Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Don't Be That Guy (WTNV's The Apache Tracker)

Carrying on with our tradition this week of thinking really, really hard about stuff that most people don’t think about at all, let’s talk about cultural appropriation!

Yes, I know, you’re just as excited as I am. Or, it’s possible, deeply confused. What is cultural appropriation, I hear some of you ask? Well, don’t worry. That’s what we’re going to talk about today, in depth and detail and probably some other things besides. Specifically, though, I want to talk about Welcome to Night Vale and its approach to cultural appropriation, because it’s, well, kind of different.

But first, let’s set the stage and talk about what precisely Welcome to Night Vale actually is. Which is hard. Because what it is, is weird.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, put out by Commonplace Books. It’s voiced by Cecil Baldwin, who also gives his name to the main character, and consists of news reports, a la News from Lake Woebegon by Garrison Keillor. The news reports are just the kind of dull community radio highlights that you can imagine really originated in the small town of Night Vale, New Mexico, except for the part where they are completely horrifying and detail parts of small town life that no one outside of a Stephen King story is very familiar with.

What do I mean? Well, in the very first episode, Cecil, the radio host, gives some tips on letting your children play out in the desert outside of town. Specifically, those tips include taking cover when the helicopters come, but only when certain colors of helicopters come, because some of them belong to the Sheriff’s Secret Police, while others belong to the Shady Governmental Agency, and still others are probably military, while some are scary and mysterious and we don’t know where they come from don’t make eye contact.

Also there is a dog park into which no one is allowed to bring their dogs, and at which no one should look for fear of upsetting the mysterious hooded figures.

So, yeah. It’s a little hard to explain. What makes the show work, though, rather than just being a biweekly half hour of terror, is that the characters in the town are made to come alive. There’s Cecil himself, a perpetually chipper and genial resident of the town who thinks it’s all lovely here, Old Woman Josie, who lives out by the used car lot with a bunch of angels named Erika, and Mayor Pamela Winchell, who is facing reelection soon and going up against Hiram McDaniels, a five-headed dragon in prison for tax evasion, and the Faceless Old Woman Who Lives In Your House. Also, there’s Carlos, a scientist studying the town, with whom Cecil is hopelessly besotted.

It’s not just random weirdness, because while these characters sound completely bonkers, they actually have stories and motivations and arcs and all that. They aren’t jokes, they’re people.

And of those people, one of them is perfectly suited to the discussion of our point. You see what I did there? I did a thing. Appreciate my segues. They take effort.

One of the recurring characters on the show is The Apache Tracker (no other name given), a white man who wears an “insulting” Native American costume and claims to have ancient Indian magic. And sadly, that wouldn’t be all that weird for a character on a science fiction or fantasy show. We run into it all the time. No, what’s weird here is how everyone reacts to the Apache Tracker. Specifically Cecil.

Cecil freaking hates the guy.

It’s really interesting. Every time Cecil mentions the Apache Tracker, even when congratulating him for something, some heroic action, or whatever, he starts by commenting on how distasteful the Apache Tracker’s cultural appropriation is, and how insulting his costume is, how he isn’t fooling anyone, all that stuff.

Cecil makes it very clear every time that the Apache Tracker’s use of Native American culture for his own benefit is not okay, and will never be okay.

Now, the issue gets a little weirder when the Apache Tracker disappears for a few weeks, only to turn up again as an actual Native American, who can only speak Russian. Did I mention it’s a weird show? Well, anyway, this throws kind of a level of confusion into the works, regarding whether or not we can now say that the Apache Tracker is performing acts of cultural appropriation. And no real easy answer is given.

But the question is asked.

And in a weird way, that’s what matters. When the Apache Tracker appears as an actual Native American, it doesn’t erase what he did before. It isn’t all okay now just because his skin tone matches his claims. His behavior is still called into question. Which is a good thing.

Welcome to Night Vale isn’t just making a joke about stupid weirdos here, it’s making a pretty strong statement about how we should view acts of cultural appropriation, and how we should think about our ties to our own culture. Going back to the beginning, cultural appropriation isn’t just a thing where you borrow from another culture, it has to do with intent and usage. It’s when you take an idea or a story or a costume or a religion out of context and use it for your own purposes. It’s when you take from a culture and claim it as your own.

The Apache Tracker is slammed, not just because he’s kind of a strange guy, but because he has taken Native American culture and used it for his own ends. He’s appropriated it. And a magical skin change doesn’t make that go away. It’s attitudinal. It’s, well, I feel like we’re talking about this a lot this week, but it’s a form of selfishness.

You can tell I work with kids, can’t you.

Anyway, the Apache Tracker is slammed not for appreciating Native American culture, but by using it in order to make himself more interesting. He’s not disregarded because he thinks its cool. He’s a jerk because takes what he finds valuable about the culture and uses it for his own gains, rather than leaving it in context. That’s the real problem with him.

Because there is cultural appropriation, and there is also cultural sharing. When I went to Vietnam, we traveled to the very north there and, in visiting a market where local indigenous tribeswomen sold their clothes, I bought a jacket and a couple of belts. Now, is this cultural appropriation? Well, it’s complicated. When I bought the items, I did it because first of all, they’re beautiful, second of all, I wanted to financially support these really cool women, and third because the women saw me and my whiteness and pretty much grabbed me and shoved me into the clothes because they thought it was hilarious. (It was. We have pictures.)

That’s cultural sharing. They wanted me to wear and buy the clothes because they thought it was fun, and also because they, like most people, like money.

But. I don’t really ever wear that jacket now that I live in the US again. I mean, I pull it out occasionally, but mostly I leave it in the closet until I can find a better way to display it. Why? Because outside of that situation, there really isn’t any reason for me to wear that jacket that isn’t for my own edification. When I wear it now, it’s not because I need to keep warm – I have much warmer coats. It isn’t to fit in – this thing does not fit in, trust me. And it’s not because I’ve been invited to do so – I doubt those women even remember me, and no one here is particularly invested in my wardrobe.

If I were to wear the jacket tomorrow, I would only be doing it because I want to look cool. That is cultural appropriation. And that is what the Apache Tracker is doing.

Really? Really? Really.
Why are we talking about this now? Well, this is Native American Heritage month, which is fitting. Thanksgiving is a time of weirdness, here in America, when we look back out our past and pretend we can’t see all that nasty genocide, choosing instead to focus on the happy things, like a nice dinner and some cultural sharing.

But in the process of sanctifying Thanksgiving, we seem to have done a few other things as well. Like dressed our kids up as “Indians”. Or made little headdresses out of construction paper. Or told decontextualized Native American myths at the dinner table in the hopes of bringing some “authenticity” to the proceedings.

No. Stop. Don’t.

I’m not saying it’s bad to be interested in Native American culture. It’s not. It’s genuinely very interesting. But I am saying that it’s important, crucially important, to not cross a line. To do it because you are genuinely interested in them, and not because you want people to be interested in you.

Don’t do it for selfish reasons. That’s kind of the whole thing. Just don’t be a jerk. Don’t be the Apache Tracker. Just don’t.

I'm just gonna leave this here.

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