The focal print from Spirit Animal, Tula Pink’s new line from Free Spirit. The print has been pulled.
On April 4 popular fabric designer, Tula Pink, announced on her Facebook page that she was asking FreeSpirit to pull the focal print from her newest collection, Spirit Animal. She had, it seemed, been accused of cultural appropriation because the image was of a girl wearing a Native America headdress.
“I do not wish to spend the next year defending my family tree,” she wrote. “I have no desire to make people uncomfortable, this has never been the object of my work. For this reason I have asked FreeSpirit to pull the main print from this collection. I have chosen not to replace this print but to let it stand as is with a piece of it’s heart missing.”
In the more than 900 comments that followed Tula’s fans and followers got into a heated discussion about artistic freedom. As this story unfolded I thought of Tsoniki Crazy Bull, an avid quilter and a Native American who grew up on a reservation. I decided to reach out to her to ask if she would share her perspective on what happened and she agreed.
Here’s what she told me:
“There are so many Native people. People definitely paint us in a historical view,” Tsoniki Crazy Bull says. For her family, however, Native culture is very much alive.
Crazy Bull’s mother, Cheryl Crazy Bull, is the president of the American Indian College Fund and a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe. Her father is Shoshone Paiute. She grew up on a the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south central South Dakota and lived there until she was twenty and went to college. The majority of her relatives still live on the reservation.
Crazy Bull is a quilter, blogger, and member of the Modern Quilt Guild. When she saw that Tula Pink had decided to pull the focal print depicting a young girl in a feathered headdress from her latest fabric line, Spirit Animal, she was filled with strong feelings.
“One of the big things that I saw from people who were not agreeing with it is headdresses are only worn by certain Native peoples,” she explained. “Plains Indians wear headdresses, but west coast don’t, southern, eastern don’t. They do have their own head coverings, but they don’t have feather headdresses the way we do. And I say we because my tribe does wear headdresses.”
“All the feathers that are on a headdress are earned for something. You get a feather for a specific reason, for a certain thing that’s done. You get a feather from a ceremony you’ve participated in. You can only imagine what someone has to accomplish to create an entire headdress,” she explains.
“Since the feathers are earned the headdress is often compared to military medals. Just as medals are awarded, so are feathers. And just as you would not wear military medals as a fashion accessory, you shouldn’t take wearing a headdress lightly.”
Crazy Bull points out that the headdress is a also a religious symbol. “The other thing is that headdresses are sacred items. It’s like Christian people wear crosses, Jewish people have their symbolism.”
In the Facebook post announcing that the focal print would be withdrawn Tula Pink explained that she is of Native American ancestry on her father’s side. “I have explored my maternal ancestry in past collections and in ‘Spirit Animal’ I chose to pay homage to my paternal ancestry,” she wrote. “I am proud of my father’s heritage and am grateful for the richness of culture that he passed onto me. I wanted to honor that crucial part of myself in the same way that I had in previous collections.”
While Crazy Bull respects Tula Pink’s heritage, and her efforts to guard her family’s privacy, choosing not to reveal where her father is from or which tribe he is associated with felt to Crazy Bull like a mistake.
“The image and the explanation of it, where she said that she was trying to honor her father’s heritage, don’t match up. The image didn’t look like any one thing. So then you’re contributing to what is called pan-Indianism which is just this mix of partially true, but also stereotypical Native American things,” she explains. “Like ‘every Native person is a warrior’ and ‘every Native woman is a princess.’ That’s damaging as well.” Crazy Bull points out that there are currently over 560 federally recognized tribes in the United States, each with their own distinct cultural nuances.
“If it was about her discovery of her Native ancestry, she also has a responsibility to ensure that the images she produces are not damaging to the culture,” Crazy Bull says.
The timing of Tula Pink’s revelation of her Native heritage also felt awkward for Crazy Bull. Given the long history of exploitation of Native people in the United States, “profiting from something is definitely a hot button.”
“How come you didn’t talk about this before?” Crazy Bull wondered. “Why are you only talking about this now as you’re trying to profit from this.”
Showing the headdress on a female figure added an additional layer of discomfort for Crazy Bull. “Women don’t wear headdresses,” she explains. “Why would you do this? It would be really easy to draw a headdress on a young man and have people not be nearly as angry as they were.”
Crazy Bull is sensitive to the depiction of a female Native American figure for another reason. “Native women are very sexualized,” she adds. “People always tie it back into the rate of sexual assault and rape and there are so many murdered and missing Native women in the United States and Canada. There are a lot of people fighting the hyper sexualization of Native women and I think that a lot of that stuff all ties back in here.” Even though we only see the figure’s head “if [this image] is the only image you ever see of a Native woman that’s damaging for a lot of reasons. We have the statistics to back that up.”
When Crazy Bull read the story about Spirit Animal in the Free Spirit Fabrics look book her thoughts about the print were complicated further. “The description of it was not, to me, in any way related to Native people. A lot of our stories – for us these are the truth. For other people, for other cultures that hear about it, it sounds like some weird story. It doesn’t sound believable. We have things that tell how something came to be for us as a people. The look book story was a fantastical myth. It has nothing to do with Native people as we exist in reality.”
Crazy Bull understands that it can be difficult to be accused of cultural appropriation and she can understand he outcry from Tula Pink’s fans when the print was pulled. “It’s hard to admit and accept that something you like or have a connection to is blatantly wrong,” she says.
Yet she feels it’s still important to speak up, even if hers is a minority voice. “When you belong to a group of people you have a responsibility to ensure that your culture is not only kept alive, but that it is respected, and that anything that’s created is not damaging to the people and culture.”
In the end she’s glad Tula chose to pull the print. “You’d have people thinking something about a culture that just isn’t true,” she says. “Then you also have people thinking that because it’s done it’s okay for them to do it as well.”