Monday, November 12, 2012

The violent struggle for Native American women

Last week the folks at Victoria's Secret decided to dress model Karlie Kloss in a Native American headdress as she strutted her half-naked body down a runway in New York. Victoria's Secret's questionable decision to feature this outfit caused an uproar. One woman responded, "[a]s a Victoria's Secret customer I am livid. After years of patronage and loyalty... I am repaid with mean-spirited, disrespectful trivialization of my... ancestry."

Ruth Hopkins highlights the way that this particular outfit contributes to the hypersexualization of Native women. She informs that a Google search for the terms "Native" or "war bonnet" yield dozens of photos of non-Native American women wearing a headdress, without much more. Given the rampant level of sexual violence imposed upon Native American women and girls, Hopkins contends that it is highly insensitive to equate Native womanhood with a sexual fetish.

Native American women are victims of sexual violence more than any other group of people. Statistically, three out of five Native American women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime; one in three is a victim of rape, and six in ten have experienced assault. On some reservations the murder rate for Native American women is ten times the national average. Disturbingly, around 88% of violent crimes are are committed by non-Native Americans, over which tribal governments generally lack criminal jurisdiction under U.S. law.

Perhaps more appalling than these statistics is the fact that VAWA may no longer protect these women against Non-Native Americans. In May of 2012, the House of Representatives blocked a Senate bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Instead, the house begrudgingly passed its own version of the law (H.R. 4970) that eliminates a provision subjecting non-Native suspects of domestic violence to prosecution before tribal courts for crimes committed on reservations. While members of the house argue that H.R. 4970 allows Native American women to apply for protective orders from local U.S. courts, opponents contend that women abused on reservations are often left without legal recourse. As such, VAWA has joined the list of controversial measures up for debate in a conference committee between the House and Senate.

Complicated issues of jurisdiction delay investigations of sexual violence considerably, and sometimes hinder prosecutions. When determining jurisdiction, authorities consider (1) whether the victim is a member of a federally recognized tribe, (2) whether the perpetrator is a member of a federally recognized tribe, and (3) whether the alleged offense occurred on tribal land. These issues are of significant importance because they dictate whether the case is heard in U.S. federal court or tribal court. Jurisdiction often overlaps; however, determining who will hear the case can be so confusing that no authority intervenes, and the victims are left without legal protection.

Even more disheartening is the dire reality that women who report sexual violence to the police are often discriminated against. Negative stereotypes linking Native American women to drinking result in police automatically concluding that a woman was undoubtedly drinking when she was targeted for sexual violence. A rape survivor in Alaska expressed that if a Native American woman reporting sexual violence is suspected of drinking, "the police will not respond unless she is either hospitalized or dead."

Amnesty International informs that Indigenous women face multiple forms of discrimination because they have multifaceted identities. Native American women are discriminated against not only as women, but also as Indigenous people. Amnesty contends,
"[t]he latter does not merely add one more element to the burden of discrimination that Indigenous women face, but interacts with and changes the nature of the discrimination they contend with.” It is therefore extremely important that freedom from violence as defined by Indigenous women themselves informs, and where necessary transforms, the human rights discourse.
A discourse that Ruth Hopkins believes will not be taken seriously, until Victoria's Secret, pop singers, and clothing designers stop deriding Native American culture. S.E. Smith asserts that structural racism continues affecting the Native American community, resulting in higher rates of poverty, rape, assault and serious health issues than in white communities. Thus, instead of trying to make the bondage of a Native American women look sexy in their latest music video, No Doubt and Gwen Stefani should have portrayed the sexual violence transgressed upon Native women for what it really is-- horrific.


KRB said...

Very interesting and powerful post. It is extremely insensitive for pop stars and fashion brands to sexual Native American women. Can we chalk this up to ignorance? I also wonder whether other marginalized groups have been victimized by such “fashion,” or if headdresses are just the most appealing type of ethnic apparel.

KB said...

I might be more accepting of fashion and media companies using Native American dress if a tribe had given permission. Such a policy would require the use of genuine as opposed to generic Native American jewelry and accessories. Use of Native American images and clothing would showcase the beauty and creativity of Native American cultures, instead of ignorantly sexualizing a population of women who suffers from high incidents of sexual violence. I believe this would be the only way for this practice to continue ethically; otherwise, it is offensive to all Native Americans, especially Native American women.

If someone did not receive permission, however, and thus the law precluded him or her from using Native American clothing if the fashion or media industries, there may be a successful First Amendment challenge. As such, I hope the public is able to encourage fashion and media companies to alter their policies when it comes to using Native American dress and images.

tzey said...

I agree with KB that permission is a totally valid and necessary step. However its not enough. the Navajo Nation has successfully challenged fashion houses for trademark infringement for the use of navajo designs in their clothing. Its not just about cultural theft but like monetary theft as well. These fashion warehouses are taking a product which is developed by american indians and using it without proper compensation to its original producers. Gee doesn't that sound familiar.

Pali said...

I hope no one is suggesting we abandon the First Amendment. All forms of art, even pornography, are protected. How is fashion any different?

I understand the sentiment of this post, but am frustrated by it. Sexualization of Asian culture has been prevalent in fashion trends for years. Victoria Secret (or maybe Frederick's) has carried "sexy kimonos" as lingerie in the past, and it is not as if there is no history of sexual violence against those women.

I have seen the likeness of other cultures used, abused, distorted, and bastardized. Everything offends someone. If you do not like it, do not buy it. No one is forcing anyone to patronize any store in particular or wear things that offend you.

I remember in the late 90s Madonna offended Hindus with her overt sexualization of religious Hindu symbols. Editorial responses at the time identified the offended population as being overly sensitive. I carry the same sentiment.

Sophie said...

This was a very fascinating post. Native American dress and cultures have been sexualized for decades. But I do think the issue has been getting more attention lately. Celebrities like Khloe Kardashian and Pharrell had been seen wearing headdresses to different functions and various groups had been outspoken in their condemnation. I agree with KRB and question whether other groups are victimized in the same way? Headdresses are an essential part of many tribal cultures and spiritual practices. Have other marginalized groups faced this type of disrespect and sexualization of their culture?

I disagree with the idea of companies receiving permission using tribal dress. I think this could infringe upon First Amendment rights. Rather, I think companies and individuals all need to be educated on the importance of cultural and spiritual resources, such as headdresses, to deter them from using these cultural objects as costumes.