Why Dior’s Appropriation of Native Identity to Sell Perfume Miserably Backfired

Footage from the perfume’s release party also featured white people dressed in sacred war bonnets dancing around tipis and belting out war whoops as spectators sipped champagne.

Johnny Depp stars in and narrates the Dior ad, which critics say misappropriates Native identity (screenshot via YouTube)

Last week, the luxury fashion house Dior released its latest men’s fragrance campaign, Sauvage, including a promotional film starring Johnny Depp in the Arizona desert. The video lasted less than 24 hours before it was removed from YouTube and scrubbed from Dior’s social media platforms amid numerous complaints that it was offensive to Native Americans. While an accompanying behind-the-scenes video notes that Native people were hired to consult in the making of this campaign, by associating Indigenous communities with a wild, primitive landscape, and by centering the experience of a white “explorer,” the ad calcifies dangerous colonial tropes and traffics in romantic stereotypes that relegate Native peoples to the past.

Decades from now, this ad will be taught in textbooks as an example of how multicultural inclusion only ever serves to erase Indigenous people. It will join Galiano’s Pocahontas fantasy, Marc Jacobs’s rainbow dreadlocks, and the headdresses of Victoria’s Secret. Dior has also been here before. Or perhaps we will learn something more mundane: Indigenous people will always be savages in the settler imaginary.

Sauvage, like its English cognate, means wild and primitive, fierce, unsociable. The link between savagery and indigeneity — or between the vast open wilderness and the original peoples of that place — is one of the foundational myths that supports colonial domination. The savage has always been associated with Indians who Europeans imagined as less than fully human. According to this pathology, the savage therefore exists outside of civilization and “needs” colonial intervention.

I have to ask: Who approved this colonial fuckery?

Depp himself has been criticized for vaguely claiming Native heritage. In a 2011 interview he said, “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line,” and described his great-grandmother as “Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian.” These unsubstantiated claims of Indigenous ancestry displace actual, living Indigenous peoples by undermining tribal sovereignty. The displacement of Indigenous peoples is a central feature of Depp’s story, as it is in the Dior ad featuring him. And he’s not the only public figure guilty of such displacement. Looking at you, Elizabeth Warren.

Dior’s Twitter feed included the following promotional copy when it released the campaign: “An authentic journey deep into the Native American soul in a sacred, founding and secular territory.” First of all, measuring Indigenous “authenticity” is one of the principal ways by which Native peoples are assumed to exist only in history, as part of the fossilized past. Secondly, there are 573 federally recognized Native American tribes, and we have more than one soul. And finally, by describing the wilderness as at once spiritually meaningful to its original inhabitants and the crucible of a new, distinctly American society, the ad effaces the meaning of the land for Indigenous peoples.

The promotional video stages a reenactment of Manifest Destiny without even a hint of self-reflection. It portrays a white man laying claim to the wilderness as it glamorizes the objectification of Indigenous people. In yet another form of tokenizing inclusion, the film opens with a rendition of Shawnee guitarist Link Wray’s “Rumble” (played by Johnny Depp). We hear a vaguely menacing rattle and then witness cutting scenes of Depp crossing a river. Moving to the next sequence, a young Native man in vibrant regalia performs a fancy dance overlooking a canyon. Then a coy Native woman in wolfskin peers out through tall grass. We get it. This is a white man on a journey. Finally, as Depp sits next to a manicured fire contemplating the wilderness, we hear his voice: “We are the land.”

No, Johnny, “we” are not the land.

This line is not meant for Native people, but for white consumers. In this commodification of indigeneity, the viewer is invited to identify Native Americans not as people but as relics of history and witnesses of their own dispossession. Depp has replaced the people of the land, Indigenous people, with himself and a collective (white) “we” that superimposes its claim to ownership of the presumably virgin/savage wilderness. The land.

For $150, you too, can have “the land.”

In the “making-of” video, we get a sense of how Dior intended to stave off critiques of cultural appropriation by hiring Native advisors for the campaign. We hear from Ron Martinez Looking Elk (Isleta and Taos Pueblos), a consultant for Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), who relates helping film director Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Depp find what they were looking for: “the spirit of the land.” We then see more footage of the land itself, and Martinez briefly reappears, but only to call Depp his “Indian brother,” which segues into Depp describing a “striking woman,” who “adopted me into the Comanche Nation.” Now, this is where it gets tricky.

The woman who adopted Depp is LaDonna Harris, a Comanche activist who has been at the forefront of the fight for Indigenous rights for decades. Harris adopted Depp into her family in 2012 in advance of Depp’s role as Tonto in the remake of The Lone Ranger. His performance was met with near-universal condemnation, and was roundly criticized by Cherokee scholar Adrienne Keene. This does not make Depp a citizen of the Comanche Nation. He does not meet the criteria for enrollment. But Harris is also, not coincidentally, the founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity, the consulting firm hired to work with Dior on this disaster.

Canku One Star (Rosebud Sioux) dances in the Dior ad (screenshot via YouTube)

The Dior spot traffics in dehumanizing tropes and stereotypical imagery. Even if Native consultants could ensure the campaign’s “authenticity,” it takes an uncritical stance toward the trap of representation for Indigenous peoples in front of white audiences. The dancer who appears in both videos, Canku One Star (Rosebud Sioux), is stunning, beautiful, strong, and elegant. But he deserves to be celebrated for his talent and not as a foil for the white savior complex on display.

It often seems like Native performers are given two options: play “Indian” for white consumers or fade into the background, into the land itself. For Native people, this type of “inclusion” puts us into an impossible position where we are only ever able to perform as caricatures of ourselves.

The United States Declaration of Independence casts Native Americans as “merciless Indian Savages.” The Dior campaign makes sure we don’t forget our place in this white supremacist history. And if the ad itself were not enough, this much became clear as footage of the Sauvage release party was posted on social media. There, white people were dressed in sacred war bonnets, danced around tipis, and belted out war whoops as spectators sipped champagne. It was disgusting but not surprising.

What does it mean when a company like Dior attempts to involve Indigenous people while dehumanizing them in the process? In a statement released on September 4, American Indians for Opportunity expressed that it “deeply regrets its participation in the Dior campaign.” The statement continues, “We believed that we had an opportunity to reshape long-standing and damaging representations of Native peoples on an international scale.” This belief is built on the promises of inclusion that have always accompanied Indigenous populations in colonial contexts. Today is no different. The issue now is not so much whether these types representations will continue, but under what conditions Indigenous peoples are tasked with providing legible imagery of ourselves for a mass audience. Unless we begin to question the power dynamics that demand Indigenous visibility as a form of multicultural inclusion, we will remain a fetish for white consumers.

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