America's Next Top Model returned last week. At the best of times, the show is always about 80% unselfconscious fun and about 20% WTFery. During the first episode, those percentages were switched. It's the British versus Americans, so of course we delved into embarrassing national stereotypes of the most superficial variety. The most beguiling moment occurred during the photoshoot: the aim was for the American and British girls to portray icons from their countries. The Brits dressed up as people like John Lennon, Margaret Thatcher, and Amy Winehouse, while the Americans portrayed figures such as Michelle Obama, George Washington, and Madonna.
This year, there is one Native American contestant, the first ever in the show's history, named Mariah Watchman. Which figure do you think she was asked to portray? Pocahontas.
While many other girls of color were assigned to portray historical figures of different races from their own, they made the Native girl play Pocahontas. Ugh. At that point, I was disappointed but not enraged. After all, ANTM specializes in somehow morphing the ridiculous into the mildly entertaining. But it got worse. So, so much worse. During panel, Mariah was criticized for not getting into the role of Pocahontas more. Here's what judge Nigel Barker said:
"First of all Mariah, I think you had a very easy thing to do. You're Native American? (She nods) But I don't feel that you've committed. I just don't see the angst, I don't see the feeling, I don't see the passion. I just see you looking pretty."
Holy stereotypes, Nigel! Adrienne at the wonderful blog Native Appropriations very throughly breaks down this issue and explains exactly why that criticism is so ignorant. She also details the many reasons the outfit is inaccurate.
What infuriates me is that Mariah grew up on the Umatilla reservation, located about two hundred miles south of where I grew up in Spokane. Pocahontas was a Powhatan from Virginia. Mariah is about as related to Pocahontas as someone from Zimbabwe is related to King Tut or someone from Poland is related to Mulan. Simply because her ancestors lived on the same continent as Pocahontas, does not mean modeling as Pocahontas should be "easy" for her.
People who don't know better tend to lump all Native people together as though they're part of a giant country like America today, but the cultural and linguistic differences from tribe to tribe paint a very different picture. When new nations are created today, two factors rank highest in determining whether a piece of land should be a country: language and culture. Using that logic, it's far better to envision Native tribes as separate countries than to blend them all together into a general "Native America".
|Check out this map of all the individual Native tribes in California alone.|
In most cases, tribes of such geographical disparity as the Umatilla and Powhatan would have had very different language, traditions, and culture. The idea that a Umatilla girl didn't portray the "angst" of a Powhatan girl well enough is moot and ridiculous.