29 April 2007

Smurfing "Indians"

above, that's Rain Dancer, Spear, and Indian Smurfette. in case you didn't know, the smurfs in europe are trying to make a comeback with the Blue Imps Smurf Collection. in 2005, new versions of "classic" smurfs, like papa and smurfette, were released. in 2006, halloween smurf figurines. and now in 2007, joining the company of "classics" and dracula smurf, werewolf smurf, and other costumed smurfs is ... a Native American series of 8 smurfs?

not surprised. the company is in wales, UK. the figurines are made in germany. and for those familiar with playing "indian," you know it's an international thing. don't have real Indigenous Peoples in your country? then the (il)logical step is to make some, right? then you, too, can join in redface revelry. and be sure, as the smurfs do, to construct "indians" from the past, from former imagined times, in misinformed ways that have been going on for hundreds of years ... if you'd like to let 'em know what you think, the company's email is thewebs@blueimps.com. for now, we at the bbb place the new "indian" smurfs in the Brady Brave Hall of Shame. congrats to peace pipe smurf (below) and the others ...

24 April 2007

Louise Erdrich, Not Playing "Indian"

long time no redface. the bbb has been behind in brady bravin' the blogosphere. looks to be that way until around mid-may.

for now, the bbb applauds Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) for declining an honorary degree from the University of North Dakota due to the school's continuing use of the "Fighting Sioux" mascot name. Ms. Erdrich is a good example of one who is not playing "indian" here. for a Native person to accept the degree from a school with such a nickname would be playing "indian" by approving and conforming to the expectations
of what Robert Berkhofer has called the White man's "Indian." a big brady brave bravo [not to be confused with greg "johnny bravo" brady] to Ms. Erdrich.


12 April 2007

Disney's Revolutionary "Indians"

Set in Boston at a hotel, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody targets young Disney viewers as it follows the adventures of twin teenage White brothers Zack, the carefree troublemaker, and Cody, the studious dreamer. In the 2006 episode “Boston Tea Party,” Boston city hall plans to transform Liberty Park, one of the boys’ hangouts, into a paved lot. Cody writes a lengthy letter of protest in which some of the key words, he announces, are “boldfaced” for emphasis. Zack, growing tired and, as he calls it, “boredfaced,” inattentively listens to his brother and falls fast asleep. The episode then goes into a dream sequence of flashing back to what I label a redfaced reenactment of the Boston Tea Party.

Set in 1773, the year of the Tea Party and three years before the official founding of the United States of America, the dream depicts the non-Native cast engaging in talk of revolting against England’s high taxes on imported tea and of forming their own country. That same year, a group of American colonists in Boston dressed as Mohawk “Indians” to disguise themselves while throwing English tea overboard. Like the real colonists in Boston, the characters’ plan is to dress as “Indians” and dump the latest shipment of English tea into the Boston Harbor. In the next scene, several characters are seated on Liberty Park’s lawn and constructing their “Indian” headdresses. “During our raid on the tea ship,” one character explains, “these Indian headdresses will disguise us so the British won’t know who we are.”

For colonists to have played “Indian” at the real Boston Tea Party and in The Suite Life’s reenactment functions as far more than mere disguise. To be pseudo-“Indians” enabled colonists to take on characteristics they linked with “Indianness.” For one, the colonists associated “Indians” with courage. To be dressed as “Indians,” Cody adds, “will show [the British] we can fight!” The Suite Life plays on the Euro-American rationale of believing that all “Indians” are warriors who will go to any length to protect themselves and their homelands.

To associate “Indians” with violence occurs again in the next scene. Dressed in their exotic “Indian” regalia of feathers and beaded necklaces and belts with multicolored paint on their faces, the non-Native characters enter the hotel and celebrate their off-screen dumping of the tea. Another character, who did not play “Indian,” sees them and yells, “Indians!” After the pseudo-“Indians” duck in fear, she screams, “Indian attack!” One of the “Indian” players proudly responds, “We’re not Indians; we’re revolutionaries!” As a signifier of revolutionary and uninhibited freedom, “Indian” denotes who is not British. Attracted to what they perceive as Indigenous characteristics of exoticness, freedom, courage, and violence, the “Indian” players in The Suite Life, like the historical American colonists, looked to become different from the British. The Boston Tea Party, Philip Deloria states, “offers a defining story of […] American character.” It functions, he adds, as “a catalytic moment, the first drumbeat in the long cadence of rebellion through which Americans redefined themselves as something other than British colonists” (see Deloria's book Playing Indian, pg 2). The Tea Party portrays a pictorial semblance for colonists to assume an authentic American identity.
To play, not be, “Indian” enabled the White revolutionaries to move away from being British and towards original Americanness in the form of “Indians,” America’s original inhabitants. Thus, White revolutionaries in Boston engaged in playing “Indian” to serve their purposes without claiming permanent “Indian” identities. In the process, they perpetuated the notion of “noble savagery,” which Deloria denotes as “a term that both juxtaposes and conflates an urge to idealize and desire Indians and a need to despise and dispossess them” (Playing Indian 4). The Suite Life characters ethnomasquerade as “Indians” one moment, fear an “Indian” attack the next, and then proudly proclaim to be non-“Indian” revolutionaries.

Awaking from his dream, Zack is inspired to save the park, a symbol of his joy in America. This time, he does not resort to “Indian” disguise. Instead, he checks the park’s historical significance of a huge tree in the park and learns of its ties to the Revolutionary War. While waiting for a permit from a local historical preservation society, Zack and other characters stage a protest on the same lawn where the “Indian” headdresses were constructed. The encouragement and revelation from Zack’s dream of “Indian” players reaches fruition as a permit is issued and the park is saved from the awaiting demolition crew.

“Boston Tea Party” never mentions that most of its cast, like Boston colonists in 1773, dressed as “Mohawks.” Instead, it refers to generic, tribeless “Indians.” In the epilogue, the female character who yelled “Indians!” in Zack’s dream enters the hotel lobby with her hair styled into what she calls a “Fauxhawk,” or a fake Mohawk hairdo. Now, she, too, joins the “Indian” play, but in a more subtle manner. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that the scriptwriters were aware of the ambiguity here as they temporarily transformed numerous characters into faux Mohawk “Indians.” But I do not credit The Suite Life of Zack and Cody with knowing of the offensiveness and disrespect associated with redface.

05 April 2007

Playing “Indian” and Speaking Back in Song

let's begin with a song on playing "indian" in the form of cigar-store wooden indians ...

“kaw-liga” (1953) excerpts by hank williams, sr.
KAW- [Dm] LIGA, was a wooden Indian standing by the door
He fell in love with an Indian maiden over in the antique store
Kaw-liga [A], just stood there and never let it [A7] show
So she could never answer "YES" or [Dm] "NO"
He always wore his Sunday feathers and held a tomahawk
The maiden wore her beads and braids and hoped someday he'd talk
KAW-LIGA – [A] too stubborn to ever show a sign
Because his heart was made of knotty pine.
CHORUS [D] Poor ol' KAW-LIGA, he never got a kiss
[G] Poor ol' KAW-LIGA, he don't know what he missed
[D] Is it any wonder that his face is [A7] red
KAW-LIGA, that poor ol' wooden [D] head

tribal poetics, tribal politics
at the 1992 university of arizona “poetics and politics series,” 13 indigenous intellectual writers, like joy harjo and simon ortiz, “not only examined the extraordinary emergence of Native American literature, but presented that literature within a living context.” yes, a living context, unlike w/hank williams’ kawliga, because indigenous peoples are still here, though that may be contrary to some mindsets.

i’m considering poetics in musical expression and politics in social constructions of race. namely, i situate this discussion near the poetics in Native Americana and the politics of playing “Indian.” Native Americana is an Indigenized lyrical-musical hybrid of Americana/roots/alternative folk music. and I’m thinking of the politics of playing “Indian” in American culture as it appears in sports mascots, television, and movies. my purpose is to shed some light on how tribal poetics and tribal politics are intertwined, how, more specifically, Indigenous songwriting and Indigenous scholarship inform each other in this interweaving. for many indigenous peoples, politics and poetics already intersect. they’re already related, all part of a larger circle. You might say that indigenous peoples are not only the original inhabitants of this land but also the original interdisciplinarians on this land, contrary to the one-dimensional stereotypes we may see elsewhere.

for Arigon Starr, a Kickapoo musician, songwriter and playwright, she connects the process of playing “Indian,” of enacting redface, with the absence of respectful Indigenous representations in tv and film. in fictional tv and cinema, to play “Indian” is a process in which non-Native characters appropriate and/or fabricate Indigenous identities and perform on-camera as “Indians.” As Arigon Starr says [chords added],

"please do not touch the indians" excerpts by arigon starr
[D]They put a white guy in tan makeup/[D]They put a [G]black wig on his D]head[D]
It's no wonder we ain't on tee-vee / [D] They all [G] think we're [A] dead
They write songs and they make movies / About Indians long ago
All those pictures never look like / Indian folks I know

Please do [G] not/Touch the [D] Indians / they’re my [G] world / My only[A]home
Please do [G]not/Touch the[D]Indians / Way[G]ya hey[A]ya/Way[G]ya hey [D]yo

Old time westerns show warriors / As fools and as a liars
Cartoon Indians dancing around / A captive set on fire
A producer takes a call / From a studio on the phone
They want him to make "Geronimo" / With Sylvester Stallone

Please do [G] not/Touch the [D] Indians / they’re my [G] world / My only[A]homePlease do [G]not/Touch the[D]Indians / Way[G]ya hey[A]ya/Way[G]ya hey [D]yo

with Native actresses and actors as the invisible on American television, representations of redface stand in as the visible. Playing “Indian,” w/its artistic expressions, w/its intentions to entertain, and w/its power to wield influence on audiences, also brings about entertainment at Native People’s expense and brings about disrespect and brings about misinformation, which, in turn, lead to political-poetical protest in Indigenous intellectual songwriting by Indigenous intellectual-artists like Litefoot, a consciousness raising Cherokee hip hop artist and actor. (yeah, he’s that NDN in the film Indian in the Cupboard, not to be confused with the sequel ... White Man in the Pantry). Litefoot's song “What’s it gonna take?” asks what it will take for intercultural peace. Speaking on racial hypocrisy, he asks why Eminem gets called a racist for saying the N word while hip hop folks who go ’round wearing Cleveland NDNs and Atlanta Braves hats aren’t called out for perpetuating the objectification of native folks. Eminem gets called out while biz markie and flava flav wear headdresses and ignore Indigenous tradition and respect for tribal leaders in certain indigenous nations who wear headdresses.

like Arigon Starr, Litefoot, turns to televisual redface and tries to make sense of television’s colonial discourse, asking, what’s it gonna take for respect?

can you speak to me about what the world screams to me
Disrespect so d*** blatant whose reality's on TV
Got the money to buy the box, What's this comin out my box?
It ain't respectin me! What the f*** is on my TV?
Saturday Night Live got a comedian named Billy Smith
He don't look like no ’skin I know and he ain't funny for s***
He got a cowboy hat on and of course a braid out the back
But he don't talk good English and oblivious to why he's laughed at
I guess basically what Lorne Michaels and Jimmy Fallon tryin to say is,
I'm in the past what you doin here trying to be today
That me and my people just some washed up has-beens
That we couldn't even tell a joke or be funny to get some friends
SNL saying the same as the movie biz and Hip Hop
We only good with feathers on we don't exist when they off
I punch the remote feelin like my whole race is a joke
I wanna grab em by the throat but instead I burn this Cedar for hope

and Litefoot goes on to talk about being invited to perform at a hip hop concert in NY in 2003 w/busta rhymes and other predominantly African American hip hop artists. But as litefoot explains and as cristina veran reported in "rap, rage, REDvolution," he was not too welcomed.

Show time and its chaos the coliseum's sold out
Jadakiss spits, Ludacris grabs the mic and out
Before Busta Rhymes, it's time for Litefoot and his crew
I jumped on stage; Grass Danced and I spit the truth
Then the crowd split between cheers to "F" this skin
I thought this was America people? Guess we ain't equal again.
Now a year later I'm watchin' the Grammy's - It's 2004
The crowds praisin Outkast dressed like Indians jumpin round on the floor man
(And that ain't disrespectful)

So what's it gonna be for you and me to see
That we brothers and sisters we all need equality
This world ain't just white it ain't all black either
Takes the brown, yellow and red to complete the people

susan shown harjo, a Cheyenne activist, agrees that outkast and cbs, who aired the grammys, didn’t show respect. Harjo describes the scene: "Andre 3000 [of outkast] wore the kind of wig that white guys wear in movies to 'look Indian'; each of the women dancers wore a wig of long braids, topped with a headband and a solitary green feather, standing upright. Above knee-high silver boots, they wore sea-foam tops and shorts with shake-your-tailfeathers fringe. And, there was the USC Trojan Marching Band, not in the usual helmets and burgundy and gold colors of the University of Southern California, but in green and white uniforms and plumes, with green and yellow paint on their faces." "Whoever dreamed up the production," harjo adds, "was going for an Indian effect, but it more closely approximated the Jolly Green Giant and dancing vegetables on crack."

this is a way by Harjo, like by many Natives, to approach offense with humor. It’s part of trying to speak back and to decolonize the images/words/and discourse in representations of redface. It’s what Haunani Kay-Trask calls “a collective resistance to colonialism.” For me, it’s not about being politically correct; it’s about being humanly respectful; it’s about being respectfully human; it’s about raising awareness/consciousness that something like outkast’s grammy performance and other recent instances of playing “Indian” are rooted in hundreds of years of colonization. We cannot take what may look like isolated instances and separate them from a larger historical and contemporary context, or like that Arizona poetics and politics series says, a larger living context.

in closing, please remember that just because it’s play, don’t make it okay.

01 April 2007

coming soon to the bbb ...

* an exclusive bbb interview with recently-retired "chief illiniwek" of the university of illinois

* a report from a recent conference presentation by the bbb on redface in american culture

* the establishment of the Brady Brave Hall of Redface Fame

until then, be brady. be brave. be ... a brady brave.