I’ll admit it. I have been neglecting my writing. But, this morning something happened to remind me that the ability to put pen to paper as an expression of my experience is a gift. And this gift has a purpose. And my purpose is to write. And write. And write. Whether or not anyone is listening.
This morning, my brilliant doctor friend and fellow creative person, Elizabeth LaPensée, posted a photo on Facebook. A photo that made me groan, roll my eyes, sigh, and hang my head. A photo that put my belly in a twist. Another photo in a long line of disturbing images turning Indigenous people into caricatures for other peoples entertainment (think Washington R*dskins, think Chief Wahoo, think Portland Winterhawks, think Johnny Depp’s Tonto, think Avatar, think “Indian Princess” Halloween costumes).
Elizabeth had been attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco (you see, she is a game developer whose work addresses Indigenous determination in video games, animation, and web comics) and witnessed this:
Two beautiful young women dressed in brown fringe standing in front of a canvas teepee as a marketing ploy for a company known as glispa. Glispa, a “performance marketing platform for mobile and digital entertainment clients,” boasts on its webpage that it is a multicultural team representing 33 different countries and 23 different languages. A company this diverse ought to know better than to abuse stereotypes of indigenous people to make money.
I took a closer look at their website. It gets worse. They call themselves “your online rainmaker.” Their departmental teams are named after Native American tribes (Team Hopi, Team Cherokee, Team Mohawk). Their page has a silhouette of an “Indian” with feathers and a staff. And when a team member’s photo is not available for display it is replaced by another silhouetted image of the media favorite “profile of an Indian in a headdress.”
Do they really not know this degrading? Do they really not know this is painful? Does this multicultural organization really not understand the implications of images such as these?
So, I wrote a letter to the organization. Because words matter. I told them I am a Native American woman. I told them I found their “teepee and indians” display offensive, hurtful, and despairing. I told them these images perpetuate stereotypes, encourage racism, and make a mockery of Indigenous people. I told them the scene in the photo demonstrated ignorance and a lack of respect for Native people. I told them we are people not characters. I asked them to stop abusing Native people with stereotypes and racist portrayals.
It didn’t take long to receive a response. Only about forty-five minutes. And this was the reply:
I founded the company in the US over a decade ago and this is the first time I have received such a complaint. I am a Chinese-American and understand the sensitivities around race and culture fully. I was born in the midwest and have many Native American friends. The name glispa comes from Navajo mythology and we have adopted many of the values of Native American culture in our company philosophy. In the beginning some of these teachings were the driving principles behind the company philosophy. We had no intention of offending anyone and “racist” is a strong remark. While the depiction may not be accurate, we all stem from indigenous people and cultures. Our company currently has over 35 nationalities and teams recognize the tribes from where they were born. We celebrate the differences as well as the blending of these roots. I apologize if this has been misinterpreted and I wish you would have formally contacted us before spreading your complaint around. I’m surprised that no one has complained about the other companies at this event who show scenes of different nations killing one another in war depictions – but I guess this is a gaming conference.
Gary (Gary Lin CEO glispa GmbH)
I thought about writing back to Mr. Lin, Gary. I thought about telling him how none of the Navajos I’ve asked have ever heard of “glispa,” but if it is a true element of Navajo tradition the company has no business using it in their marketing. I thought about telling him that Navajos lived in hogans, not teepees. I thought about telling him that there is not one Native American culture, but a multitude of vastly diverse cultures. With an “s.” I thought about asking why, if he knows the depictions are not accurate, is he using them? But, the words were stuck. I was saddened by his response. It felt dismissive. It felt like he didn’t hear me. It felt like another example of a non-Indian person telling an Indian person what should and shouldn’t be offensive about their own cultures. And he was using his own identity as a person of color along with his “Native American friends” to somehow make it okay. Mr. Lin, it is not now, nor has it ever been okay.
The day has progressed and I have been exposed to more of glispa’s misappropriations and ignorance regarding Native communities (for the masochists among you check out their twitter feed @glispa). And I thought again about writing a response letter to Mr. Lin and his company. But, the truth is I don’t want to write to them. I don’t want to expose myself to more unapologetic apologies. Instead, I want to write to Indian Country. I want to write to my community. And I want to say this:
I love you. I love your courage, your resiliency, and your ability to endure. I love you because despite the onslaught of generations of stereotypical images of our people we persist. I love you because you are beautiful, funny, diverse, sensitive, creative, intelligent, vulnerable, strong, and caring. I love you when you are happy, I love you when you are sad, I love you in your successes and I love you in your failures. I love you in your advocacy, I love you in your passions, I love you in your desire to self-determination, and I love you in your day-to-day triumphs and disappointments. I love you when you suffer. And I love you when you are joyful.
I want you to know I love you because we don’t hear it enough. Because we don’t feel it enough. Because too often we find ourselves frustrated, angry, disappointed, and broken-hearted. Because too often, in this world where once we were the majority and now we are less than a minority, our voices are lost. In this world when we are enrolling, dis-enrolling, counting blood quantum, watching our children die, watching our languages slip away, drinking, drugging, gambling, ganging, abusing, but also writing, praying, dancing, singing, laughing, playing, creating laws to protect our children, creating programs to enrich our traditions, enacting legislation to support our resources, and speaking up WE NEED LOVE.
And I love you. I love us. I love who we are as a vibrant, multi-faceted, dynamic family. A big one, with lots of cousins.
And I wanted you to know that in this big, messed up, hurt-filled world where companies like glispa, organizations like the R*dskins, and even our favorite actors don’t listen to us:
‘Ée hete’wise. I love you.
For more discussion on glispa’s misappropriations in marketing:
Simon Moya-Smith, Indian Country Today Media Network
Jean-Luc Pierite, Gaygamer
Audra Schroeder, The Daily Dot
Renee Nejo, M for Mature