The Stars Trying to Atone for Hollywood’s Sins Against Native Americans
When it comes to its treatment of Native Americans, Hollywood still has a long way to go. But in supporting #NoDAPL, a small group of high-profile stars are beginning to make amends.
The history of being Native in America is one of adding insult to injury. And Halloween, a once-spooky celebration of ghosts and ghouls turned opportunity to impress Twitter with your Ken Bone costume, is no exception. The holiday formerly known as All Hallows Eve has long been plagued by white girls in Native American headdresses. Unlike a more thorough, well-thought out racist costume, this feathered accessory allows for full below-the-neck creativity. Nothing says DIY cultural appropriation like some nude bootie shorts, a suedette crop top, and a ten-dollar head piece you express shipped on Amazon Prime. It’s the lazy girl’s Halloween mullet: sexy on the bottom, emblematic of over 500 years of oppression and cultural co-option on the top.
While the sexy squaw might be the most predictable character in this annual Halloween horror story, costume stupidity does not discriminate between gender, creed, or socioeconomic status. Just look at Hilary Duff and her boyfriend Jason Walsh, the latest in a long line of celebrities to fuck up Halloween with their sexy pilgrim and hunky Native American couples’ costume. Duff and Walsh’s cultural crime irritates and offends on multiple levels. First of all, couples’ costumes are dumb. We live in a cruel, copulation-obsessed world where couples have their own official holiday. We all expect to feel like bitter Carrie Bradshaws on Valentine’s Day—don’t shove your love in our faces on Halloween, too. You can wear your matching Netflix and Chill T-shirts on your own time, not on my Instagram feed.
Apparently, someone dared Hilary Duff and Jason Walsh, two beautiful white people, to make their coupledom even more annoying. The result was this ridiculous costume, which manages to reimagine one of the most abhorrent chapters in American history as a sexy meet-cute. Naturally, it was only a matter of hours before the Internet feasted on the bloody remains of Duff’s reputation. Cue the requisite celebrity apology in 5, 4, 3, 2… “I am SO sorry to people I offended with my costume,” Duff wrote in Tweet on Sunday. “It was not properly thought through and I am truly, from the bottom of my [heart emoji] sorry.”
I wish that Hollywood didn’t top off centuries of oppression with ignorant costumes and offensive onscreen portrayals of Native Americans. From the bottom of my heart emoji. Unfortunately, Duff’s fiasco is hardly an anomaly. And while celebrities’ personal gaffes are also public statements, it’s even more concerning when problematic projects are bankrolled and broadcast. A particularly gross example was 2013’s The Lone Ranger, which starred questionable dude Johnny Depp as Tonto, the dated, two-dimensional comic relief character from the original. In preparation for this role, which garnered immediate criticism, Depp took the time to learn about the culture he would be co-opting. JK, he internalized a bunch of stereotypes and put a dead bird on his head.
In a Rolling Stone interview, the star explained why his red face role was actually beneficial to the larger community. “I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations. They're living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘Fuck that! You're still warriors, man.’” From the superficial understanding of Native American issues to the white savior complex to the invocation of the Indian warrior trope, this is the actor equivalent of when Donald Trump describes “inner cities” as dystopian war zones. It’s transparent, self-serving, disrespectful “sympathy,” and it’s not fooling anyone.
Given this history of red face, costume fiascos, over-simplified Native American characters and everything in between, Hollywood has proven itself to be a lazy and unreliable ally. But as the conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline continues to come to a head, an increasing number of celebrities are lending their voices to Standing Rock. To briefly summarize a protest that’s rooted in thousands of words’ worth of historical context: Dakota Access wants to build a crude oil pipeline, and members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argue that this development will cross culturally sacred sites and threaten the reservation’s water supply. The tribe has since been joined by other indigenous peoples, environmentalists and allies, who have sought legal blocks and staged demonstrations.
Activists across the country joined the tribe at a North Dakota camp near the reservation, where they have clashed with private security workers and the police force. On September 9, a federal judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for a temporary injunction. As tribal leaders continue to seek legal and political redress, heavily armed law enforcement officers have reportedly employed pepper spray, tear gas and a sound cannon at the North Dakota camp, and continue to arrest protestors.
Despite the environmental and cultural significance of the months-long demonstration, activists claim that many media outlets have failed to appropriately cover the conflict. With mainstream coverage lacking, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have become a case study in new forms of reporting—particularly relevant mediums include Twitter and Facebook Live videos. In addition to capturing violent struggles and encouraging police accountability, livestreaming gave birth to what was perhaps the most viral moment of the entire campaign: actress Shailene Woodley’s arrest. Woodley, an environmentalist and vocal critic of the pipeline, was arrested while protesting on the site. She used Facebook to broadcast video of her entire arrest, and later pleaded not guilty to criminal trespass and riot charges.
In a subsequent open letter, Woodley wrote, “Treaties are broken. Land is stolen. Dams are built. Reservations are flooded. People are displaced. Yet we fail to notice. We fail to acknowledge. We fail to act. So much so that it took me, a white non-native woman being arrested on Oct 10th in North Dakota, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to bring this cause to many people’s attention. And to the forefront of news publications around the world.” Woodleywent on to speak at length about environmental issues, Native activism, and police brutality. But her point about celebrity activism is an interesting one, and one that she’s uniquely positioned to make.
Celebrities, like white allies, should closely interrogate and question their own roles in indigenous struggles. There’s a fine line between supporting a movement and overpowering it. Celebrities feed into their own press pipeline, from paparazzi pictures to media coverage. This added scrutiny can be converted into a political platform. But celebrity activism also runs the risk of diverting attention away from the real story. If Woodley’s Facebook Live video sends fans to Standing Rock’s website, she’ll have effectively promoted her cause. But if readers only internalize the headline of another Hollywood arrest, filed away in a thick folder of bad behavior and DUIs, then Woodley’s civil disobedience will just be another piece of celebrity noise. Of course, stars have very little control over how their actions will be re-packaged for the masses. But with social media, celebrities can directly appeal to their fans, in their own words. And the recent Hollywood outpouring of surprisingly articulate and well-researched social media support for Standing Rock has been genuinely impressive.
In early September, the stars of the upcoming Justice League filmed a video endorsement for Rezpect Our Water, a campaign by young members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, and Ben Affleck all pledged their solidarity. Ezra Miller explained, “As a gang of Earth defenders, we want to send a big shoutout to the Oceti Sakowin and those who stand with them in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.” “Join us in supporting the youth of Standing Rock as they fight the Dakota Access Pipeline, which will leak into their drinking water!" Momoa wrote on his Instagram, adding that “Aquaman is pissed.” It was a very cute video, and a unique example of synergy that isn’t horrible.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Susan Sarandon, and Pharrell Williams have all spoken out about the tribe’s efforts. More importantly, they’ve largely done so in a way that defers to the community, and lets Native American activism take center stage. Jaden and Willow Smith joined the growing list of celebrities who have physically stood in solidarity; according to Instagram, they’ve joined the picketing crowds. Because if there’s one thing the Smiths love more than androgynous fashion and Indian spiritual guru Osho, it’s water.
But one of the most striking celebrity social media stands comes courtesy of Chris Hemsworth. The movie star took his #noDAPL Instagram in full Thor costume, writing, “Standing with those who are fighting to protect their sacred land and water.” He then took things a step further, adding, “Last New Year's Eve I was at a ‘Lone Ranger’ themed party where some of us, myself included, wore the traditional dress of First Nations people. I was stupidly unaware of the offence this may have caused and the sensitivity around this issue. I sincerely and unreservedly apologise to all First Nations people for this thoughtless action. I now appreciate that there is a great need for a deeper understanding of the complex and extensive issues facing indigenous communities. I hope that in highlighting my own ignorance I can help in some small way.” Is this famous person actually apologizing because of his conscience and not an angry Twitter hashtag or pressure from his PR rep? Has Matt McGorry formed a Hollywood hunks awareness raising circle?
Whatever the reason behind this rapidly spreading wokeness (social media, Tumblr), kudos to every celebrity who is not only speaking up, but actually listening before they speak. Unfortunately, as far as Hollywood awareness has come, incidents like the recent Duff-gate are an important reminder that when it comes to representation and racial sensitivity, there’s still a long way to go.