Dr. Keene showcases Native representations

Casey DiBari & Emily Long1851 Staff

Dr. Adrienne Keene shows students Google search results using the term “Native American.” Photo by Marissa Gugala

Dr. Adrienne Keene, Native American academic, writer and activist, spoke on Oct. 4 during common hour in de Witt Hall.  Her presentation was entitled “Native Representations, Pop Culture and Cultural Resistance in Cyberspace.”  

As a member of the Cherokee Nation,  Dr. Keene focused much of her presentation on how Native Americans are represented in contemporary society. She started by showing a screenshot of a Google search using the term “Native American.”

She compared searches from a few years prior to an updated search from the day before the presentation. What stood out to Dr. Keene the most was many of the images in recent searches were similar to images from the past. These types of representations led Dr. Keene to start a blog called “Native Appropriations” during her first year of graduate school. 

“I was a first year as a graduate student at the Harvard School of Education. I was the only native person in my entire program. [There were] only three to four native students in all the schools at Harvard… so it was a very isolating,” said Dr. Keene. 

Inspiration for a blog struck when she ventured into the Urban Outfitters in Harvard Square, and was shocked to see the extent of cultural appropriation in the store. From totem poles to fake moccasins, the store had every appropriation she could imagine. Keene took her camera to the store for documentation. Posting these photos to her blog allowed her to start conversations about Native American portrayals in modern society. Dr. Keene uses her platform to educate others on native culture.  

Dr. Keene explains that a problem also stems from companies using Native Americans as Halloween costumes. Yandy, a controversial costume store, continues to make products alike Native American costumes. According to Keene, Yandy took down their controversial “Sexy Handmaid Costume,” based on the book and show “A Handmaid’s Tale,” after public outrage. However, when Native Americans asked Yandy to do the same, their CEO replied saying that the costumes make too much money to pull down. “The Handmaids are fictional,” Keene says, “We’re real.”  There is currently an online petition to force Yandy to take down the costumes from their site.  

She explains the issue with Columbus Day and the known history of Christopher Columbus. According to Dr. Keene, back in 2009, Native American students at Brown University started campaigning to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The students took this to the faculty, but instead of changing it to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, they changed it to Fall Weekend. “[Indigenous Peoples’ Day] was a step too far.” Keene said. The rally to change the name was met with some backlash from the community, who said that it was disrespectful to change the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

Years later, a new group of students tried to have the name of the weekend changed and were again met with similar backlash, especially from the student paper. Students still had a proposal at a faculty meeting where people would be able to vote on the issue, which Dr. Keene says was largely attended. While she says they knew the proposal would pass, there was still an open to forum to discuss it.   

Older faculty members who opposed this action and were quoted saying things like, “Columbus Day represents the event of a major discovery, the first discovery of land in the Americas, and in North America particularly.” Dr. Keene reminds the audience that Columbus did not discover America, and in fact got lost while looking for India. She also shared quotes saying that changing the name from Columbus Day would be disrespectful to Italian Americans, although Columbus was working for Spain at the time. She notes the importance of those the quotes came from white men.

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