Dances with Disney: Disrupting Indigenous Stereotypes in Children’s Media

By Rachael Nuckles

As Native American Heritage Month comes to an end, I’ve been thinking about media representation and how various stereotypes have been perpetuated in television throughout history. This month also marked the release of the new streaming platform, Disney Plus. The media powerhouse, while most often associated with children’s programming, is responsible for much of the media we consume. Most recently, Disney acquired Fox in a multi-billion dollar deal, meaning that the conglomerate now owns approximately 35% of movie production alone. Disney has a long history of problematic racial stereotypes in children’s media, so it seems relevant to consider both Disney and its representation of Indigenous people to honor this month’s theme. I want to look at one of the times I think Disney got it right: Pepper Ann. This series was Disney’s first animated series created by a (white) woman, running from 1997-2000, remaining the only one until 2015. Pepper Ann‘s creator, Sue Rose, originally wrote the character as a comic strip for a teen magazine. It was purchased by Disney TV Animation in 1996 in a push for more female characters.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month and my rediscovery of Pepper Ann, let’s consider the episode “Dances with Ignorance.”  Despite Disney’s long history of racist representations, this ten-minute episode is an outlier which challenges problematic media stereotypes through its title character. In the episode, Pepper Ann, a seventh-grade white girl, is thrilled to learn that she has Navajo ancestors, thinking that she will get to present something more “exotic” than her peers for a family genealogy project. It’s an all-too-common story of a white person appropriating an identity that is largely not hers to claim, othering the group in the process. As she researches, her friends express concerns that she is focusing too much on stereotypes and not enough on actual history. While Pepper Ann makes generalized assumptions about all Indigenous people, her friends focus on specificity to learn about the traditions of the Navajo people. Instead of taking her friends’ advice to look deeper than surface level, she invites some of her relatives over for dinner to show them just how much she thinks she knows about their culture. It is clearly a cringeworthy display. Consider this still of Pepper Ann and her relative, Dave, for a visual of her problematic behavior:

Screenshot of Pepper Ann in “Dances with Ignorance” (Source: YouTube)

As the dinner progresses, it becomes clear that Pepper Ann is less focused on actually learning about her heritage and more concerned about showing off. When her relative Carol points out that the braid she’s wearing is a Lakota tradition, not Navajo, Pepper Ann interrupts to explain she was going for a “Pocahontas thing.” This is worth highlighting as it refers to another animated Disney feature which has helped to construct the very stereotypes Pepper Ann has accepted as factual throughout the episode. Nearly every time her Navajo relatives try to correct her incorrect assumptions, she is unwilling to listen or acknowledge her behavior. They leave offended, which leads to the following exchange between Pepper Ann her immediate family:

Pepper Ann: What happened? I thought I was just learning about my background!

Moose: That’s just it, Peppy. You weren’t interested in learning anything. They barely got to talk.

Pepper Ann: All I wanted to do was show them how much I knew about our culture from stuff I picked up on TV, and in the movies, and in comic books…

Mom: Yes, but that’s what stereotyping is, Peppy. Even when it’s done with the best of intentions. You can’t believe things about any group of people without getting to know them first!

Indeed, while Pepper Ann might have had good intentions, she failed to acknowledge the way her actions might harm others. In fact, her actions have privileged her own voice while silencing those she supposedly wanted to learn about. So, she pays an apologetic visit to her Navajo relatives and spends the evening eating Chinese takeout and learning the real history of her ancestors, no stereotypes attached. In the end, they even come to support her giving the presentation to the class. 

What’s so important about this ten-minute episode is its ability to condense a critique of problematic media representation into cartoon format; it is accessible to the young people watching without diminishing the problem’s real-world importance. Pepper Ann’s behaviors throughout are inexcusable; everyone from her friends to her family visibly react with discomfort and verbally respond with disapproval. However, they also take the time to correct her behavior. Her family teaches her how to think more critically about media representations and her personal othering.

Pepper Ann, as a whole, is a revolutionary show that has been largely forgotten. While I’ve only been able to rewatch a few episodes so far, I love its accessible messaging and unapologetically feminist undertones. If you haven’t been introduced to this quirky, red-headed seventh grader, I would recommend viewing an episode or two to draw your own conclusions about its messaging. Cartoons are often dismissed as unimportant artifacts of popular culture, but the role they have in shaping ideology is undeniable. So, next time you’re watching a “kid’s” show, pay attention to its messaging and ask . . . what is this programming really communicating? While stereotypes about Indigenous people typically involve generalization, “Dances With Ignorance” is careful to reject this strategy and uses specificity in its representation of Pepper Ann’s Navajo relatives. Moving forward, we can look to this episode as a positive example of representation that works to break down, rather than reinforce, stereotypes.


Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.

Attacks on the Native American Church and the Settler-Colonial Nature of the War on Drugs

By Noelle Iati

Modern Peyotism, a religious tradition incorporated in the United States mainly under the name of the Native American Church (and also the smaller and slightly different Peyote Way Church of God), emerged in the mid-19th century in Oklahoma Territory. It involves an overnight, community-based ceremony in which the peyote cactus, considered a gift from God or a sacrament, is eaten by believers. Contrary to popular belief, while peyote is a hallucinogen, anthropologist David Aberle has observed:

The visions are definitely not critical; they are rare or absent in a very large percentage of […] cases, and disvalued by many peyotists, although welcomed by many others […] the peyote experience is characterized by a feeling of the personal significance of external and internal stimuli. The user is prompted to ask, of everything, “What does this mean for me?” […] Users may find personal significance in the events of the peyote meeting, the physical surroundings, their fellow participants and their behavior and expressions, scotomata, visions, nausea, indigestion, headache, backache, or simply in their ruminations.

But it has been used for thousands of years by Indigenous people along the Rio Grande, namely the Aztecs, Chimichecs, Coahuiltes, Coras, Huicholes, Jumanas, Laguneros, Tarahumaras, Toltecs, and Zacatecos. In Mexico today, it is still an integral aspect of the spiritual traditions of several of these groups. Scholars agree that the modern Peyotist tradition was most likely developed by Carrizos and brought north by Lipan Apaches. From there, the religion spread rapidly: by 1867, Kiowas, Caddos, Wichitas, Delawares, and Comanches in Oklahoma Territory all had significant Peyotist sects, and actively proselytized throughout Oklahoma and beyond. It is not a coincidence that the religion became popular in tandem with the establishment of the reservation system. The tenets of Peyotism, called the Peyote Road, appealed to Native peoples’ feelings of powerlessness as they were forced onto reservations with few employment opportunities, little to do, poor living conditions, and rampant disease while the close quarters into which many Native nations were squeezed made it even easier for the religion to spread. By 1880, the popularity of the peyote religion—in many ways a revivalist tradition—led reservations to begin banning peyote. In 1890, the Bureau of Indian Affairs labeled it an intoxicant in an attempt to get it federally banned. [1]

Like other revivalist religious movements such as the Ghost Dance, the emergence and practice of Peyotism was a resistance of American settler-colonialism, and a direct threat to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ agenda of converting and assimilating Native people. Banning peyote had the same purpose as banning traditional language, traditional dress and sacred objects such as eagle feathers, as well as sending Native children to assimilationist boarding schools: destroying Native culture and identity so as to eliminate Indigenous people from North America. As early as 1909, the BIA labeled Peyotism a “religious cult” intended to excuse the use of a “powerful narcotic;” however, it was clear that the government’s issue was not with the use of the peyote substance, but with the Peyotist religion as an increasingly popular alternative to Christianity. While federally banning peyote was a priority until World War II and the BIA consistently lobbied Congress for this ban, six bills banning peyote usage failed to pass between 1918 and 1937. When the federal Drug Abuse Control Act added hallucinogens to the list of controlled substances in 1965, the use of peyote by the Native American Church was exempted. [2]

In 1983, Alfred Smith (Klamath Nation) was fired from his job at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation and counseling center, where he was told he had violated the center’s employment policies on abstaining from drugs and alcohol by eating peyote in ceremonies of the Native American Church. Despite his religious reasons for taking peyote, he was filed as having been fired for reasons of “misconduct,” making him ineligible for unemployment benefits while he searched for different work. In frustration, Smith took Oregon’s Employment Division to court, claiming that his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religious beliefs had been violated by the Division’s decision. Oregon’s courts agreed: the state’s justifications for denying Smith unemployment benefits did not pass the litmus test on infringements of religious freedom established in the Sherbert v. Verner case (1963), and thirty years of established precedent had ruled that the right to possess and ingest peyote for religious purposes was constitutionally protected. The State of Oregon, however, refused to give in. Then-Attorney General of Oregon David Frohnmayer appealed to the Supreme Court of Oregon and, when they ruled against him, appealed to the United States Supreme Court. After two rounds of litigation, one in 1987-1988 and another in 1989-1990, the Supreme Court decided that Smith’s First Amendment right to freely exercise his religious beliefs had not been violated by the State of Oregon, stating that a neutral law, generally applied to all regardless of religious belief, did not place an undue burden on religious practice onto members of the Native American Church. [3]

The 1990 Employment Division v. Smith decision called back a long history of religious suppression of Indigenous people in the Americas, and particularly the United States’ efforts to suppress Peyotism and the Native American Church. However, after World War II, the federal government seemed to have more or less given up on actively attacking religious peyote use. The heightened interest of the federal government in limiting the use of substances it classified as “drugs,” including hallucinogens like peyote and its main active chemical compound mescaline, also impacted the ruling. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s “Moral Majority” was intent on holding Americans to a certain standard—and demonizing the users of any and all substances associated with the upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. While the federal government exempted the religious use of peyote and banned peyote for the general population, states were responsible for their own drug laws. Nearly all fifty states had written or judicially crafted exemptions to their drug laws for Peyotists by the 1980s, one notable exception was the state of Oregon. [4]

While the Employment Division v. Smith case caused the Supreme Court of Oregon to decide in 1988 that peyote users were exempt from the state’s restrictions on peyote usage, David Frohnmayer, the Attorney General of Oregon, and the state he represented were adamant: peyote use was wrong, dangerous, and against the law always, regardless of the user’s religious beliefs. At the height of America’s War on Drugs, and “moral” frenzy, Frohnmayer’s arguments struck a chord; like all who “used drugs,” members of the Native American Church must have been misguided and sick, bringing their children up to think that “substance abuse” was acceptable. In reality, however, the government’s interest in controlling Native bodies under the guise of a righteous Drug War in 1989 is part of the settler-colonial project, mirroring historic attempts to ban Peyotism and other Native religions to catalyze the eventual assimilation and erasure of Native people from the American landscape. [5]


[1] Thomas C. Maroukis, The Peyote Road: Religious Freedom and the Native American Church (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 32, 22-25, 17.; David F. Aberle, The Peyote Religion Among the Navaho, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 4, 6.

[2] Maroukis, The Peyote Road, 192, 106-107, 54, 49.; Senator Daniel K. Inouye, “Discrimination and Native American Religious Rights,” in Native American Cultural and Religious Freedoms, ed. John Wunder (New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1996), 11-12.

[3] Employment Division v. Smith, 494 US 872.; Ronald K. Bullis, “Swallowing the Scroll: Legal Implications of the Recent Supreme Court Peyote Cases,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 22, no. 3 (July 1990): 325-332.; Maroukis, The Peyote Road, 202-205.

[4] Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (New York, NY: Little, Brown & Company, 1996).

[5] Ibid.

Noelle Iati is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College simultaneously completing her first year in the master’s in women’s history program. She studies American political and legal history with a focus on imperialism at home and abroad.

Hidden History, Lost Heroes, and the Forgotten Hawaiian Kingdom

By Katia Kalei Barricklow

This November marks the fifth month of protests on Mauna Kea by native Hawaiians who oppose a poorly managed thirty-meter telescope being built on sacred land. This may come as a shock to people living on the U.S. mainland who view Hawaiʻi as a tropical island paradise full of smiling, easygoing natives. But the truth of the matter is that native Hawaiians have been actively resistant against U.S. occupation since the very beginning. November is Native American Heritage Month—and it is past time to recognize the complicated political history behind our 50th state. 

Photograph of Mauna Kea protests. Source: Katia Kalei Barricklow

For many native Hawaiian protestors, the issue of Mauna Kea is symbolic, as the American government has been disregarding the native Hawaiian perspective for centuries. The annexation of Hawaiʻi was widely opposed by the Hawaiian people and is considered illegal by many experts and historians. 

Photograph of Mauna Kea protests. Source: Katia Kalei Barricklow

It is hard to come by this information because it is not widely known and is not taught in schools. Even as a part-native Hawaiian, I only learned the truth about the unjust annexation a few years ago. When I was in high school, the extent of my education on Hawaiian history was a 30-minute lesson where the teacher butchered the pronunciation of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s name and told the class that the Queen willingly gave the islands away. End of story. 

But there is, in fact, far more to that story. Last year, I made a documentary at Sarah Lawrence College in Damani Baker’s class “Truth Freedom and Bearing Witness.” My film, “Longing for Hawaiʻi,” talks about the Hawaiian diaspora and celebrates family, native Hawaiian traditions, and my ʻohana’s unique role in Hawaiian history in the face of colonial erasure.


About two years ago, my family and I discovered that my great-great-great-grandfather, William Pūnohuʻāweoweoʻulaokalani White, was a right-hand man to the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, Queen Liliʻuokalani, thanks to research conducted by Dr. Ron Williams, a historian at the University of Hawaiʻi. Williams called White the “Thomas Jefferson of Hawaiʻi” because he cowrote a constitution with Joseph Nāwahī that would have restored rights to the native Hawaiians. Unfortunately, the U.S. government staged a coup and overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom before this constitution could be enacted. Queen Liliʻuokalani praised my great-great-great-grandfather for his patriotism in her autobiography. But for years, my ancestor’s legacy had been erased—his grave didn’t even have a headstone. 

Williams also taught my family and me that the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was extremely progressive. In 1852, some thirteen years before the U.S. outlawed slavery, universal male suffrage was granted to all races in Hawaiʻi. In 1881, King Kalākaua was the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe. The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi had embassies all over the world. ’Iolani Palace had electricity before the White House. The list goes on. 

This summer, when I went to visit my family on the Big Island, I made a point to stop by the Mauna Kea protest and educate myself about the issue of the telescope. The media is attempting to portray the native people who oppose the telescope as anti-science. But in reality, there is a long history of mismanagement of telescopes on Mauna Kea by the University of Hawaiʻi. There are already thirteen telescopes on the mountain that have left waste all over the mountain and the native community is complaining about the environmental damage to the land. It is not a question of opposing science—it’s a question of protecting sacred land from pollution and unnecessary waste. 

Photograph of Mauna Kea protests. Source: Katia Kalei Barricklow

The story of the lost Kingdom of Hawaiʻi is just one of the many injustices that the U.S. has committed against native people. There are native tribes all over this country who have been mistreated, overlooked, and harmed by America’s colonial legacy. It is important to remember that this land we are living on was not gifted to the U.S. government—in many cases, it was forcefully stolen. This Native American Heritage Month, listen to native people’s stories with an open mind. There is often more to history than what is taught in a textbook.


Native American Boarding Schools: Total Assimilation

By Sidney Wegener

In 1892 Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, famously stated that his goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Native American boarding schools were first established in the United States during the mid-1800s in an effort to continue genocide against Native people under the guise of education. Children were often taken from their families and away from f reservations by missionaries or militiamen, either by force or through manipulation. When children (aged from four years old to teenagers) were taken to a boarding school, they were subjected to violent processes of total institutionalization. They were stripped of their clothes, their hair was cut, and any use of native language resulted in brutal beatings. Sexual abuse was all too common. Next to every prison-like school there was always a graveyard. The generational trauma caused by United States boarding schools greatly contributed to the breakdown and erasure of Native American tribes.

The education that these children received was initially geared specifically towards producing domestic and unskilled laborers to serve white, capitalist purposes. Very few boarding school students graduated with an education comparable to the wealthy, white men in charge of these institutions. In the early years, a handful of Native Americans – always men – travelled with school officials as examples of successfully civilized Indians to gain support for boarding schools. Later, the institutions claimed that children would learn skills in boarding schools that they could bring back to their communities to bolster the civilization of their tribes. The white, colonial United States’ idea of civilization was (and still is) destruction of Native American culture. However, the children who survived and returned to their families were equipped with basic math knowledge and Eurocentric cooking skills which were inapplicable to the needs of their communities. The real purpose was to prevent the reproduction of Native American culture and assimilate younger generations into white, colonial culture. Thinly veiled as an education, genocide was the name of the game.

Children were taken away from hundreds of different tribes and imprisoned in boarding schools where they spoke different languages, came from different cultures, and had experienced a vast number of traumas. Despite the abuse, these children often remained resistant. As they were beaten into speaking English, they discovered a way to communicate with one another. In response to the violent process of erasing indigenous languages, Native children created pan-tribal solidarity and undermined the United States’s goal of total assimilation. The loss of languages may be one of the most devastating effects of the Native boarding school legacy. Too often, children returned home after years of living behind the brick walls of their educational institution and could not communicate with their families. They no longer spoke a common language, younger generations lost their Native tongue. The death of Native languages directly impacted tribal cultures by disrupting the generational passing of knowledge and tradition which was taught through oral storytelling and histories. 

In many ways, the boarding schools set up by the United States achieved their genocidal goals  by continuing to kill thousands of Native Americans, physically and sexually abusing children, and destroying their tribal identities. However, the resistance that arose from pan-tribal unification within boarding schools created a new mode of mobilization for Native child survivors. While colonial domestic and vocational labor skills were not beneficial to the communities that the students returned to, English literacy provided them with a tool that could be used to disarm the oppressor. Native American boarding school graduates were generally able to read treaties and legal documents. These were frequently used by colonial powers to deceive Indigenous people in order to take their property or consent to relinquishing other rights they had to livelihood. In addition to defending and protecting their communities, some Natives became writers and educators themselves. People such as Esther Belin, Lee Maracle, Steven Heape, and Gayle Ross have become storytellers who speak against Native American oppression and retell history. 

Films, poetry, autobiographies, scholarly papers, novels, oral, and written histories are now widely published in North America. Yet, Native American history continues to be taught in American public schools through false narratives which ignore the roughly four hundred years of genocide. The truth behind Native American boarding schools sheds light on the horrific legacy of the United States’ treatment of Native people. Although reeducating oneself on Native American history should be a year-round endeavor, November is the designated month which we are to pay attention to Native American Heritage. I urge you to read, watch, or listen to at least one story from a Native boarding school survivor. Below are some sources.


Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

Dismantling the Thanksgiving Myth with Children’s and YA Literature

By Rebecca Hopman

It’s that time of year when many elementary school kids across the United States don capotains, buckle boots, headdresses, and moccasins to celebrate Thanksgiving. Cue the romanticized and often derogatory imagery of Native Americans, the tidy and tired story of the Pilgrims and Indians where “everyone gets along [and] everyone gets to eat.” [1]

painting of pilgrims and indians sitting down to eat at the first Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) Source: Wikimedia Commons (Jennie Augusta Brownscombe [Public domain])

Earlier this month, Sidney Wegener wrote about “Why We Should be Anti-Celebrating Thanksgiving.” She points out that the kids learning the “Pilgrims and Indians” story grow up to be adults who perpetuate this false narrative, instead of coming to terms with the much more complicated reality. “While not all families have the economic resources to participate in traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations,” Wegener writes, “everyone has the capability to change the way they think about this national holiday.”

So how can parents responsibly talk with their kids about the Thanksgiving story and Native Americans, without falling back on the “Pilgrims and Indians” myth or homogenized and romanticized depictions of Native peoples? One way is to read books about Native characters, written by Native American/First Nations authors.

How do you find those books? Thankfully, there are many resources online for just that purpose. (I have included a selection of websites and articles below.) But while there are a growing number of children’s and YA books by and about Native American/First Nation peoples, they are still vastly underrepresented in the publishing world.

In 2002, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed 3,150 children’s books published that year. Sixty-four of those books (or 2%) featured a main character or significant secondary character who was identified as a Native American or a member of the First Nations. Only six books (or 0.2%) were written by Native American/First Nations authors. Last year, out of 3,653 books, 55 (1%) featured a main or significant Native American/First Nations character. Thirty-eight books (1.5%) were written by Native American/First Nations authors. [2]

In 2014, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign – and later the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit organization – was launched to support diversity in children’s literature. [3] They, along with many authors, scholars, critics, editors, and readers, have increasingly called on the publishing industry to produce and promote books for children and young adults that respect and reflect a broader range of identities and experiences. Critically, this effort must include publishing more books written by diverse authors and hiring diverse editorial staff. [4] Publishers, of course, respond to what sells, so you can join this effort by buying books by and about diverse people or by checking out books from your local library (you can often request or recommend books for purchase if the library doesn’t have them in their collection).

So, this Thanksgiving, whether you have children or teens in your life or you appreciate a good children’s or YA book, take the opportunity to choose a story that is about Native characters, written by Native American/First Nations authors.

Woman reading to two children

Source: Wikimedia Commons (San Jose Library [CC BY-SA 2.0])

November, in addition to being Native American Heritage Month in the United States, is also Picture Book Month. Celebrate both by reading and sharing picture books written by and about Native Americans and First Nations peoples. Find some suggestions in the resources shared below.


Native American children’s and YA book recommendations and resources:

Diversity in children’s and YA books:


[1] Klem-Marí Cajigas, “Tackling Racism in Children’s Classics: The Thanksgiving Story,” Nashville Public Library. Accessed on November 9, 2019. See also “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?” by Dennis Zotigh, National Museum of the American Indian, November 23, 2016.
[2] Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens is compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. More information can be found on their website. Accessed on November 9, 2019.
[3] The We Need Diverse Books organization defines diversity as “including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” I use this definition when referring to “diverse” people in this piece.
[4] Kacen Callender, “We Need Diverse Editors,” Publishers Weekly, November 1, 2019.

Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

Appropriating Indigenous Culture through Body Modification

By Marian Phillips

We’ve all seen the image of a young white woman in a traditional Native American headdress prancing around Coachella. Every year, the image grows increasingly distasteful and racist. Despite the internet’s call for festival goers to abandon this appropriation of a culture that is not theirs, they have not. Recently, it was brought to my attention that a cast member of the television show Love Island (2015-), Chris Taylor, has a tattoo of a woman in a Native American headdress. Understandably so, Native American groups have criticized the permanent piece that features symbols of Indigenous cultures that this man does not identify with. 

The Native American Rights Fund group stated that the piece is not only inappropriate and offensive, it is damaging to their community. The popular culture website, Heart, interviewed the group to comment on the situation. They resonded with, ““The use of these images was often rooted in an extensive history of abuse, discrimination, and conquest. The growing body of research around the use of these images shows that they have a harmful impact on our youth, and the youth of non-native people as well.” [1] This made my wheels turn. I am a heavily tattooed individual who has been deeply invested in the body modification community for nearly ten years. The conversation on the negative impact of permanently displaying a symbol of someone else’s culture, identity, or trauma is constantly happening and being argued over. 

For instance, in the early 2010s, the popularity of tattoos of dream catchers or Native American headdresses was at an all time high. One google search of either will show you an overabundance of these images, almost always on individuals that do not identify with or belong to the tribes these images are derived from. Even worse, it is not uncommon for a tattoo featuring any Native American imagery to be a gross amalgamation of multiple tribes, completely disregarding the importance of a specific symbol to a specific tribe’s identity. When a white person takes a symbol that does not belong to them and permanently places it on their body, it is another form of cultural appropriation and conquest. 

The ownership of Native cultures has been torn from them through the violent processes of colonization. Murder, rape, and the forced removal of Native peoples from their land was how white colonizers stole their culture (via Native bodies). To speak of Native cultural symbols as belonging to Native people, is to acknowledge the continual act of reclaiming their culture from white colonizers. There is no single Native American culture; however, all of them have experienced the violence of colonization. Therefore, when white people tattoo their bodies with unspecified indigenous cultural symbols, such as the dream catcher, the body modification represents white colonial power, not respect for Native culture.

While there is a strong debate within the tattoo community over appreciation versus appropriation, we must turn to the model of the Coachella incidents of white women wearing headdresses. These festival goers did not take into account the deeply symbolic meaning of the headdress, the purposes of eagle feathers, and who receives the honor of wearing it. Therefore, they appropriated Native American culture and heritage. This is just the same when one considers tattooing this symbol on their body permanently. Yes, some people may do their research and gain some semblance of knowledge on it, but ultimately, they have no ownership over these symbols. When non-Native people put a Native American headdress or dreamcatcher on their body, they are staking a claim of ownership, which is inherently disrespectful towards Native people.   

This piece does not serve the intention of trash-talking someone who already has these symbols tattooed on them or tattoo artists that specialize in them either. Rather, I would like to assert that we reconsider what we place on our bodies, what it actually means, what it can perpetuate, and our position when we actively participate in damaging a Native American community by asserting that we can own their cultural symbols. 


[1] Alice Dear, “Native American Group Slams Love Island Star Chris Taylor’s ‘Offensive’ Tattoos,” Heart, Heart, 12 July 2019,

Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s and Gender History department at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include LGBT History, Horror, Gay Liberation Movements, and 18th Century Literature.

Federal Policies Negatively Effecting Indigenous Food Sovereignty

By Hannah McCandless

From July 2017 to June 2018, I had the privilege of working as a fellow at the National Farm to School Network in Washington, D.C. During my time there, I learned about the federal policies and acts that are driving our federal food aid policies, such as The Farm Bill, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as Food Stamps), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). In learning about these policies, I became familiar with the programming and grants that my organization used to support Native Communities in food production and consumption. 

In relation to that, last year, this blog published a piece about the Farm Bill’s effects on Native Communities, linked here. I encourage you to read that post in addition to this post as this is a multi-faceted problem. This post is focused first, on how displacement of Native Communities has adversely affected the long term health of Indigenous Communities and second, how SNAP and past federal food policies have affected the health of those communities. 

First, it is important to define food sovereignty. According to Devon Mihesuah, a researcher and coauthor of “Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health,” food sovereignty is defined as the “healthy and culturally appropriate food generated by a community that oversees the entire process, from production to trade to sustainability.” [1] It is important in understanding what this looks like in order to be able to understand how federal policies have negated Native people’s ability to feed themselves with their own autonomy. 

At the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held in 2014, the issue of food rights were brought up by those in attendance. An issue they spoke of specifically was the phenomenon they called “nutrition transition.” Nutrition Transition can be defined as when Indigenous or Native Communities are forced to relocate to reservations by western forces, which caused them to change how they consume food. [2] One example of this would be to think about communities who previously ate bison and buffalo. When Europeans invaded native land, they killed several of those animals, forcing those communities to shift their eating habits. Later, when the US government began forcing Native Communities away from their original native lands, they were often moved to different temperate climates, changing the types of food they could produce. [3] This forced shift has created devastating effects on the health of Indigenous Communities. 

Since 1977, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations program has existed for people living too far away from SNAP approved grocery stores on their reservations. This is one of the alternatives to SNAP for qualifying Indigenous people. Though this program can be a helpful supplement to food sources, some 60% of Native Americans who are on it use the program as their number one resource for food, rather than a supplement. Comparatively, only 37% of Native Americans on SNAP benefits use that program as their number one source for food. The foods provided by these programs are primarily processed staples with long shelf lives, meaning that fresh fruits, vegetables, and unsalted meats are not a part of many Native American’s lives if they rely on these programs for sustenance. [4]

Before Europeans invaded and either destroyed people’s food sources or forced them to change, Indigenous Communities consumed foods such as “elk, white-tailed deer, turkeys, corn, squash, beans and bison.” Once Europeans invaded, they brought in animals such as cows, goats, and chickens, introducing poultry and dairy to the diets of native communities. [1] This initially shifted the diets of many Native Americans in a drastic way. Once federal food assistance programs began providing food to Native Communities, the rate of Native people with Type 2 Diabetes skyrocketed, and Native Americans became twice as likely to have diabetes compared to white Americans. Because SNAP benefits include the types of foods that are extremely salted in order to have a longer shelf life, the foods consumed created long term health issues. 

The ways in which the US federal and state governments have wronged Native Communities are innumerable, but the ways in which the federal food programs have affected their health are long lasting. Food sovereignty is just one of the rights that Native Communities are fighting for, and one that is complicated and multifaceted in its causes and solutions. I encourage you to find more information on this topic to better understand how to be an ally in creating local, state, and federal policy changes.




[2] United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2014) 

[3] Native American Food   

[4] How Might Trump’s Food Box Plan Affect Health? Native Americans Know All Too Well

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Hannah is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee and women in higher education administration in the south during the 19th century.