtis.  Curtis desired to help protect traditional aspects of Native American life that he believed was vanishing due to boarding schools and Indian removal policies (Makepeace).  N. Scott Momaday said of Curtis:

Taken as a whole, the work of Edward S. Curtis is a singular achievement.  Never before have we seen the Indians so close to the origins of their humanity…Curtis’ photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time and every place. (Curtis and Cardozo 21)

Many Native Americans were excited at the prospect of a Curtis revival as he captured aspects of their heritage in ways they believed were lost (Makepeace).

However, Curtis also reinforced the identity of the “noble savage” by staging romanticized and sentimentalized scenes that deflected the attention from the real plight of Native Americans and their loss of human rights.  Curtis removed all Western trappings, parasols, suspenders, wagons, and houses that many tribes had been forced to adopt to be considered civilized.  In Ogalala War Party, Figure 2, Curtiss photographed ten Ogalala men wearing formal feathered headdresses and riding down-hill on horseback with the caption, “a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of inter-tribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy’s camp.”

While there is no denying Curtis’ talent, and  that he had a deep respect for those he photographed, the portrayal of the war party is wholly constructed.  Head-dresses may have been worn into battle, but usually they were reserved for ceremonial purposes.  Whether head-dresses were worn or not, the men would not be, “carefully making their way to the enemy camp” in broad daylight where they would be easily seen and, most likely, intercepted before they made it down the hill.  The photograph projects an imagined identity.

Curtis, despite his benevolent designs to capture authentic Indians, projects a modernist construction of cultural dominance.  In “Edward Curtis:  Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist,” Gerald Vizenor suggests that:

The modernist constructions of culture, with natives outside of rational, cosmopolitan consciousness, are realities by separation, a sense of native absence over presence in history.  The absence of natives was represented by images of traditions, simulations of the other in the past; the presence of natives was tragic, the notions of savagism and the motive images of a vanishing race.  The modernist images of native absence and presence, by creative or representational faculties, are the rational binary structures of other, an aesthetic, ideological disanalogy. (180-181)

Modernistic conceptions of “Indian” tended toward romantic images projecting what Vizenor suggests in Crossbloods, “We were caught in camera time, extinct in photographs, and now in search of our past and common memories we walk right back into these photographs” (90).  For Vizenor, camera time meant walking back into a word, “Indian,” that was a simulation of constructed and projected identity that imposed, “the simulation of the indian that is the absence of the native” (Fugitive Poses 152).  These images and an attempt to remember and define an end, “imperialist nostalgia [that] uses a pose of ‘innocent yearning’ to both capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with the often brutal domination” (Rosaldo 70).

Using photography to capture the authentic Native American is to hunt for a “true Indian.”  Louis Owens suggests that any concept of a “true Indian” is an artificial construct and Euro-American invention: The Indian in today’s world consciousness is a product of literature, history, art, and a product that, as an invention, often bears little resemblance to actual, living Native American people. (4)

Photography suggests definition, capture, and possession through photographic simulation projected upon the Native American community.

Holding the same philosophy as photography fashion appropriates Native Americans through an “honor” and “respect” justification of cultural preservation.  Adrienne Keene suggests in her blog “Native Appropriations:”

Most often people who engage in cultural appropriation use the ‘respect’ and ‘honor’ argument to justify their actions- ‘But I think Native culture is so beautiful!’ or ‘I’m honoring Native Americans!’ To me, there is no respect in taking designs or cultural markers from community, divorcing them from their meaning and context, and selling them for monetary gain.  (par. 10)

Further, Native American fashion becomes appropriated by those who seek to “play” Indian without all the negative Western stereotypes attached to the term (Delroia ).  Karen Kramer, defining appropriation in fashion in Native Fashion Now, describes how these designers:

Appropriate Indian style for their own purposes…often [using] it to assert a kind of ‘true’ Americanness, or to stand for reductionist concepts like ‘freedom’ or ‘authenticity.’ Their garments may be handsomely executed; they may raise the profile or prestige of Native Aesthetics.  But when symbols of Native culture are deployed by people who don’t understand their meaning, it’s like a game of ‘telephone,’ where the message comes garbled.  After all, the ‘America’ these designs now represent is the same one that has oppressed indigenous people for so long. (19)

Through fashion as a “telephone game,” Native American culture becomes misunderstood, absented, and replaced with a simulation of what Indian fashion is imagined to be separated from any cultural significance while consumers misapprehend what their “costume” means.  Where there is no discernable context regarding the clothing, there can be no respect, and if there is no respect, there can be no appropriate action leaving current trends of Native American fashion appropriation locked in a sentimentalist fallacy.  Autonomously “feeling” that wearing misunderstood designs supports Native American communities reveals parasitic lifestyle experimentation.

However, there are ways that non-Natives can respect Native tradition while still supporting Native causes through fashion protest.  Again, Adrienne Keene suggests:

The way to truly respect Native communities in the fashion world is to support and buy directly from Native designers- these designers know the boundaries of their own cultures, know what elements are appropriate to incorporate in their work and sell to non-Natives, are building generations of culture and design, and very importantly, the sales are benefiting members of the community the designs come from, not large corporation or non-Native designers. (par. 8)

Generally, despite Native designs representing a particular community, it would seem that Native American designers produce artifacts that can be appropriately worn by anybody.  On the other hand, Native American fashion, even though it may find marketability towards general audiences, still requires a balanced education to intelligently speak about the issues that the clothing presents or there is the risk of falling into a protest based on sentimentalism and “lifestyle experimentation” (Franks 34).  In short, we are asked to provide an answer when confronted about our fashion that transcends individualism making the person wearing the clothing a viable conversationalist able to address deeper issues honestly.  Jared Yazzie’s fashion provides just such an example combining the Western historical narrative with a rich Native American counter-history.

Giving Native Voices to Honest Views of History

Seeking to open transparent and honest conversation, Yazzie subverts “bastardized symbols of Native culture,” by founding a tradition of deconstructing clothing, while also personalizing, the untold side of American history (Blais-Billie).  Yazzie’s fashion creativity seems to be influenced by his mother and how she made mundane government issued school clothing unique:

There’s government-issued tribal clothing that our parents used to get as Navajo kids on the first day of school.  My mom would fashion it into different stuff- it was super unique.  We weren’t the richest people, but she would make it a little different so everybody would think she bought all her clothes. (Wang)

Small alterations, adornment, and illumination can take inconsequential clothing and transmute them into a fashion statement that reflects community and social concerns.  In many ways, clothing becomes a ceremony exemplifying both the individual and community in which they live.

Yazzie’s brand, OxDx, carries a mission statement that seeks, “To preserve culture by passing on stories through art, fashion, and creative content.  To be socially conscious, constantly connected to our community, and ambitious as hell” (Yazzie).  Here, clothing becomes more than a fashion accessory.  Fashion connects to a social conscience raising awareness and participation in communities allowing fashion to tell stories in the way we dress, what adorns our clothing, and how we are constructing ourselves creatively by wearing that clothing.  Yazzie gives a voice to the voiceless by drawing attention to the messages that illuminate his t-shirt designs.[2]

Figure 3 presents Yazzie’s most popular design, and it is also the shirt that formally launched him into the world of fashion.  Baring the message “Native Americans Discovered Columbus,” the shirt itself is quite understated, and that seems to be part of Yazzie’s goal making it an everyday protest through ordinary fashion.  Even though “OxDx is about resistance, anti-conformity, and a departure from the toxic traps of society” the statement itself is visually arresting drawing the eye to the text imprinted on the t-shirt (Blaise-Billie).  Rather than an aggressive protest action, the shirt takes a historical “fact,” Columbus coming to the New World, and turns it around.  Discovery becomes double-sided rather than historically one-sided.  The simplicity of the statement allows the design to be considered and questioned turning the realization of the shirt into a teaching moment reversing the Western historical narrative to accuse Columbus of genocide in the New World openly.

Since Yazzie’s design promotes conversation, an honest and balanced view of Columbus’ genocide must be explored as it is not accurately taught in Western education.  In this case, Columbus’ own words condemn his actions as he recorded in his journal, “They [Native Americans] would make fine servants…with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” (Zinn).  Slavery of the indigenous population become necessary to cater to Columbus’ greed.  His obsessive mantra became, “Where is the gold?” (Zinn).

So contagious was Western greed that in 1508, historian and social reformer Bartolome de las Casas reported that Spaniards, “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades” (60).  Native Americans were enslaved and separated from their families.  Violent and dehumanizing, the Native American population began to die from torture, starvation, exhaustion, and depression (las Casas 66).  Estimations of the death toll between 1494 and 1508 declared over three million Native Americans were killed in Columbus’ search for gold (Zinn).

Columbus’ violence against Native Americans eventually became the hallmark of the American Empire.  Yazzie’s work embodies both sides of this historical event.  Factually, Columbus came to the Americas.  However, when Columbus came to the New World, the indigenous population did discover him.  However, they also unmasked the West and a crueler way of life void of hospitality, humanity, and compassion that Native Americans had initially extended to these visitors.  They discovered that they were the slaves of an imagined empire that violently absented their voices through conquest.  As long as the person wearing the shirt is willing to engage honestly in this incredibly difficult conversation about this imbalance of historical information, then, perhaps, they can wear the shirt appropriately.

Giving Voice to Native American Women

A second important goal in Yazzie’s fashion provides a voice to indigenous women.  Stemming from biological determinism, as Edward Said suggests in Culture and Imperialism, scientific colonizing tactics are first made popular at home, and, so, to understand how Native women have been silenced, it becomes crucial to examine how the “civilized” world used a separate spheres dichotomy to divide their world while forcing this Enlightenment on the New World.

Separate spheres ideology rested on scientific definitions based on biological determinations of men and women.  Barbara Webster notes in “The Cult of True Womanhood,” that women were interpreted, phrenologically as inferior since a “woman is a constantly growing child, and, in the brain, as in so many other parts of her body, she conforms to her childish type” (4).  According to Kathryn Hughes article “Gender Roles in the 19th Century,” women were biologically determined to be physically, intellectually, emotionally, sexually, and constitutionally inferior to men, yet remained morally superior due to their mental and spiritual simplicity.  Because of this moral superiority, women segued men into a state of relaxation and moral balance when they came home as men could become tainted by the immorality of the public sphere.  American print culture promoted a reduction of women’s rights to piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity, as portrayed in Godey’s Ladies Book:

The right to love, whom others scorn,

The right to comfort and to mourn,

The right to shed new joy on earth,

The right to feel the soul’s high worth,

Such woman’s rights a God will bless

And crown their champions with success. (Hughes)

The childishness of the poem captures women in a sphere of domesticity that corresponds closely with ideals of women as only capable of being domestically familial, moral, and spiritual caregivers.

Eventually, these two spheres approach became a colonial tactic that assimilated “savage” cultures by seeking to restructure Indigenous values with the woman as the “light of the home” (Welter 152).  Sharon Harrow notes in Adventures of Domesticity that, “Domestic discourse was deployed as a colonizing tactic…cultures were called civilized or savage based on their domestic practices” (9).  Essentially, if the domestic environment in America did not mirror the “civilized” notion of domesticity, then it was savage.  Andrea Smith suggests that colonialism through missionary societies used the tactic to civilize North America. However, it led to widespread sexual abuse of ethnic women, prostitutes, and destitute women as they became equated with “dirty bodies” that were considered sexually violable (Smith 73).  Because the public sphere was not concerned with morality, the violation of a “dirty” body was not considered rape (Smith 73).

Within these conceptions, Native American women were considered “dirty” women perceived as childish sex slaves and work drudges in need of rescue (Barman 237-266).  On the other hand, Indian women were considered sexual to the point of unbridled appetites that demanded discipline and containment (Jacobs 118-199).  In many cases, every act of a Native American woman was perceived as an overtly sexual act due to the perception that they were wild, out of control, and full of debauchery (Barman 264).  Nowhere was this consideration of the sexual more apparent than in the nineteenth century “Prairie Pornography” of Will Soule who photographed Native women as half-naked, ignoble savages, whose bodies were twisted into erotic positions that left scientific discourse and entered into the pornographic (Ringlero 191-192).  Tragically, many Native women are still considered “dirty bodies” even today.

The consequences of colonial policies turning Native women into “dirty bodies” have continued to perpetuate this myth of Native women as nothing has reversed the narrative.[3]  According to the Indian Law Resource Center, four in every five American Indian and Alaskan Native women experience violence, and one in every two have experienced sexual violence (  More than half of all Native American women have been sexually assaulted, and over one third have been raped during their lifetime putting Native American women at nearly 2.5 times greater risk than white women (Bleir and Zolediowski).  Part of the issue stems from the fact that until recently, United States law had stripped Indian nations of all authority to prosecute non-Indians on sovereign land (  Sexual violations by non-Natives were reported at 96%, and the cases, even now, tend to go uninvestigated as the U.S. Attorney Offices have declined to prosecute two-thirds of the reported cases (; Bleir and Zolediowski).

Sexual assault against Native women is not the only disconcerting statistic.  The Center for Public Integrity reported that, as of 2016, there were 5,712 cases of missing Native American women reported to the National Crime Information Center (Bleir and Zolediowski).  Annita Lucchesi, from the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, collected a database of 2,600 cases of missing and murdered Native women in Alberta (Bleir and Zoledowski).  The numbers here become more startling considering that Native American tribal nations did not gain access to FBI databases until 2015 rendering all these numbers an undercount (  At the end of 2017, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database had only 633 open missing-persons cases involving Native women (  Sarah Deer from the University of Kansas has suggested that violence and the rate of missing Native women are due to a broken legal system that is not providing justice on behalf of Native women (Deer).

Considering the human status of Native American women, Yazzie’s design, Figure 4, provides a fuller picture of injustices against women protesting the current legal culture with the simple design of a woman wearing traditional Native American clothing sitting on a stack of books while typing on a laptop contemplatively, and probably unconsciously, embodying two cultures.  The words, “The Future is Indigenous” illuminate the young woman.  The shirt suggests that it is time to consider the intelligent humanness of Native women while also building a healthy respect for their culture and traditions, which include respect and honor of woman as an essential part of living in a stable society.  As human beings, women are not just domestic slaves nor are they sexually deviant people. Instead, Yazzie’s shirt proclaims the self-determination of Native women as they seek to live educated, vibrant, and beautiful lives embodying both their traditional heritage while also pursuing higher education.

Giving Voice to the Tribal Nations

Finally, Yazzie’s work magnifies the collective voice of Native Americans as a Nation by standing against the use of American Indians as mascots for sports teams.  Historically, using American Indians as mascots would not have been considered insensitive since Native Americans were not scientifically considered human.  Again, biological determinism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries separated what was considered civilized and savage.  Students learned the ethnographic/biological species of human division as having three primary races and three secondary races: white, which included European, North Africa, through India; yellow, China, Japan, and the Middle East; and, Black, Africa, West Indies, Central America, and South America (Warren 17; Merrill 16-17; Guyot 9; Atwerp 16; Colton 16).  As primary races, they were characterized by their ability to build civilizations with recognizable social hierarchies. Caucasian races were considered superior able:

To actively engage in agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and other pursuits. They make laws for the protection of life and property, possess an (established) literature, establish schools, and devote much time to intellectual improvement.  (Atwerp 16; Houston 128; Guyot 9)

Not only did Caucasians establish civilized order, but thinkers also considered the white races as the most intelligent, scientific, and moral having the only true religion, Christianity (Merrill 17-18; Hurst 38-41).

Native Americans were a secondary race identified as the “Red race,” a human subspecies defined as:

Savages (Indians) are the lowest and most degraded class.  They have no political divisions or towns, few and rude occupations, cruel or weak government, degrading religion, and no education.  Very few savages cultivate the soil.  The greater part subsists on roots and wild fruit, or by hunting and fishing.  Some tribes are ignorant of the use of fire, and eat their food raw.  The American Indians, some Negro tribes in Africa, and all the native tribes of Australia are savages. (Warren 17).

Within this narrow consideration, Native Americans were no more than simple children, at best, or ferocious animals, at worst.  From these definitions, it should not be shocking that Native Americans would become mascots that are projections of predatory animals or pejorative caricatures that have been projected onto Native Americans.

In 1999 the Society of Indian Psychologists, standing against the use of Native Americans as mascots, argued:

Stereotypical and historically inaccurate images of Indians in general interfere with learning about them by creating, supporting and maintaining oversimplified and inaccurate views of indigenous peoples and their cultures.  When stereotypical representations are taken as factual information, they contribute to the development of cultural biases and prejudices, (clearly a contradiction to the educational mission of the University).  In the same vein, we believe that continuation of the use as Indians as symbols and mascots is incongruous with the philosophy espoused by many Americans as promoting inclusivity and diversity. (Gray et al.)

Nowhere does pejorative representation become more apparent than in sports.  Currently, the number of professional sports teams using Native Americans as mascots has been reduced to five: one baseball team, the Atlanta Braves; two football teams, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Redskins; and two hockey teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Eskimos.[4]

Linguistically, a mascot is, “a person or thing, animate or inanimate, that acts as a charm or talisman, whose presence is designed, or believed, to bring good luck or good fortune to the possessor” (“Mascot” 197-198).  “Mascot” can be traced to Medieval Latin, Musca, meaning mask, specter, or nightmare, explaining why a particular mascot may be chosen to represent a sports team (Sciolist).  Linguistically, it is possible that the word developed from the Latin to the Old Provencal word masca, witch, to the Provencal word mascot, sorcerer’s charm or fetish, that aided in casting an enchantment (“Mascot” 197; Sciolist).  Sports franchises inappropriately project pejorative concepts of identity by fetishizing Native Americans.

Yazzie’s fashion recognizes the mascot from Cleveland Indians who had one of the most recognizable mascots in baseball. Figure 5 mashes the Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” with the Misfit skull. Yazzie draws inspiration from the lyrics of “Skull:”

The corpses all hang headless and limp
Bodies with no surprises
And the blood drains down like devil’s rain
We’ll bathe tonight


I want your skulls
I need your skulls
I want your skulls
I need your skulls

Demon I am and face I peel
To see your skin turned inside out, ’cause
Gotta have you on my wall
Gotta have you on my wall, ’cause


(Misfits, “Skull”)

The mashup fits well with the idea that “Chief Wahoo” is a fetish hung on the wall of a genocidal conquistador that feels violently compelled to “hack the heads” off the colonized. The song and the symbol become reminiscent of the Indian Wars where scalps, and other body parts, were taken and sold for a profit.  Chief Wahoo represents a trophy, bodiless, his smiling head taxidermied and displayed representing a violent testament to American empire.


         While much more could be said for Yazzie’s fashion, he does prove that protest can be generally marketed to a broader audience.  However, protest does not come without context.  Finding context, doing the research, having conversations, and understanding why and how protest should happen is necessary to pursue meaningful protest that leads to change.  Yazzie’s work becomes powerful as his fashion allows for positive dialogue “that can bring about change, for what is said can come into actuality” (Peat, 225).  Conversations centered on history/counter history remain painfully contentious, yet to begin healing hearts must be examined through meaningful dialogue.  Yazzie’s fashion line pursues healing that can only happen through constructive and honest conversation.  His fashion line represents a human story that transcends lifestyle experimentation setting protest toward lasting change.



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[1] “Counter-history” draws on Foucault’s conception of “subjugated knowledges” that have been buried by formal systemization, and that have been disqualified as “inferior ways of knowing” due to their lack of civilized scientific foundations (7-8).

[2] Yazzie’s cprotest fashion has been featured in the Native Fashion Now exhibit which toured the nation in 2017, and he also received a commission from the Smithsonian in the same year during the exhibition (White).

[3] “Dirty bodies” concepts have also been termed the “Pocahontas Perplex,” Rayana Green (1975), a myth that continues to endure due to the Disney animated movie, and the “Celluloid Maiden,” explored by M. Elise Marubbio’s Killing the Indian Maiden:  Images of Native American Women in Film (2006), who sacrifices herself for a white man.  In both cases the Native women may not be directly “dirty,” but they are sexualized as exotic Princesses who is purely sexual and sexualized.

[4] The Cleveland Indians, while not changing their name, have agreed to drop the Chief Wahoo logo beginning in the 2019 season (“Cleveland Indians”).