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The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne puts a dog in a Native American headdress. Here’s why it matters

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- In late March 2014 Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne published a now deleted photo of several friends (including Phantogram singer Sarah Barthel https://www.facebook.com/Phantogram), his girlfriend Katy Weaver (https://twitter.com/katy_weaver), and a dog in a Native American war bonnet in support of his friend Christina Fallin, who had become embroiled in a Native American cultural appropriation controversy with her band Pink Pony.

He knowingly chose to compose and publish this photo despite being aware of the uproar from the Native American community to the initial incident with Pink Pony. To some this might seem to be a funny statement of solidarity in defense of a friend but for Native Americans it was a targeted affront in a situation where they had already been devalued, silenced, and mocked. How, in 2014, can a racially insensitive act like this pass with barely a comment in national media?

There are many informative sources as to why a war bonnet is not something that should be worn unless it is earned so I’m not going to rehash.

I’d like to focus on the very real yet unrecognized human cost of reducing an entire ethnicity to a publicity stunt.

Natives are twice as likely to die by the age of 24 than any other ethnicity. Natives are the only ethnicity who have major league teams, like The Washington Redskins, named after a racial slur referencing them. Native women are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other ethnicity. According to a CDC study released in 2013, the suicide rate among Native American adults grew 65.2 percent in the past decade. These facts are indicative of other, seemingly more pressing needs in Native communities than who wears what but in actuality the two are more entwined than is recognized.

One of the root causes of these issues is directly related to incidents like this; the fact that Natives are routinely and easily dismissed, marginalized, and fetishized by society.

When you have French-Canadian/Irish/German Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily (a character who in and of itself has issues vis a vis portrayal), when you have Chief Wahoo and his exaggerated, stereotypical cartoonishness, when you have Wayne Coyne put a dog in a headdress as a show of support for Christina Fallin and Steven Battles (Pink Pony), who jeered and mocked Native American protesters, calling them sheep, when you have all of these things and no one says anything and just lets it happen it says it's ok to make Natives inferior.

When society fails to see Natives as equal then they are othered and people don't see the mental cost of being reduced to a mascot or a costume, unable to tell our own stories or even react without being told our opinions don't count or that it doesn’t matter. We are not sheep as Pink Pony wants you to believe. We are not dogs as Wayne Coyne wants you to believe. We are not your publicity stunts. We are human and we deserve human respect and it is time that society as a whole recognizes it and honors it.

Over the last few weeks strides were made, especially in regards to Pink Pony.

Christina Fallin dealt with fallout from her mother, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, who condemned her actions. Steven Battles (Chrome Pony) lost 2 writing gigs at So6ix Magazine and Boyd Street Magazine and The Spy FM cancelled his radio show, actions that show that this wasn't all about Christina Fallin or her mother, an argument that has been used repeatedly to dismiss Native concerns. Pink Pony has also deleted their Facebook page.

Unfortunately there were also casualties for Native allies. Kliph Scurlock, former drummer for The Flaming Lips, was reportedly fired by Wayne Coyne for standing up for Natives and denouncing Christina Fallin and Pink Pony.

THAT'S how bad it is.

Our allies aren't even safe from a scathing attack or loss of livelihood. Nike, who produces the brand N7 that supports Native American health promotion and disease prevention programs based on Native ideals (http://n7fund.com/), stated in a press release that they would continue to manufacture and sell Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo merchandise despite their commitment to N7 and to Native causes.

That a company like Nike can make money off the stereotypical Chief Wahoo while also marketing N7 is both a sad and ironic example of just the kind of support Native Americans receive, even from those who proclaim to be allies. Sure you'll help us, as long as you can continue making money off all aspects of our culture, especially the offensive ones (I'm looking at you, Dan Snyder and your Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation).

This behavior actually sustains the issues being an ally is attempting to address. It’s the racial equivalent of a Mobius strip, self-perpetuating and infinite. These situations never would have happened if it were any other ethnicity being discussed. There's something inherently wrong with that and I cannot parse the fact that rarely, if ever, does anyone acknowledge it.

When my daughter or my niece or my nephew can walk into a concert or open a website or go to a sporting event and not feel degraded by the misappropriation of their culture then I will stop speaking out. Tell me, do you want to look the younger generations of my family in the eye and ask THEM if it's worth it? Will you stand in front of them and say “redskin”? Do you want to tell them you are ok with Wayne Coyne reducing them to animals? Because whether anyone wants to see it or not that's exactly what he has done putting that war bonnet on a dog.

Natives are less than one half of one percent of the population of this nation. We certainly didn't dwindle our numbers all by ourselves. Let us honor our culture and heritage in the way we see fit. Let us hold it sacred before it's gone.

As for Wayne Coyne it should be noted that though the photo is now deleted that is not a show of remorse. The entire Instagram account was deleted, due to yet another Terms of Service violation (a publicity stunt Coyne is known for).

Additionally, Coyne reportedly showed further support for Pink Pony at their performance at Norman Music Festival on April 26, pointing and laughing at Native protesters as they were flipped off, bleated at and called sheep.

Wayne Coyne gave his endorsement with his presence to the taunting and reduction of Natives to animals based on their ethnicity, in a public setting, in support of Pink Pony at Norman Music Festival, after insinuating in a photograph that Native Americans were akin to dogs.

Wayne also dismissively refused to answer Native American calls for a statement about the photo (as has Barthel of Phantogram) until the Kliph Scurlock firing went national, despite repeated requests for a response from Native Americans. Even then the apology comes with a caveat in the form of defending Christina Fallin and Pink Pony’s actions due to age and not understanding social media. 

I cannot comment on whether Wayne is sincere or not in these statements but I will say that it took media outlets like Pitchfork, Gawker and Rolling Stone to write about the issue before he took steps to address anything and that being young and Twitter being hard shouldn’t be an excuse for these instances happening.

It shouldn’t take a media firestorm (and attendant possible loss of revenue) for people to listen to Native American voices and take them seriously. That it took so much and so long for it to be acknowledged is a problem that needs to be considered just as much as Wayne’s apology. To any reasonable person this behavior would be unacceptable and subject to examination and critique. Instead, Wayne Coyne's band The Flaming Lips were announced as performers at Bonnaroo Music Festival (http://lineup.bonnaroo.com/).

It is time for society to stop asking Natives why they are so upset. It is time for society to ask themselves why they aren't.

Frances Danger is a Native of Oklahoma City, in more ways than one.

UPDATE: May 12, 2014: Sarah Barthel issued a statement on Phantograms Facebook apologizing for her role in the photo. She states, in part: "I've learned a lot about issues around cultural appropriation in the past few weeks, and hope my mistake can shed light on the subject so others can also learn from it. I sincerely apologize to anyone I've offended – obviously, it won’t happen again." 

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