November is Native American Heritage Month, so let us take a moment to consider the world of Native American paper dolls.
“Traditional Native American Clothing of the Early 21st Century” is a series of drawings by Steven Paul Judd. These illustrations come from Collecting Children’s Books, a blog which is no longer being updated, as I think the author passed away. “Traditional Native American Clothing of the Early 21st Century” includes four images of “Medicine Man” and “Chief”, “Scout” and “Warrior,” all drawn in colored pencil by Steven Paul Judd, Kiowa/Choctaw.
Mr. Judd writes that, “I’m not a psychologist so I can’t tell you the effects of seeing your people only portrayed in a certain way. I can only speak on my own experience of being a little kid and looking for others on t.v. that I could identify with. Only person I could find was Erik “Ponch” Estrada from “CHiPs”. So as a youn’un I pretended to be a motorcycle cop. So my thought is, what if our youth could see there selves not in just a historical context, but as doctors, lawyers, astronauts? So that’s when I decided to make these drawings.”
You can see more of Steven Paul Judd’s work from Indian Country Daily, his Etsy site and this nice summary from Southwest Indian Arts.
But I didn’t choose Judd’s work just because I think it’s amazing (though I do), I chose it because I believe it reveals something important about how paper dolls depict Native Americans.
Let us pause a moment, while I dust off my soap box…
Humans create societies and in these societies the dominate social groups use their position to create culturally constructed ideals which than are presented as self-evident and natural. One term for this process is “hegemony” (often used in a political science context) another term is “social construction” (often used in a psychological context), but most fields that deal with human societies have a term they use to illustrate this idea.
But what, you might be wondering, does this have to do with paper dolls?
Paper dolls are not mere playthings, rather paper dolls illustrate for how people look and who people are. When Native American paper dolls depict only traditional dress, the illustrations send a message about how and what Native American’s are as a people (or, more accurately, as hundreds of different groups of people). Not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with depicting accurate, tribally specific, traditional dress in paper doll form, but when these paper doll sets don’t also include contemporary clothing, they create the illusion that Native peoples only dress in regalia or, more dangerously, exist only in the past. The obsession with traditional dress harkens back to the 19th century obsession with “documenting a culture on the edge of extinction,” a dangerous false idea.
When Native American children only see themselves presented in these limited contexts, they are denied the opportunity to be equals to others in society. When non-Native children see only traditional dress on Native American paper dolls, they are denied the opportunity to see similarities rather than differences, are taught that Native peoples all dress in traditional dress all the time and are presented an image of a “costume” rather than a person.
Do I think that all Native American paper dolls in traditional dress are bad? Of course not, but paper dolls should open up imaginary worlds, not limit them.
I shall now step off my soap box and welcome anyone else to express their views, politely of course, in the comments section.