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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

American Indians, Part II: Victoria’s Dirty Indian Secret

Karlie Kloss struts onto Victoria Secret’s runway with ceremonial war bonnet and layers of American Indian jewelry. No Indian woman would be caught dead with such a getup. Credit: http://www.change.org/petitions/victoria-s-secret-apologize-for-using-a-native-american-headdress-in-their-2012-fashion-show

Victoria’s Secret has a dirty Indian secret―”pow wow porn.” During its annual show at the end of 2012, the lingerie company sent one of its favorite scantily clad models out on the runway wearing a long American Indian war bonnet and draped in turquoise and silver jewelry. Within 24 hours, reaction to this offensive display of corporate ignorance found its way onto social networks and then into the national media, including the Huffington Post. (Victoria’s Secret is an equal opportunity offender. Earlier in the year, the company also released an Asian-themed line of lingerie that a writer in Jezebel Magazine "traded in sexualized, generic pan-Asian ethnic stereotypes.")

Victoria’s Secret’s outrage was one of the more extreme instance of whites appropriating Native beliefs or items in order to hype some product or activity. In 2009, several people died when an Arizona “guru” put several clients in a Native sweat lodge. Three people died and the spa owner/guru was sentenced to two years in prison for negligent homicide.

Victoria’s Secret dissed American Indians with its repulsive promotion, and a week later the company and the model apologized. But I asked myself if that model, Karlie Kloss, who carried this insult onto the runway, had any kind of responsibility to refuse to take this gig. Yes, as much as any individual can choose how to work, live, use his or her body, or whatever part of their lives matters. She and her bosses chose to offend not only an entire class of Americans―Indians―but also all Americans who respect the strength in our diversity. Kloss herself is a cartoon, her skinny body a stick figure. I don’t shop at Victoria’s Secret, and I would hope American women would shun this company that exploits the female body.

But American women and the company’s formidable marketing machine have driven Victoria’s Secret from its original burlesque image into a huge mainstream success. This is the largest of six companies owned by Limited Brands, a publicly traded corporation. Among its other brands are Bath and Body Works and the upscale Henri Bendel. By 2012 Victoria’s Secret has grown from a single store in Palo Alto’s Stanford Shopping Center to 1000 stores, catalogs (375 million mailed) and a web site. Sales exceed $6 billion with profits of about $1 billion.

I lived in New Mexico, the heart of Indian country, for more than 30 years and traveled beyond. Never in all those years, did I see any Native woman dressed like Karlie Kloss. Indeed most American Indian women I have met dress modestly and use negligible amounts of jewelry for everyday wear—a pair of earrings, perhaps a watch band or necklace. Depending on their tribe or nation, they bring out elaborate regalia (including the war bonnet) and jewelry for ceremonial (some are sacred) events.

Beauty contests in Indian Country strive for a tone that is alien to those in the white world. Contestants in the Miss Indian World Contest of the annual Gathering of Nations―the largest pow wow in the country, with up to 2500 dancers―are college students. Criteria for the competition include personal interviews, accomplishments, knowledge of tribal history and customs, dancing skill, the regalia a contestant makes herself, and a written essay. With her regalia and modest demeanor, Miss Indian Country is a far cry from mainstream “beauty” queens and a model for young Indian women.

In my book All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos) I noted that I had written it for white Americans who suffer from a deep ignorance and/or amnesia about Native America and especially contemporary American Indians. One reviewer, however, felt I had set the bar too low. That bar clearly is not low enough for the disrespect—dissing—from Victoria’s Secret and other commercial ventures.
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