The Stories We Tell
The necklace rippled sinuously as Kuttimashi lifted it from its velvet case and placed it around my neck. Multiple strands of slim silver spinels beaded amidst tiny tumescent turquoise beads: this was not just a piece of jewellery but a work of art; only much later did I learn that this particular design of Native American jewellery is called “liquid silver”. “I saw it in the window and knew it was meant for you,” she laughingly said, at which my head bowed down decorously as a young bride, bobbed up to meet her sparkling eyes, a moment frozen in time by a propitiously clicked photograph.
In the 30 years since that evening in Delhi, this necklace accompanied with its matching earrings and bracelet, has travelled across continents with me. Nestled in its original case, lifting it out from its moorings never fails to thrill, the silver spinels uncoiling and spooling mercurially. Noted for its meticulous craftsmanship and artistic designs, Native American jewellery is rooted in the cultural diversity and history of its makers, the indigenous people of the United States.
According to Lois Sherr Dubin, "[i]n the absence of written languages, adornment became an important element of Indian communication, conveying many levels of information." Later, jewelry and personal adornment "...signaled resistance to assimilation. It remains a major statement of tribal and individual identity."
The nomadic ancestors of modern Native Americans had hiked over a Beringia, a “land bridge” from Asia to what is now Alaska at least 15,000 years ago. By the time European adventurers arrived in the 15th century CE, scholars estimate that more than 50 million people were already living in the Americas, spread across a vast variety of societies and cultures. These societies were adversely affected by the subsequent European colonization of the Americas. The Europeans introduced diseases against which the indigenous population had no immunity, thereby wiping out entire populations. Warfare, territorial confiscation and slavery further decimated the numbers. After its creation, the United States followed a settler colonialism policy, waging war against many Native American peoples, removing them from their ancestral lands, and subjecting them to one-sided treaties and to discriminatory government policies.
When the United States was created, existing Native American tribes, even in their significantly reduced numbers were viewed as semi-independent nations. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a policy of relocating Indians from their homelands to territories and reservations in surrounding areas to open their lands for non-native settlements. In theory the relocation was meant to be voluntary though the practice was brutal and enforced. The relocations of the Cherokee and the Navajo people were particularly cruel. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 ended recognition of independent native nations, and started treating them as "domestic dependent nations”. Today, there are over five million Native Americans in the United States, 78% of whom live outside reservations.
A wide variety of lifestyles, languages, customs and art forms are found amongst Native American cultures across the United States. These are founded on traditional beliefs that reflect tribal and clan identities, associations with the spirit world and deep-rooted philosophies, not always accessible to outsiders. Aspects of daily life and practices are intimately integrated with the abstract and symbolic. Visible manifestations of these beliefs through extant objects and practices allow viewers to barely skim the surface; the true meaning and purpose is layered and nuanced. Native American art, for instance, comprises a major category in the world art collection. This includes pottery, paintings, jewelry, weavings, sculpture, basketry, and carvings, negating the notion that fine art cannot be functional.
Representation of Native American objects and practices in museums and media however remains a sensitive and contested arena. Many works are created to be used in sacred, private ceremonies. Some are meant to be seen and touched only by individuals with specialized knowledge. Tools of medicine people, masks and regalia of sacred ceremonies, weapons and artifacts associated with a warrior’s power, burial and grave goods are amongst particularly sensitive items. Similarly, even while depictions of Native Americans as savages in popular media have almost disappeared, most portrayals tend to be oversimplified, inaccurate and sometimes even gross misrepresentations. Great responsibility needs to guide curatorial choices in museums and representations in media to frame narratives of the people and culture they represent and portray. Negative stereotypes perpetuate prejudice and discrimination that continue to impact the lives of indigenous peoples.
Almost disappeared? Not quite however. In this context, the recent launch of a new Dior perfume is particularly egregious. The August 2019 advertisement featured a Native American dancing on a Western bluff against a setting sun. “An authentic journey deep into the Native American soul in a sacred, founding and secular territory,” the accompanying text read. “More to come.” The name of the perfume is Sauvage, or “savage” in English, one of the original slurs used against Native Americans, thereby reinforcing a racial stereotype. The initial launch of the campaign on the company’s Twitter feed was pulled down after a massive backlash. Interviewed by The Washington Post, Hanay Geiogamah, a UCLA professor, playwright and historian who is a member of the Kiowa tribe said, “It’s an arrogant appropriation of imagery that is unimaginatively executed. What offends me is that they so casually appropriate imagery like that and blend it together for their own purposes.”
This is not the first time Dior has used Native American imagery in an insensitive way. John Galliano’s 1998 fall collection, titled “A Voyage on the Diorient Express, or the Story of the Princess Pocahontas”, featured models in oversized 16th-Century European outfits next to models covered in Native-inspired attire. The models dramatically descended from the “Diorient Express”, reimagining the Orient Express, the long distance passenger train, synonymous with opulence and exotica, that travelled between Paris and Istanbul. Galliano has been quoted as saying that his fashion is “a dialogue between the past and the present”. “The starting point is usually factual, but we allow our imaginations to run riot.” Besides imagination running riot, history and fact seem to have had free rein in this particular show. Juxtaposing ‘savage’ next to ‘civilized’, ‘exotic’ next to ‘norm’, Galliano reinforces violent and damaging tropes. According to Dr. Jessica R. Metcalfe, “Galliano is telling this story from a distinctive perspective that perpetuates the misappropriation, misuse, and misrepresentation of Native American people and their cultures.”
How far have we actually come in telling stories that are true? That are actually representative and more importantly, culturally sensitive? We can look forward to enlightening discussions and debates on this issue at the forthcoming sessions of Zee JLF in Houston (September 13-14), New York (September 18) and Colorado (September 21-22).