U.S. metal band Mastodon found itself embroiled in controversy late last week after they released a limited edition Thanksgiving-themed shirt for sale on their website. The shirt, emblazoned with the band’s name and the words “Happy Thanksgiving,” depicts a scruffy, grinning pilgrim aiming a musket at a scantily-clad Native women, who kneels before him while offering a fully-cooked turkey. Many of the band’s fans were not impressed, and took to Facebook to voice their concerns about the shirt’s artwork. Some fans, such as Native activist Erica Lee, posted further commentary on the shirt’s many issues on Tumblr. Some Native communities on Facebook were also quick to point out the racist and sexist implications of the shirt’s imagery.
On November 29, the band posted the following response on Facebook:
Regarding our thanks giving shirt, whether you choose to believe or not, the American Indians were massacred by the white settlers who became the Americans we are today.
this shirt represents this atrocity and celebrating in the face of this atrocity is chilling.
we may have a sick sense of humor, but we are far from being “Racist” as some of you who might not get it are calling us.
Despite Mastodon’s non-pology and defense of the shirt’s imagery as part and parcel of their “sick sense of humor,” their attempted social commentary on the Thanksgiving holiday—via a t-shirt–still misses the mark, and does so rather spectacularly. Is the grinning pilgrim supposed to cause a feeling of revulsion in viewers—or does his expression suggest that viewers are somehow “in” on the joke?
It’s not difficult to notice, too, that the Native woman depicted on the shirt more closely resembles a particular stereotype of Native women of centuries past: silent, giving, and deferent to white colonizers even in the face of violence. This depiction of deference in the face of horrible violence part is particularly troubling, given that current sexual assault statistics for Native women have been estimated to be as high as one in three (source). As Erica Lee powerfully writes, sexual assaults of Native American women are committed “overwhelmingly by non-Native men, the majority of whom are never prosecuted[. . .] pictures like this throughout history have contributed to that.” What the woman pictured on the shirt is wearing looks more like a racist Halloween costume than traditional Native dress—thereby reinforcing the unfortunate and pervasive “sexy squaw” stereotype with which many Native women still deal, even though that stereotype is based on an outdated, sexist idea of women from many different tribal backgrounds.
Had the members of Mastodon aimed to start a meaningful and nuanced conversation about the issues that they claim to address with this shirt—the whitewashing of Thanksgiving and the mythology surrounding “the first Thanksgiving,” the centuries of white oppression of and genocidal aims toward Native Americans, and the ways in which sexism and racism intertwine in how the U.S. still treats Native peoples—they could have done a much better job of it. Adding outright sexism to already-charged racist imagery does not show that Mastodon has a “sick” sense of humor, or that they are all that aware of contemporary issues facing Native communities, or Native women. It’s not just the shirt, in other words, that’s a problem; their response to criticism, too, simply shows a sad attempt to retroactively imbue a racist, sexist image with a hipster know-it-all attitude instead of actually listening to—and learning from—people who know more about these issues.