Reclaim and Renew the Indigenous Image

Dolce & Gabbana face criticism after they debuted these earrings at Milan Fashion Week.

On Halloween people who are aware of cultural appropriation get increasingly squeamish about the slew of “tribal” costumes – Native American headdresses and even blackface. Although Halloween is often blatant in its racist and insensitive displays, cultural appropriation is a regular occurrence in Western fashion, art and media. Recently, Dolce & Gabbana drew criticism after they sent racist “Blackamoor” earrings down the runway. These images are recognizable in the U.S. as “Aunt Jemima” figures and demonstrates blatant insensitivity to their connection to colonialism and slavery.

Approximately 350 million indigenous people – identified as descendants of people who lived in a country before the conquest or settling of dominant groups – live in over 70 countries today. Recognition and protection of indigenous people’s rights is, unfortunately, deplorably low. In Africa, only the Republic of Congo has enacted laws to enforce indigenous peoples’ rights. It is crucial for dominant cultures to respectfully relate to the culture of indigenous groups and for indigenous people to have a voice in contemporary culture.

According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the good news is,

…from community radio and television to feature films and documentaries, from video art and newspapers to the internet and social media, indigenous peoples are using these powerful tools to challenge mainstream narratives, bring human rights violations to international attention and forge global solidarity.

The United Nations recently celebrated the International Day of Indigenous Peoples with the theme “Indigenous Media: Empowering Indigenous Voices.” The goal was “to highlight the importance of indigenous media in challenging stereotypes, forging indigenous peoples’ identities, communicating with the outside world, and influencing the social and political agenda.”

Participants in the UN celebration have developed indigenous media in meaningful ways. They included indigenous leaders from the Americas, Canada and Hawaii who founded organizations such as the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network and The online daily, #Indigenous #Decolonize Daily, is another example of media being used to promote issues that relate directly or indirectly to indigenous peoples.

The cultural destruction that indigenous cultures have experienced in our history of colonialism and oppression cannot be undone. However, empowerment in the media helps minimize the reductionism that indigenous people face today. To use a recent example, high fashion designer Rodarte stole imagery from Australian Aboriginal art for designs in a 2012 fashion show, causing uproar. Not long after that incident, Australia launched its first Indigenous Fashion Week, which featured thirty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers and employed a model who is half-Aboriginal.  This event is transformative in providing an avenue for the direct creative expression by Aboriginal people rather than have their art “borrowed” by Westerners.

This Halloween, let’s begin conversations with our peers about what borrowing imagery from other cultures actually means.

By Ann Bickerton

Leave a comment


  1. Abby Calhoun

     /  November 3, 2014

    This is such an important topic that receives so little attention. Until reading this post I hadn’t heard of the United Nations’ International Day of Indigenous Peoples or Australia’s Indigenous Fashion Week. So much gets sacrificed in the name of fashion, and given the industry’s influence and power in our (American) society it would be powerful to see a similar tradition started here. Halloween also opens the door for conversations about the blatant sexism and degradation of women that is rampant in popular costumes. I’m personally shocked to see people I consider to be educated and informed fall into the trip of sexy nurses, sexy fire fighters, sexy referees, etc for the sake of Halloween.


  2. Kaitlin Juleus

     /  November 9, 2014

    Thanks for this post. This article also made me think of another blog post I read just after Halloween, about the increasing appropriation by affluent, urban whites of the iconography and traditions around the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos. The author does an effective job of showing how damaging this type of appropriation can be, even if it might seem innocuous to those participating in and observing.

    You might find her arguments invoke some soul searching in how you appropriate vs. celebrate other cultures, particularly around Halloween. On numerous walks to the subway this past October, I admired a pumpkin my neighbor had set out on her stoop, carved to resemble the painted skull faces associated with Dia de los Muertos. After reading this blog post, I thought about that pumpkin – I mean, it’s just a pumpkin, right? But when taken out of context, the imagery of the skull is stripped of meaning and devalued – just another cheap Halloween decoration alongside many others.

    Check out the post (just don’t look at the comments – trust me, you’ll regret it):


  3. Cameron Bradley

     /  November 11, 2014

    I agree, this is a subject that warrants more attention. I think that this Halloween served as a good example of how Mexican culture has been gentrified in a way. There were a large number of people dressing up in Dia de Los Muertos costumes and face paint. I even read articles about Day of the Dead festivals being held in California, yet there were no Mexican artists or organizers that were even involved in these events. It was portrayed as another tradition that has been taken over by white people who may or may not have a full understanding of what this day means for Mexican culture. As Ann says in this post, it is important to remember that this imagery is borrowed and to honor its true meaning. If someone has an appreciation for the value and meaning of the Day of the Dead Celebration, they are more than welcome to celebrate it, but its important to remember where that tradition is coming from.


  4. Amanda Hill

     /  November 17, 2014

    I think this post is so apt for the recent Kim Kardashian Paper cover and image spread. For those who might have been able to avoid the recent whirlwind of activity, Kim posed for photographer, Jean Paul Goude. The resulting image, which was chosen for the cover of the magazine, depicted Kim’s nude backside.
    The Internet has been a blast with the controversy that the photos induced. I have read multiple articles that have mentioned a Khoikhoi woman named Saartjie Baartman (stage name: Hottentot Venus). Baartman lived in the early 19th century and was known for her posterior. She became so famous that she was able to pack theatres full of eager voyeuristic patrons. She became a human freak show, exhibited as an exotic foreigner. Even in her death her body was displayed in a Paris museum until 1974!!
    I highly doubt Kim was privy to any information about Baartman, or had any inkling that she was emulating such a sensitive and racially steeped issue. Regardless, Kim’s major mistake is that she continues to act as an object for others’ enjoyment; she doesn’t even attempt to reclaim or bring light to this objectification. Now more than ever (in part due to the effortless dissemination of information and images) people need be vigilant about how the images they create will be received and what they can do to empower rather than maintain oppression.


  5. Jenni Dickson

     /  November 17, 2014

    This article very nicely lays out the paradox of how media and modern culture can be both a hindrance and a valuable tool in the quest for the recognition and protection of indigenous peoples’ rights. On the one hand, in cases such as the Dolce & Gabbana fashion show, our culture can be extremely insensitive and blindly appropriate the cultures of indigenous people. On the other hand, this article highlights ways in which the media can be used to one’s advantage, as a vehicle for educating a wide audience about indigenous issues and rights. The suggestion to begin an actual conversation is, without a doubt, the most important first step. Thank you for sharing!



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