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Little Thunders— Native made or Native inspired?

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When I first moved to the village, I went shopping at some of the local shops. I stopped by one that had a glass case full of interesting pieces of jewelry. I asked the store clerk, who was also the owner, if I could see and try on one of the rings in the case. It was a silver handmade ring of a Native American in a warbonnet. As I examined the ring, I asked if it was Native made. The store owner said, “Yes, it is native made,” but she misunderstood me. She thought I meant made by someone who was native to Ohio, and I clarified and asked if it was made by a Native American person, and she responded, “No.”

I have seen images of feather-topped Indian heads since I was a child. I see these images on logos, on kitschy items and products. Never does the Indian have a name or a personality — or a story. It is just an image, mostly just a head severed from a body, which to me is freaky and subversive. It is as though we as Native people are not actually people who have agency, but instead, we are a caricature of ourselves.

In the 1980s there was a famous commercial of the environmentalist crying Indian who had the single tear run down his face when he looked at litter. He really did look like a real Indian, but the truth is, he was 100% not Native American. He had no tribe, no Indian blood, no Native relatives, and no connection to the land. He looked Native, so people accepted the imagery and all that went along with it.

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As an Ojibwe woman, I object to this fantasy of Native imagery.

Colonization has devastating effects on Native people. It is the concept of taking something that does not belong to you, establishing control over it, and trying to profit from it. This is the goal of these so-called Native images, and we cannot sugar coat this reality.

In 1990, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act was passed as a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Native American Indian/Indigenous-made work. Therefore, one cannot claim that something is Native-made without facing consequences, including hefty fines and jail time. But it still happens all the time. All one has to do is type “headdress” in and you will find many, many thousands of “Indian headdresses” or falsely claimed Native items such as dream catchers and tipis. It is so pervasive, it is nearly impossible to stop — unless people stop buying these culturally inappropriate items. If there is no market for these colonized images, maybe things will change.

There are 573 Federally recognized Tribal Nations here in the U.S., each with its own culture, art, imagery and iconography created by Native designers, artists, inventors and creators, from contemporary to traditional. There is no need for Native-inspired work when there is so much realness and authenticity. Creativity is our Native tradition and there is abundant talent and beauty that comes from our people. From the gorgeous arts from the Pueblo to the stunning floral patterns of the Woodlands/Anishinaabe artists, the incredible diversity of imagery is rich with options that honor our people.

I envision a Yellow Springs that has shops and imagery that embraces authenticity — a place where a Native person like me feels welcome.

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