The Bangkok outdoor market is bustling in spite of the sweltering heat. Among the stalls of cheap clothing, crocodile wallets, and knock off purses is a surprising sight; stacks of Dream Catchers dripping with neon feathers. In nearby Pratunam Mall, there are dozens of imitation Zuni bracelets that are sold as Native American Made. This mall caters, especially to Western tourists.
Until the 1990’s Dream Catchers were a craft unique to the Ojibwe and Lakota, but like Plain’s war bonnets and Kokopelli they captured the mainstream’s imagination and were quickly appropriated by whoever could profit from them.
While there are no statistics, the millions of imitation squash blossoms, Navajo weavings, Dream Catchers, blankets, beaded items, quilts, war bonnets, Zuni bracelets, etc. coming through Customs are having a profound effect on Native communities. Few artists can compete with Asian wages and the knockoffs can be imported with peel off stickers, which makes them difficult to identify. These imports flood Santa Fe, Gallup, Sedona, Albuquerque, Denver, powwows, tourist traps, eBay, Etsy, IG, and brick and mortar stores. Many Natives are not only quitting art but discouraging their children to get into it.
Even though Navajo style jewelry is popular the poverty rate on the Navajo Nation is 43%, the unemployment rate 42%, and a significant number of jobs are in the fossil fuel industry, in spite of silversmithing being a common skill. The Navajo Nation recently met with weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin about opening a plant on the Rez so Navajo can be employed. Lockheed Martin made the bomb that killed 40 Yemeni children. And some Navajo have started taking trays of Phillippines-made fakes on consignment, as they can no longer sell their own jewelry.
An infuriating trend has been dressing like one is starring in a pornographic version of Bonanza. Chicken feather headdresses, Red Face, and questionable DNA tests are drowning out real Indigenous voices. War bonnets are unique to Plains tribes and were only worn by accomplished warriors. Usually, each eagle feather was awarded to the warrior for a brave deed, like a medal, and bonnets were worn on special occasions. Rarely did women wear them as they had their own ways of showing off status, and they were proud of being beautiful and fierce while dressing modestly. War bonnets are also a symbol of Indigenous Resistance in the face of overwhelming and brutal Colonization.
When Pretendians/$5 Indians/Bohos don fake war bonnets, imitation Native jewelry, bad war paint, and Red Face it is a mockery of Native people and an expression of their dominant Colonizer status; “We have your lands, natural resources, sacred objects, ancestors’ bones, and now we want your identity. We have the last word on what Native REALLY is and you should be honored. And my grandma was a Cherokee Princess!”
Karl May, the narcissistic con artist whose White Savior fiction made him the most popular author in Europe, was researching Native culture in the late 1880’s while in jail for larceny. Because of him legions of Europeans, mostly Germans, became obsessed with Native Americans, but in a stalkerish way. These “Indianers” stage awkward powwows, make their own “regalia”, wear black wigs, slather on fake tan, buy SE Asian knock-offs, dance like they have two blistered left feet, and claim they appreciate Native culture more than we do.
Most consumers do not even realize there is a difference between the racist “Hollywood Indian” stereotypes we despise and our Authentic Indigenous cultures. Native artists are desperate for younger buyers to discover us, as many of our collectors are now elderly. In spite of centuries of genocide, oppression, MMIW, trauma, and racism we are still here.
But will people let go of their Pretendian fantasies in time?
Liz Wallace (Nisenan/Washo/Navajo)