Updated May 17, 2010: I just got off the phone with Travis Pickett, the owner of War Paint Clothing Co. of Oklahoma City. He objected to my use of a picture of the shirt taken from the facebook profile of War Paint Clothing Co.. While I think my use of the image was within the “fair use” exception of the copyright laws, I have decided to remove it because he said that the model would be upset that her image was tied to my calling the shirt racist. I have no desire to shame anyone except the makers of this shirt and those who sell them.

Updated again on May 17, 2010: In light of this response written by the owners of the store, I’ve changed the headline of this article. I still find the shirts to be deeply troubling, but I want to make it clear the shirtmakers have no racist intent and that they believe they are  honoring native culture with these shirts. I am, however, leaving this post up. I think it is still an open question whether the shirts communicate honor or not.

I did some research and discovered there are two different companies called War Paint Clothing Co. This essay is about the one located in Oklahoma City. (the other one is from Lansing, MI, and is a native-owned company that has been in business since 2006)

OK, this evening I went down to meet some friends in the Plaza District of Oklahoma City for the “Live on the Plaza” Art Walk. I had a good time for most of the evening (in particular I got to hear an awesome local band, The Sugarfree All-Stars for the first time), but towards the end of the evening I went in a store called War Paint Clothing Co.

I had heard about them before. They’ve been covered in the Oklahoma Gazette and the OU Student Newspaper. I had concerns about them based on the press coverage (namely that I was afraid they were planning to profit off of native culture in an exploitative way), but I was hoping I would be wrong.

It was far worse than I feared. The store was packed with folks (they just had a burlesque show and folks were stilling milling around) but I did get a chance to look at their merchandise. Two shirts shocked me.

The first one was a picture of a skull wearing a plains Indian headdress, with the words “War Paint Clothing Co.” in the bottom corner written in script lettering.

Racist T-shirt Design of War Paint Clothing Co.

The second one showed a sacred ceremonial pipe (often called a calumet) with the word “Smokelahoma” written above it in script lettering. (sorry I didn’t get a picture of this one, and I can’t find it on the web)

I was pretty upset when I saw these shirts, but I left the store. I thought I could just push it out of my head and catch up with my friends. So I started to walk away but something told me, I had to say something.

(from here on out, I’m going to do the best I can to recount what was said in the conversation, but I could have the order of the conversation wrong… it was pretty heated conversation)

So I went back into the store and asked the clerk behind the counter “I have a question. I see your shirt that has the dead Indian wearing a headdress. What does that mean?” A man next to her (who later identified himself as an owner) said, “we’re just honoring our native american heritage.”

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that was all he could say, so my response was less than articulate. I said, “well it’s f***ing offensive if you ask me.” He said “how was it offensive?” and I said that there is thing called genocide and it looks to me like your shirts are celebrating dead Indians.

He said that it was not and looked offended. He asked me again what was so offensive about it? I don’t recall my response, except I reiterated my being upset about a celebration of a dead Indians in a “hipster cliche” kind of manner that dehumanized real live Indians of today.

He came around the counter and said that I had to leave. I said, “well what does the shirt mean?” And he said, “you need to leave or we’re going to escort you out for causing a scene in here.” I started walking towards the door but said, “well what does it mean? That shirt is so offensive. Why won’t you explain what it means? Are you afraid to engage in dialogue about it?”

At this point one of his friends (a much bigger guy) walked up, and the owner-guy (sorry I didn’t catch his name) was getting out his cellphone to call the police, so I figured it was best to leave.

Out on the sidewalk, the conversation continued.

The owner-guy said that I was the one who was offensive when I brought up the word “genocide.” I said, “I’m not sure how else to take your shirts, because genocide is a major part of our state’s history, and your shirts send a confusing message.” He went on then to say, “well some of us are native and we wouldn’t offend our own people.” He then went on to challenge my ethnic identity saying “you don’t look Indian at all to me.” I told him, well I am part native but that’s not really the point here. He reiterated his point about “not standing on the graves of his fathers and grandfathers to offend my own people.” (I think he also invoked his privileged status as having a CDIB card, something that many Indians in Oklahoma do not have due to the decision of their native ancestors to not cooperate with government agents who compiled the Dawes Roll and other rolls in the late 1800’s)

At about this point, a friend of the owner-guy joined the conversation. He was also mixed-ancestry but more visibly native. He said that he didn’t find the shirts offensive and that “besides, don’t you know, most of the genocide didn’t happen in Oklahoma.” Another friend, a white guy said, “it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just art.” He also said that “man, they got some really good Native jewelry in there. They respect Indians. You got it wrong.”

The owner-guy went on to say that his store honors Indians and that Native Americans come into his store all of the time to say how much they appreciate his products. (I seriously doubt that)

The owner-guy then proceeded to tell me to not ever come back and I wasn’t welcome because I accused him of celebrating genocide and caused a scene in his store. I told him I would have to think about it and that I would talk to other native folks to see what they thought, but that he could count on a response of some kind.

Things were getting pretty tense by this point (and I had no intention to get in a fight, especially being outnumbered) so I turnedaway  and said, “I’ll think about it and will talk to some people about it, but for tonight this conversation is over.”

Since then I’ve been pondering this whole conversation and those shirts. I talked to one of my friends who I met in the Plaza District (who also is a mixed-blood Indian) to get her perspective on it. We talked at length about it, to see if there is any possible way to see these shirts outside of a racist context. We couldn’t think of any.

Upon reflection, here are the conclusions I’ve come to about it…

First, I think that the folks at War Paint Clothing Co. seem to be sincere in their misguided and asinine belief that they are somehow honoring Native American heritage with their shirts. They seemed visibly upset when I accused them of celebrating genocide, which is certainly a good thing for them to be upset about. These folks certainly weren’t intending to be racist, which I suppose is laudatory.

But, how in the hell can you get past the racist imagery?

Let’s break this down a little bit.

The first shirt has the skull of a dead Indian wearing a plains Indian headdress. What does this shirt bring to mind?

I first think about the famous line, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” (a quote sometimes attributed to General Sheridan, but more likely a paraphrase from a line out of Congressional floor speech of Congressman James M. Cavanaugh from 1868) and the way our society in past generations honored the “noble savage” who either died off or was assimilated into white society, but refused to give any honor to real live Indians in the present day who resisted both death and assimilation .

Or to say it another way, if you want to honor native Americans, why not make a shirt of a hero from our history, or even show the face of someone alive today (who is resisting genocide, simply by living out native values and culture)? Why is it that only dead Indians, and abstract/stereotypical Indians who get celebrated?

The image of the skull also brings to mind the Indian remains held in many museums to this day. There is an ongoing fight to return those remains to their people and to the earth (see Return2theearth.org and the wikipedia article on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act for a bit of this history), but the fight isn’t over. The graves of Native dead have been desecrated for many years, and many remains are still in museums.

Finally, I’m not aware of any Plains Indian tribe that would be comfortable with this imagery (and I’m discussing it in that context, because the stylized image is of a stereotypical plains style headdress — I know Natives in other culture, especially in Mexico have different cultural ideas about skulls). Some plain tribes use animal skulls for ceremonial purposes (i.e. the buffalo skull in the Sun Dance), but those skulls are normally used in a sacred manner. The use of a human skull on a t-shirt would be incomprehensible.

As for the second shirt, I know their intent is probably to poke fun at Oklahoma’s marijuana laws (with the “Smokelahoma” slogan), but to use a calumet for this purpose? This just seems wrong.

Now I understand that these folks may say that I’m taking this to seriously and take offense at my connecting these images to genocide. But I don’t think you can see it in either other way.

Few peoples on earth have been so decimated as have Native Americans. Many tribes lost 99% or more of their members from war and from disease brought from Europe. And the genocide wasn’t just physical deaths, but rather it was an intentional process to kill native culture and language.

The wikipedia article on genocide says:

Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.[1]

While a precise definition varies among genocide scholars, a legal definition is found in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). Article 2 of this convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

When you look at these two defintions, there is no other word for the Native American experience, other than genocide. There were numerous acts committed over the past 5 centuries with the intent to destroy “in whole or in part” an entire race, by means that included all of the methods mentioned under the CPPCG.

And this isn’t just past tense either. And contrary to one of the defenders of War Paint Clothing Co., the genocide DID happen in Oklahoma.

Let’s review a few basic historical facts.

1. More than 30 tribes were marched to what would be come Oklahoma against their will, in genocidal death marches (often called “The Trail of Tears”). So, the very entry of most tribes into Oklahoma was rooted in genocide.

2. The “Battle of the Washita” (more accurately the massacre on the Washita River Massacre) happened in Oklahoma, where Custer slaughtered a Cheyenne village of mostly old men, women and children.

3. Indian children were forced from their parents and into Indian schools where they were punished for speaking their language, where the boys were forced to cut their hair, and every attempt possible was made to force the Indian-ness out of them.

4. Until recent decades, many Indian children were forever taken from their Indian parents and adopted out of the tribe.

5. The US government has continued to disregard its treaty obligations to tribes in Oklahoma, resulting in poverty and despair (which subsequently leads to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and countless other social ills)

6. Racism against Indians continues to this day in Oklahoma. Two examples from this last month come to mind…

A friend reported to me an incident in Shawnee a few weeks ago where a person was refused service at a bar because the patron “looked too Indian.” And in the month of April, native school children in many Oklahoma schools were forced to participate in Land Run reenactments(essentially a celebration of a mass grab of native lands by non-native peoples).

My point is that genocide (as defined by the UN) is very much part of Okahoma’s history and it is not just something that happened in the distant past. For a Native person in Oklahoma to not understand this is appalling.

I also would like to know if the folks at War Paint Clothing Co. plan to come out with other clothing lines, to “honor” other people who were the victims of genocide? Maybe they can make shirts showing holocaust victims eviscerated by starvation and showing their numbers tattooed on their body. Or maybe they could make shirts showing the skulls of dead Cambodians, or maybe poke fun at machetes (the main weapon used in the Rwandan genocide). Seriously, why is it ok to make shirts that “honor” American Indian dead in this kind of way, but not ok to do that to do this to other ethnic groups?

The only answer is racism. It may be under the surface, but it is still there. Racism says that Indians are different: that we don’t count, that you can display our skulls in museums and put our skulls on funny t-shirts, that you can take our sacred religious objects and use them for satirical purposes. You can even make funny mascots out of us and use them to name your sporting teams.

What other ethnic group can you do this to in modern America? What if you used a racial slur for black or white people to name a shorts team? I don’t think so. (well except in satire, like the Fighting Whities)

Racism is alive and well in America. It certainly is present in the Plaza District at 1710 NW 16th st. in Oklahoma City, but it is present in a lot of other places. It frankly is present in the press, or else the reporters at the Oklahoma Gazette and the OU Daily would have asked some tough questions instead of writing PR puff pieces about War Paint Clothing Company. And it is still present in many of our schools and colleges.

So what are we going to do about it?

I don’t know. I’m too angry to be very creative. I’m hoping others can come up with better ideas. For now though, here are my thoughts on this…

1. For Native folks, please contact your tribal leaders and alert them to these shirts and ask them to condemn them.

2. It goes without saying, but please do not patronize this store. Or better yet, go there and tell them you won’t be buying from them. Their website is currently “under construction” but you can find their contact info on their facebook page.

3. If you see people wearing these shirts, please tell them what the images mean to you, and why it is hurtful that folks are wearing these shirts. Maybe we can look at this as a good education opportunity.

4. We need our native historians to speak up. When a native young adult says, “the genocide mostly didn’t happen in Oklahoma” we have some serious educating to do. I’m not sure how to do it, but it has to be done.

5. We need our native artists to speak up too. We must create art that DOES HAVE MEANING. Else, we are stuck with what gets created by those who share the sentiments of the guy who told me tonight “it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just art.” Art inherently has meaning, and despite the lack of the ability of the folks at War Paint Clothing Co. to explain it, their  t-shirts do have meaning. Art doesn’t have to be obvious or didactic, but meaning-making is part of the point of art. And I think for Native peoples, this is critically important. Because if we don’t provide the meaning, others will.

6. Let’s continue the conversation. Maybe there are other appropriate responses – pickets, protests, public boycotts, etc. Let’s brainstorm and come up with some ideas on how to speak out against these shirts. I’m sure I’ll get my fair share of hate email, but if anyone wants to continue the conversation you can find my contact info on this page.