What’s There to Take Back?

By: Tiffany Midge

Recently, an online indie publication put out a call for submissions based on the theme of “Taking Back Tiger Lily.”

“This project seeks submissions from Native American artists, re-creating Tiger Lily to fit a real model of Indigenous womanhood…”

The way I see it, what this call for submissions is suggesting, and bear with me because I’m being sarcastic here, is that somehow Indian people are in such dire need, are apparently at such a loss for Native American role models to look up to, have no cultural heroes or icons to claim as their very own, that the only solution is to exhume from the mausoleum of twentieth century relics, the Disney cartoon character Tiger Lily – who, in the 1950s, was brought to universal consciousness, ushered into the hearts and imaginations of millions; shrink-wrapped, merchandised, packaged and delivered by a much-rumored-to-be-anti-Semite and a gender-bigot. Fast forward to 2015, this call for submissions proposes that Tiger Lily be resuscitated, repurposed, attempt a re-prescriptive and re-appropriated identity. Here she is, Ms. America-n Indian! And she will be played by Johnny Depp in the Tiger Lily biopic coming soon to theaters near you, in 3D! Just kidding. Sort of. (I’m referring to the motion picture “Pan,” which drew some ire due to the [white] actress selected to play Tiger Lily.)

“Many argue that we ought to eschew Tiger Lily altogether, valorizing a more authentic character. But she is still an Indian princess, the sort young girls on and off reservations across America look to as a model, having very few authentic representations of their lives in the public sphere.”

Really? Young Natives need an authentic representation to look up to? Well, look no further, here she is! A white supremacist fantasy…yeah, that’s appropriate (eye roll). Here’s the thing, she was never my model of Indigenous womanhood.

When I think about my model of Indigenous womanhood, I immediately think of my mother: a woman who lost her own mother tragically when she was sixteen, became widowed at twenty-one with a baby girl, who had no education or prospects, who left the reservation, settled in Seattle, remarried, had me, divorced and raised two daughters and put in 30 years as a civil servant for King County, and was beloved by a great many friends and family. She is my model of Indigenous womanhood.

When I think of a model of Indigenous womanhood, I think of my Grandma Eliza, who grew up dirt poor, who scraped out a living, her clothes threadbare, long, cold winters and eating the same meal for weeks, a young woman with so few choices she married a widower and raised his daughters, even though for many years she loved another man, who she eventually and fortunately did marry and also adopted my mother. She is my role model of indigenous womanhood.

Also, my Grandma Charity, daughter of the first Assiniboine Presbyterian to Fort Peck, who raised several children, steered them towards college educations, who lived to age ninety-eight, who toward the end of her life was honored by the governor, giving a televised speech in her original language, Dakota. She is my model of Indigenous womanhood.

My sister, my aunts, cousins, they were my models of Indigenous womanhood. The Iroquois educator who ran the Native consortium program for Lake Washington School District was my model of Indigenous womanhood. The singer Buffy Sainte-Marie was my model of Indigenous womanhood. Louise Erdrich and Joy Harjo were my models of Indigenous womanhood. One does not need to look far for a role model, certainly not to a cartoon caricature, and definitely not to an image created and distributed, imposed and loosed onto the world, an imperialist, master race construct.

“This project, Taking Back Tiger Lily, is symbolic and representative of reclaiming Indigenous womanhood from a mainstream dialogue that has excluded the very subject of its conversation.”

It’s difficult for me to visualize Tiger Lily as any sort of symbol of empowerment considering she never spoke a word. If this image is being used as a symbol, speechlessness and victimhood is pretty symbolic. Throughout most of the film she was tied up and at the mercy of pirates, so I fail to see how her legacy would arouse anyone’s admiration beyond that as an exotic rival for Peter Pan’s affections. Add that to the fact that she is a projected piece of celluloid; she bears no resemblance to anyone or anything remotely Indigenous, and certainly bears no resemblance to anyone or anything remotely real. I find this “project,” at best, fetishistic and essentializing, and at worst, apologist and racist. It upholds and privileges a white supremacist power structure.

There is no “taking back,” no “reclamation” of an idea that never belonged to Indians in the first place. A writer friend of mine noted, “Reclaim Sambo? Taking back Sambo for whose sake?” I echo that. Would anyone want to reclaim Frito Bandito? Aunt Jemima? Charlie Chan? God, no. These images are analogous to images of Tiger Lily. They are made from the same poison. The same polluted well. The suggestion is unsettling, volatile and creates a something’s-very-wrong-about-this, sick-to-my-stomach kind of feeling.

The presentation for this call for submissions is tone deaf and poorly conceived. It is a not-well-thought out slice of an idea that does little to uplift anyone and contributes much to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. I think what the author is trying to get at is the transposing of racist imagery and stereotypes, an inversion, or mocking of imagery that exposes ironical implications, rather than a “taking back.”

No one would “take back” any of these offensive and racist images. Why would anyone suggest “taking back” Tiger Lily? My writer friend explained it to me like this – “It’s like someone pooped on our lawn and we threw it out. Then we wanted it back.” No. You can keep that. Won’t be needing that.

“Take back” Aunt Jemima?

“Take back” Frito Bandito?

“Take back” Charlie Chan?

“Take back” “Susie Wong?”

“Take back” Land-O-Lakes butter maiden?

“Take back” Little Black Sambo?

“Take back” the Cleveland Indians mascot?

“Take back” Uncle Remus?

“Take back” Tiger Lily?

Disclaimer: Midge previously served as the poetry editor for the Four Winds literary journal.