On a Monday morning in June, Simon Tam woke up at his home in Portland, Ore., to 753 notifications blowing up his phone.
“At that point, I knew something had happened,” Tam said. The Supreme Court had finally resolved his nearly eight year fight with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over the name of his band, The Slants.
The justices ruled, unanimously to strike the section of a federal trademark law that prohibited the use of disparaging and offensive terms. The trademark office had cited part of a 71-year-old trademark law, Section 2A of the Lanham Act, when it prohibited Tam from registering The Slants, a slur against Asians, as the name of the band.
The Court’s ruling agreed with Tam and the other band members that the law had infringed on their free speech. But in the process, The Slants case had opened up a whole can of worms involving other offensive or racist terms, most notably the debate over the Washington Redskins. The team’s owner, Dan Snyder, said in a statement that he was “thrilled” with the decision.
And sure enough, the football team has since won its own trademark fight. A group of Native American activists led by Amanda Blackhorse, along with the Department of Justice, gave up their longstanding court efforts to ban the team from using that name.
Which was something Simon Tam and his band mates never anticipated when they formed their Asian-American rock group more than a decade before.
Horizon Zero Dawn and Cultural appropriation: A very different view.
first time EVER, I’m sitting on the other side of a discussion about
appropriating native culture. Why? Well, let me lay the framework.
First off, I’m
not a guy who “knows a Native American” or has a “Native friend” I am a 100% Anishinabe (Ojibway) dude who
lives on reserve and has fought racism, stereotypes, pan-Indianism, and
cultural appropriation fiercely for as long as I can remember. I’ve been the
victim of horrendous racial violence as a child, adolescent, and adult, and I’m
also a gamer.
I am the
first to point out anything that smacks of any of the above and after I saw the
Dia Lacina essay on “Horizon: Zero Dawn” being culturally insensitive and appropriating Native culture, I felt for the first time in a situation like this that I had to say something in rebuttal.
issue with the use of the words Tribal, Primitive, Braves, and Savage being used
in the game (fyi they’re used to describe predominantly white people in game
and they’re White words we didn’t use to describe ourselves thus I claim
no ownership of, nor want to, anymore than I want to be a redskin, Indian or
It seems (IMO) that most of her beef comes from an apparent belief that numerous aspects of generic tribal culture
that appear in the game (making clothing from skins, hunting with spears and
bows, living in a Matriarchal society, etc) are the sole domain of the Native American and just to be safe and cleverly keep her POV less subject to scrutiny, she
applies it even more broadly to indigenous people world wide (I will just
refer to us in particular as NA cuz I’m lazy and I also don’t refer to myself as a Native
American) and basically that anything that is remotely “tribal” shouldn’t be
used in gaming without our or someone else’s permission.
In fairness, I don’t know
if she’s actually played the game but as someone who is currently in the midst
of doing exactly that, I can tell you that I have a pretty good idea of what
stuff triggered her being upset and why, and while I absolutely respect her right to get
offended by whatever she likes, and she makes excellent points about some other games, I am going to point out that there are flaws
with this logic.
all, the basics: HZD is set in a post-post-apocalyptic future where people are
living in tribal groups in a very destroyed world. Machines exist but as hybrid animal/dinosaur
type creatures and technology is pretty much non-existent in day to day human
of the story is a red haired, white girl
named Aloy who lives as an outcast with her adopted father, Rost. Without giving a lot away, they are fiercely
shunned by the local tribe for something Rost did and also the fact that Aloy
and rightly, though somewhat dismissively remarked upon by Lacina, is the way women and especially women
of color are portrayed so positively in-game as this particular tribe is a
total Matriarchy run by elders of various ethnicity. African, Asian, White, and a variety of undefined people of color are common everywhere in the game. (The leader of one band of warriors is a very fierce, commanding, intelligently portrayed black woman with a powerful presence.) It reflects a fairly global society from a “skin
color” perspective without any horrible accents or broken speech.
an “All-Mother” goddess and their culture is (at least how I saw a lot of it) fairly heavy
on European i.e. Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, etc type symbolism and the
rest is filled in with mostly generic tribal-ish stuff that you could find in
countless cultures around the world.
didn’t get a “Native American” vibe off the game. Of course, I don’t automatically presume to
claim sole ownership of things like tribal life, hunting with bows and spears,
and worshiping spirits of various elements solely for my own. Random fact: Because there are over 500
distinct First Nations in N. America, we, believe it or not, didn’t all ride horses, live in tipis,
use bows and arrows, tobacco and sage, and worship Eagles and Wolves. Why? Well…use your brain. Tobacco and Sage don’t grow EVERYWHERE,
horses came over with the Europeans (and if you saw where I live you couldn’t have and cant for the most part get a horse through the bush if you tried) Eagles and Wolves don’t live EVERYWHERE….get
the point? Anyways….
examine Rost, he like most of the men has a braided beard and other seemingly Viking/Middle
Ages inspired features, is white, speaks clear, unbroken English, and is a
loving, protective and very positive role model for the girl. Aloy for her part, is also fairly Viking-esque
(to the point of looking incredibly like Lagaertha from the show Vikings but
with red hair) also Egrit from GoT, and is no damsel in distress who needs men to save her. NOWHERE
in the game have I encountered any Tipis, wigwams, Sweatlodges, or Non-White
people speaking in stereotypical “Me smoke-um peace pipe, He go dat-a way”
The opening cinematic is very touching (and long)
as we see the orphaned Aloy as a baby in Rost’s care being carried around in a
bundle on his back (which pretty much every culture did in one form or another
at some point in time) and him ultimately taking her to the spot where a child
of the tribe receives it’s name.
liked this idea as it isn’t often portrayed in a lot of mediums outside of
stereotypical “Dances With Wolves” bullshit.
Also, naming ceremonies are not the sole domain of NA people and what
occurs bears zero resemblance to any NA ceremony I know of. (It was actually a little Lion King at one
point lol) But it’s a powerful moment in the beginning with much more that
occurs during it but I won’t spoil that either.
is a pretty complex character. She’s
extremely independent, defiant, and questions pretty much everything about why
things are the way they are and wants to do something about it. You actually begin playing her as a 6 year
old which is pretty unique and even then she’s tough and fearless and
determined to explore her world.
She is in no
way hyper-sexualized (I’m looking your way Overwatch) Her clothing and everyone
else’s, is utilitarian and appropriate for the environments she lives in, and
so far, I have not encountered anything with her or any other character that
made me go “WTF?”and trust me, my radar for that shit is HIGHLY SENSITIVE. This isn’t Avatar, people. It’s not John Smith. It’s not The Great Wall
or Pocahontas. This isn’t white dude
shows up and saves the helpless non-white people while helpless native woman
falls in love with him stuff. It’s a
fictitious future where we maniacs blew it up, damn us all to hell!
the more annoying thing for me as an actual Anishinabe. I don’t need people speaking for me or
getting offended on my behalf. I am very
capable of doing that myself. I am also in no way writing this claiming to be
speaking for any other NA people or persons.
It’s based on my observations from actually playing HZD and examining the
various fictional “cultural” elements in the game.
If you see a
skin tied inside a hoop and automatically assume it’s a dreamcatcher” ripping
off “our culture” (FYI Dreamcatchers are a 20th century thing whose
popularity was a result of pan-Indianism that exploded in the 70s.) or if you
see feathers on a spear or as part of a costume (nowhere is anyone wearing a
single eagle feather in the back of a beaded headband or a Dakota looking headdress
either) and automatically presume it to be ripping off NA culture, you’re REEEEEEEEEEALY
reaching. If you think caring for the
environment, obeying matriarchs, worshipping elemental spirits, or making your
own clothes is solely the property of NA culture, see previous statement.
By all means get offended. Get offended
by Chief Wahoo. Get offended by the
Washington Redskins. Get offended that
thousands of Native women have been murdered or gone missing and nothing’s been
done about it. Get offended by Johnny
Depp or Robert Beltran playing Native people instead of actual Native people
getting those roles. Get offended by
shit like Adam Sandler’s “Ridiculous 6” where a native woman is called a “hot
piece of red prairie meat” or Depp’s “Lone Ranger” movie.
that my family was destroyed by the Residential Schools and that the 60s scoop
took babies away from their families and people, that forced sterilizations
took place and mass graves of dead Native children exist at former Residential
jump on the I’m offended bandwagon because you saw some feathers or skins or
spears or bows in a game and immediately grew indignant and wanted to claim
them as OUR culture. They’re not. They’re almost globally universal in numerous
cultures at various points in time. Get
offended, as she rightly mentioned, when the game Overwatch sexualizes the shit
out of almost every female character and takes West Coast tribal art and makes
a costume out of it.
appropriation. White people holding
powwows in Europe (powwows are also pretty much not traditional and are
extremely pan-Indian, not to mention full of us appropriating each other’s
Native cultures ie. Dakotas wearing Jingle Dresses, Ojibway wearing Dakota
regalia, etc) is appropriation.
just not seeing it the same way. And I’m nobody. I have no ties to Guerilla or anybody other than myself and my community.
Since there’s all kinds of upheaval right now about the NFL, Trump, sports, protest, etc., I thought I’d go ahead and share this piece that I wrote several years ago. It’s a short essay about cultural appropriation and the use of Native American mascots. It’s a bit dated but still relevant. I also included a letter I wrote to the former governor of OR (who has since resigned due to scandal) about the use of Native American mascots and the voting of SB 1509. For those who are up for the read, I hope you enjoy it and as always, I am open to feedback. Continue to Love and Rage!