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Tiger Lily: What is there to take back? A lot!

I already posted a couple of days ago about being so honored to have my work included in the recent Four Winds Literary Magazine's issue Taking Back Tiger Lily. I haven't seen any published responses to the issue yet, and I'm really curious how it will be received. A small part of that is, of course, because my own work is included; but, mostly I'm wondering if the issue itself will put to bed the criticism that the call for submissions received just for asking for a Native response to Tiger Lily. ​

Sovereign Bodies, a website dedicated to Indigenous Womens' health, published a blog post by Tiffany Midge back in June titled, "What's There to Take Back?" I respect Midge's right to her opinion, but I feel that she misses the whole point of this project. I agree that Tiger Lily as a character is troublesome. She was created by a Scottish author, J.M. Barrie and her dress and tribe are completely fictitious. She is an amalgamation of a white man's imaginings of the stereotypical Indian Princess. She is usually played by white women on stage and screen. (See image above of Miriam Nesbitt who originated the role.) But, whether you like Tiger Lily or not, she has become a part of how our larger society depicts and classifies Native Americans--as usual, incorrectly.

Before the issue came out, I only had my own work to go by. But now that I've seen all of these Native responses that all came out of looking at the world through the lens of "Tiger Lily," I am amazed. There is some powerful and important work here. These are Native people sharing their experiences on their own terms. So when Midge says, "I find this “project,” at best, fetishistic and essentializing, and at worst, apologist and racist. It upholds and privileges a white supremacist power structure," I have to disagree. Nobody here is holding up the stereotypical character of Tiger Lily as a model of Indigenous womanhood. Nobody is celebrating Disney's racist cartoon version of Tiger Lily or praising the casting of (yet another) white woman, Rooney Mara, in the upcoming film version of Peter Pan. But Midge was not the only person writing an emotional rebuttal to Four Winds call for submissions.

There was yet another essay that talked negatively about this project before it's publication. Less than a week before Taking Back Tiger Lily went live, Indian Country Today Media Network published "Pocahontas Was a Kidnap Victim, Not a Disney Princess" by Terese Marie Mailhot. Her article mostly responded to Sophie Gilbert's recent piece in The Atlantic that defended the Disney film version of Pocahontas on its 20th anniversary, and I agree with much of what she has to say. However, when she starts comparing the Taking Back Tiger Lily project to Disney's Pocahontas, I again have to politely protest. "I’m working to obliterate Tiger Lily and Disney’s Pocahontas while The Atlantic and Four Winds magazines are trying to save every decaying romantic image of Indian femininity," she writes. This is patently false. Four Winds efforts here were not to prop up the stereotype, they were to demolish the romanticized images (such as the original costume sketch above by William Nicholson, a British portraitist) and replace them with actual Native voices.

What disappoints me the most about these articles is why these two Native women felt the need to publicly lash out in an attempt to devalue the work and opinions of other Native women (and men) before they could even see a finished product. How is that helping to promote any sort of positive role model of Indigenous womanhood? I can understand that they have their own opinions and concerns, but I cannot condone the vehemence with which they attack the project. There is nothing respectful about this type of dialogue, rather they are themselves enforcing different stereotypes when they reject the possibility that any Native woman might have a valid reason to, herself, choose to identify with Tiger Lily.

I already have written about my own work with reappropration on a blog post for Four Winds. I think this type of work has an important place at the table. So when Midge concludes her article with a long list of stereotypically racist imagery and asks whether they should be taken back, I say, "YES!" This is one of the things that Native people and artists can do to combat these types of negative depictions. A single artwork isn't going to end racism, but it can contribute to the conversation and get other people to think about their long-held beliefs in new ways. Look at Kara Walker, an African-American artist who created the work shown above (A Subtlety, 2014) that reappropriates negative stereotypes of black women. Should she not do the work she is doing? Should she just ignore racist historical depictions of black women and let those images continue to speak for themselves? No!

I really like what Simon Tam, bass player for The Slants, the worlds first all Asian-American dance rock band, has to say about reappropriation:

"For my band, we are referring to our collected group as “The Slants.” It is ludicrous to believe that this would justify someone beginning to use the term in a hurtful manner as the common norm. A popular feminist magazine that also is named after a re-appropriated term, “Bitch,” isn’t supporting people to call all females bitches. When Chinese rap artist Jin refers to himself as “chink” or “slant eye” in his lyrics, people aren’t drawing the conclusion that they are justified in using the term. Constituents see that individuals directly tied to the referenced community are using it in a personal and positive manner. It is through positive exposure that we educate others on appropriate uses of a term as well as the necessity of bold acts of self-pride from members of under represented communities."

And he closes with this:

"So before we lash out at our fellow Asian American activists for re-appropriation, why not reach out to them and attempt to understand their work first? If we are creating a positive message, engage others, and inspiring others to give our community a voice, shouldn’t we find meaningful ways to support one another rather than create division and tear each other down?"

Yes, why can't we support each other? Just because we can choose to ignore poor old stereotypical Tiger Lily doesn't mean that she would somehow cease to have ever existed.

I'll end with an excerpt from the Taking Back Tiger Lily issue's Letter From the Editors:

"So feel free to enjoy these works. Feel free to disagree. Let them inspire you to Take Back Tiger Lily in your own way. But don’t follow my initial treatment of her. Don’t ignore her. No matter your personal solution to this issue, ignoring the image doesn’t make it disappear. People remember; society remembers. Tiger Lily deserves our attention, and we deserve the chance to take back that image."

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