Her expression is one of calm complacency as she sits next to her bulbous father. He is round and exaggerated, his fingers like little sausages, face red as if painted with carmine lipstick, but she is small and sweet, approving of the stomped and strutting war dances that take place around her, at ease with the strange women who fuss and boss and shriek, “Squaw!” at every turn. Tiger Lily! How lovely she is. Her skin is tan like a rich white girl who spent two weeks in the Havanas, not red and dark like her father’s. He is caricature, she is substance: a product of projected fantasies, the way white men view and have viewed Native women since the first wayward boat landed on the Bahamas and mis-named them San Salvador. Is she not, this little creature, celluloid and buckskin, representative of that ‘Old World’ beauty, the nostalgia, the feathers, the stomping seduction? How wildly misconstrued she is, with her little braids, and small. Oh, this girl-child, this sex symbol, this nose-kissing beauty seducing Peter Pan at ten-years-old. She is me, and she is not me. Tiger Lily! How very lost you are. And how near, how near to my heart.
I first conceived of the Taking Back Tiger Lily project in May of 2015, in hopes of reclaiming the divisive figure of Tiger Lily, making her new and authentic, giving her a voice. It was also an effort to bring together many Native American women artists from different tribes and backgrounds, so they, too, could express their feelings, as varied and diverse as they may be, about the divisive figure. I thought of it after making a video for my Native American Lit class as a final project, one which attempted to reclaim Tiger Lily’s agency – and the agency of Indigenous women in general – as they’ve been represented in media. I did this by switching the focus after the bass in the song dropped, having Tiger Lily dancing without being watched, and inverting the colors to put her in negative, as if by editing and cutting and inverting the clips, I could restore something that had been lost to her.
I thought, perhaps, since this had been so meaningful to me, maybe others had feelings, perhaps even strong feelings on Tiger Lily that could be expressed through art to the benefit of our Native youth.
Now, I think we have to get something straight here – Tiger Lily isn’t real. She never was. She was a figment of a British white man’s imagination, one whose only understanding of Indigenous Americans came from highly biased stories brought back from violent settlers who simultaneously romanticized the Indigenous, even as they passed “extermination” bills, drove us off our land, and perpetuated some of the first mass shootings in America against unarmed women and children.
Tiger Lily is about as Indigenous as America is a New World. She is uncanny valley, coming close to the real thing, so close as to be uncomfortable, but never hitting the mark. Yet, she looked like my aunties, with their plaited hair and buckskin dresses – if you ignored the fact that the patterns on her dress reflect no real tribe, no ancestry, no history. She looked like my grandmother, long dark hair. And the eagerness in her eyes, her childhood crush on the boyish Peter Pan, her admiration, and the stigma that a few short minutes in a 1953 Disney movie would bring to this mystical figure who came to represent, both to the greater American public and in small town reservation homes – the truth of Native women – well, it is no wonder that I wanted to save her. So I penned the now-infamous Call For Submissions for a zine to be published in Four Winds Magazine. And here, the lines that launched a thousand (okay, like six) op-eds:
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
You dun goof’d, Misty. You dun goof’d.
Because with these words, I set off the hurricane of somewhat older Native women who so profoundly disagreed with the statement that we have very few authentic representations in the public sphere. First came a blog by a Native poet who would be relentless in leading the drive to take down the TBTL project, and who would gain many accolades in the process, including some very famous Indigenous writers. This blog was then published by a website on Native women’s health and issues, Sovereign Bodies. While I’m grateful that Four Winds began a national conversation on Indigenous women’s issues I can’t help but feel ire at the fact that a large faction of other Natives, and especially Native women, were coming together to insist on the censorship of ideas, before even seeing the final product.
Unfortunately, this became a full-on character assassination of me, Misty, because how dare I have such an idea, and what kind of person am I anyway? I was accused of fetishizing my own culture, as if I had no right to thoroughly examine issues that directly impacted me and mine. What was an innocent-enough idea about exploration became a black-mass of despair directly compared to re-claiming Holocaust imagery. I was suddenly a benefactor of genocide – me, five-foot-two, Indigenous since the day I was born, a tribal dancer, a poet, a writer, and I guess also a naive and giddy graduate student who had ideas and who believed I could start conversations. Well – starting conversations is just what I did, and I’m only now beginning to count the cost.
Submissions to the TBTL project rolled in from across the United States. Robohontas artist Fox Spears submitted a series of striking photographs in which Tiger Lily, at last, says no. My personal role model and adopted big sister, Erika Wurth, of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend fame, penned an empowering essay on Native girls and sexuality. National treasure and brilliant, award-winning Indigenous playwright William S. YellowRobe, Jr. wrote a monologue and a short story. Perhaps most movingly of all, Kenzie Allen, my favorite poet of all poets (sorry, Emily Dickinson) penned the most exquisite piece I have ever read, and that’s saying something.
All of these and many more were given to my slapdash hands, to edit together into some semblance of a journal, and I was in the middle of a hurricane, unable to move, to think, or to breathe. I had begun a project of resounding import, but because of the bullying, the laughter, the Facebook groups that were blowing up my notifications with mocking, degrading remarks written by other Native women who thought I was a joke and my project, racist, I couldn’t do it. I cried every day. With each new op-ed published, my anxiety levels rose. At last, Indian Country Today Media News Network – for whom I have written – published a piece that compared me, a Native woman behind a small Native journal, to the white woman who wrote for the Atlantic defending Pocahontas.
I found myself thinking – wow, I’m a human being. I don’t deserve this. I’m a Native woman being verbally beaten to death by other Native woman for having a differing opinion and soliciting art submissions. But the art submissions still came. And I, untalented in computer programming, uploaded them, one by one, poem by poem, line by line.
A sweet Navy woman of Iroquois descendency painted a beautiful picture.
A Seattle resident painted Tiger Lily as strong, proud, and fierce – far from the nose-kissing image seen in Peter Pan:
A gallery-owner of Ponca descendency did this original Ghost Dance series:
I was inundated by beautiful art and writing at all turns, and yet I felt silenced, almost desperately so, by the character assassination I was experiencing. Someone even called Sherman Alexie, a lifelong inspiration of mine, and one of my favorite writers in existence, to snitch to him about our project. He reportedly said, “It sounds silly,” and this broke my heart. I didn’t have Sherman Alexie’s phone number. I couldn’t call him. Yet he had been one of the primary motivators of my art. Did he really think my work was silly?
I was saved, at last, by Four Winds Administrator Jordan Clapper. I met with him to tell him, in great detail, everything that had happened. He listened and shook his head at varying intervals. At last he said, “I support you. I understand that this is what you and other Native women need to do. I’ll take the pressure off you.” He, then, wrote the Letter from the Editors, allowing me the space to breathe. He said, “If they wanna come for me, they can come for me,” and at last I felt like someone was standing in front of the hurricane so I could finish the project on deadline, for the one-year anniversary of Four Winds.
But I wanted to write today not to complain about being hurt – though I was – or to tell one side of a divisive and uncomfortable story. I wanted to write because I realized that I’d been burned out of the Native community, effectively blackballed from multiple circles, and in the six months since the project premiered, I found that I have not written a single poem about my Native culture. My main character in my novel is a white woman. I haven’t danced in a powwow. I haven’t made a single piece of beadwork.
My indigeneity will always be inside of me, a part of me. I will reclaim it, as I helped to reclaim Tiger Lily. Perhaps on Tribal Journeys this year, I’ll feel myself as the canoe is pulled along the oceans and rivers and canals. Perhaps I will sense it in one of my brother’s Tribal carvings, or when I visit the reservation, I’ll feel that intrinsic Nativeness in the water or the wind. And my critics will say I am essentializing and I will say, fuck you. I’m going to feel the Indian in my blood in any way I want to.
I’m not writing this to dig up old bones. I’m writing this to at last say, in defense of myself, in defense of my project, that Tiger Lily is my little sister. I was not wrong to want to save her. I didn’t deserve to be crucified, the sacrificial Indian, disposable on the altar of censorship. I have, for all intents and purposes, left the Native community of writers. I never want to experience that hurricane again. Four Winds is on hiatus, unfortunately, until some kind of healing can happen for me. But I have not been silenced. Because of my work, Tiger Lily, with her one half-line of “He-“(help), has a voice.