Imagine this. You are a 16-year-old girl at a promotional event in which scantily clad women wearing leather, fringe, and headdresses walk slowly around a fire to a tom-tom beat with tipis in the background. The headdressed men lift up one of the women, baring her stomach as she arches her back. What year is this? 1937? 1994? No, it’s 2019. Dior Parfums’ most recent campaign for the cologne Sauvage has #nativetwitter enraged with the offensive commercialization of our people and Johnny Depp fans defending their stan. Dior pulled the ad the same day due to the outrage, but most media outlets are missing the depth of how these visuals contribute harm to Indigenous Peoples.
While some see nothing wrong with the “We Are the Land” ad, I take issue with sexualization of Native American women to promote the fragrance complete with the scene including tipis, described above. I take this personally. At age sixteen, my twin sister, Emma Eagle Heart-White, protested every year for four years against our border-town high school’s 57-year-old “Warrior Homecoming Ceremony.” We endured racism and hatred for standing up for our community and our culture.
This “Warrior Homecoming Ceremony” consisted of five women dressed in short buckskin dresses singing “Indian Love Song” around a fire and a “medicine man” choosing one young girl by looking in her mouth, ears, and weighing her. The chosen girl is a gift to the “Big Chief,” therefore the Homecoming King and Queen. Our mostly non-native high school in Bennett County is nestled between the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In 1994, we heard the same arguments as the Dior campaign … we are honoring you, Native American people helped create it, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.
The problem is no one is listening to our community. Outrage over blackface is widely accepted and understood, but Native American people still have to deal with the redface and tomahawk-chopping R-word NFL team. Native American people with the exact same concerns that African Americans express over blackface are completely disregarded. We see a white male fantasy world in which Native American women are sexualized to sell cologne. Dior is literally profiting off of sexualization of Native American women and stereotypes of Native American men. What does that tell 16-year-old Native American girls today? It says Native American women are not valued and it shows up in the issues Native American women face as well. Thousands of Native American women have been missing or murdered in Canada and the United States (more information is available at National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center), an issue that is not widely publicized or covered by the media. Does this sound like paying homage to a people?
Now let’s get to how Native American people helped create this ad. Well-respected organization Americans for Indian Opportunity consulted on the creation of the ad “We Are the Land” and said they were proud of their work. This was deeply disappointing as it gives validity to this type of negative stereotyping. The organization recently recanted its support on Twitter: “Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) deeply regrets its participation in the Dior campaign. We believed that we had an opportunity to reshape long-standing and damaging representations of Native peoples on an international scale. That did not bear out as we had hoped and intended, especially in Dior’s media and public relations campaign, in which we did not consult or have prior knowledge. AIO takes responsibility for our actions and has much to learn from this unfortunate set of events.”
It should be noted that not all Native American people are experts in culture or storytelling. To be an expert or a good ally, spending meaningful time in a Native community, participating in ceremonies, and having an education specific to American Indian Studies is important. My elders understood how wrong it was demean other cultures and emphasized the importance of our Lakota values to be accepting of others.
We had the support of Native educators, both the Rosebud and Oglala Lakota Nations, and movement leaders to help us protest because they understood that at the end of the day, it is wrong to pretend to be Native American. Just like it would be wrong to pretend to be African American. PERIOD. My twin sister and I understood this at age sixteen.
We also know what “savage” means and adding a letter doesn’t change the intention behind this false narrative. Many groups have worked to change statewide education systems, however only a handful have been successful (California, Oregon, Montana, Washington). And the truth about the history of Native Americans has not been shared or acknowledged. In U.S. history, Native American men were painted as rapists and savages.
In fact, I read a historical reflection in the book American Indians and the Civil Warby the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service (2013) and this passage was translated from letters that were written by Dakota men imprisoned at Camp McClellan near Davenport, Iowa, during the 1860s:
“Guards would rape the women at night near prison cells. When they (guards) came after the women at night, they (Dakota men) didn’t have no recourse but to sing and to let them know, and pray to let the women know ‘we’re leaving in the presence of God. Because if we were able to help we would have stopped what’s going on. But we can’t.”
This quote depicts the kinship relationship by Dakota men to their female relatives as they endured rape. It is heartbreaking. This is a truth never taught in school books and is in stark contrast to the “Indian Savage” imagery shared in American society during that time period. Indigenous people still feel this pain because we are taught about the relationship to the Great Spirit and our ancestors since the day we are born. The “savage rapists” were not Native American men, yet this stereotype still lives in advertisements because accurate history has not been told.
Even several major denominations including the World Council of Churches have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery aka Manifest Destiny (the inherent right to rule a people). This is the entire doctrine that grounds U.S. property law and justified slavery. “Under various theological and legal doctrines formulated during and after the Crusades, non-Christians were considered enemies of the Catholic faith and, as such, less than human. Accordingly, in the bull of 1452, Pope Nicholas directed King Alfonso to ‘capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,’ to ‘put them into perpetual slavery,’ and ‘to take all their possessions and property,”explained Steven Newcomb, a Shawnee, Lenape scholar who is cofounder and codirector of the Indigenous Law Institute.
The education and action around this foundational tenet in American law has been dismal. Why is that? Because America would have to deal with its shame and the fact that many have, and still are, benefiting off of our stolen land. This includes big business and philanthropy. That’s a hard pill to swallow. But why? It’s the truth. The demand for acknowledgement and corresponding action is about healing … and not just for Native American people.
Our stories need to be told both when they are beautiful and when they are painful. Art often steals from diverse cultures at the expense of the community. It’s time to have that hard conversation just like I did with the “Warrior Princess” of 1994, a decade after the first year of the protest. It was hard.
I actually tried to avoid the conversation because it was so painful and traumatic to relive those memories. Yet one evening, we met to catch up poolside in San Diego. As we waded in the water, the protest came up. I said, “It felt like everyone hated us.” She said, “Not all of us hated you.” I kept looking down and she said again, “Sarah, not all of us hated you and I would do it differently now.” We smiled at each other over the water at sunset. That was healing. This was one person taking responsibility. A multinational fashion brand can do better by Native American people.
Sarah Eagle Heart is an Emmy award-winning social justice storyteller, consultant, activist, author, media strategist, and producer focused on advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Peoples rooted worldview as an Oglala Lakota raised on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She is an internationally accomplished executive with a diverse background in tribal, corporate, and nonprofit organizations.
Ms. Eagle Heart most recently served as CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a national nonprofit that focuses on investment in Native American communities. In four years, she created narrative change endeavors amplifying truth and healing, history, and contemporary issues raising over $10 million. Her partnerships include: Anne Hathaway, Dispatch, #IndigenousWomenRise, John Legend, Mark Ruffalo, the Obama White House, #StandNVote, and Taboo of The Black Eyed Peas. Her partnership with John Legend on Crow: The Legend led to an 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Interactive Media as a consultant producer.
Prior to this role, she served as the team leader for Diversity, Social Justice and Environmental Ministries and program officer for Indigenous Ministry at The Episcopal Church, New York, NY. Under her leadership, The Episcopal Church became the first major denomination to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009 and presented oral interventions at the United Nations in 2012.
Ms. Eagle Heart is the CEO of Eagle Heart Collectiv and has been a public speaker for over a decade, sharing her traditional cultural knowledge to raise awareness and build strong networks. She is currently writing a book on healing, leadership, and advocacy with her identical twin sister, psychotherapist Emma Eagle Heart-White.