When Is Fashion Going To Stop Appropriating From Native American Culture?

Native American activist Kim TallBear weighs in on DSquared2’s offensive #DSquaw show and fashion’s obsession with Aboriginal people.

March 31, 2015

In fashion, it's a designer's job to create a world from the ground up season after season. Sometimes that means seeking inspiration from pre-existing ones, but all too often this hunt for a new muse leads to appropriating from other cultures. This past fashion month, Dsquared2's twin designers Dean and Dan Caten caught flack for sending rip-offs of Native American motifs down the runway. Worse still was that the title of the collection, "DSquaw," drew on a derogatory term for Native American women, and the equally offensive description of the runway show's aesthetic—"the enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes" and "the confident attitude of the British aristocracy"—was posted to the fashion brand's Facebook.

Dsquared2's glamorization of colonialism feels particularly off-key considering the current headlines about violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada, not to mention fellow fashion brand Ralph Lauren's recent apology for its own offensive depictions of Native Americans. How could Canadian-born designers possibly be so tone deaf? That was one of the first questions that came to mind for Kim TallBear, a Austin-based scholar and activist for Native American visibility who has served on the council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. We spoke with TallBear about the history of the word "squaw" and why pop culture continues to have a problem with appropriation.

DSquared2's Fall 2015 Collection. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

What was your first impression of the Dsquared2 show? It was shocking, but it wasn't. It was one more iteration of the same ol' thing—Ralph Lauren, Paul Frank, and celebrities wearing headdresses. To me, it looks completely unimaginative. It was another representation of Native American motifs as being predominantly part of the past. [The designers] had some text where they were talking about tribal design being combined with the assertive style of the monarchs—there's this colonial motif going on which is often how Native Americans are represented. The dominant narrative in colonial states and Canada is that indigenous people are almost disappearing, dying. The other thing I thought about when watching the show was the music. It was assertive. Subtly triumphant. It reminded me of the music you'd have in an Olympic Games montage of winning moments. It's the sort of music that's narrating the victory of settler colonialism.

Why do you think designers feel entitled to appropriate from Native American and Canadian culture? Often I notice the difference between how Native people and African Americans might be treated. No doubt the discrimination against African Americans is terrible. We see that with the police violence against black bodies in the United States. But at least people know that black people are vibrant and alive. There is this sense that Native people are not alive in the same way so it enables a different kind of racism. It enables people to take ownership of Native Americans' motifs.

"There is this sense that Native people are not alive in the same way, so it enables a different kind of racism. It enables people to take ownership of Native Americans' motifs."

Do you think racism against Native Americans is more subtle? At least in the United States. In Canada, there's been [incidents of] missing and murdered Aboriginal women. From my perspective, as an American who works a bit in Canada, it seems like the red-white racial dividing line is more present up there. That's why it's so perplexing to me that this came from two Canadian designers.

What is the meaning of "squaw" and how has it changed throughout the years? It's shocking to me that people don't know the word "squaw" is offensive because it's like the N-word for blacks. Even though people have talked about reclaiming the word "squaw," that's certainly not for two white guys to do. For me, having grown up on a reservation in South Dakota, and then in an urban Native American community in Minnesota, it's always been a negative term. It refers to Native American women in a disparaging way. Many of us have actually been called that in our lifetime. In the history of colonization of the U.S., Native women—like black women—have been viewed as promiscuous, sexually devious, loose. How somebody cannot understand how that word is negative is interesting to me in a country where there's a lot of visibility of Aboriginal people. But that speaks to somebody's privilege.

This issue feels tragically redundant—it's almost every couple of months that you hear about another designer, magazine, or celebrity appropriating from Native American culture but the problem keeps persisting. Right, do they not read the news? It does feel like it happens once a month. Ralph Lauren just got zinged for this. Paul Frank did. Different singers have been wearing headdresses. Urban Outfitters got zinged for their Navajo panties. The Gap had the "Manifest Destiny" t-shirt.

Have you thought about why this appropriation keeps happening even though people are aware it's offensive? The most important thing that ties all of this together—the offensive Native American mascots, the wearing of headdresses by celebrities, and the missteps of the fashion industry—is about settler colonial culture making a moral and historical claim to Native American cultural patrimony. [The settler colonial standpoint is that] United States and Canada are the rightful heirs, not only of the land, but also the rightful heirs of the culture, history and representations.

Do you think it's possible to responsibly take inspiration from another culture without exploiting it? Obviously creative people get inspired by the symbols and designs of other people, but it's not just about being inspired. On Twitter, I saw Native American people showing their craft and showing something that was in the DSquared2 line—I'm telling you it looks like a ripoff. In those instances, it's important to talk to the craftspeople and people who look at fashion and think more about that. The difference between inspiration and appropriation is a hard call to make sometimes. I think one always has to think about the power politics and history. You don't create art or design in a vacuum. Ideally, anybody whose creating knowledge or art needs to think about where they fit within hierarchical relations within the nation. If you're white people of privilege you might want to think very carefully about whose symbols and designs you're drawing from.

What do you think needs to happen next? An apology. As far as I understand, Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared2 have said nothing, which I find very strange. Also an apology that's not lame, like the one Ralph Lauren gave. Don't apologize for offending anyone, apologize for doing something stupid and offensive. There are also lots of Native fashion designers. Maybe it's a call to figure out who they are and use it as a learning opportunity.

When Is Fashion Going To Stop Appropriating From Native American Culture?