[Original publication date: Dec. 2, 2013]
When, a few days ago, metal band Mastodon released their “controversial” Thanksgiving T-shirt that got them a lot of well-earned accusations of racism, I wondered how controversial it actually is at this moment in time to do what they did?
Let me clarify. The band defended their choice to sell the shirt by insisting that it’s meant to point out the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the United States and how “chilling” it is to celebrate given that reality. But, I call bullshit. Their shirt purposefully creates controversy and exploits the debates over Thanksgiving for the purpose of selling T-shirts and advertising their band as evidenced by the giant logo for their band across the front. Worse, it commoditizes the horrific experiences of Indigenous peoples and relies on the harmful hypersexualization of Indigenous women’s bodies.
And, that’s the rub. The hypersexualization of Indigenous women, the appropriation of our bodies, offered up for consumption by non-Indigenous peoples, is nothing new. I’ve written about some of the harm that comes when non-Indigenous peoples take it upon themselves to appropriate our histories and our identities to sell products. Mastadon’s decision to partake in the practice only makes them the latest to do so. This sort of dehumanization of Indigenous peoples and especially Indigenous women has become common place and normalized.
What does it mean for Indigenous women when fraternity after fraternity holds “Colonial Bros and Navahos” parties that celebrate the violent conquest of Indigenous peoples and the degradation of Indigenous women, all in good fun? What does it mean for Indigenous women when our very existences are made into costumes that non-Indigenous peoples can put on and shed at will? When we’re touted as “tomahawk hotties” and “sassy Tontos” and “pocahotties” whose bodies can be worn for the pleasure of others? What does it mean for Indigenous women when so-called “allies,” like our heroes Mastodon, use our images to sell T-shirts and offer fans the chance to consume our images, to wear them across their chests, and pat themselves on the back for being “enlightened”? What does it mean when we exist in the minds of so many people as non-existent, as romanticized, or as primarily sexualized beings?
Every Indigenous woman will answer that differently. But, for me, it means knowing that Indigenous women in the United States face the highest rates of violence of any racial group and gender group in the U.S. It means knowing that at least one in every three Indigenous women will be raped in her lifetime. It means knowing that 70% or more of violent crimes perpetrated against Indigenous women are committed by non-Indigenous peoples when, in other racial groups, violent crimes are primarily intra-racial. It means having my cousin, a young Indigenous girl of 13, come up to me and ask me why in movies rape victims always get blamed for being raped and knowing that, given the statistics, she’s very likely to be victimized and realizing that there’s only so much I can do to protect her.
It also means knowing that this kind of violence is no accident and has become institutionalized. Andrea Smith documents several cases of sexual violence and devaluation of Indigenous women and the state’s non-response to such acts. She cites a man’s account of one of many massacres of Indigenous peoples by state sanctioned militia:
I heard one man say that he had cut a woman’s private parts out, and had them for exhibition on a stick… I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females, and stretched them over their saddle bows and some over their hats.
She also recounts tales of Andrew Jackson, former president of the United States, “[supervising] the mutilation of… Creek Indian corpses – the bodies of men, women and children that he and his men massacred.”
The U.S. used other forms of violence aimed at eradicating the Indigenous population. Captain Richard H. Pratt of the U.S. military and the founder of Carlisle Indian Industrial School articulated the U.S. position on education of Indigenous children in the 1880s when he said:
A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
This position entailed the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Indigenous children to what later became largely Bureau of Indian Affairs-sponsored boarding schools. These policies enacted by the U.S. government severely disrupted and altered traditional relationships, gendered or otherwise, in many tribes. Boarding schools taught indigenous children to behave in ways that adhered to the white, U.S. culture and the attendant gender roles and gender relations in which men were privileged. Moreover, the boarding schools prepared men for trades while preparing women for subservient, domestic roles. Finally, these boarding schools often funneled graduates into urban centers to look for work which further severed ties with traditional community.
These policies, in addition to the change from a primarily subsistence economy to that of trade, only negotiating with men over land dealings, and the General Allotment Act which divided communal lands into households headed by men as determined by the federal government, all devalued the status of Indigenous women within their tribes, many of which were matrilineal. In these ways, colonialist policies enacted by the United States continue to have negative repercussions for Indigenous women.
With all of this in mind, it’s difficult for me to buy Mastodon’s claims that they were merely trying to call attention to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the United States and the hypocrisy around Thanksgiving. Their primary motivation was to sell T-shirts using Indigenous women’s bodies. Well, Mastodon, I am not here for your consumption. My cousins and sisters aunties and mom are not here for your consumption. And, until we can command a basic level of respect as human beings, until I can stop worrying if my little cousins will become statistics because of the willful disregard of our humanities, I’m going to keep calling bullshit on this kind of exploitation.