Dr. Adrienne Keene Keynotes at the
YWCA Madison Racial Justice Summit
The Appropriation of Native
Culture
Dr. Adrienne Keene teaches in the American and Ethnic
Studiesdepartment at Brown University and has a blog
called Native Appropriations.
“When you go into Target or other big box stores, you see Native imagery and designs all over the place,” Keene observed. “It cycles through fashion all the time
and has been going on since the 1950s and 1960s. In 2010, I started the blog with the first wave of the resurgence that we see a lot of now. I also write about
Halloween costumes and mascots and all of the ways that Native peoples are represented and misrepresented in contemporary society and what that means for our
positioning on a host of other issues and understanding of our modern communities and our existence and the ways that gets reflected.”

Imagery is very important to Keene for it is these images, including mascots and logos, that are the main way that Euro-Americans experience Native people,
images that distort or misrepresent the complexity of Native people, their 573 federally-recognized tribes and myriad cultures, traditions, history and beliefs.

“For the kids, it means that they have a very hard time with their identities as Native people and not forming what it means, especially those who are in more urban
settings and not in their communities on their reservations,” Keene said. “It means that they are getting all of these messages that don’t match who they see
themselves as or who their families are telling them that they are. That has a deep effect on their self-esteem and their ability to be successful in the classroom and
all sorts of things. A lot of the work that I do is about addressing the misrepresentations, but also just sharing stories of what it means to be a contemporary Native
person and breaking down those stereotypes through experience and through stories and showing people that is not who we are and that those images do have real
effects and we should push really hard to change them.”

On some levels, these depictions have a negative impact on everyone involved.

“There is definitely plenty of research that shows that when Native students are exposed to those images, it actually lowers their self-esteem, lowers their sense of
their possible selves, the number of different pathways that they can imagine for themselves becomes limited,” Keene said. “To me, the very disturbing thing is that
it actually raises the self-esteem of white students. White students are being made to feel better about themselves when they look at these images. And that, to me,
is very disturbing and in some ways, is even more motivating to change the images than the traumatic fact that it hurts our Native students. It’s reinforcing these
ideas of white supremacy in public schools.”

And yet changing the mascots, logos and imagery is not easy because they are imbedded in our culture and sometimes do have connections with certain tribes.
Take the Florida State Seminoles, for example.

“Florida State is complicated because there are multiple Seminole tribes,” Keene observed. “And the Seminole Tribe of Florida is one of three tribes and they
approve the phenomena. And so that means the university is then allowed to say that they are tribally okayed. But the other two Seminole tribes do not agree with
the mascot and have been fighting it very hard. It’s a complicated relationship because then the Seminole Tribe of Florida helped to redesign the mascot’s outfit so
that it is now more Seminole-appropriate. But he still rides a horse and throws a flaming spear, which are two things that have nothing to do with Seminole culture. I
always think about the Everglades and trying to ride through them. Does that make any sense what-so-ever? The university is letting the tribe have some control.
But then the mascot is a white kid whom they literally paint brown. I don’t know how in 2018 that is still seen as okay and appropriate. But the question that often
comes up for Native folks is, ‘Is it better to be invisible or have some visibility, but being misrepresented?’ The Seminole Tribe of Florida is saying, ‘Well at least we
get some control over this. We get some visibility. They invite the Seminole tribe to Florida State to open up the first game of the season. They are at homecoming.
There is some level of visibility. And of course it is an awful choice that no Native person should have to make.”

And even with Native influence in the development of the imagery, without control, the consulting can go for naught. Take, for example, Johnny Depp’s Tonto in the
movie The Lone Ranger.

“When Disney’s The Lone Ranger asked for Native people to be consultants for the movie, a lot of people said yes,” Keene said. “And so the teepees in the
background of The Lone Ranger have the correct number of poles for Comanche teepees. And Comanche language is used throughout. But it’s still Johnny Depp
completed painted up speaking in broken English fulfilling every stereotype of Native people in Hollywood that we have ever had. For those folks, I’m sure they felt
like they were making the right choice because it meant that there was at least some authenticity and visibility and representation. But it was an awful choice that
Native people have to make in these areas of representation.”

There are also stereotypes that abide that fuel the belief that American Indian tribes are now loaded with money and there are no more societal problems on the
reservations.

“There are major stereotypes that somehow if you are enrolled in a tribal nation that you get a big check every month,” Keene said. “The Cherokee Nation has over
300,000 tribal citizens. We have casinos, but that money goes directly back into tribal services. That funds our health clinic in Oklahoma, the tribal housing
By Jonathan Gramling

While Dr. Adrienne Keene, a member of the Cherokee Nation, is gainfully employed as a professor at
Brown University in the American and Ethnic Studies department, one of her passions is writing her
blog, Native Appropriations, which has over five million page views of its 340 posts. Keene, who was
a keynote speaker at the YWCA Racial Summit, began the blog when she was a student at Harvard,
sitting in the back of her grad school classes.

“Some of them individually get thousands of views per day,” Keene said. “That’s why the internet has
been very powerful for these issues of representation activism for Native communities. We are so
spread out. Our numbers are small in the overall population. There really hasn’t been a way before for
us all to have a collective voice that gets amplified that people can see and hear and respond to. And
the internet has really been that tool. I’m on Twitter every day and am in communication with Native
folks all across what is currently known as the United States and also what is currently known as
Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I’m just having these conversations among Indigenous folks and
seeing that our experiences are really similar and there are ways that we can come together on these
issues. I have 66,000 followers on Twitter. I can send out a single tweet and in theory, have it seen by
over 60,000 people. That’s an incredible amount of power for a population that is 1-2 percent of the
population. I definitely take that responsibility very seriously in terms of visibility.”

Keene began the blog when she saw what she thought was an uptick in the appropriation of Native
culture in fashion designs.
initiatives, and the infrastructure and
services. If we did payouts, each of us
would get a couple of dollars. It would not
work out that way. For our tribe, we don’t
even get tribal scholarships if you live
outside of the tribal jurisdictional area in
Oklahoma. There are the stereotypes of the
wild savage Indian who died in the 1800s,
but then there are also stereotypes that all
Natives are casino rich and get to go to
college for free. That is definitely not the case
for the vast majority of Native people.”

There is a saying that the people who write
the history books are the colonizers and
conquerors. Through the internet, Keene and
other Native bloggers are trying to change
that.

“The theme of the Racial Justice Summit is
Reclaiming Our Stories,” Keene said. “And I
think that is the perfect way to think about a
lot of this just because for Native peoples
since contact, our stories have been told by
colonizers and settlers and not by ourselves.
Now with the internet and these other outlets
that kind of take away the barriers to access
in a lot of ways, Native people are able to tell
their own stories and push back on all those
narratives. It’s an important process in
reframing the ways that the majority people
think of Native peoples.”

The retelling of the stories has just begun
because the stories of the stereotypes and
the fantasies and the downright lies about
Native people have been a part of the
dominant culture for over 150 years. Perhaps
the speed and pervasiveness of the internet
will speed up the process.