Indigenous studies scholar talks cultural appropriation, stereotyping

Alijah Hernandez, Reporter

In honor of National Native American Heritage Month, Kyle T. Mays, a scholar of Indigenous studies, Afro-Indigenous studies, urban history, and Indigenous popular culture, presented “NDN Popular Culture: Decolonial Arts and the Futures of Indigenous Sovereignty” in the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Lecture Series on Nov. 16.

Mays, a Native and African American raised in Detroit, said he was exposed to mixed popular culture early on. His presentation challenged the typical Native American stereotypes and depicted ways Native American popular culture has modernized.

“How do we make sure Indigenous sovereignty continues to exist through popular culture and how can you make sure you respect and honor black lives,” Mays said. 

During the presentation Mays also described where Native American culture has instead been appropriated, citing the 2004 Grammy Performance by Outkast and the music video for Migos’ song “T-Shirt,” released in 2017.

Most stereotypes of Native Americans are wearing headdresses, hunting in the wilderness, living on the reserve, and wearing exotic clothing, Mays said. Native American popular culture is the opposite.

He said popular culture is “a remix of Indigenous cultures and languages that often blend with Black American culture and language, and make it their own.”

Indigenous music does cover different topics that concern their culture. Mays said Native American Hip-Hop is unique because it raps about sovereignty, settler colonization, daily struggles of living both on the reservation and in cities–and just having fun.

“[Native American popular culture] challenges, critiques, and disrupts, settler ideas of how Indigenous peoples are supposed to act, think and be in the world,” Mays said. Indigenous popular culture includes cultural elements like: aesthetics, music, performance art, social media, visual art, and writing.

“These Native Americans are modern. I want to keep reiterating that,” Mays said. 

African American popular culture shares similar elements to Native popular culture. “What we forget is those Africans that were forced to come to the United States, those in fact were Indigenous people,” Mays said. 

After presenting several music videos, there was a constant pattern of Native Americans sharing similar popular culture elements to today’s world. He said he wants to break down the stereotype that all Native Americans live on reservations and aren’t connected with modern consumer capitalism.  

Another element of Indigenous popular culture is high-end fashion.

“Native’s wear native bling,” Mays said. Native Americans also have high fashion websites. Mays said this disproves the stereotype that all Native people are only connected to their land–when they also have their own way of participating in capitalist consumption. 

Indigenous popular culture is a form of resistance to settler colonialism. “Indigenous hip-hop is a contradiction: It both challenges stereotypes and reinforces them,” Mays said.

Native American popular culture is simultaneously modernized and traces back to their roots.

“Indigenous people can’t be free on occupied stolen land,” Mays said.