Hipster fetishization of Native American culture

(disclaimer: I decided to delve more into the fashion aspect for this blog post even though we’re still on the beauty unit  😛 )

One of my favorite stores to shop at is Free People. I love the range of styles, patterns, accessories, etc. But sometimes when shopping in the store or online, I wonder why so much of the trendy style seems to either allude to, or blatantly say that it is some sort of Native American style or pattern. Don’t get me wrong, I think the styles are beautiful, but I find it very interesting that much of the “trendy” or “hipster” styles nowadays allude to Native American roots. Can we consider this a fetishization of the culture? Most likely, the majority of the people wearing these items such as feather earrings and “Navajo” prints (which I will get to later), have no idea about the culture they come from, or if these appropriations are even accurate to the native culture.

A Free People ‘native’ pattern

You wouldn’t usually hear someone comment that a Caucasian girl who is wearing moccasins and a feather in her hair is “trying” to be Native American. However, I would not doubt that a Caucasian girl wearing her hair in cornrows and a matching track suit would be accused of “trying” to be black. Perhaps this is because the majority of society doesn’t perceive the Native American race as something that can be fetishized anymore; that since the hippies did it in the 60’s , it was re-appropriated as “hippie” culture, therefore it is simply a “trend” now.

In her first chapter of “Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics”, Laura Miller explains the different aesthetics of the Japanese youth subcultures that sprung up in the 1990s. Many of these trends gave Japanese women freedom of aesthetic expression and a sense of independence through the rebellion against traditional norms of how Japanese women should look and behave. Many of these subcultures’ aesthetics came from appropriations of other ethnicities and cultures. One of the popular styles was “B-Girl” style, an appropriation of African American pop culture.

Something that happens when a “trend” from another culture is appropriated into another is that it somewhat loses depth—it is simply a stereotype. Miller goes deeper into this phenomenon:

“Japanese appropriation of ‘black style’ is also narrowly limited to specific representations. Hitoe is not copying the style of the Baptist choir singer or the working mother, but rather that of hip and wealthy superstars found in films and on MTV”

When we popularize a very specific element from a culture, it may also become skewed in a way that not only stereotypes the culture, but disrespects or dishonors it. A few years ago, the Navajo Nation Attorney General brought a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters (which is the same company that Free People is under) for using the term “Navajo” to describe some of their clothing items and accessories. In a blog post on nativeappropriations.com, writer Adrienne K explains that the “Navajo” designs Urban Outfitters sells are “loosely based on Navajo rug designs (maybe?)… but aren’t representations that are chosen by the tribe or truly representative of Navajo culture.” She then goes on to explain how appropriation can lead to erasure of a culture.

“Additionally, it’s more than likely that Urban chose “Navajo” for the international recognition–to most of the world Navajo (and Cherokee)= American Indian  (my Jamaican friend didn’t even know there were other tribes in the US until she met me). This conflation of Navajo with “generic Indian” contributes to the further erasure of the distinct tribes and cultures in the US and solidifies the idea that there is only one “Native” culture, represented by plains feathers and southwest designs.”

She has pictures of some of the “Navajo” items Urban Outfitters sells, but the two that, both to her and to me, were the most striking and most offensive, were a flask and a pair of underwear.

Staying classy and always culturally sensitive, Urban Outfitters 😛

Here is the entire article: http://nativeappropriations.com/2011/09/urban-outfitters-is-obsessed-with-navajos.html

I think that the biggest problem with cultural appropriation when it comes to fashion and beauty is awareness and accuracy. I don’t think that trendy stores selling Native American inspired items is fetishization or offensive, however it becomes so when it is advertised inaccurately or done in a way that may dishonor the culture.

For the most part, I would argue that people who appropriate other cultures into their fashion or beauty practices are not trying to falsely present as someone native to that culture, however, they simply enjoy the aesthetic that the culture offers. There is, however, a fine line between a personal fashion statement and a reminder of offensive practices of the past.

This article about headdresses being incorperated into “hipster” culture sheds some light on how offensive this “trend” actually is, based on the history of Native American oppression and colonialism.



2 thoughts on “Hipster fetishization of Native American culture

  1. Urban Outfitters is honestly a mess. Did you see that they recently put a vintage Kent State sweater up for sale that looked like it was spattered in blood (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/09/15/urban-outfitters-red-stained-vintage-kent-state-sweatshirt-is-not-a-smart-look-this-fall/)? They claimed it was natural dye discoloration and they didn’t mean it to look like blood… sure. Anyway, I digress.

    When speaking about cultural appropriation, I think it’s important to bring up the capitalist nature of our white colonialist society. Wearing elements of Native dress without understanding their significance is disrespectful in it’s own right. But what the companies producing these cheap products are doing is even more so. Native Americans are generally a very disadvantaged population. Instead of them making money off of real Native jewelry or moccasins, big corporations like Urban Outfitters come in to steal their designs, make them cheaply, and sell them at extortionate prices, without so much as an acknowledgement to the Native cultures that gave them the idea in the first place.

    Considering all this, it’s a huge slap in the face that white people are then praised for wearing trendy, aesthetically pleasing Native American designs or dressing in skimpy Pocahontas costumes come Halloween. Meanwhile, real Native people are subject to racism, colonialism, and being mocked for wearing their traditional dress or participating in culture-specific ceremonies. There is much to gain from making a killing off of producing cheap Navajo-inspired products or wearing them to Brooklyn warehouse parties to get indie cred or whatever it is that hipsters do. There’s a silent understanding among ignorant white appropriators that although it’s cool to DRESS Native, it’s not cool to BE Native.


  2. The first things that came to mind when I read this were the recent stories about the football team and of course Halloween costumes. America has a super long and super weird history with Native Americans that starts off with them being seen as docile helpers – to savage beasts – to honorable heroes; and this all depends on the relations between the two groups (whites and Natives).

    For example, in the beginning they were all chummy with the natives because they were helping them by teaching them how to grow food, how to build homes etc. But then when whites decided they wanted to move deeper into the country or take over the areas they already lived in, the natives (sensibly) fought back. This push back that often lead to violence took both native and white lives and when this happened the whites began calling them savages and seeing them as monsters who kill people just for fun. Then when whites essentially decimated their land and took over their homes by pushing them into little reservations, the Natives became heroes and mythological features because essentially they were no longer seen. Without the possibility of actually running into natives they were seemingly extinct, or in the least sense just unseen. This lack of visibility leads to a fictionalization that is easily acceptable because no one knows a “Real Indian” anymore, anyway.

    It’s similar to the Japanese obsession with black culture. Because there are very few blacks in Japan, many have never really seen a “Real Black” person in real life. The little representation they have is through the likes of musicians and athletes. Since they don’t know anyone personally, this relationship is authentic and not offensive. And they are taking the best, or the coolest pieces from the culture (like afros, dark skin and hip hop clothing) – here’s a video of a Japanese woman talking about her love for the culture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Qe4AZRkFYE

    Long story short, the “Indian” has become synonymous with pride and ancient spirits and is seen as cool and hip to have as a mascot or as a clothing piece because they simply don’t exist in the white American mind. Therefore the lack of real representation allows for the audience to fill in the rest of what they think actual native culture is.


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