Don't worry: Have a Kokopelli day

  • Two of numerous "Native American" items found in catalogs

 

"It's a Kokopelli kind of day," a Coldwater Creek catalog announced in a T-shirt ad. "Spirit lifting, mischief-making Kokopelli is here to remind you not to take life so seriously ..."

No thanks. I'll pass on buying the "buffalo on an eco-friendly tee," the Comanche bow and arrow, the Tapiz range belt, or the petroglyph slate drink-coasters either. I'm not Native American. Nor do I aspire to be one of those trekking yuppies employing hardy indigenous porters to carry my "wet/dry gear bags' through Nepal.

Kokopelli has been big this year. In Robert Redford's Sundance catalog you can purchase $199 Kokopelli handcrafted lamps made by Utah "artists." In the "Last Best Place" holiday catalog, from that Western enclave, Monroe, Wis., you'll find the Kokopelli outlet and switch covers, $25 each. They also feature a Kokopelli table sculpture, $89, and an image of the flute player tie-dyed on a long-sleeve T-shirt, $69. He is skiing. He looks stoned.

Several myths surround the humpbacked flute player the Hopis named Kokopelli. Some say he led Native American cliff-dwellers out of their caves with his music, into the open sky land of the Southwest. Maybe he was a medicine man, a wanderer. A loner. He was not, I am certain, a skier.

Back at Coldwater Creek there's the Kokopelli candle holder, earrings, and a version of him adorning one of those "nature sounds' compact discs. You know, water trickling, loons calling. They might better record the sound of cash changing hands.

Portrayals of indigenous peoples in these catalogs echo the message of culture consumption. In the spring 1995 issue of Patagonia, below the advertising mantra of "Stuff it. Stack it. Drop it. Kick it. Check it. Chuck it. Claim it. Lose it. Cram it. Abuse it," is a line of donkeys laden to the hilt, one assumes, with some rich American's gear, tended by a small dark-skinned man named Norbu, who has probably never bought his clothes from a catalog. "Oh, porter? Please set up the espresso and bring me my journal. You know the one. It has that flute player on the cover."

In the last two Redford catalogs, a photo shows a real Native American. A medicine man is shown opening the June Filmmakers Lab at the Sundance Institute. Cool dance. Nice necklace, too. Where can we buy it?

Most everyone in these catalogs is white and affluent. Nothing new here. Women are blond and sinewy. Men are rugged and active, like the men in Robert James Waller's novels. Photographs portray both sexes as young, restless and rich.

We've romanticized Native Americans to the point of extinction. Now we'll make some money off the legend. Yakima ski racks. Cherokee blazers. Phony weekend seminars put on by the New Age. Religion Lite and homogenized. And now that we've silted and dammed the salmon to oblivion, there's a new frontier of profits to be had through the sales of platters, mugs, T-shirts, and ties with salmon emblazoned on them in every groovy store and airport between Helena, Mont., and Seattle, Wash.

Why do advertisers want me to adopt a culture? I have one. Mine includes Gilligan's Island, James Watt and Kit Carson, but it also encompasses Dorothy Day, Wallace Stegner and John Muir. We aren't aggressive buckaroos and compliant Indian princesses out here. Most of us can't afford to stay at Redford's Sundance resort for $350 per person, per night, or mountain bike through Chile and Argentina, tearing up the tundra.

Out West we have a saying: "All hat, no cattle." We know when we've been had. We can spot a drug-store cowboy or a pretend Indian maiden a mile away. Reducing Native Americans, or any culture, to commercial sensation diminishes all cultures.

If you want to be Native American, move to any of the many reservations we have in this country. Spend a winter at Pine Ridge in South Dakota, or walk the eight miles between Worley and Plummer on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in your new buckskin garb during a wet north Idaho blizzard. Arrive in both places broke without much hope of ever being able to climb out of 200 years of institutionalized racism in this society. Feel like an Indian yet? Having a Kokopelli day?

Stephen Lyons works in Moscow, Idaho.

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