On cultural appropriation, “pioneering,” and Georgia Pellegrini


Those of you who’ve spent any amount of time in my presence sometime over the past two weeks know that I have Some Thoughts on Georgia Pellegrini. It has not been a particularly slow burn, though; I’d never heard of her before my sojourn at Foodways Texas back in March, right around the time Pellegrini’s newest book, Modern Pioneering, came out. When my friends showed me the cover of the book, my first question was, “what’s pioneering about a watermelon keg?”

cover

Now then, I’ve gone on record as being less-than-impressed with people who call themselves pioneers from a position of white privilege, and Pellegrini seems to be at the forefront of this next wave of privileged “pioneering” women. Like Ree Drummond, Pellegrini participates in spinning a romanticized angle in the house with her DIY domesticity, but raises the stakes through her narratives of hunting, killing, field dressing, and cooking her own food (particularly in her first lifestyle book, Girl Hunter). This lady is all about getting her hands bloody, and you know what? Good for her. I’m all for women who embrace self-sufficiency to that degree (I’ll go about as far as buying pork chops from the ones what raised the pigs at the farmers market). But when that self-sufficiency becomes a product, one that’s flogged on the backs of indigenous people, is where I part ways with Pellegrini, philosophically.

Maybe we should define our terms here. For Pellegrini, “pioneering” involves making lip scrubs out of raw cane sugar, cornmeal, and organic peppermint extract to combat the chapping effects of winter weather, stenciling one’s staircase, and the aforementioned watermelon keg. I suppose that’s trailblazing in some way or another, but as my fellow mom and wine-guzzling buddy said, “It’s like she went to goop University. I can’t imagine that her audience includes anyone over age 35.” In truth, Pellegrini has basically developed a lifestyle portal for women who want a little more personality to their Pinterest and who can afford a $2200 “adventure getaway” in Montana, during which Pellegrini will help them “unravel” while they’re up to their elbows in entrails.

To my mind, pioneering is a notion that’s heavily romanticized in American history. For me, it’s connected to Manifest Destiny and the subjugation of this country’s indigenous people as legislation like the Homestead and Dawes Acts institutionalized and legitimated the seizure of land and displacement of its rightful owners. I’ll quote myself from that Pioneer Woman post:

The pioneers (think Laura Ingalls) are romanticized icons of Western progress, fighting harsh weather, uncertain food supplies, and — worst of all — Indians (*gasp*) in order to realize the promise set forth by Manifest Destiny. The American Dream, while certainly accessible to and enacted by all Americans, is rooted in a rhetoric of whiteness. 

Today, there’s a movement among various American Indian tribes to recover and preserve their foodways, including gathering of edible plants and herbs, as well as improving nutrition and health on reservations. The federal dam system has encroached on native salmon fisheries to such a degree that several Pacific Northwest tribes have been deprived of a significant food source and cultural touchstone, not to mention untold environmental devastation. (More information.) At the same time, indigenous languages are dying out, kids in rez schools don’t have school supplies thanks to last year’s sequestration (I’m sure that won’t help close the achievement gap between American Indian kids and their white counterparts), and the unemployment rate for American Indians still hangs out at around 11%.

Ooooh, this is bad, you guys. Super bad. A Modern Pioneering-branded  Minnetonka Moccasins giveaway. Oy.

Ooooh, this is bad, you guys. Super bad. A Modern Pioneering-branded Minnetonka Moccasins giveaway. Oy.

So that’s why it really chapped my ass at the Austin Food & Wine Festival when I saw Georgia Pellegrini giving cooking demonstrations and participating in panels focused on “old-school cooking methods” while clad in fringed leather moccasins, an embroidered blue tunic lashed with a leather thong, and an Indian princess feather fascinator stuck in her expensively highlighted blonde hair.  I’ll explain more in a minute, but first I’m gonna pass the mic to Thomas King in this very short excerpt from his novel, Green Grass, Running Water (the title is a reference to the US government’s promise that indigenous people would retain the rights to their land “as long as the grass is green and the water runs”). The scene is the Dead Dog Cafe, in a Blackfoot community in Alberta, Canada:

One of the secrets of a successful restaurant was to keep things simple. Every day Rita cooked up the same beef stew, and every day Rita or Billy or Cynthia or Latisha thought up a name for it. It wasn’t cheating. Everybody in town and on the reserve who came to the Dead Dog Cafe to eat knew that the special rarely changed, and all the tourists who came through never knew it didn’t.
“Toilet’s working.” Billy let the door swing shut behind him. “You want me to change the gas on the dispensers?”
“No, get dressed. We may need help out front.”
“Plains, Southwest, or combination?”
The itch was more persistent. “What’d you do yesterday?”
“Plains.”
“Do Southwest.”
[…]
Latisha would like to have been able to take all the credit for transforming the Dead Dog from a nice local establishment with a loyal but small clientele to a nice local establishment with a loyal but small clientele and a tourist trap. But, in fact, it had been her auntie’s idea.
“Tell them it’s dog meat,” Norma had said. “Tourists like that kind of stuff.”
That had been the inspiration. Latisha printed up menus that featured such things as Dog du Jour, Houndburgers, Puppy Potpourri, Hot Dogs, Saint Bernard Swiss Melts, with Doggie Doos and Deep-Fried Puppy Whatnots for appetizers.
She got Will Horse Capture over in Medicine River to make up a bunch of photographs like those you see in the hunting and fishing magazines where a couple of white guys are standing over an elephant or holding up a lion’s head or stretching out a long stringer of fish or hoisting a brace of ducks in each hand. Only in these photographs, it was Indians and dogs. Latisha’s favorite was a photograph of four Indians on their buffalo runners chasing down a herd of Great Danes.

In this scene, King satirizes cultural tourism and cultural appropriation by having the First Nations staff of the Dead Dog Cafe don “uniforms” of “authentic” indigenous garb because they know that the visiting tourists won’t know the difference. Latisha and her employees exploit the stereotype for economic gain and subvert the entertainment value of their native-ness. They acknowledge their “Otherness” and use it to their advantage, with the (presumably white) tourists as the butt of the joke.

Georgia Pellegrini at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. Please forgive the blurriness. Not shown: fringed leather moccasins.

Georgia Pellegrini at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. Please forgive the blurriness. Not shown: fringed leather moccasins.

But when people like Georgia Pellegrini, a former Wall Street financier, affects American Indian dress in the process of marketing herself as a “modern pioneer” (who draws heavily, I imagine, on indigenous methodologies of hunting and gathering), it’s a problem. Using another culture’s clothing/customs as part of your “brand” is Not Okay. (I’m sure GP’s a very nice person; I have nothing against her personally, and it’s not like she put on a war bonnet and then acted shitty about it. But still.) When a member of the dominant group (in this case, a privileged white woman from an affluent hamlet in downstate New York, home of the Tappan tribe, who hunted, fished, trapped, and companion planted for food) appropriates or “borrows” attire and practices from groups that have been historically “Othered,” it distracts from the lived experiences of the people being borrowed from, perpetuating their “Other,” exotic status.

Having your $40/head book launch party on the “Wet Deck” at a luxury hotel downtown? I’m not sure where that fits into anyone’s definition of pioneering, unless it’s within the context of finding a place to park in Austin’s condo-blasted downtown hellscape.  But it certainly suggests a tone-deafness on someone’s part, to the tune of unexamined white privilege.

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