Lu: On Honoring Culture

by Jessica Lu | 5/6/15 7:19pm

Cultural appropriation, the process in which a dominant group — usually an oppressive one — uses and trivializes the culture of an oppressed minority group, isn’t always a clear-cut issue, particularly when it is done under the claim of honoring the appropriated culture.

The Chicago Blackhawks’ logo, while not as controversial as that of the Washington Redskins, has been a topic of debate for decades, particularly among fans like myself. The logo, the first version of which was designed by a non-Native woman, Irene Castle, is an “Indian head” — it is meant to depict Sauk chief Black Hawk, who fought against the United States government in the 1832 Black Hawk War. While the team’s name is not a slur and its logo does not rely on many racist caricatures found in other native-inspired mascots, the team still uses a Native American face as a logo and not that of Black Hawk himself. This is borrowing a culture’s imagery, not honoring it.

The Blackhawks organization has made efforts to avoid the use of Native American culture for entertainment purposes — officials do not use mascots or “Indian chants” and do not condone racist catchphrases or costumes. The organization has reached out to the local Native American community to raise broader awareness of Native issues and worked closely with the American Indian Center of Chicago. The organization’s attempts to honor Native Americans, however, does not mean that its logo aligns with those goals. Their official stance may forbid costumes, but fans often show up to games in headdresses.

For all their attempts to honor the Sauk people, a recent event provides evidence to the contrary. Goalie Corey Crawford received a new mask for the playoffs, one that features the design of a Plains Indian war bonnet. Even if Crawford were a Plains Indian — and he is not — a headdress is a symbol of great honor reserved for those who have earned it on the battlefield. The wearing of such an important cultural as decoration does not work towards cultural education and awareness — it is unquestionably appropriation.

Though some may assert that the war bonnet is intended to honor Native Americans, I argue that it does not. The Blackhawks are named for the Sauk tribe, who are not part of Plains Indian culture. The mask is not just appropriation — it is a misleading misrepresentation of Native American tribes. To undermine the cultural distinctions between Native American peoples and merge them into one stereotype is culturally insensitive.

We should not overlook the Blackhawks logo just because it is buried under a pile of worse offenses from other teams, and the lack of a national outcry akin to the Washington Redskins debate does not prove that is respectful. When Blackhawks officials claim that they are respecting Native Americans with their logo, it seems to be an attempt to justify and preempt criticism of their co-opting of Native American culture.

Other forms of appropriation, while less obvious, are still concerning. At this year’s gala celebrating the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the theme of which was “China: Through the Looking Glass” — Sarah Jessica Parker wore a towering red headdress that stirred a buzz in the media — specifically, ABC said that she “stunned” with her “Asian-inspired gown.” What the actress actually did was show an utter disregard for an entire culture by wearing a stereotypical hat created by a non-Chinese designer. It played right into Western stereotypes of the so-called exotic East. She and designer Philip Treacy defended the design by claiming it was in honor of phoenix crowns — traditional bridal headgear — and the 2008 Beijing Olympics cartoon mascot. Yet these choices hardly do justice to the diversity of traditions among China’s regions and ethnic groups, and homogenizing China’s rich culture is not the way to honor it.

At a gala meant to celebrate China and Chinese culture, it is not respectful to cherry-pick stereotypical features for one outfit and call it a tribute to an entire culture. Likewise, an organization that claims to honor the Sauk Indians with their logo is not committed enough if it allows its goalie to don a helmet stylized with a Plains Indian headdress.

Even when borrowing from another culture does not strike us as outright appropriation, the wearer is not immune from criticism if their tribute to that culture falls closer to a parody than a celebration.