Back in March of this year, I came across an online store called Ruby Love Joy. Based in Australia, this site featured (as you can see in this picture) a lot of men and women in face paint and “warrior inspired” headdresses. You will likely recognise a number of the pictures as they’ve been featured in my Hall of Shame ever since.
I wrote the company a letter to express some feelings I had about their products:
I recently came across your store, Ruby Love Joy. I wanted to write you to express to you how upsetting the images on your site are, as well as the products you offer under the “Warrior Inspired” line. For more information on why the headdresses in particular are disrespectful, please read this: http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/
The images of models in ‘war paint’ perpetuates harmful stereotypes about indigenous peoples in North America. Your store embraces and celebrates our cultures as ‘costumes’ and this is deeply problematic and disrespectful of us, and of our symbols. I certainly hope you do not attempt to justify your exploitation of the stereotypes as having anything to do with ‘honouring our cultures’, because they do nothing of the sort.
The products you sell are named after specific indigenous nations such as the Apache, or Blackfoot. What percentage of your profits are going back to these nations? Did you at any point ask permission to use their names, or create products which supposedly represent these cultures?
You likely feel you are merely cashing in on a fashion, but your actions have consequences. You are personally helping to continue a historical trend of erasing our cultures through contempt disguised as ‘appreciation’ and your products denigrate important cultural symbols. What is more, passing your work off as having anything to do with our actual nations is dishonest and it is a shame Australia does not apparently have legislation akin to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, as exists in the US to prevent exactly this sort of false marketing.
I sincerely hope that you learn more about our cultures and come to understand why the products you are selling under your Warrior Inspired line are so deeply problematic.
The company never responded to my letter.
They got a lot of negative feedback that day, from a great many people who were disgusted by their products. So much so that they actually pulled down their site, only getting it back up in the past few days.
As I noted in the letter, they had named their various headdresses after different First Nations, such as the Blackfoot, and so forth. In this new iteration, they have erased all specific names and given their products more New Age titles. I am thankful that they no longer have a product called the “Squaw Headband” (it’s now called the Praire Headband, which I think is supposed to actually say Prairie?).
I’ve got nearly 500 pictures in the Hall of Shame of people in headdresses, war paint, and “Indian costumes” of all sorts. Ruby Love Joy is not the only one doing this sort of thing. Nonetheless, their website is particularly egregious. So I wanted to revisit this issue of cultural appropriation.
They admire us so much, they ignore our feelings on the matter
Although headdresses seem to be the big thing lately, appropriating indigenous items in the name of fashion and ‘admiration’ is not a new phenomenon. In the excellent film, Reel Injun (which looks at the way Hollywood has portrayed native peoples over the decades) Sacheen Littlefeather discusses moving to San Francisco in the 1960s. She said, “[In the 60s] People asked me, what are you, are you a hippie? And I said no, I’m an Indian, what’s a hippie?” So unused to actually encountering a real aboriginal person were these people, that the more logical assumption was that she was a hippy.
A fascination with a mythologised version of indigeneity is arguably as American as apple pie and as Canadian as…well, maple syrup? Daniel Francis wrote about it in the Canadian context and more recently Mark Anderson and Carmen Robertson delved in in even more detail by examining English-language newspapers from 1869 to the present. This mythologisation allows people to both loathe and fear us and believe that we are inherently inferior, while at the same time lauding our ‘spirituality and closeness to nature’ and wanting these characteristics for themselves.
As is most excellently pointed out by Andy Smith, this mythologisation is not a small, unimportant thing. When I discuss issues like cultural appropriation, people quite often ask me, “don’t you have more important things to worry about?” To which I am forced to reply, “these portrayals and beliefs about who we are is a major factor in why we have so very much to worry about.”
The blog Native Appropriations has dealt with this issue repeatedly. From Pocahontas costumes, Johnny Depp as Tonto and probably most famously on the issue of Hipster Headdresses. The blog Beyond Buckskin has tackled all sorts of fashion-related issues, including how Etsy is being used as a clearing house for cultural appropriation. The fact is, there is a lot of information out there now with very specific arguments about why exactly it is so problematic for people to be wearing Plains-style warbonnets as a party favour. Nonetheless, existing power structures remain intact and reinforced by claims of ‘freedom of expression’ among those who admires us so darn much, that they really don’t care what we have to say about it.
You know what’s so incredibly ironic about all of this? Look at the prices on those images. These are on the ‘cheap’ side of headdresses available to hip young non-natives, but they are still a tidy chunk of change. Not only can our people not wear these items casually, we can’t even mass produce them and actually profit off this trend. Not if we want to actually continue to respect our cultures. If that isn’t all kinds of messed up, I don’t know what is.
So make some noise!
I’m not going to stop focusing on the big picture, and if you’ve followed this blog, you know very well that I don’t only focus on cultural appropriation. Nonetheless, sometimes I just gotta get my annoyance out there and if you feel the same way, then let’s make some noise!
I try my best to be respectful when I call out this kind of behaviour, and I am going to continue to do so. Nothing makes a person feel justified in their actions like having someone get angry at them. Humans are weird that way.
Nonetheless, it quite often doesn’t matter how politely you bring this subject up; it’s going to make some people very angry. Don’t let it get to you. We need to call these people out and hold them accountable for their actions.
Ruby Love Joy’s public contact information
Georgie Lee Pearce (owner), phone number.
Mailing address:RubyLoveJoy 13 Elanora Ave Mooloolaba QLD 4557