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.”