Oh, I get it. Christina Fallin, the daughter of Oklahoma’s Governor, Mary Fallin, is a young Lady Gaga wannabe. She’s an ethereal ice maiden skating beats in her electronica band Pink Pony, sometimes Chrome Pony, alongside her boyfriend. She’s the pink pony with her pretty pink hair perfectly skirting her face. She’s doing what many daughters do, attempting to make her way in opposition to her mother.
Her mother happens to be a very conservative governor. When Governor Fallin steps down she will be known for her attempts to derail funding for arts and all educational institutions, for decreasing tax on the wealthy and burdening the poor and middle class, and for attempting to dismantle tribal sovereignty in a state that is the heart of Indian Country.
There are thirty-eight federally recognized tribes here, more than any other state besides California. The state was originally Indian Territory: lands set aside for tribes, until settlers swarmed the territory and elbowed tribal people out of the way onto smaller and smaller parcels of land in the great Land Run. The state’s motto, The Sooner State, honors the dishonest settlers who jumped the claim to grab land ahead of everyone else.
When Christina Fallin put on that fake Indian headdress she knew what she was doing. She’s smart in an educated institutional current theory way. When she called her stunt Appropriate Culturation, she was familiar with the phrase cultural appropriation. To culturally appropriate is to take something that has intrinsic meaning in one culture and use it in a secular manner in another. It’s Buddhas on see-through t-shirts, it’s minstrels performing in blackface, and it’s an American Indian headdress on a white girl.
Just a note here before we go further. Native American is a recently surfacing term for all indigenous people. Actually, there is no such thing as a “Native American.” We go by our native nations’ names. I am of the Muscogee Creek Nation. For an all-encompassing term I tend to use indigenous, or I use the term that I grew up with in Oklahoma, American Indian.
We know the Plains headdress, or warbonnet, is a powerful image. Within the indigenous cultures it comes from, it represents honor and power. The man wearing it has been acknowledged as a person worthy of great respect. Highly symbolic, headdresses are of great spiritual importance and were only to be worn by the consent of tribe leaders, usually on ceremonial occasions. But in the popular catalogue of images of Indians in America, it represents all natives. It pronounces us wild and majestic, a warrior people who once were but do not exist now.
Now, if you’re following me, you can begin to see what happens when a non-native girl dons a fake Plains headdress in a calculated publicity stunt. First, she assumes that everything is available to her for use in her art. It’s the cultural assumption of a settler mentality that pervades American culture. It’s behind the Redskin mascot issue. When you’re a people who have been disappeared from the culture into a distant past, and are frozen in imagination in chase by the U.S. Cavalry, then you aren’t real.
When your people are the survivors of a holocaust of unimaginable dimensions, your presence is held at a great distance, a distance determined by the weight of guilt. Imagine an Africa with no Africans! Indigenous peoples in this country are now one-half of one percent of the population. We are essentially disappeared as real people in the American imagination and for the most part exist there as stereotypes.
Why is it acceptable to do an en masse tomahawk chop at a Washington Redskins game, and why is a derogatory term used for the counting of dead Indians for bounty used for the name of a team? And why can someone wearing fake Indian get-up be allowed, celebrated, as they dance around on an athletic field in imitation of imagined native dancing? Why does Christina Fallin, who was raised in a state with one of the largest populations of tribes in the country, feel that it’s cool to don a Plains headdress for fun?
She should know better. And ironically, her act stands her right next to her mother and her mother’s politics -- the exact place she was trying so hard not to be.
Her apology was not an apology, rather a sarcastic lame defense. She felt that wearing the headdress would connect her deeper to “Native American” culture, and asks for forgiveness “if we innocently adorn ourselves in your beautiful things.” This statement marks another irony. She romanticizes her thoughtless act and casts herself as a naïve citizen, the same innocence as the Romanticists ascribed to powerful native nations.
Christina Fallin has a power she already knows. And like any power, it’s dangerous. It can benefit and it can harm. Your “innocent” photograph caused actual harm. And as such, it can keep you from understanding who you truly are -- part of Indian country, a place rich with people and stories. And -- put this in your album of images of indigenous people in this country -- my grandmother Naomi Harjo played saxophone in Indian Territory.