Michelle Williams on the cover of AnOther Magazine. (Source: holymoly.com)
Dear Ms. Williams,
I cringed when I saw that you “dressed up as a Native American.” While some have called your decision “risqué,” I’d call it deeply offensive. Still, I was going to ignore your foolish costume until I saw a recent interview in which you shared your inspiration for Oz the Great and Powerful. In it, you compared Natives to Munchkins, and I knew then that this letter was necessary. What you’ve said and done is not only disrespectful—it’s dangerous. I hope you’ll read through this letter and think twice before once again choosing to participate in actions that preserve deeply racist convictions in popular culture.
By wearing a braided wig and donning feathers, and calling that “Native American” in a photo shoot, you’re perpetuating the lazy idea that Natives are all one and the same. Because you were born and spent your childhood in Montana, I expected more from you. Montana is home to seven reservations, where Natives from more than a dozen state or federally recognized tribes and nations reside—each with its own history, culture and language.
The United States federally recognizes and has established government-to-government ties with nearly 600 Native nations. And while these nations share in common that they constitute the people who descend from the continent’s original inhabitants, they are otherwise unique (and not one of those nations wears braided wigs and feathers as if to represent their people). By dressing up as an imaginary Native, you’re working to conceal both the history and the presence of real ones.
I suppose that, had you chosen to wear a headdress, it may have been worse—but the critique remains the same. As Adrienne Keene eloquently points out, playing Indian not only promotes stereotypes, but violates profound spiritual significances, is tantamount to wearing blackface and prolongs a violent history of genocide and colonialism. You’ve done all of that with your photo-shoot costume.
But it’s not just what you wore, Ms. Williams. It’s also what you said. In an interview published in the Los Angeles Times last week, you claimed that it is difficult for you to grasp Oz because “Quadlings, Tinkers and Munchkins didn’t mean much to me; it wasn’t my language.” I don’t blame you—I wouldn’t know what to make of these fictional roles, either. Your character in the film, Glinda, holds dominion over these adorably named personalities, and I imagine you had to dig deep in order take charge and lead them. But rather than delving more intensely into the fantasy of Oz, you declared that when you thought of these Munchkins “as Native Americans trying to inhabit their land or about women getting the right to vote, it made a lot more sense.”
Native Americans are not Munchkins, Ms. Williams—and neither were the suffragettes who fought for your right to vote. To even suggest a comparison between imaginary Munchkins in a film and Natives in real life fighting for untold stakes is perilous because it sustains the entirely racist notion that Natives are cute creatures that require safekeeping. Unlike the costume you wore and later discarded, Natives cannot shake off five centuries of injustice after a photo shoot. There is no photo shoot. The struggles for Native land, sovereignty, healthcare, education and even running water remain real yet silent. That silence is only deepened when you make ludicrous statements that liken Natives to Munchkins.
Your remark illustrates that in your imagination, the struggle for land and women’s suffrage are battles that took place in a distant past. But while reality indicates that women have long secured the right to vote, Natives are still fighting—not only for land, but also for voting rights. In your 2010 film, Meek’s Cutoff, your character defends a conveniently unnamed Cayuse played by Rod Rondeaux. I take it you know that Rondeaux grew up on the Crow Nation, not terribly far from your hometown of Kalispell, Montana. But did you know that Native voters living on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations were disproportionately disenfranchised in the last election—an essential repeat of every election since Natives were granted US citizenship in 1924?
Along with many others, Tom Rodgers (Blackfeet) fought tirelessly for Natives to have equal access to early voting and late registration through satellite offices in Montana, but was stalled at every turn by nearly unbelievable odds. One of the people who blocked those efforts is married to a direct descendant of George Custer; another is a judge whose racist e-mails drew outrage, although he kept his powerful post. November’s election came and went, and after a long series of legal maneuvers, the case heads to court one week from today, when opening briefs in federal lawsuit will be heard. Rodgers, whose commitment is finally beginning to pay off, isn’t new in the political arena—in fact, he blew the whistle on Jack Abramoff, and is a powerful strategist fighting on behalf of Natives. Needless to say, he’s no Munchkin. The fact that I’ve had to spell that out for you in this letter might be funny if it weren’t so preposterous.
One line I remember from the original Oz is that “There’s no place like home.” Yours is Montana, Ms. Williams. In an interview a couple of years ago, you explained that your great, great grandmother stowed away on a boat from Norway to Ellis Island. This undocumented immigrant ancestor of yours then traveled in a covered wagon to Montana—which is how that became your childhood home. It’s good to know where we come from. In your case, your home state boasts one of the highest Native populations in the United States. I would hope that you learn a little more about it. Since you made the decision to talk about “Native Americans trying to inhabit their land,” I suggest you start by learning about the struggle of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians—there’s no place like home for them, either.
American imperialism lives on in domestic media—and the world over. Read Tom Hayden’s take on executive war-making power.