Decolonizing Beauty: Revitalizing Internal and External forms of Indigenous Attraction

Introduction

            Throughout Indigenous Feminisms courses, my participation was continuing my process of decolonizing. Although there were no specific articles in my reseaerch on Indigenous Beauty, I decided to write about this topic purely because Indigenous Beauty has been interpreted and presented throughout courses in many frames. Through Indigenous forms of beauty arrive factors that are external but more importantly, internal; a form in which it is not always tangible nor is it always universally uniformed to one community over another. Although beauty within the English language acknowledges that beauty contains various properties outside of a universal physical standard [1], the use of the English language cannot describe the way in which the definitions of attraction are empowering to individuals and groups because of intrigue and pleasure of its presence.

One of the most important words of resurgence used in the English language is “Decolonize”. In the words of Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird, decolonization is:

The intelligent, calculated and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands, and it is engaged for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonization structure and realizing Indigenous liberation. [2]

On this tone, it is important to connect the resurgence of beauty through an Indigenous lens as an act of decolonizing and acknowledging Indigenous Feminism. In the article, I will discuss how colonization has degraded, disempowered, un-interpreted, misunderstood and appropriated Indigenous feminine identities and Indigenous beauty on both and internal and external basis. It is always important to conclude with a discussion how revitalizing Indigenous views and philosophies of beauty re-empower and decolonize Indigenous communities and feminism.

The Colonization and Degradation of Indigenous Beauty

From my own experience growing up in an urban, highly assimilated environment, I had grown to understand that beauty was something visually and aesthetically pleasing, portraying mystery and “sweetness.” Those, to my understanding, were the expectations I was assumed to meet throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. Most women who were considered role models were placed in the public’s eye because of their physical appearance. Being physically underweight, symmetrical in the face and body, and the silent mystery of oneself was what give women recognition and power in popular culture, therefor it was what was optimistic in American society. Little did I know that these standards were not fit for me, as an indigenous women, to meet, nor were the only histories or concepts of beauty.

As I had made a priority in my early adult years to gain a greater priority of culture education in my intellectual development, I had a greater sense of empowerment of my potential roles within my community. As I turned 18, I started to learn my traditional Tlingit Alaskan native art called “Formline design.” The majority of these designs were of beings (life forms on Earth), and used only black and red. I once asked my uncle, an experience Tlingit artist, why we decided to have such simple uses of colors. He explained that in Southeast Alaska tribal art, black represented the physical aspects of life, the body, and red represented the spiritual and internalized aspects of life, the soul and energy. This was a completely new concept to how I was taught about what a human being or living thing looked like as well as how it was interpreted in art. This created as aspect that the human body is a container for the soul and that the human body is only part of what a human being is.

Just like the philosophy in formline techniques I was acquiring, I started to create a deeper admiration and respect for knowledge. The roles in which intelligence reflect who are person truly is, creates more freedom of representation of identity outside of genetics. This Indigenous concept says that human beings are defined by more than just the human body, and so the human body is only an aspect of their true nature and how it is represented.

Many Indigenous communities have used the body as a form of expression, status and roles within their communities, making the body a place of physical definition and physical art than uniformed standard. When I turned 22, I was convinced by my former brother to get my nose (septum) pierced. I, at first was afraid to get it done out of fear that it would look unattractive and unprofessional in the academic and working world. He then ignored my insecurity and told me the symbolism behind my roles in our tribe and the piercing’s significance to it. Our ancestors regularly adorned themselves with copper and silver. Hanging from their nose all the way down to their top lip, was a large copper ring. When a person was given permission by their mentor or elder to obtain this piercing, it was because they have earned the role of being a well-respected speaker and singer. The incentive my brother had made towards me getting a septum piercing was his acknowledgement of my transition to becoming a speaker and singer within the Tlingit community. This is just one of the many examples my tribe has for the purpose of body modifications (gauges, piercings, and tattoos), and how much of it can be misinterpreted to reflect Indigenous physical expressions, solely with an objective of beauty.

As it may seem already obvious, the colonization of Indigenous women also had to include the dis-empowerment of Indigenous knowledge and roles in society. Dis-empowering the meaning behind physical presentation, as well as devaluing the knowledge and history it carries was a form of colonization. During experiences of colonization, it is apparent in even the historical Edward Curits photographs that many Indigenous people were asked to wear clothing that either represents a Euro-American or a tribe that does not represent. These are the most widely and earliest used interpretations of what an Indigenous person of North America looks like, holding no regards of their lineage, knowledge or roles. Eventually, this turned into assimilation of Euro-American traditions being carried and forced onto Indigenous communities. Especially during the Victorian era of Euro-American culture, there was a belief that the drapery of clothing was necessary to be a civilized person. Within the influence of Christianity in North America, there was a large stigma towards individuals that would modify their bodies through tattoos, gauges and piercing, claiming it was physical mutilation. Light-skin complex became a goal with all communities to this day throughout the world. There were no regards to clothing reflecting history, community identity or personal relationships to the designs, taking way intellectual properties to physical identity. With the objectification of Euro-American women came the destruction of feminine intellect as a significant element of community and leadership. Depriving the value of knowledge and intelligence took away power it held in society and how it interacts with Indigenous women.

The Squaw & Patriarchy within Native Images

            Repeatedly, Indigenous women are the only characters that remain from a frame in the past, to be extinct within the pictures of the present and contemporary Indigenous representation. It has been discussed within documentaries such as “Reel Injuns,[3] and “Fry Bread Babes[4] that contemporary ideals of strong native woman characters do not exist as a lead in popular culture in neither fictional and non-fictional settings. The most oppressive roles of Indigenous women of North America is the appropriation in the role in Old Western films of the “Squaw”; a native wife or woman. This woman predominantly is defenseless, objectified, abused, sexualized, victimized, submissive, uneducated and occasionally silent. Almost all of the actresses that had played these characters were not Indigenous, but Euro-American. This brings in the American acceptance of White women dressing up in “red face”, meaning a stereotyped and prejudice depiction of what a native person looks like through “dress-up,” occasionally altering the pigment in their skin to have darker undertones of red.

With these socially acceptable images of native stereotypes within the media and global popular culture, there is a large marginalization of Indigenous diversity and how it is expressed through the various cultures. With over 500 tribes in the United States, the majority of the world, and even American Residents, have a mindset that the Indigenous native of North America are an image of Southwest and Plains natives. This does not only target the marginalization of Indigenous women, but Indigenous men as well. Throughout this same time frame in film-making, the image of what a native man represents forms much misrepresentation and appropriations that still stigmatize Indigenous communities as well as society’s dismissal to the oppressions that still burden their identities. Within much of these films, Indigenous men are continued to be the stoic, romanticized and spiritual peacemaker or the primitive and incompetent savage. These misleading and degrading images of both men and women that identify as Indigenous has dehumanized and isolated the opportunities for American popular culture to open opportunities of everyday struggles and relatable human issues that Indigenous people go through every day. Recently, with movies such as “The Twilight Saga,” and “Smoke Signals,” providing Indigenous men to play leading roles in large film productions, the Indigenous woman as a hero or lead is still not as existent.

 “Fry Bread Babes”: The Actuality of Indigenous Bodies and Nutrition

Modern culture has a large need to control and alter physical appearance, most significantly through weight. The relationship with the modern world and Indigenous women is a never ending battle of unmet and at times, inaccessible expectations. This creates a further analysis of the native figure and its’ health components using the examples of documentaries that present a dialogue of native women and their bodies such as “Fry Bread Babes.

It is clear that within the mainstream of American trends, a body that is curvaceous in the hips and breasts while maintaining no fat present in any other parts of your body is what has been perceived as attractive. There are two large issues within these standards of size control.

The first issue that presents itself is the large incentive to work out to obtain a body that holds holds very little presentable fat. Not only does that conflict with Indigenous decolonization of beauty, but it creates large health risks for women from any group. Within the last one of two years, a large amount of reanalysis has been taking place in regards to the health benefits of being slightly over the “average” weight and the shorter lifespan of those that meet or go just under the “average” weight. In an article published by the New York Times, Cornell and Harvard Universities both have acknowledged that those who are considered conservatively overweight have a longer lifespan and do not experience health conditions and sickness as often throughout their lives.[5]  This indicates that not only is in unsafe for Indigenous women to meet these standards of beauty, but it is also detrimental to their long-term health.

The second issue that is more specifically critical of body images through ideals of shape, the need of media and its’ latest interests in selling the “exotic” look. This curiosity assumes that all women of color can maintain a specific curvaceous figure, regardless of its’ feasibility. Being an Indigenous women, growing up around Indigenous women, I can easily say that we do not always meet all the criteria of what ethnic “voluptuousness” is. Due to our diets and the way we absorb sugars and fats, I have observed that calories and fats are stored in places that differ from other groups of color. I am genetically mixed with Creole-Caribbean influence influenced to develop and shape a little differently from other native women. This also allowed me to be observant of the natural diversity of Indigenous shapes. With the lack of desired curves, resulting in some Indigenous women feel less attractive, there comes the contradiction through body modification and consumerism of women of color attributes within Euro-American culture. Women that are not of color very often seek to find remedies that can enhance their physical features to extreme extents, such as breast implants, botox and fat injections. A less aggressive remedy that no one is used by Euro-American women but women of color as well is the utilization of hair relaxers and the usage of real native and Asian hair being used on weaves and wigs. All of this creates artificial duplications of diverse portrayals of beauty within women of color characteristics, without acknowledging the privilege that these communities that these communities that practice these modifications still hold, especially through skin pigment, and general accessibility to modifying appearances.

When looking into the film “Fry Bread Babes,” further, one of Indigenous women’s disadvantages include access to nutritious food. Although fry bread is delicious and easily accommodating to appease hunger, it is a symbol of food injustice and malnutrition within Indigenous communities. When made a promise from the US Government that Indigenous communities would be provided food, ensure that starvation was not an element of further disparities on reservations, commodities issued by the government such as lard, flour, eggs and milk were predominant on reservations and in daily diets. Being that Indigenous communities did not traditionally eat anything the majority of these foods, they had created new food that would be very tasty such as fry bread. Fry bread has much influence on malnutrition if solely eaten. It does not meet the needs of a rich diet of Indigenous communities. Because of this, generations of obesity, malnutrition, diabetes and other health conditions continue to strike on Indigenous communities throughout the United States’ reservations.

It is very critical to use this education and build self-confidence within Indigenous communities while its effects would also contribute to social and mental health greatly. It should be noted that Bourassa, McKay-Mcnabb, and Hampton from “First Voices” stated that “Cultural identity evidently has implications for the staus that women have in the external world and this has an impact on health. However, identity also has implications for feelings of self-worth and belonging, and this has an impact on health as well.”[6] This statement could be implied to the culture behind all aspects of Indigenous identities, including food sovereignty and nutrition education.

 “Red Face” and Unacknowledged Native Appropriations

            To finalize my points of decolonizing the standards of beauty within Indigenous communities, one of the most oppressive and disenfranchising movements within modern western society would have to be the appropriation of Indigenous cultures with Modern Western capitalism and popular culture.

Although that are traditions throughout modern history of inaccurate displays of Indigenous identity and how it is expressed, the one that is most used and socially excused would be the tradition of Halloween. The consumer holiday of dressing up as someone an individual desires or admires that is different from themselves. One of the most racially stereotypical and socially acceptable costumes is the “slutty/sexy American Indian girl”. This has been portrayed through the other form of “slutty/sexy Eskimo girl” as well.

On a year-round basis, many designers and clothing lines have had an interest in the appropriations of native jewelry, association with fringes and tribal designs within hyper-sexualized lines of clothing. Although it was very controversial, the Victoria’s Secret line got much attention drawn to their runway show as a light-skinned women marched down the runway wearing nothing but fringed lingerie, a war bonnet and turquoise. Within the last five years, Urban Outfitters were sued by the Navajo nation for selling “Navajo” lingerie and “Navajo”-labeled flasks, “peace-treaty” necklaces and plastic dream catchers.[7] Much of these appropriations have created ideas that are even more destructive that the direct intentions of the companies. It is one thing to apologize for compromising corporate ethics within the creation of a line of stereotypical products, but it is another when a company does not understand what they are apologizing about.

Joy Harjo recently explained Native Appropriations and their impacts best, when confronting a recent controversy regarding the Governor of Oklahoma’s daughter, Christina Fallon, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed young woman, adorning herself in an imitation war bonnet for her band’s photo shoot. Harjo, as an Indigenous woman discusses the effects of those actions made by Christina, “assumes that everything is available to her for use in her art. It’s the cultural assumption of a settler mentality that pervades American culture.” She further address the point that,

“Her apology was not an apology, rather a sarcastic lame defense. She felt that wearing the headdress would connect her deeper to “Native American” culture, and asks for forgiveness ‘if we innocently adorn ourselves in your beautiful things.’ This statement marks another irony. She romanticizes her thoughtless act and casts herself as a naïve citizen, the same innocence as the Romanticists ascribed to powerful native nations.”[8]

Falling Back in Love with the Indigenous Woman

To conclude my journey of addressing the concerns within Indigenous beauty, I allow a space to discuss new and old methods of decolonizing beauty for Indigenous women. The main aspects of this decolonization process is the visual representation of Indigenous Women and their roles of feminine identity within society and politics, creating places of intellectual beauty development and the Indigenous masculine embrace of Indigenous feminine beauty.

Revitalizing visual presence of Indigenous women in society and politics is one of the most significant acts of decolonization. Osennontion and Skonagleh:ra[9] address the significance of roles and responsibilities. “[in our community] the woman was defined as the nourisher… She was responsible for the establishment of all of the norms – whether they were political, economic, social or spiritual.” It was further explained that this responsibility was done in a space of harmony and acceptance. Although this is mentioned, it is important to grasp the aspect that not all power in the Indigenous communities are passed to one individual or group to oversee all other members, there was always an aspect of women’s roles playing as a creator, and the men’s as a helper, retainer and protector.

Secondly, the education of women’s roles are essential to executing their roles. Access to this knowledge as well as a foundation to pass down this knowledge is what ensures the power and balance of Indigenous identities. The more efforts made toward this education, the more respect and appreciation all genders will have for roles and symmetry. This creates a better understanding of the Indigenous feminism and how its’ beauty goes outside of just physical reproductive interests.

With masculine identity understanding this concept, it will highly influence the nature of attraction. The embrace of these aspects of beauty, are act of decolonization and the gradual repopulation of those who obtain Indigenous knowledge and psychological colonial resistance. It requires a whole community to participate in movements in order to see the most effective change and healing. Many movements have recently been created from the male roles to re-embraces Indigenous feminine beauty. With the closing of this paper, I will share an aspect the Indigenous popular culture that is presenting itself to the mainstream audience. Modern drumming groups, such as Northern Cree, have created music, in the form of Pow Wow Drum Groups, and specifically round-dance love songs, that embraces the commitment to loving Indigenous women.

“Take a look, just one more time. Beautiful smile, beautiful eyes; that’s a red-skinned girl. She’s so pretty, she’s so fine. Red-skinned girl, I’ll love you all the time…”[10]

Bibliography

  1. “Definition of Beauty in English:.” Beauty: Definition of Beauty in Oxford Dictionary (American English) (US). The Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/beauty&gt;.
  2. Wilson, Angela Cavender., and Michael Yellow Bird. “Chapter 1: Beginning Decolonization.” For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2005. 1-2. Print.
  3. Reel Injun. Dir. Neil Diamond. National Film Board of Canada, 2009. Netflix.com.
  4. Fry Bread Babes. Dir. Stephany Suttle. Longhouse Media, 2008. Film.
  5. Belluck, Pam. “Study Suggests Lower Mortality Risk for People Deemed to Be Overweight.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/02/health/study-suggests-lower-death-risk-for-the-overweight.html?_r=0&gt;.
  6. Bourassa, Carrie, Kim McKay-McNabb, and Mary Hampton. “Racism, Sexism and Colonialism: The Impact on the Health of Aboriginal Women in Canada.” First Voices: An Aboriginal Women’s Reader. Toronto: Inanna Publications and Education, 2009. 293-96. Print.
  7. Fonseca, Felicia. “USA TODAY.” USATODAY.COM. Associated Press, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/retail/story/2012-02-29/navajo-trademark-urban-outfitters/53299172/1&gt;.
  8. Harjo, Joy. “I Am Of The Muscogee Creek Nation In Oklahoma, And Christina Fallin Should Have Known Better: Here’s What Happens When a Non-native Girl Dons a Fake Plains Headdress.” Web log post. XoJanecom RSS. Xojane.com, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. <http://www.xojane.com/issues/i-am-of-the-muscogee-creek-nation-in-oklahoma-and-christina-fallin-should-have-known-better&gt;.
  9. Osennontion and Skonaganleh:ra. “Our World.” First Voices: An Aboriginal Women’s Reader. Toronto: Inanna Publications and Education, 2009. 447-456 Print.
  10. Northern Cree. “RED SKIN GIRL.” YouTube. YouTube, 22 Dec. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMopAla8ZPs&gt;.
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