February 8, 2012

Your Elder’s Name is Google

So, it's been 5 days since I wrote about the 'Native scene' on Etsy, where I essentially make a few brash statements that can be summed up as follows:
  1. If you go on Etsy and search 'Native American,' it is difficult to find items that are actually 'Native American' (and, just to be clear, I mean, 'made by Native Americans'), instead you will find items made by non-Natives, but inspired by Native cultures:
    • 23,474 items come up when you search 'native american'
    • 7,765 items for 'american Indian'
    • 3,326 items for 'Navajo'
  2. Non-Natives continue to use the 'Native American' label as a marketing tactic to sell their work and make money, sometimes it is even in violation of IACA. As Noelle Shaw pointed out "It is blatant cultural theft for profit" and "It is offensive and illegally undermines authentic Native American art markets exponentially."
  3. Non-Natives (and some Natives) continue to think that it is ok to sell Native American spirituality, and there's a high number of 'shaman' items being sold on Etsy (3,331 items to be exact).
This post was a first stab at understanding the mess on Etsy, and is by no means a conclusive study in any regard. In addition, I selected the examples on my post based on my initial search results. However, after this post went live, I was asked to apologize and/or retract my statements made about one of the stores that I randomly singled out in the post.

Evidently, the shop owner is a real nice lady. In addition, I was told that she is an elder in her clan. On an emotional level, I immediately felt terrible for devastating a nice person and clan elder. She couldn't even approach me herself, but two of her friends jumped to her defense.

I wondered if I had made a mistake.

So I looked into it and found some interesting facts:
  1. She is not Native American, but she was adopted by a group called the 'Broken Arrow Clan,' and she now serves as 'Council Elder.' This is a Rainbow Tribe, which is a group of people who have no connections to Native communities, yet pretend to be Native American. They make up a name for their tribe, and they act out and perpetuate stereotypes of Native people. I love Rainbow Tribes (or whatever), but she uses this affiliation to position herself as a person of authority, and her friends are using this faux 'Elder' status as a mechanism to try to silence me.
  2. She tells Native American oral tradition stories like they're hers to tell (she has recently told an Ojibwe story during some online story hour – which I personally find offensive since I am Chippewa).
  3. She sells items with the tag 'Native' to make money for herself, and she states that she "will ceremonially cleanse" your purchases before shipping them.
  4. In the description of one of her pieces, she writes, "I asked one of the Elders from my Clan why our People of the First Nation wore Chokers..." and then she took the information from this site. Just to reiterate, her clan is the 'Broken Arrow Clan,' which is not connected to any First Nation.
  5. She has a picture of herself on Etsy wearing 'buck skin regalia' that she made for herself a couple years ago.
She's a classic Indian hobbyest. She plays Indian. She thinks she has the right to profit off of Native cultures, and she thinks she has a right to (mis)represent our cultures, and her feelings got hurt when I called her on it.

(If you're confused as to why I'm bothered by this, go over to Native Appropriations blog where these topics are covered over and over again. Also, before you jump the gun and say something like "She's just showing appreciation for that culture," please read the Cultural Appropriation Bingo card.)

So, no, I will not apologize and I will not retract my statements. In fact, I think she owes the Lakota and Ojibwe People a couple of apologies for her actions and her attempted theft and hi-jacking of our cultures.

Note:  Pimp post title, "Your Elder's Name is Google," by Nicholas Galanin © 2012.


  1. This is important work that you are doing Jessica, thank you so much. As a pagan and a hippie I come across a lot of this shit and so I know first hand that parsing out the real and respectful from the plastic and appropriative is a full time job. Your lists on Etsy have been invaluable to me as someone who tries to infuse some ethics into her capitalism. Thank you.

  2. Hi Jessica,

    Thank you for answering my earlier questions on your original post - it helps me to understand a little better where you're coming from.

    I don't think there's any reason to apologize for your feelings about this issue. But let's say that something you yourself were doing was causing another person to feel pain and anger. Wouldn't you like that person to speak with you directly about it first, before complaining about your actions in public? If they talked with you, you'd at least be aware they were upset and once you understood why, you might even be willing to modify your behavior.

    I read some of your interviews and really enjoyed them - such beautiful clothing and beadwork. I also liked the article "10 Things You Need to Know About Native Women" - very inspiring for all women I think!

    ~ Lisa

  3. it's the urban outfitters effect. but... is there a solution to the etsy situation? should these people be saying "native-inspired"? would that make it a little better? as lisa said, i doubt any of them are being intentionally offensive. is there any truly native art on etsy? an etsy team to organize true native sellers? as an etsy seller and non-native with a ton of native friends (thank tabard!), i'm very interested. on a side note, have you seen george neptune's baskets? it's not "fashion" but they're pretty awesome.

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  5. (re-posting same comment...not sure what happened while I am trying to figure out how to post on blogs)

    Great post Dr. Metcalfe, I agree with you and support your position.

    With an issue as impacting and widespread as cultural appropriation for profit, case in point here the "Indian hobbyist", information campaigning is a vital tool for reform.

    A quick look at U.S. population statistics help shed light on why this is such a major problem for Native American artisans. Whites constitute over 60% of America's population, American Indians less than 1%. With those numbers Indian hobbyists collectively do as much damage as corporate level theft and imported counterfeits of Native art. All levels need to be addressed for their contribution to the economic disparity of Native Americans.

    I understand the reasons for tremendous economic disparity within Native groups are multifaceted. However, in my opinion, cultural appropriation for profit is the belly of the beast for Native artists. This is a very public issue and needs to be addressed on a public level.


  6. I would like to comment on the IACA in general from my personal perspective. I understand their are many complexities within the Native communities in regards to identity, due to the fracturing of tribal identities through treaties, forced relocation, genocide and cultural reform efforts. I am undoubtedly Native American, yet I am uncounted and I am an artist so I have really wrangled on a personal level with this issue over the years.

    I ultimately made a final decision that reflects my hard stance on IACA violation issues. It represents the importance I place on protecting Native arts and artist markets as greater than my personal inclination to share the woven connections between my art, race and heritage. The fragile indigenous Native American Art market needs to be protected by each and every one of us.

    As an uncounted Native American, I have decided to not identify my art work in any way with my race or heritage. I am primarily of Cherokee descent, and my children are also Saginaw Chippewa. I am admittedly more connected with my children's tribe and culture than my own due to our location.

    I feel this is the strongest stance I can take in support of IACA. The best way uncounted Natives can support and protect Native American Artists and Art Markets is to place the needs of the Native Nations above their personal needs. I urge all uncounted Native Americans, not to be confused with "Native hobbyists", to take a strong stand in support of IACA.

    Noelle Shaw

  7. Please forgive my ignorance... What is a "rainbow tribe"?

  8. You're just plain mean and cold blooded. I am not a card carrying member of any tribe nor have I ever aspired to be. I am however of Jicarilla Apache blood and having grown up in NE AZ and in Central NM, I am inspired by Native culture. Does that make me any less of a person or an artist because of that?

    The Jicarilla Apache were very displaced for years. Their reservation land taken from them and they were banished to a reservation with the Mescaleo Apache Tribe. Many years passed before they had a place to call home so their home was where they were accepted. My Great Grandmother married my Great Grandfather in Anton Chico, NM and they made a home in Puerto De Luna, NM. My father knew and loved his Grandmother and wanted nothing from the BIA because of it. I was taught to accept the beauty and love that people give despite their culture or affiliations.

    I wish you nothing but happiness Dr. Metcalf and hope that you receive the same kindness and treatment that you no doubt give your fellow man.

  9. I strongly agree, there are certain things that should not be sold on the internet, a pawn shop, a flea market, etc. As a part white and part Oglala Lakota who has been displaced for the greater part of my life from some of my family, due to death or difficulty in tracking what relatives I have, I can understand that

    A. there are a lot of Natives who are fair skinned, displaced, ignorant and do not understand what is appropriate

    B. there are a lot of Natives who are selling their own culture and beliefs out to make a buck

    C. there are a lot of non Natives who are ignorant and do not care about their offensive behaviors

    I remember one time going to pow wow and sitting with my aunt at her table. She was selling a bunch hand made goods, baked and fried bread. She told me "I'll teach you how to sew pouches, and then you can come next time and put them up on the table". I learned to sew pouches at the age of 12. I came the next year with my dad, and put them on a friends table. Someone who didn't know me, yelled and said they weren't taking white people's stuff and dumped it into a bag and tossed it.

    1. I'm part Native. 2. I'm part white. 3. I made those pouches with honor and respect and was given permission by a full blooded Native what to do with them 4. I'm fair skinned and consistently mistaken for being a Mexican.

    It's amazing.

    I'm careful not to judge who I come across on the internet as who is a Native based on skin tone.

    I don't want to contribute to the issue with enrollment and blood quantum either, by forcing everyone to prove they are Native, because frankly I'm tired of it myself.

    To sum up my thoughts here, I think *some* of what is taking place is we are scouring etsy and other areas of the net, seeing that the person making xyz doesn't "look Native enough" so therefore they are a white, selling Native stuff. Get the pitch fork!

  10. My brother I totally concur with you...no 'I'm sorry' needs to come from you. Im not born into any First Nation Tribe, and I too, find this abhorrant.Stay true to you my brother...many blessings.

  11. mean? cold blooded? you know... there is a 500 year history of genocide against Native Americans? THAT is mean and truly cold blooded. And it still goes on. You can't just ignore the fact that ONCE AGAIN we have the dominant Euro- centered population is intruding where it is not welcomed, especially when it has already taken over every other aspect of their existence.
    When a culture creates something unique, something special; they are allowed some control over its use. It's called respect.