Hey America, Let's Talk: Appropriation, Identity, and Art

Over the long 4th of July weekend, fireworks lit up the night sky across the country, a celebration of the United States’s independence. While some sported the red, white, and blue with patriotic smiles others were reminded of the origins of the United States. They were reminded of 1492. The violent beginning of tense racial relationships between the United States and the Native people they stole from. Not only were Native people stripped of their land and their children but their culture is something that American popular culture has been benefitting from for a long time. “Native American people, our work, our content, our graphics, have been appropriated for so long. Mainstream culture/white culture is so used to taking from Native people that if we complain about it they’re like ‘What’s the big deal? You didn’t care in 1950 or in 1901. Why do you care now?’, says San Carlos Apache-Akimel O’odham artist, Douglas Miles.

“Now” is a different time. “Now” is filled with a new generation that is demanding that difficult conversations be had and history be acknowledged. This generation is proving that they’re more than the one dimensional stereotypical image that has followed them since 1492. They are multidimensional, multifaceted individuals who exist outside of Western movies depicting Native folks as white men painted brown. They’re artists, writers, scholars, activists, and so much more. They’re into skateboards and they’re into lowriders. They belong to different subcultures while still belonging to their own. Miles is part of the exhibit, “The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazon, e Inspiracion”, at the Petersen Automotive Museum . His piece “Chevrolet Apache” is a hand drawn painting with hand cut stencils which he then turned into a 4 color limited edition print, “Apache 59” t at Self Help Graphics & Art. For the artist, growing up lowrider street culture was the equivalent of the internet today. “We find everything on the internet like books or gossip or music but for kids in the neighborhood [South Phoenix] we got all that from lowrider street culture, Chicano culture, and of course, black culture too.” Lowriders were a symbol of ethnic pride, cultural heritage, and community. Those values and that culture are still alive today.

Miles has observed that over time “Native people have started to say, ‘This is wrong and we need to talk about this. Hey America, let’s talk. Hey American pop culture, let’s talk about this.’ But America doesn’t want to talk about their history of stealing things from Native people because they think they have the right to steal these things.” For America to talk about this history they would first have to acknowledge the unequal power relationships and the exploitation of Native people. Cultural appropriation, after all, is a form of exploitation.

One way to fight exploitation is through labels. Labels contribute to the formation of identity. Yet, labels and names have to come from within marginalized groups. “It’s one thing to have people name you and it’s another thing to name yourself. For example, young Mexican-American kids got together in the 60s and created a revolution because they created a new name for themselves. They named themselves. They said, ‘We’re not Mexican-American, we’re Chicano.’ So ‘Chicano’ became a name filled with power, new power. By naming themselves they were able to reclaim what was theirs and next thing you know we had an art revolution that was kind of ground zero here at Self Help Graphics.”

Culture and art isn’t static. It’s alive and it’s evolving. Art is an expression of oneself. “When our community is penalized for making our own art, they’re trying to stop our community from being creative which means to stop being yourself. Native art is the voice of Native people. It’s the same thing for Chicano art, it’s the voice of Chicano people. We’re all Native people. So all of our art is our Native voice.”

So hey America, stop stealing art. Listen. It’s telling you something.

Douglas Miles is a San Carlos Apache-Akimel O’odham painter, printmaker, and photographer from Arizona, who founded Apache Skateboards and Apache Skate Team. Miles combats the one-dimensional stereotypical perception the dominant group has of Native culture by focusing on the different relationships between tribe culture and other cultures. To view more of his work visit apacheskateboards.com.

Arleny Vargas is a Boyle Heights-raised resident who divides her time between Boston and Los Angeles. She’s currently an undergraduate student at Wellesley College pursuing her degree in Spanish and Studio Art. Passionate about art and representation, she seeks to combine her writing and art in an effort to combat negative media representation and amplify the narratives and experiences of the Latinx community.