Campus Free Speech

Bullying Teen Girls: Is It Okay If They Were Appropriating Native American Culture?

Tomahawks for social justice


Shirk Photography / Screenshot via Andy Garman KCCI

A girls' high school basketball team has been publicly shamed for appearing in a promotional poster that depicts members of the team wearing Native American headdresses—a tribute to their actual mascot, the Indian.

I guess it's okay to bully a bunch of teenage girls if they're guilty of that most unforgiveable crime: cultural appropriation. Several people pointed out on Facebook that the headdress is sacred in Native American tradition, and only men were allowed to wear it. But in that case, aren't the girls actually striking a blow against the patriarchy? "Kudos to the Arbiters of Femininity for cyberbullying these girls," writes The College Fix's Greg Piper. "If they weren't self-conscious about their appearance before, they are now."

It's all a bit confusing, honestly.

What's not really up for debate is that the poster is actually great. The girls look fierce as hell. Even Deadspin's Nick Martin says so, in a post that otherwise criticizes the girls for "blunt appropriation." Martin, to his credit, managed to get the photographer's take on the controversy:

Ben Shirk, the owner and head photographer for Shirk Photography, the company in charge of the shoot, told me the ideas were crafted by the company, not the high school. Clarke High School simply told Shirk they were looking for a poster incorporating their mascot; the poster as you see it is what Shirk came up with.

Shirk informed me the finished product was less inflammatory than some of the ideas that were put on the table. He said the project seemed no different than a superhero- or samurai-themed poster, saying there's nothing racist about totem poles and war dances.

Shirk's correct, in the sense that a samurai-themed poster probably would have also raised the ire of the PC mob, though the protectors of Native American culture are a more militant identity group than the protectors of samurai culture, at least in my experience.

Anyway, I suppose I question the wisdom of having "Indian" as your mascot—but that's the school's fault, not the girls'. People are free to complain about whatever they want, of course.

And yet I am drawn to Lionel Shriver's recent diatribe against the "super-sensitivity" demanded by the anti-appropriation mob. Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, gave a speech on the subject while wearing a tiny sombrero—even though she isn't Mexican!—in reference to the scandal created by a bunch of non-Mexican college students hosting a Cinco de Mayo theme party:

Now, I am a little at a loss to explain what's so insulting about a sombrero – a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim. My parents went to Mexico when I was small, and brought a sombrero back from their travels, the better for my brothers and I to unashamedly appropriatethe souvenir to play dress-up. For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I'm more than happy for anyone who doesn't share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.

I'm totally with Shriver on this, and I'm glad to finally see someone taking the staunchest pro-appropriation stance. Culture is intangible—it doesn't belong to anyone, and if it did, it would be impossible to sort out who owns what. Some of the people attacking the girls' basketball team pointed out that none of them were Native Americans, but there's no way to prove that: one or more of them might very well have Native American ancestors. But why does it matter, if it's impossible to tell the difference between someone who's partly Native American and someone who's not?

"I am hopeful that the concept of "cultural appropriation" is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life," says Shriver.