Mocking Your Sins: Indigenous Laughter as Healing

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Retail “Tribal Print” Crop-Tops

I remember looking out the window of my mother’s car as she drove me home after school. I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read, “I was Indian before it was cool,” on a curiously pristine 1982 black Datsun with the tacky neon decal scribbles on the side. I instantly imagined the driver  riding a zoomorphic horse version of his awesome truck. No saddle. Stereotypically ribbon-like Native hair blowing in the wind. The fantasy Native is easy for anyone to imagine.

And despite being a rather naive 14 years old, I had an inkling of the kind of person the sticker referred to. Having grown up closer to a reservation than a college town (i.e., hundreds of miles away from anyone who’d wear a headdress for fun), I knew it had to be an earthy variety of white person almost foreign to me. I’d occasionally see them at powwows – sore, pale thumbs wading dumbly in a crowd of melanin, interested in soaking up all the culture the Southwest has to offer. But where did they come from? Surely if my people had homelands, they did too. (Or maybe they didn’t and that’s why they colonized the world.) I became accustomed to the tannic variety of white people; the reservation border town white people who would try to convert me to Christianity and wave confederate flags (sometimes at the same time, like a Spanish Inquisition color guard), not ones who’d ask me questions like, “Wow! Like, yeah so have you been on a vision quest?” or casually don a pair of dreamcatcher earrings in my presence. Because that’s what dreamcatchers are for, wearing on your ears when you’re awake.

I can almost detect sense of disbelief at my presence when people tell me I’m the first Native they’ve ever met. There’s a tinge of disappointment in some people’s voices that tells me they weren’t expecting me and I’ve somehow ruined the fun. It’s as if they’ve spent their entire lives with this image in mind of what an ”Indian” is like and in comparison I’m profoundly disappointing with my wavy hair, shifty eyes, indifference to alcohol. The only chief I know is Chief Keef (bang bang). The real life “Indian” spoils the fantasy and crashes the appropriation party. She tells you your Minnetonka moccasins look stupid, spends her Halloweens wishing someone would walk past her in a headdress. She thinks Dan Snyder should keep his blankets, but not his football team (and their losing record). She won’t be your mascot and she’s not your sexy squaw.

Fall of my sophomore year of high school my uncle and my aunt died, leaving their son and daughter (ages 12 and 7 at the time, respectively) orphaned. The family gathered in the kitchen to break the news to my cousins while I sat in the adjacent living room. After a few moments I could hear muffled weeps through the walls, then silence. Silence for a long time. Time moves pretty slowly right after people die. And then laughter. At first I thought they were the high energy cries that sound like laughter, but no. This was actual something-funny-made-me-laugh laughter. And then time sped up. You see, my family, like a lot of other Native families, can’t be serious for too long. Push aside those stoic “Indian” stereotypes in your mind because we laugh a lot. Even after people die. This isn’t to say that racist mascots, Pocahontas, and Tonto don’t have real negative psychological consequences for us, because they sure as hell do (exposure to them is correlated with a lower sense of self esteem and community worth in Native American people). But we all would have keeled over long ago from broken hearts and broken treaties if we didn’t sneak in a laugh or two (usually at the expense of white people). Laughter is a form of medicine. Laughter doesn’t buffer us from harm; it takes that harm and turns it into something beautiful.

So when I pass a girl on the main green in a crop top from Urban Outfitters with a Navajo rug design on it, on the most basic level, yes I am hurt. I am hurt because she probably doesn’t even know it’s a Native design. She probably doesn’t know that my mother’s parents would have had their mouths washed out with soap and been beaten with a cane if they dared to wear that same pattern to boarding school in the 40s. She probably doesn’t know that this pattern once told a story woven by a Navajo woman on a loom that rested on the earthen floor of a hogan. But that story has long since been lost, white-washed and beaten out of her children. This girl in this crop top doesn’t know that my culture exists, that I exist because in the mind of the American consciousness, Native Americans are dead. We’re costumes to put on when one feels like getting in touch with nature, we’re mere tools of “artistic” expression and not living, breathing, feeling people. It hurts when you’re nothing but a drunk, sexy, stoic, freeloading — but above all — defunct symbol to an entire continent that rightfully belongs to your people. We’re not vanished, but this girl thinks I’m more interesting when I’m dead. Her oblivion is so blatant and in such direct contradiction to my existence, it’s hilarious. So hilarious that I have to make eye contact with her and giggle in her face as I pass her.

I am alive and I am Indigenous and I am laughing at you.

By Myacah Sampson, Contributing Writer

  1. This piece places emphasis on the Indian as a caricature in American society, but what purpose does this piece present when it only further embeds a sense of division between these seemingly ignorant members of society and the real Indian? If we are to move past these caricatures and stereotypes we should not be calling those extreme cases out, but instead move to write and express ourselves in a way that shows people what those Navajo designs and motifs are and represent. There are more people than the girl in the crop top who are willing to listen and learn about the significance of native culture, albeit they may be surprised at first, but if they only have popular culture to fall back on as a source for Native American culture then we cannot sit back idly and “laugh” at them as you proclaim simply because that is all they know. Yes, media and entertainment has portrayed Native American’s as stoic and even Rousseau called us Noble Savages, but instead of laughing at those who may not know and sulking about all of the injustices native peoples have faced we must look forward and show people our real culture or adapted culture. Even the sheep that Navajos claim as a part of their culture are decedent of the sheep the Spanish conquistadors and even Christopher Columbus brought to the New World. Be that beacon, but just don’t laugh because that only furthers the divide and only hampers further understanding by companies and even the girl in the crop top. We are all Human.

  2. Does this mean we’re not allowed to wear any pattern on our clothes unless it comes from our own culture? This is a great post in expressing your personal feelings towards the stereotypes and the way that some cultures have been forgotten – but is it fair to take it out on those who don’t know? By laughing in their faces, aren’t you merely widening the gap and enforcing stereotypes of a separate culture. In today’s society, surely as so many other cultures have merged and their identities have mixed and developed, it is the same for the Native Americans? If I were to wear a headdress as a fashion statement, why is this so wrong? I am wearing it because I feel they are beautiful, the pattens I wear because I like them. Is this any different to the girls who wear bindis as fashion statements? I don’t mind that despite being of Indian culture – I actually think they look beautiful – even if the girls have no real idea of their importance. By allowing other cultures to wear these items I personally feel it is a celebration of the culture – even if an uneducated one. I love the point about laughter being the best medicine 🙂 x

  3. I love this.
    One of the “ten books that shaped my life” (so far) is Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Custer Died For Your Sins, which has a chapter on Indian humor. It’s the book that dissuaded my notion of teaching on a reservation and gave me an entirely different perspective on missionary work and the myth of the Cherokee princess grandmother.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  4. “Mocking your sins” haha! Clever title, Awesome article in general. Catchy titles is something I really struggle with so thanks for the inspiration!

  5. I, like many Americans, have Native blood in my ancestry. Mine is Cherokee. I wish I knew more about the culture, not the pseudo culture that has evolved to accommodate reality, but the real culture of my ancestors. When I was young, and played cowboys and indians with my friends, I always wanted to be the indian. I didn’t understand why, until I started doing research into my family tree. My father and mother both had Cherokee ancestors. I am ashamed of what the “white man” did to the Native Americans, but I am equally ashamed that the Native Americans weren’t smart enough to band together to defend their existence. Techumseh tried, in vain, to get the many tribes to join forces. If he had been successful, we might be looking at a very different America. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I am now following your blog.

  6. Overall I love this. I just want to point out that maybe, that girl is just wearing something that she likes? Maybe you’re right in that she is oblivious to the origins of the design (as I often am with my clothing — if it draws me in, I wear it, I don’t research it), but she may not be oblivious to your hardships or your existence. I would be more angry with the company that made the shirt than the girl wearing it. More likely than not she means you no harm.

  7. Very well written, and I’m grateful to hear your perspective. You deliver sentences like “But that story has long since been lost, white-washed and beaten out of her children. This girl in this crop top doesn’t know that my culture exists, that I exist because in the mind of the American consciousness, Native Americans are dead” with a tremendous amount of empathy, and you’re right to acknowledge the truth of existing ignorance and division. With all due respect to Emery Real Bird’s comment above, I really believe that dialogue can generate healing rather than widening existing divisions. It’s by writing articles like these – and laughing, and forgiving – that you are actively helping the “crop top girls” of the world to gain a greater awareness of their actions.

  8. This is like when we see someone wear a bindi or the maang tika. I am indian, from India. It’s is strange and funny when we see a non-indian wear it and not know what it means. Sacred somewhere, fashionable elsewhere.

  9. I never thought of “tribal” design aesthetics as demeaning to the Native American. To be honest, it’s become so mainstream that “tribal” isn’t even the first word that comes to mind when I see it. I suppose to you it would appear ridiculous in its ignorance but ignorant is not stupid, it’s misinformed or uninformed, and that’s easy to change – be the change you want to see in the world. No, I don’t think a pithy quote is the answer to the problem. I just think that there are ways to get the truth out there, and blogging is one of them, and I appreciate your perspective. I wouldn’t, though, know any better if you just looked at me and laughed. I suppose, though, that it’s my white privilege to use this defense. You’re right, we’re kind of stupid, and that’s really sad, and not so funny.

  10. These prints are very popular on clothes in the UK at the moment, but I had no idea which part of the world they came from (nor would any other British shopper, I suspect). I don’t think the issue is so much with what we are wearing but with our lack of knowledge of other cultures. I once had an argument with a friend over wearing something inspired by another culture. He called it cultural appropriation or something like that. I argued that if I am showing that I think the designs are beautiful what is wrong with me wearing them (it can be a sign of respect, in the same way that I appreciate art from across the globe). However, there is a clear difference between this and ‘dressing up’ as someone from a different culture in a way that can quite rightly be seen as having racist implications. I will continue to look for style inspiration from outside of my own culture but I do like to know where those designs originate so that I can appreciate them better.

  11. I remember looking out the window of my mother’s car as she drove me home after school. I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read, “I was Indian before it was cool,”

  12. Reblogged this on heandshe and commented:
    I &U remember looking out the window of my mother’s car as she drove me home after school. I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read, “I was Indian before it was cool,”

  13. Yes, it is obvious that the intent of the blog was to incite (negative) feelings (of despair, frustration, injustice), and that is better than saying or doing nothing. Would it not have been better to try and educate such ignorant souls who do not know the culture which designed such beauty?

  14. I love when ‘indigenous’ people refuse to be merely part of the folklore as though they have no place in the current sphere of life. That ‘Natives’ have been restricted to reserves and homelands does not mean we cease to exist and have a voice. Thank you for being part of that voice.

  15. Oh geez; this was tough. Brought tears to my eyes a little bit. I think I’ve always had a bit of hesitation to those kind of designs but couldn’t put into words why and you have done so eloquently. People here are telling you not to laugh, but honestly, I’m not going to stick up for ignorance or flippancy on behalf of the crop top girl. She is likely not mean spirited but that isn’t a reason not to correct someone. I would want to be laughed at, because hopefully I would understand why and learn something even if it was unpleasant.

  16. Beautifully written. I do not profess to know much about the Native culture, but thank you for sharing your thoughts, feeling and anger with us. Because it is rightfully so.

  17. I have a question. I know that it’s problematic to wear “tribal” print stuff, but is it racist for a non-Native American to want to own art made by Native Americans? I’ve always been really interested in Navajo rugs – in the weaving process, in the stories the patterns tell. Is it racist for me, as a white person, to want to buy one? I’m just wondering. Commenters – what are your thoughts?

  18. I think it’s extremely unfair to automatically marginalize anyone wearing “tribal print” and assume he/she is a naive white person with no regard for Native American culture. As another commenter suggested, laughing in that girl’s face is no way to fix the polarization.

  19. Thank you for writing this.

    I have been struggling to understand “cultural appropriation” for the last 8 years and have only been able to find articles by white people and keep having arguments with white people about what they think it means.

    Finally! I understand. Thank you.

    Note: I have enough Cree in me that Cree people always ask if I do, but I was born in a military hospital and grew up everywhere. I missed out on the tribal aspect of my upbringing, but certainly not on the marginalization. So, having white people yelling at me for not understanding and using their word for something I experience daily was really frustrating. I get it now.

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