Native American Heritage Day is celebrated in honor of Native Americans the day after Thanksgiving. But is it really enough to have one day every year to celebrate their rich culture and history? Morgan Freeman said of Black History Month, “I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” And, isn’t this also true for those who had inhabited America far before any settlers?
The fact is, just as most Native American communities have been pushed into reservations, Native American culture has been pushed into the commercial sector. It is boxed-up and sold as ‘cute’ and ‘exotic,’ and is often treated as little more than an advertising gimmick.
Disney can be held responsible for the most well-known case of trivializing Native American history. Everyone’s heard of Pocahontas; it’s a Disney classic that millions of children have grown up with. But at what cost?
It romanticizes a scenario which is much more complex and upsetting than it is shown to be. It also propagates stereotypes that affect every generation that watches it. Unfortunately, the truth behind the story of Pocahontas is not as feel-good as the cartoon version leads one to believe.
Pocahontas actually means “spoiled child”; her real name was Matoaka. As for the epic romance between her and John Smith, it wasn’t nearly as epic. In fact, there might not even have been a romance. Matoaka’s real age when she met 27 year-old John Smith was about 10-13 years. The story about her saving him from her people, the Powhatans, is just a yarn said to have been spun by John Smith himself when he returned to London.
In reality, the story of Pocahontas was completely removed from the distorted Disney version. Even details as little as what the Powhatan people wear are historically inaccurate. The men wear skirts and feather headdresses. Men in Powhatan society wore deerskin breeches and leggings, and feather headdresses were often reserved for the elders who were more developed spiritually.
Unfortunately, this blatant disregard for traditional dress and custom has leaked into the fashion industry. Recent trends have included Navajo-inspired clothing and prints, which reduces the entire Navajo Nation to a fashion trend. The Navajo Nation did sue Urban Outfitters Inc. for the use of their name on Urban Outfitters goods, but that has not reduced the popularity of the term.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show ’13 had Karlie Kloss kitted out in lingerie and tribal headdress. Outrage meant that the look was left out of the televised version of the show, but this doesn’t seem to have made a difference to other retailers. H&M Canada recently pulled a feathered headdress off shelves after complaints about appropriation. Kim Wheeler, a customer of Native American Descent, told CTV: “Headdresses are a sign of respect and leadership. You wouldn't find a colorful hijab or a colorful yarmulke on the shelves as some sort of fashion accessory to wear out to a nightclub or to a music festival."
Her statement quite accurately brings to light the fact that for some reason some things are just considered more important or more sensitive when it comes to being politically correct. If blackface is met with such outrage, then why is it okay to ‘ironically’ wear a cultural symbol? One should not be more wrong than the other, as they are both just as insensitive and disrespectful and worthy of disdain as the other.
It all boils down to the fact that Native Americans are not given the respect they deserve. Their beliefs may be seen as ”mystical” and ”fascinating,” but some of their practices break cultural norms and show the kind of acceptance and open-mindedness that liberals in the US campaign for. For example, Native American culture accepts the existence of “two-spirit people.” These people were believed to have two contrasting spirits manifesting in them. Marriages between these “two-spirit people” were common; therefore men were married to each other as an accepted practice. The claim that gay marriage has never happened in America before is an unfair one: it disregards what Native Americans have been doing for generations. Such a socially progressive society is portrayed as backward and inferior, and this image, unfortunately, has stuck.
While Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse might just be fantastical names used in mere fiction while watching a Spaghetti Western or only ever discussed when planning a Halloween costume, for the communities, they are heroes who died tragic deaths trying to ensure the independence of their people and the continuation of their way of life. And one day a year is not enough to celebrate their legacies.