Dear Christina Fallin,
Last night, someone tagged me in the comments of your post on Instagram, a picture of you wearing dark red lipstick and a coordinating warbonnet. Initially, I just rolled my eyes and closed the window, because since I’ve somehow become an “expert” on white girls in headdresses, I get sent pictures like yours pretty much every. single. day. Don’t believe me? Just glance at the “#indianheaddress” tag. But then I got an email, then another, and another, and another, and then realized that this one was different–because you, Christina, are the governor of Oklahoma’s daughter.
I’ve written a lot of these letters. I’ve written them to Drew Barrymore, to Paul Frank, to my local YMCA, to generic party-goers, and more. I’ve also written a whole post about why you can’t wear a hipster headdress. I’d encourage you to read these posts.
But you see Christina, while a lot of those folks I wrote those letters to came at this from a place of ignorance (which doesn’t excuse it by any means), you knew that putting on that headdress would be controversial. You titled your photo “Appropriate Culturation” which means you are aware of the concept of cultural appropriation, and knew that Native peoples would be hurt by your choice, and you did it anyway.
Then you released your “apology,” an “apology” which never actually apologizes, and instead says this:
Growing up in Oklahoma, we have come into contact with Native American culture institutionally our whole lives — something we are eternally grateful for. With age, we feel a deeper and deeper connection to the Native American culture that has surrounded us. Though it may not have been our own, this aesthetic has affected us emotionally in a very real and very meaningful way.
And then this line, which is the kicker:
Please forgive us if we innocently adorn ourselves with your beautiful things. We do so with the utmost respect. We hold a sincere reverence for and genuine spiritual connection to Native American values.
I can’t get over that line. I read it again and again, and can’t believe that you actually think that way of thinking is normal, excusable, and ok.
Cause here’s the thing. There is nothing about this that is “innocent” or “respectful.”
Let me tell you a story. I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Though I’ve never lived in Oklahoma, I have a lot of family there, and claim it as one of my “homes,” because that’s where my community is based. But here’s the thing: my tribe is not there by chance or by choice, my tribe, and the vast majority of the other Natives peoples in Oklahoma, are there by force and by trauma. In 1830, the US government and Andrew Jackson passed something called the “Indian Removal Act,” which resulted in the removal of thousands and thousands of Native peoples from their homelands in the southeast. You know where those Native peoples were forced to march? Oklahoma. Though it was referred to as “Indian Territory” then. So all that “Native American culture” you’ve been able to come in contact with? It’s thanks to violence, colonialism, and genocidal policies. It’s not an innocent cultural exchange.
Once we got to Oklahoma, we were promised that the land would be ours forever. That we’d be left alone. That there wouldn’t be anymore marching. We signed treaties to that effect. But then camethe Dawes Act, and the Land Grab of 1889, and suddenly the land wasn’t ours anymore.
After the removal off of our homelands, after the loss of our land in Indian Territory, then came the laws to remove our culture. Boarding schools, acts and laws to prohibit us from practicing our traditional spirituality, and more. Little Native children were forcibly removed from their homes, separated from their families, and forcibly assimilated. Our cultural markers, like your beloved headdress, were stripped from us, prohibited by law.
Notice the words I keep using here? Forcibly, stripped, prohibited, assimilated. This is not a happy history. This is a history marked by violence and by trauma. So while you may feel “eternally grateful” for your exposure to our cultures, you’re deliberately ignoring your own history if you think your donning of a headdress is “innocent.” Let’s fast forward to 2014. Now “tribal trends” are totally “in.” You can walk into any store in the mall and see “Native” imagery everywhere. As a Native person, when I look at them, I can’t help but remember the not-so-distant past when my people weren’t allowed, by law, to wear these things. It’s such a constant reminder of the colonial power structures still in place. Back in the day, white people had the power to take away our culture, and now they have the power to wear it however they see fit. These are our images, our cultural symbols, yet we are completely powerless to have control over them. It may seem extreme, but the best way I can say it is that your wearing of the headdress is an act of violence that continues the pain of colonization. “Please forgive us if we innocently adorn ourselves with your beautiful things.” The privilege and violence of that statement astounds me. “Please forgive us if we innocently use your beautiful land,” “Please forgive us if we innocently educate your beautiful children,” “Please forgive us if we innocently sexualize your beautiful women.” These actions are not benign.
My tribe doesn’t wear headdresses (do you even realize that there are hundreds and hundreds of tribes? That there isn’t one “Native American culture” or one set of “Native American values”?), but I am continuing to learn and appreciate the history and meaning behind them. Not long ago I listened to my friend Jessica give a presentation. She put up an image of Sitting Bull in a warbonnet, and told the audience that each of the individual eagle feathers in that headdress was a gift from a community member, given to Sitting Bull as symbolic of their trust and respect in him as a leader. So when he wore that headdress, he was wearing the hopes, fears, and respect of his community. He had to earn that respect, and the community entrusted him with the responsibility of wearing those feathers. He didn’t just pick it up at a costume shop because it looked “cool.”
I’m trying to think of examples of things I respect, and how I show that respect. I’m actually struggling to think of a time when I respected something, and decided the best way to show that respect was by taking it. I respect the Dalai Lama, but I wouldn’t put on Tibetan monk robes to show that respect. I respect the Zapatistas, but I’m not going to don a mask and wrap myself in an EZLN flag. You know how I show respect? I listen. I listen hard, I listen deeply, and I listen constantly. I listen to stories, I listen to histories, I listen to learn, and I listen to hear when I’ve misstepped. I listen so I can become a more complete human being. It is clear from your response that maybe you heard, but you didn’t listen. If you would have listened to our voices as Native community members, you would have seen that the way to show respect to your Native friends and neighbors was not to put on a headdress and defend your choice, but to take it off and apologize.
I can’t totally blame you, Christina. You, as a white person, have been socialized in a society where you’ve been taught imperial, colonial values. That the Americas were a empty, wide place that needed “discovering” by a lost Italian explorer. That “manifest destiny” meant white folks had a god-given right to colonize the West. That Native peoples were in need of “civilizing.” That resources, people, and things are yours for the taking. You’re not used to being told “no.” As a Native person, I’ve learned to hear “no,” but I think about it in a different way. I know, as a Native woman, that there are certain roles for me in the community. I know that there are certain times and places for knowledge, that there are certain stories I can’t know, places I can’t be, things I can’t see. But I don’t see that as limiting or unfair–I respect and understand the place that these practices come from.
I’ve been sent your picture probably 50 times since you posted it, and my Native friends and colleagues are all over the internet upset by it. But the thing that keeps bothering me is that we’re expected, as community members, to have perfectly reasoned, calm, point-by-point rebuttals to your image and words. The burden of proof is on us, not you. Why can’t we, as the cultures you’re “respecting” simply say “no”? Why do we have to defend and fight and write 1400 words about why, and then listen while others mock our pain and hurt as being “overly sensitive”? Why can’t you show us respect by just listening to us when we say, “Hey Christina, that headdress? It’s not for you to wear.”
I’m learning that with these letters, I need to offer you an action plan, an alternative, a path to making it right. So here’s what I ask. Remove the image from Facebook. Release an actual apology, something that says you’re sorry you were hurtful, not that you’re sorry others were hurt. Then talk to your mom, Governor Fallin. Encourage her to put forward a bill to improve Native American history and curriculum in schools, modeled after Montana’s Indian Education for All. tell her that consolidating the OK Historical society is probably not the best idea, and talk to her about the importance of allowing Native peoples to represent themselves and importance of lawmakers to listen. It’s clear that Oklahoma likes to invoke and embrace their Native roots, but it’s also clear that there needs to be a true discussion about the messages being sent. As her daughter, your mistake with the headdress is gaining more attention than it probably would have otherwise, but it also means that you have much more power to make change than the average citizen. Use that power for good.
So, Christina, I’m done with being angry. I just would like you to truly show me respect by listening to my words.