September 9, 2012

Paul Frank's Racist Powwow

The other day, I got a Google alert that an article was written using the words "Native American" and "Fashion." It turns out, the article was about Paul Frank Industries' Fashion's Night Out party.* The description was only two sentences long, but I learned enough to realize that something bad was going down.

"Paul Frank celebrated Fashion’s Night Out with a neon-Native American powwow theme. Glow-in-the-dark war-painted employees in feather headbands and bow and arrows invited guests to be photographed on a mini-runway holding prop tomahawks."

So, I searched for the company on Facebook, and sure enough, they had posted over 1,000 images from this powwow party. I posted this picture (above left) on Beyond Buckskin's Facebook page, with the caption, "Oh good. Mock scalping. And here I was, worried that Native American people were underrepresented in the fashion industry."

And many of you responded. So many people reacted to the obvious racism, and posted on Paul Frank's wall, and reported the images as 'Racist', that within 24 hours of that first image post, the entire albums were removed from Paul Frank's FB page.

But there was no apology. The party still happened, and images are still out there (click here, for example). Let's walk through some of these images. First, the logo is of the Paul Frank monkey in a headdress. We've talked about Headdresses so much on here and on the Native Appropriations page, we feel like broken records:

Second, there were kids there. Lots and lots of kids, encouraged to dress up and play Indian. Evidently, this is our legacy:

Third, there was alcohol there (right behind these kids below), and the vodka mix drink names are just as racist as the party planners: Rain Dance Refresher (with vodka, lemonade, and sweetened ice tea), Dream Catcher, and Neon Teepee (with vodka, cranberry juice, soda water, 7up, and Red Bull):

Finally, these weren't just plain ol' white kids playing Indian. Now every race and every color and every age group is doing it. It is truly a sad day to see other People of Color oppressing Native American people and making a mockery of their cultures.

This is my letter to Paul Frank:
To whom it may concern: 
Thank you for removing the Powwow pictures from your Facebook page. However, the party still happened, and the images are still out there. We want an apology, Paul Frank. 
Since you are profiting off of a caricature of our cultures, a donation to a Native American youth arts program would be fitting to accompany your apology. Furthermore, if you are genuinely interested in Native American design, I suggest you collaborate with Native American designers in the future. 
Your actions are highly offensive, and it is ridiculous to see this level of racism still occurring in 2012. 
Jessica R. Metcalfe, PhD (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)
Beyond Buckskin
Please see Native Appropriations blog for a more robust rebuttal to Paul Frank's Racist Powwow.

Update: Paul Frank apologized on his Facebook page:
"Paul Frank celebrates diversity and is inspired by many rich cultures from around the world. The theme of our Fashion's Night Out event was in no way meant to disrespect the Native American culture, however due to some comments we have received we are removing all photos from the event and would like to formally and sincerely apologize. Thank you everyone for your feedback and support."
Update: This isn't just a party, it is actually a collection of tees:

Click here to tell Paul Frank what you think about their racist party, their apology, and their continued sales of their 'Indian' and 'Dream Catcher' tees.

*UPDATE: For clarification, I am referring to Paul Frank Industries in this article, not Paul Frank, the man. Click here to read the clarification letter.

*UPDATE: Paul Frank Industries has reached out to Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin to move forward and create a positive outcome from this terrible situation. We will seek to further our goal of educating about the (mis)appropriation of Native American cultures, and seek to promote collaborations between companies and Native American communities. Click here to read the details.


  1. great work, jessica! an apology was indeed needed. wow! you would think that after the UrbanOutfitters debacle, the fashion industry would wake up a little. ugh

  2. It probably wouldn't be so bad if he would have done it with a bit of class. I know that it was aimed at the younger crowd, even so, it should have been pulled off differently. If he would have done it with HONOR instead of what seemed to be a joke, it may have been acceptable in seeing it through his eyes. I think he's got a lot of explaining to do. This, in my opinion, isn't even artistic enough to pass for good.

  3. How many people had to approve at Paul Frank Inc. this and they all thought this was ok.

    *head desk head desk*

  4. This event was so overtly racist! It deserves all of the negative press we can shine on it!! And those in attendance, I wonder if the African American people that attended would have supported a "Cruise to Employment" Night Out, with those in attendance satirizing their tribal regalia?!?! This event not only showed how deeply rooted and insidious racism continues to be in this country, but also presented us with a glaring example of how oppression works to keep the oppressed people's in this country divided!!

  5. While I do think that this may be inappropriate use of a "race's" artwork, I would also point out the misuse of the word "racism." Racism is the thought that one race is superior to another. I do not get the sense, from this fashion show, that Paul Frank or his employees believe that Native Americans are inferior. According to your post, apparently the design is also not misrepresented, for you suggest Paul Frank acknowledges or gives credit to the Native American community. So then, according to you, it would not be misinterpreted. Used inappropriately - more likely. Whether or not Paul Frank needs to make a formal apology to this race/community I think would be up to the community as a whole. Therefore, I respectfully disagree with a few of the things mentioned here in this post.

  6. Playing Indian, and Redface like Blackface, has everything to do with power, superiority, and oppression.

  7. I think your comments are very disrespectful. You don't get to judge what we perceive as racist. You are also very misinformed. Please do your homework before getting involved in such sensitive topics!

  8. I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm just going by the dictionary.

  9. Apology acceptable, donation moot, pull these abominable products. Do some market research, Mr. Frank, otherwise you would have found out that your products are just a waste of material. Oh, I meant trash.

  10. I still fail to see how this is so very racist. If Paul Frank, or any other designer, were to, or are to, get inspired by other cultures, what is so terrible about it? Isn't that the world we live in? Do we have to police ideological and cultural "contamination" now? Is it only ok to be inspired by other cultures if you actually belong to that culture??

    I know I'm gonna get hell for this, but that's how I feel, sorry.

    1. It's a poor representation of Native American culture that is reminiscent of a time of ignorance. Few early Native Americans wore feathered headbands, headdresses aside, and painted themselves up sloppily. They later wore feathered headbands for tourists to play up to their expectations.

      Overall, it's clownish and limited in understanding. That's what makes it disrespectful.

      If you want to learn more, you should see a movie called Reel Injun.

  11. very tacky and culturally insensitive, politically incorrect.

  12. Paul Frank could turn this into an opportunity and donate 100% of profits to Native American Education programs on high need reservations. This deserves more attention!! I am HIGHLY upset with this!

  13. WHY go to the dictionary, when you have a whole blog and supporting comments by people who understand racism (since unlike you they experience it) explaining to you why it is racist. You now go the dictionary because what they say can't be true unless a white person has written it down. Fuck you, your fake sorry, and your refusal, yes refusal to really listen to POC.

  14. I am sorry but you are a useless excuse for a human being and I fail to see why you should be allowed to live someone should kill you. Sorry, that is just how I feel.

    Read the article, then comprehend or get help don't just come and comment like a fool

  15. Hi LSM - Pretty please keep the comments on point and respectful to each comment-maker, even if you do not agree with the person, you can still address the comment.

  16. Hi Lea, Paul Frank was inspired by a racist caricature of our "Native American culture" (that's their phrase - as if Indigenous people of North American have only one culture - which is false). If the company was in fact inspired by our cultures, the end result would be completely different, and would not involve encouraging children to photograph while mock-scalping each other, there would not be alcoholic beverages mocking the sacred sun dance. I understand where you are coming from, but this case is particular - I am not talking about policing contamination or stopping inspiration.

  17. Honestly, this is ridiculous. Now a reference to any culture is offensive? So I bet then an Anime Party, or a Fiesta with Doritos Locos tacos would be equally offensive? Why aren't you getting up in arms about that? I am also very offended by what S.E.Smith said on

    "it’s offensive; and it’s doubly so coming from white people in the US, who directly contributed to the historic oppression of indigenous populations and continue to be complicit in the systems that affect Native communities."
    First off, the party was attended by people of all different races and ethnicities (notice how S.E.Smith only mentions white people).. second, how did they (Oh i mean only the "white people") directly contribute to the HISTORIC oppression.. We've all learnt about the terrible things that happened to Native Americans in the past.. but there is no way in hell that white people now are responsible for that.. I'm offended by that. I didn't do shit to you people.

  18. Hi Chris, I NEVER SAID "now a reference to any culture is offensive." Please read the article above before commenting on it. Also as I mentioned above, Paul Frank was inspired by a racist caricature of our "Native American culture" (that's their phrase - as if Indigenous people of North American have only one culture - which is false). If the company was in fact inspired by our cultures, the end result would be completely different, and it would not involve encouraging children to take photographs while mock-scalping each other, and there would be no alcoholic beverages mocking the sacred rain dance. I understand where you are coming from, but I am NOT talking about referencing 'any' culture as being offensive. Please stay on topic while you are here on this page. Furthermore, I do NOT speak for So please do not air your grievances about xojane's statements here. As I mentioned above, this party was attended by People of Color. So again, your comment is off base, and does nothing to further the discussion.

  19. Dearest Dr. Metcalfe,

    I am younger and less educated than you, and not a Native American. So I don't mean to judge- I know there are very good reasons for such passionate reactions amongst your readers on the issue of appropriation. But honestly, do you notice a pattern? It seems like every time the topic comes up, the divide between Native American and mainstream culture grows bigger and more bitter. Maybe it's the way the conversation is framed. Whatever it is, it sucks.
    Obviously something is not getting across. Since you are such an inspiring leader and fabulous communicator (I think you have a great sense of humor), what do you think about changing the approach and maybe trying to use more love and patience to educate the public on this very sensitive issue? Substituting the reprimanding tone with something more enlightened... maybe at the end of your letter to Paul Frank you can invite him to join your cause and become an ambassador who helps disseminate the word in the design world. Just an idea. You might find yourself with a devoted new ally!
    What do you think? too naive and romantic? I think it's totally doable!
    All best,

  20. Hi Karina,

    Yes, you've given me advice before (unless it was a different Karina?), and you seem to have a strong opinion on how I should run my blog. You are welcome to start your own. I think the more voices and the more perspectives, the better.
    I'm actually a very positive happy person, and 90% of this blog is about Native American Fashion - the designers, the inspiring stories, the beauty. Read the other posts and see for yourself. I'm constantly educating. But for some reason this really irks you, and you want me to change my voice, and you want a sugar-coated version of racism.

    You will not find that here.

    -Jessica R. Metcalfe, PhD (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)

  21. I agree with you. I think people are getting over sensitive these days. It is also apparent in some of these posts - people that I'm sure would claim to be accepting or tolerant can't even respond to an opposing opinion with respect... or maturity for that matter...

  22. Thank you Jessica for bringing this to our attention. Oneh.

  23. You're right. Thanks always for responding so quickly and for the great work you do. I will be one of your avid readers for a long time to come.

    Be well.


  24. Hi Tailor- tell me about your cultural heritage. Are you simply white? Or just black? Or generic Latino? Or is there more to your heritage to that? Would you be even slightly put off if someone assumed that your cultural heritage is a simplified amalgam of the stories of every single person that looks remotely like you? I certainly would. I'm white, yes. But the story of my Dutch heritage is different from many other people who share my skin color.
    If I were to take pride in my own history while operating under the assumption that all "Native American Culture" is one and the same, I am inherently assuming superiority, which I believe was your definition of racism. If I presume to call myself more than "just white," I am a racist if I reduce hundreds of diverse peoples to just "Indians."

  25. Karina, the debate, such as it is, only 'sucks' on Mr. Frank's part, NOT Jessica's. May I suggest that you not read her blog at all anymore?

  26. Boy, are people like you so clueless, or did God make you that way deliberately?

  27. I would like to sincerely smack the whole long line of people who thought this was okay. And I'm white!

    I mean, I know that I try to be aware of POC issues nowadays so allegedly I would "pick up on" some racist elements a bit quicker than someone who doesn't, and I'm not saying I have never had a racist cultural blindspot myself, either. As an example: until recent years, it never occurred to me to question my own deep-seated, unconscious assumption that "east asians are submissive" - until I started reading material by women of east-Asian descent and realized that, yes, that's a stereotype DUH, and of course it's offensive and damaging and also (particularly as applies to women) incredibly sexist. I was incredibly shamed and humbled to realize how easily I held such an awful stereotype without realizing it, especially when it's so obviously a stupid one. So I know it's easy to hold a really, really stupid, offensive stereotype for years and years without realizing what it really is. Sadly, the human mind makes those "shortcuts" very easily unless you condition it not to.


    Exactly how stupid does someone have to be to think that MOCK SCALPING wouldn't be offensive!? That putting a monkey - I don't care if it's the official mascot, it's still famously a monkey - in Native dress of any sort is offensive!?

    I mean, come ON. There's no excuse for that level of ignorance... we have a black President now, and of course, some idiot cartoonists have rendered him as ape-like and gotten roundly chastised for it, right? So, obviously associating POCs with a "lower primate" like a monkey is going to be offensive! There's no excuse to think otherwise. It's caused problems before, so it would cause problems again. Common sense!

    And scalping! Mock scalping, bows and arrows! Neon war paint! All of which paints an entire group of peoples as having violence as a significant part of their culture - in fact, arguably the whole setup was mostly about the violent end of the stereotypes. I mean, I can kind of see somebody being clueless enough to not realize the dreamcatcher design was offensive (most white folks don't see dreamcatchers as anything other than kitsch), or not realizing that say, not all Native cultures slept in tipis or wore warbonnets, or even not realizing that warbonnets aren't just a headdress, they're sacred ceremonial gear... all of those are such common stereotypes and misunderstandings that unless you're informed that they're wrong, you could foolishly believe them for years.

    ...but the mock scalping. Oh god. How can you not realize that is going to be offensive? You know that portraying American Indians as warlike whoopers out to kill whitey on westerns is offensive by now, surely? So surely, the plastic tomahawks and allowing mock scalpings should have been recognized as offensive?

    God, can you imagine how much worse this all would be if we didn't have the internet? Or POCs speaking up on it? There would be nobody smart enough or aware enough to question this BS, maybe nobody would even hear of it, and countless kids and adults visiting that place would never realize the awful things they're endorsing in the spirit of "fun".

    POCs: never shut up! Never let them shout you down! And never, ever take things like this sitting down. Because we're badly-conditioned idiots, and we need people to point out what should be obvious. Apparently. >.>

  28. Yes Neville, of course you may suggest it because I believe in free speech, but it ain't gonna happen because I quite enjoy and respect Jessica's blog, even if I don't agree with her on everything. I hope it's still OK to have different opinions?

  29. Except that anime is an animation medium and not a frakking culture. Some Japanese animes even feature cultures that aren't even Japanese! (Shock! Horror!) Full Metal Alchemist, a popular anime, is set in Europe.

  30. AMAZING! I was so shocked to read this, and couldn't believe this happened with no one thinking this may not be ok. I always wonder how a racial group can be a costume.

  31. I know this is old but your words touched me to where I want to respond. I am not white. I am Irish. For me this means rejecting an inherently harmful construct that elevates people based on entirely arbitrary characteristics. It means recognizing and combating white privilege both within and outside of myself. It means standing in solidarity with others when these issues come up. In short I think you've hit the nail on the head. If we want to reclaim our diverse versions of "white" well, we simply can't do that while still participating in racist systems or ideas that reduce other peoples to a label.

  32. Pidamaya for confronting Mr. Frank on this egregious insult. I am very grateful to have found your site and for your defense of Native American artists, imagery and legacy. We need more people like you to stand up to the rampant theft of ideas and originality from Indian Country.

  33. Just saying, "We got some negative feedback for something we did, so we'd like to apologize" isn't an apology. Their halfhearted attempt at an apology came off as neither formal nor sincere.