Commentary: Cultural appropriation on two wheels, and why representation matters
Like most of you, the bicycle has been a part of my life since I was a child. It saw me through my teenage years with pre-suspension mountain-bike races in Park City, Utah, where I grew up. It was a central part of summer months spent touring the landscape of Southern Utah with my father. And now, at 43 years old, cycling remains part of my daily life, riding gravel grinders of Colorado, and keeping my health in check. I owe much to the bicycle.
From the District Cycling podcast I ran for a few years in Washington D.C. with my friends Adam Austin and Mike Creed, to local racing, and rides with my kids, I have a serious, lifelong relationship with bicycles. The cycling industry means something to me, the activity means something to me, the culture of it means something to me. The wind in my hair, and bugs in my teeth, mean the most to me.
I’m a cyclist. I’m also an Indigenous person, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and a professional artist. My bike is my modern day war pony, and part of my complex identity in this country. It is my love of the bike, coupled with my Indigenous identity, that found me dismayed by something displayed at the Eurobike Expo last month in Germany.
Among the many new products, new models, and new companies, one stuck out to my Indigenous eyes. Czech bike brand Apache Bicycles promoted their new mountain bikes and electric bikes with branding that was both shocking and cheap. From tipis (yes, tipis, not teepees) to large photographs of our old ones stylized to fit their branding, what really went beyond the pale — pun completely intended — was the two blond haired European women decked out in stereotypical “war paint” and the kind of “Pocahottie” costume you can find in any Party City at your local strip mall.
Not content with pedestrian tastelessness, Apache Bicycles takes it to the next level by naming their bikes Arrow, Teepee, and Scalp, complete with appropriated graphics and symbols that are carried by many different Indigenous tribes, some of which are important and sacred.
While cultural appropriation exists in virtually every industry, the gross misuse of these images by Apache Bicycles’ campaign is particularly appalling.
Before any of you are triggered by what could be perceived as overused politically correctness, consider the following: Every person in Western Culture is informed by the caricature image of Native people perpetuated throughout history in books, paintings, photographs, and films. There is no frame of reference for the real experiences of Indigenous people, which are instead collapsed into the headdress-wearing warrior and the submissive buckskin-clad woman. These tropes have been pushed for over 200 years in Western culture and have woefully misinformed the public about who we are as Indigenous people, or that we are a diverse group of individuals who exist and thrive in a modern landscape. Our existence becomes little more than a flashy relic served with a side of romanticism.
There are 577 federally recognized tribes, with several hundred more recognized by the states in which they reside. Our people speak over 300 different languages with different dialects, an amazing feat in and of itself when you consider the policies intended to eradicate not just our words but the cultures that hold them. Yet when non-Natives think about who we are, most often the image associated with us is the Plains headdress, used, by the way, by only about a dozen tribes. In fact, we are so antiquated in our existence that no one considers that the images used in Apache Bicycles’ campaign are images of great grandfathers and great great grandfathers of living people.
Some of you may ask why this is such a big deal, or claim that these images somehow honor Indigenous culture. But this isn’t an honor at all, and using these images and objects does nothing for Indigenous people. The monetary gain goes to the company appropriating the images and objects, while the Indigenous people connected to them watch it happen. Keep in mind that these are the very same cultural objects and practices that, via federal policy, Native people themselves were forbidden to keep.
More than this, the use of these stereotyped images perpetuates a misunderstanding of a living, breathing people and culture, ultimately dehumanizing and exoticizing us. Perniciously, these images affect our youth, reflecting powerful messages about their self-worth and identity when seen through the glass darkly by the eyes of the non-Native public.
What the Apache Bicycle company has done is but a symptom of a larger illness in Western culture. From the Washington Redskins to the Cleveland Indians, to Johnny Depp playing Indian on Disney’s dime, to blatant cultural theft by brands like Urban Outfitters, Indigenous people and cultures are rendered little more than cartoons and commodities.
It cuts a little deeper when these insults come at the hands of the outdoor industry — few Americans care about the outdoors more than Indigenous people. When we walk, hike, bike, or climb, we are doing so on the homelands of our people. The connection is deep, and important.
Efforts to reclaim these spaces as being wholeheartedly Indigenous are being carried out by groups like NativesOutdoors, Native Womens Wilderness, and Indigenous Women Hike, as well as individuals such as Autumn Harry, my cousin, who backpacks through the Sierra Nevadas on the same trails used by our people. Professional bie racer Cole House, of the Oneida Nation, is a personal favorite who is currently tearing off legs in the mountain-bike scene in Wisconsin. (During his U23 years, he was the first Indigenous cyclist on the European stage, riding for BMC Racing.) With these efforts, and a willingness within outdoor industries to listen, significant change can happen. The American cycling and outdoor industries can send a message far and wide.
There is a reason Indigenous wares show up in American or Western culture. Sure, there exists a significant element of misplaced romanticism, but overall our images and objects are being used because they’re appealing. Up to this point, very few such moments have been informed by Indigenous people, but if the outdoor and cycling industries were to take this information seriously, there could easily be a marriage of ideas. Take Nike, for example. Through its N7 line, Nike has created an Indigenous athletic aesthetic whose designs not only appeal to Indian Country but have real health benefits for Indian Country.
There is some tough history in the United States. The relationship between Indigenous people and American settlers is strained at best. There is little information given or taught to inform Americans (and by extension, the rest of the world) anything about this Nation’s First Peoples. Reconciliation will be difficult, but we can take these baby steps. We can change, course correct, and make amends in so many different ways.
After inundation on social media and via email, Apache Bicycles has stated that it will eliminate some model names, including the Scalp e-bike model, and remove historic photos of Native American leaders from its marketing. They will no longer outfit trade-show hostesses in costumes and war paint. Lukas Barta, the CEO of BP Lumen, the parent company of Apache, told Bicycle Retailer and Industry News that after 17 years in the market, they’d never heard negative feedback until the attended Eurobike, seeking to expand their distribution across Europe.
“We like Indians from our childhood because of famous movies based on books from Karel May,” Barta told Bicycle Retailer. “Indians are our heroes, many people live like them here in Europe. We celebrate them. It never occurred to us that it would hurt anyone.”
This is teachable moment. Or, perhaps it can be a teachable moment. The process by which these efforts happen vary. Some may say “we’re going to do better,” and then don’t, and then there are those that make the effort, but that effort is still tone deaf. It’s hard to do these things in a tone-deaf culture when you don’t know you’re tone deaf.
Bike companies could, and should, hire Indigenous artists and designers to produce graphics, campaigns, ideas, and concepts that honor the people and authentically tell our stories while providing something to the public that is consumable in the most appropriate way possible. The worth of these images go beyond face value. Inclusion and representation matters. When our youth can see something that represents them, we are showing them what is possible. We are opening doors with that representation, and in this case, cyclists, artists, and the industry show Native youth that they can be in these spaces successfully.
About the Author
Gregg Deal is a professional artist, Indigenous activist and avid cyclist. His visual art deals with Indigenous identity, popular culture, historical consideration, race relations and stereotype while working as a designer, painter, muralist and performance artist. Deal lectures nationwide and he has been seen on the Daily Show, Aljazeera, ESPN, and PBS. He recently gave a talk at the 2018 TEDxBoulder event titled “Indigenous in Plain Sight.” For more, visit greggdeal.com.