Native scholar Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Yurok, Karuk) tears apart Humboldt Republic Clothing’s newest t-shirt design:

I was born and raised in Humboldt County. I get how it kind of works there. I know we have this big, fantastic, emerald triangle, legendary existence that makes people give me high fives or nods or thumbs up when I’m wearing a sweatshirt that says Humboldt on it. We cool. I get it. I lived there my whole life, though I was never really that cool.

…I had no idea what “Chief Life” was. According to my younger, cooler friends (and Urban Dictionary) to “chief” is to smoke marijuana. Me, as an old person, I want to over analyze it. I’m assuming it has something to do with the old stereotype of “smoking the peace pipe” and how Chiefs were supposed to have been big smokers who smoked the peace pipe and did all that smoking (all, completely distorted by the way and in many ways totally wrong, but that’s an entirely DIFFERENT letter). Blah blah blah, it’s “chief” dude. I’m probably using it wrong.

…we’re talking about “Chief Life.” Which, for your company, I’m assuming has something to do with marijuana, and drug culture, and drugs. I ain’t mad atcha dude. I know that this whole “weed” thing sort of lives where we live. I get it. I’m not trying to play super narc-y innocent girl who “oh my word” “I declare” I can’t believe you’re talking about drug stuff. But, Chief Life – it’s just sad.

It doesn’t make me angry, it makes me sad. Drugs are a huge issue for Native communities. Huge. They aren’t just an issue because people like to do drugs. They aren’t just an issue because Native people can’t handle their business and they turn to drugs. They aren’t just an issue because of the rampant poverty of Native populations. All of those reasons are important. But they are also an issue because of history. They are an issue because of trauma. They are an issue because of what happened at the founding of this very county that you love so much you want to make a tshirt for it and sell it to people. Did you know that it used to be policy in Humboldt County that you could hunt Indian people? There were Indian hunting days. Did you know that it used to be policy in Humboldt County, that it was easier to exterminate Indian people then to have to deal with them? Did you know that on the very places you walk, or live, very near where your business is located, there were massacres of Indian women and children. There were rapes of young Indian girls. And after all that, there were continued attempts to erase a people from the land. And then after that, there were reservations, there was poverty, there was trauma, and there were drugs. It’s health thing. It’s hard to separate sometimes from what we think of as “recreational” but lots of our “recreational” habits, are ways of coping with trauma that passed itself along through generations. This is the part of our people that is overwhelmed when we stand at the edge of the bay, look out and realize that one night, as a tribe was holding a world renewal ceremony, a group of people showed up and tried to kill every single one of them.

Now, you weren’t there. I know that. This doesn’t mean it isn’t written on the landscape where you live. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feel it every single day. It doesn’t mean that it never resonates in our waking lives. Because it does. In policies, in ignorance, in forgetfulness, in the way we talk about ourselves, and each other. Maybe your “genetics” weren’t here, but you are here – now. It’s time to know. It’s time to know where you are. And to “know” this place, is to listen. And to “listen” is to realize that we aren’t talking about an ancient history, we are talking about a recent history. And maybe, just maybe, what you consider “simply a byproduct of war” is, surprisingly, not. Genocide is not a byproduct of war – Genocide is tool of an aggressor. Genocide is a choice. It doesn’t just happen because war is hell. Genocide is systematic. Genocide is deliberate. It is not a “byproduct” of aggression, there is intent- an intent to annihilate a group of people. We should not tie genocide to just another “byproduct of war” and erase this intent. Systematic murdering of a people, enslavement of children, raping of women, massacres, these are not byproducts of war, these are tools of genocide. The “byproduct of war”, is the trauma. The byproduct war, is the destruction. The byproduct of war is the loss of life, land, resources, brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters. And for many, many Indigenous peoples the byproduct of war has been survivance. It’s been strength, it’s been coming together, it’s been healing. The byproduct of war has been a culture that refused to die.

You can go to two museums right now in Humboldt County and see the “byproduct of war.” You’ll see that this “imagery” of Indian people it’s not about what’s “cool.” It’s not about a “Chief Life.” You can see that, and you can draw that, and you can learn – you can read Genocide in Northwestern California or The Tule Rivers Struggle for Sovereignty, or Custer Died for your Sins. You can sit with a Native Elder, or a group of young artists and you can talk, and you can learn. And you can draw and create, and you can still put sunglasses on it. But you still have to answer that one hanging out there, waiting for a response question…

Is the image tied to drug culture? Are you trying to get Native people to tell you it’s okay to use an image of a Native person tied with drug culture? Are you trying to get Native people to say that there is some “image” that they could give you, that you could tie with drug culture that would be “respectful?” Are you trying to get Native people to find some compromise, of semi stereotypical, easy to access, generic images that will somehow be tied to drug culture and then allow you to use that image to tie to drug culture and make money off of that image?

…You have a right to draw whatever you want. You have every right to put it on Facebook and ask for feedback. You have a right to put out 1,000 of them if you want to. You will be making the wrong decision if you do that. Because images, no matter who you are, come with responsibility, and that is the difference in how many Indigenous people see the world. We live in a world of responsibilities, not rights. What are you responsible to? If you choose to use a certain image, you are responsible to understand what repercussions that image has. I know people have shared with you the studies which have found that these types of images have negative effects on Native children. I know people have told you about the history that informs on why they are so “sensitive” to these issues and portrayals. But I want to tell you something very clearly, if you want to put this image out as part of your company, then you should also be very clear about the kind of responsibility you have to it. And you should learn about that responsibility. And should listen. And then maybe, just maybe, you can start to understand. And when you understand, you’re going to make a different decision, I just know it. It takes work and time, but it’s worth it, because what you will create from this, if you choose to do it in a “good way” will be much more then this generic shirt you’ve been so intent to defend.

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