[Image description: Looking up at sticks arranged like tipi supports with dusk colored sky and clouds behind them.]
You can’t look through Pinterest or your Facebook feed without seeing a clean modern children’s play area set up with one: a play teepee. Meant to be twee little nests for children to hide away in, the reality of what they represent is quite insidious. When I look at them I see the worst of cultural appropriation, hurtful cultural stereotyping, Native erasure, and fetishizing.
Teepees, or tipis, are a real cultural object used as dwellings by several Native Nations, including the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota. They were and are real homes for real people and continue to be used ceremonially by many of these tribes too as they hold onto their traditional ways that have been forcibly erased. In reducing something that was integral to the cultures of these Nations to adorn your living room, we erase its cultural significance and history. These play teepees are generic, where the originals would not have been. Even the word itself “teepee” is a generic, Anglicization of the real term used for these dwellings, which comes to English from a Lakota word. Parents aren’t using these play tents as a way to talk to their children about the history or culture of the people they come from. We’re appropriating them as something cutesy for our playrooms.
Which leads to another piece of this trend, native erasure. The teepee is so often used as a generic symbol of all North American indigenous people. Except they were used by some Native Nations, not all. Moreover, teepees as a generic dwelling, have been used by other indigenous people in other places around the world. In pairing them with broader stereotyped depictions of “Indians” seen in popular culture and ignoring their cultural and historical importance, we reinforce those hurtful stereotypes that have allowed these people to be colonized and erased. It also reduces the cultures and people in the eyes of our children to something they can take from to make their homes and spaces more on trend and ultimately discard when no longer fashionable.
I also fear that this will encourage a resurgence in children “playing Indian”. The idea is still out there, even though I think most people see it as something kids did in the 50s and 60s. I see it depicted again and again in new children’s books and even in magazines and certainly at Halloween time. “Playing Indian” either includes fighting and villainizing the “Indians” or fetishizing them as the gentle, nature loving Native Americans. It’s all more stereotyping. But a stereotype of people who were exterminated by white settlers and government and continue to be marginalized. Again neither villainizing nor fetishizing gets at the history of colonization of Native Nations, nor does it show our children that their cultures are not there for our taking.
Now I’m sure there are some people who want to argue that these play teepees honor the cultures they come from and I want to directly address that. You would only be honoring the culture if you were talking about their cultural and historical importance and, considering how generic the play teepees look, you aren’t. Just having it in your house does not impart the significance of the object if you do not give it the proper context. More importantly a big, non-Native company has taken this culturally significant object and turned it into something generic that they are now marketing and making money off of. None of those sales are going to benefit the Native Nations the object has come from (not that that would indicate any form of reverence, anyway). They have appropriated the teepee to make it into something they can sell stylish parents and make a quick buck. In no way does any of that honor a living culture.
If you have a teepee please consider opening a conversation with your child about what it is and remove it from your living room too. If you are considering buying one, don’t. Click through to the links below (also found in the links in the paragraph above) if you need more convincing. They are articles written by people more knowledgable than me as they are members of Native Nations. I will be writing letters to companies that sell them. A drop in the ocean to these companies, but if you agree and would like to join me, maybe we can make a difference.
Repost: Step away from the “Indian” costume! by Dr. Adrienne Keane, Cherokee, from her blog Native Appropriations
When Media Promotes Offensive Indian Stereotypes by Sarah Sunshine Manning from Indian Country Today
Lane Smith’s new picture book: There Is a TRIBE of KIDS (plus a response to Rosanne Parry) by Dr. Debbie Reese, Nambe Owingeh, from her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature