Dear Indian Country

I’ll admit it. I have been neglecting my writing. But, this morning something happened to remind me that the ability to put pen to paper as an expression of my experience is a gift. And this gift has a purpose. And my purpose is to write. And write. And write. Whether or not anyone is listening.

This morning, my brilliant doctor friend and fellow creative person, Elizabeth LaPensée, posted a photo on Facebook. A photo that made me groan, roll my eyes, sigh, and hang my head. A photo that put my belly in a twist. Another photo in a long line of disturbing images turning Indigenous people into caricatures for other peoples entertainment (think Washington R*dskins, think Chief Wahoo, think Portland Winterhawks, think Johnny Depp’s Tonto, think Avatar, think “Indian Princess” Halloween costumes).

Elizabeth had been attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco (you see, she is a game developer whose work addresses Indigenous determination in video games, animation, and web comics) and witnessed this:

Glispa at GDC

Two beautiful young women dressed in brown fringe standing in front of a canvas teepee as a marketing ploy for a company known as glispa. Glispa, a “performance marketing platform for mobile and digital entertainment clients,” boasts on its webpage that it is a multicultural team representing 33 different countries and 23 different languages. A company this diverse ought to know better than to abuse stereotypes of indigenous people to make money.

I took a closer look at their website. It gets worse. They call themselves “your online rainmaker.” Their departmental teams are named after Native American tribes (Team Hopi, Team Cherokee, Team Mohawk). Their page has a silhouette of an “Indian” with feathers and a staff. And when a team member’s photo is not available for display it is replaced by another silhouetted image of the media favorite “profile of an Indian in a headdress.”

Do they really not know this degrading? Do they really not know this is painful? Does this multicultural organization really not understand the implications of images such as these?

So, I wrote a letter to the organization. Because words matter. I told them I am a Native American woman. I told them I found their “teepee and indians” display offensive, hurtful, and despairing. I told them these images perpetuate stereotypes, encourage racism, and make a mockery of Indigenous people. I told them the scene in the photo demonstrated ignorance and a lack of respect for Native people. I told them we are people not characters. I asked them to stop abusing Native people with stereotypes and racist portrayals.

It didn’t take long to receive a response. Only about forty-five minutes. And this was the reply:

Hi Melissa,

I founded the company in the US over a decade ago and this is the first time I have received such a complaint.  I am a Chinese-American and understand the sensitivities around race and culture fully.  I was born in the midwest and have many Native American friends.  The name glispa comes from Navajo mythology and we have adopted many of the values of Native American culture in our company philosophy.  In the beginning some of these teachings were the driving principles behind the company philosophy.  We had no intention of offending anyone and “racist” is a strong remark.  While the depiction may not be accurate, we all stem from indigenous people and cultures.  Our company currently has over 35 nationalities and teams recognize the tribes from where they were born.  We celebrate the differences as well as the blending of these roots.  I apologize if this has been misinterpreted and I wish you would have formally contacted us before spreading your complaint around.  I’m surprised that no one has complained about the other companies at this event who show scenes of different nations killing one another in war depictions – but I guess this is a gaming conference.

Gary (Gary Lin CEO glispa GmbH)

I thought about writing back to Mr. Lin, Gary. I thought about telling him how none of the Navajos I’ve asked have ever heard of “glispa,” but if it is a true element of Navajo tradition the company has no business using it in their marketing. I thought about telling him that Navajos lived in hogans, not teepees. I thought about telling him that there is not one Native American culture, but a multitude of vastly diverse cultures. With an “s.” I thought about asking why, if he knows the depictions are not accurate, is he using them? But, the words were stuck. I was saddened by his response. It felt dismissive. It felt like he didn’t hear me. It felt like another example of a non-Indian person telling an Indian person what should and shouldn’t be offensive about their own cultures. And he was using his own identity as a person of color along with his “Native American friends” to somehow make it okay. Mr. Lin, it is not now, nor has it ever been okay.

The day has progressed and I have been exposed to more of glispa’s misappropriations and ignorance regarding Native communities (for the masochists among you check out their twitter feed @glispa). And I thought again about writing a response letter to Mr. Lin and his company. But, the truth is I don’t want to write to them. I don’t want to expose myself to more unapologetic apologies. Instead, I want to write to Indian Country. I want to write to my community. And I want to say this:

Dear Relatives,

I love you. I love your courage, your resiliency, and your ability to endure. I love you because despite the onslaught of generations of stereotypical images of our people we persist. I love you because you are beautiful, funny, diverse, sensitive, creative, intelligent, vulnerable, strong, and caring. I love you when you are happy, I love you when you are sad, I love you in your successes and I love you in your failures. I love you in your advocacy, I love you in your passions, I love you in your desire to self-determination, and I love you in your day-to-day triumphs and disappointments. I love you when you suffer. And I love you when you are joyful.

I want you to know I love you because we don’t hear it enough. Because we don’t feel it enough. Because too often we find ourselves frustrated, angry, disappointed, and broken-hearted. Because too often, in this world where once we were the majority and now we are less than a minority, our voices are lost. In this world when we are enrolling, dis-enrolling, counting blood quantum, watching our children die, watching our languages slip away, drinking, drugging, gambling, ganging, abusing, but also writing, praying, dancing, singing, laughing, playing, creating laws to protect our children, creating programs to enrich our traditions, enacting legislation to support our resources, and speaking up WE NEED LOVE.

And I love you. I love us. I love who we are as a vibrant, multi-faceted, dynamic family. A big one, with lots of cousins.

And I wanted you to know that in this big, messed up, hurt-filled world where companies like glispa, organizations like the R*dskins, and even our favorite actors don’t listen to us:

‘Ée hete’wise. I love you.

~Melissa

 

For more discussion on glispa’s misappropriations in marketing:

Simon Moya-Smith, Indian Country Today Media Network

Jean-Luc Pierite, Gaygamer

Audra Schroeder, The Daily Dot

Renee Nejo, M for Mature

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9 thoughts on “Dear Indian Country

  1. Pingback: The infamous GDC booth (and attached babes) | eluminarts

  2. From the email I just sent to Glispa:

    As someone who was at the show and saw your booth and who is also aware of your responses to several emails posted on the Woman Storyteller blog site (http://womanstoryteller.com/2014/03/20/dear-indian-country/), I feel the need to speak to you directly. I’m the person who first tweeted out an image of your booth (but not the women working in it because I respect their individual privacy) along with your corporate brochure.

    My need to speak to you directly stems from a few of the things you asserted in those response emails. I disagree with your assertion that the complaint should have been to the company directly rather than in a more public manner. Your booth was displayed publicly–why should response to your booth not take the same approach?

    I can say two things about the “hostesses”:

    The fact that the women’s attire was supposed to look like a “sexy Indian girl” was not the only problem with them. They were “booth babes,” which many women feel are demeaning under any circumstances, especially at a professional (rather than consumer) conference.

    and

    I strongly suspect that the only reason you covered them up was because you were directed to by someone of authority who could point at the rule or rules you were breaking by having ANY booth babe on the floor of GDC.

    This GDC had a lot of press well before the show about the advocacy track and diversity, especially about both racial diversity and the issues faced by women in game development (which includes the issues with booth babes at venues like E3). Doing a brief amount of research would have helped you understand how tone-deaf and inflammatory your booth and “hostesses” would appear at the conference.

    Even beyond that, I’m hoping you’ll take the time to understand why your company’s branding offends people belonging to the cultures it misuses and stereotypes. While your corporate branding may seem challenging to change at this point, I think the cost of paying a graphic designer for a few weeks and the one time expense of changing your booth displays is worth the show of good faith it would demonstrate. I personally look forward to tweeting and blogging about those changes when you make them, and what it illustrates about your leadership and your company.

    –Laralyn

  3. Hi Melissa,

    This is an excellent post, and is absolutely worth some serious thought and consideration. I am happy to have found your blog. I am a librarian who lives and works in Denver, CO. While I appreciate the rich cultural traditions of Native American peoples, I come to the table with a full awareness of the fact that, not only am I not Native American, I am also extremely ignorant on the subject of Native American literature for children. We do have children from time to time who want to become educated about these cultures and traditions, and as a public librarian, I am ethically charged with the sometimes immense obligation and responsibility of guiding children and families to resources that are both respectful and culturally accurate.

    However, I am of European heritage. I did not study Native American traditions or culture as a student of higher education. I am now being asked to evaluate a book by a renown author that is based on Native American traditions. Like I said, I am not any expert, and after doing my own research, I have found opinions of this author and his/her work on two opposite ends of the spectrum. My question for you is: are you aware of any literature or academic writing that might be a resource for me to make an educated, respectful analysis of this book? I do not want to dismiss the author or his work entirely, because libraries DO collect books on many differing viewpoints, BUT we do not want to collect items that are outwardly inaccurate in nature.

    Keep up the good work and thanks in advance for your insight.

    Natalie

  4. I thought it was interesting that on glispa’s own website, there is a page for “6 commandments” one of which is “Seek to Understand.” That they placed these commandments, which they attribute to various “tribes,” next to images of Native people unrelated to the tribes mentioned shows they aren’t even able to adhere to their own commandments. So I guess it’s unreasonable to expect them to understand at all. *Sigh* Thank you for writing such a wonderful post, though.

  5. I went to their booth at GDC with my husband (of Cherokee and Yaqui descent) and received nothing but defensiveness. Though I found the imagery shocking and inaccurate (the sexy brave, teepees for Navajos), I had one question: are you affiliated with a tribe? The rep said, “Yes. Glispa is the Najavo goddess of rain.” Are you Navajo owned? “No.” Though I tried in calm terms to explain why this might be offensive, they failed to understand and seemed nothing short of defensive. It’s unacceptable.

  6. My correspondence with Gary Lin:

    My First Email to Gary Lin:

    Dear Glispa Employee,

    I am writing with concern as to the booth you displayed at the recent Game Developers Conference. You have created something that I find troubling for my community, both as a technologist/programmer and as a Native American woman.

    At your booth I have seen photos that depict scantily dressed women who are dressed up in ‘red face’ a term given to the caricature of a native person as a derogatory stereotype. It is not only the inaccuracy of this depiction that is problematic and disturbing, but the very real implications your behavior has on my community and the safety of our women.

    The sexual objectification of native women’s bodies in order to sell products is shameful and a part of an oppressive trend that is outdated and has been out of style for quite some time. Why is that? Well, in the USA Native American women are more likely than any other group to be the victims of sexual assault. Many tribal lands are unable to prosecute rapists on their land(rapists who are disproportionately white men who are not from our community). The criminals get away with abusing native women because they are already over sexualized in global media and there is little legal protections given to those who live on reservations. You are contributing to the culture of negative stereotypes that allow people to think (all over the world apparently) that they have the entitlement to take sexual liberties with women from our community. Did you know the Violence Against Women Act nearly didn’t pass in this country because of provisions that would add protections to Native Women? You have said in press releases that your company does ‘honor’ Native Americans. The actions of your company in depicting native women at your booth honors no one. If you do care about our culture- stand by our Native Women instead of exploiting them.

    Regards,

    Amelia Winger-Bearskin

    His Response:

    Hi Amelia,

    I’m copying Melissa on this message as she has been very vocal on the topic as well. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I respect that. Again, I wish the individual who actually attended the event would have submitted a formal complaint directly to the company management first. We are small company and take these concerns seriously and would have responded appropriately. Now a handful of individuals that seem to be most upset were not even there and have taken aspects out of context (including the overall imagery of the rest of our booth). Additionally, they don’t understand the ramifications and eventual consequences of their postings. Not only the company, but a number of individual employees here have received several extremely hateful and deliberately racist and sexist messages with the intention to disrespect.

    I do not feel the reference to specific indigenous philosophies or symbols is necessarily inappropriate. Yes, we do use Native American references, but also draw from many other groups including ones from the employees’ own heritage and roots. With that being said, I do apologize for not being sensitive enough to the cultural implications of the hostesses that were hired. To be honest, I did not know that this was the main point of objection until your email below. I’m not sure if anyone even realizes, but we did respond and by the end of the first day, the hostesses were wearing company sweatshirts and continued to do so for the rest of the week.

    “Unintentional” is not always an excuse, but at least there is an opportunity of having an open and direct conversation which unfortunately did not happen here. It is easy to complain, but more productive to seek understanding and create a dialogue on the individual level.

    Gary

    Gary Lin
    CEO
    glispa GmbH
    Sophienstr. 21
    10178 Berlin, Germany

    contact@glispamedia.com
    http://www.glispa.com

    __________________________________________
    Sitz Berlin, AG Charlottenburg HRB 114678B

    My Response to his Response:

    Dear Gary Lin,

    I do not feel as though it is necessary for me to speak about the alleged actions of others (I have no details), nor do I understand why it was required that ‘the individual who attend the event’ should only be allowed to speak in private to your company. Your company made a very public display at a very public event. Just as you wish ‘the individual’ had kept her ‘complaints’ behind closed doors, I too wish your company had kept its desire to hyper-sexualize Native Women behind closed doors as well.

    You feel there are a ‘handful’ of people who have ‘complained’ and these people do not understand the ramifications of their actions, I believe your company and its handful of employees do not understand the ramifications of your public display. However you have claimed your demeaning display was ‘unintentional’ and I will trust you.

    Like you- I too wish for a conversation, that is why I have explained to you in clear language why people are distressed at your companies behavior. I do this as a way to begin a conversation not shut one down.

    So I ask you clearly:

    Do you wish to support our community?

    Regardless of what is past- you have a unique opportunity to align yourself with advocates like myself. I reach out to you – I will call you friend. However I have not yet seen any actions on your part that make me believe you are in fact a friend to my community.

    This is your moment to prove you are a friend.

    What you choose to do from here on out will define your relationship with our community.

    I will be so bold as to direct you to a few non-profit organizations who are in need of volunteers and mentors from the tech industry. Perhaps you and your employees can donate your time to help the very culture that has inspired the imagery of your company. A great deed speaks volumes and many companies have been in your position and won over the support of public opinion by being judged by their actions of charity, trust and understanding, when they have made missteps that have hurt others.

    Here are a few organizations who would benefit from your volunteering of time, collaboration or donations of resources. To be clear, I am not employed by any of these organizations, these are organizations I respect, that is all. I do not personally benefit from any of their work financially, it only warms my heart.

    In no particular order:

    Native Arts and Cultures Foundation
    a national organization dedicated to promoting Native arts and cultures through philanthropy.
    http://www.nativeartsandcultures.org/

    American Indian Graduate Center Scholarship
    Helping Native American Students continue their education into advanced degrees
    http://www.aigcs.org/

    American Indian Science and Engineering Society
    A scholarship, journal and conference for Native People who are studying Science and Engineering.

    Native American Rights Firm
    the oldest legal rights firm dedicated to asserting and protecting the rights of Native Americans (non profit)
    http://www.narf.org/

    The National Museum of the American Indian
    an active and visible component of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex. (DC and NYC)
    http://nmai.si.edu/home/

    National Indian Child Welfare Association
    NICWA provides training and support for the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA)
    http://www.nicwa.org/

    Institute of American Indian Arts
    The College of Contemporary Native Arts, the only art school for and by the Native Community
    http://www.iaia.edu/

    May I suggest, that when approaching these wonderful organizations that you do so with a spirit of mutual respect. Perhaps you have indeed reached out to those who have tried to communicate with your company about this incident, if not I hope that you do indeed try to turn this into a conversation. The best way to begin is by asking a question, give it a try you may find a very interesting and positive answer can be found.

    Sincerely,

    Amelia Winger-Bearskin
    Graduate Student at New York University (NYU)
    TISCH School of the Arts – ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program)
    New York, NY

    http://www.StudioAmelia.com

  7. Yes yes YES to your letter of love. The letters calling to accountability the ongoing crimes (and the refusal to own responsibility for them) are necessary and exhausting and I will join you. But so, too, is the nurture and support of your communites necessary… without that nurture we will not have the strength to go on fighting. May your writing anchor you not only in the resistance, but in the wholeness and Love of The People that lives before/through/always now within you. Write write write Beloved. Sending prayers to Mama God and the ancestors to surround you with their voices.

  8. Well said. I will also write this company so they know it is not only you who are disturbed by that display. They need a Red tide of mail complaining about their cultural insensitivity. Bless you and Beth for bringing this forward.

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