Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Native American Steampunk- An Approach

Eastern Woodlands Nativepunk- a concept sketch by Miss Kagashi

First of all, sorry about the lack of posts lately, friends- I've been preparing for Teslacon in Madison, WI this week, in addition to taking some mid-terms, so my brain has been somewhat frazzled lately. However, I'm glad to say that I'm back and ready to tackle a month of fascinating content (granted, I am a bit biased...).

Native American Steampunk. What comes to mind? I asked the venerable Google- it gave me this (amongst other) results:

While I admire the artist's style and overall execution, I admit (openly) that I'm not a fan of the concept. Is Native American steampunk just general stereotypical steampunk with feathers and turquoise? This particular artist says a very emphatic no. Take into account that this is my interpretation and opinion on what I think Native American steampunk (or Nativepunk, as I call it for short) could be and I am only one voice- but take these fairly universal points into consideration:

Native American steampunk is post-contact. While some Native American cultures possessed knowledge of working copper, there is no evidence of them using this for steam power. However, since the Age of Steam is post-contact, it's perfectly feasible that native peoples were using or adapting Western technology to suit their needs, even if it's using the scraps.

The story of Native Americans in the Age of Steam is one of survival. The peoples of the Plains used every portion of a slain buffalo- not only for spiritual respect of the animal, but common practicality. This mentality becomes even more important post-contact, as game decreases, lands are taken away, and army rations become nothing more than broken promises- so the need to scrounge, scavange, and improvise is dire. Both Western and traditional clothing was worn for necessity- as was the unfortunate and eventual adaptation to firearms and other Western products. This should be reflected in Nativepunk.

Unless you are of Native American descent and understand the reasoning behind it or have received permission from a tribal authority or researcher, do not involve religious or spiritual items in your steampunk.
Certain objects and garments hold a lot of power or communicate the status of the wearer such as Plains war bonnets, Plains breastplates, and Woodlands wampum belts. What I'm going to condone is the use of certain garments and decorative styles instead of these items to create your kit. Furthermore do not wear your ensemble to a powwow or Native reenactment, I beg you.

Most important of all: DO YOUR RESEARCH. Each and every tribe is different- so do not assume that if you mix certain stereotypical elements together that you'll have a Nativepunk ensemble. If you don't do your research, not only will you look a mess, but people in the know can and will call you out on it (believe me, I know). Basically, don't be a bad Halloween costume, give these people the respect that their art deserves.

The idea of steampunk involving the art and style of indigenous cultures can be a very daunting, if not controversial one. While no one worries about using (and utterly butchering) Elizabethan styles because... well... Elizabethans are dead, the descendents of indigenous culture not only remain, but also have ownership of their traditional dress. I believe that even a non-Native person can involve Native American garments in their ensemble in a manner that is both artistically exciting and mindful towards these living descendents. I followed all of these steps, and when I showed my design to various members of tribes of the Three Fires (the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Bodewademie) the reactions ranged from amusement to respectful acknowledgement. One comment that particularly stuck with me was the reassurance that," This is art, not regalia. When I see this, I see art that was inspired by the beauty of my ancestors, so no one possesses it since. It's not offensive."

I'm excited to start making this outfit, and I hope that some of you will be inspired in the coming month to involve some of the art of these peoples in your work and do it in a manner to honor them.

Tlingit shaman- 1906


  1. There is pictures of natives in Victorian clothes.

  2. MissKagashi.. I LOVE the outfit you have sketched out, and I can't wait to see it made. That is something I'd actually wear day to day. Brilliant!!

  3. @Sinfultictac
    "There are pictures of natives in Victorian clothes."

  4. While no one worries about using (and utterly butchering) Elizabethan styles because... well... Elizabethans are dead, the descendents of indigenous culture not only remain, but also have ownership of their traditional dress.

    This may not be the best way to phrase your argument. For, while you use the fact that descendants of Native Elizabethan-era peoples still remain, so, too, do the descendants of said Elizabethan Europeans. Let's be honest... no one worries about using (and ultimately butchering) Elizabethan European dress because they're white, ergo no one apparently cares about offending them.

  5. its a fine line with doing native american persona without being stereotypical, and offensive if u r not a native american, i think in the intrest of goodwill, best be careful or let it be, the indian nations wouldnt appreciate seeing people running around in victorian sci fi type clothes with warpaint on their faces, in a way it is disrespectful. on another note, as im australian i will be creating an aussie flair with my clothing, something involving the slouch hat that out military has worn since the boer war. i'm new to the steampunk thing so have not set up a persona as yet but if you're interested i;ll keep u posted. ;)

  6. @Anonymous 1:32--No one worries about using Elizabethan European dress because that era of culture is no longer extant in our current time. The cultures of Native peoples are still very much alive, despite centuries of European attempts to destroy it. If you get Elizabethan (or any European time period) clothes wrong, it does not continue a history of cultural erasure and stereotyping. Elizabethan people are not around to see our ("our" usually meaning "white people") bad attempts at their modes of dress, but Native people are, and have a continuing narrative of white people appropriating their culture and getting it very, very, wrong in incredibly offensive ways. The two are not equally offensive, and yes, it is because Elizabethans were white and a dominant culture. But not in the way you implied.

  7. This ranks right up there with Renaissance Fairs and their treatment of the Roma in costumes, that stereotype then as a step away from hookers. Now it's native people in corsets, feathers and fishnets. I am sorry but native people have enough problems with a legacy of injustice done to them by Hollywood. I will just have to take a pass on this one.

  8. "This ranks right up there with Renaissance Fairs and their treatment of the Roma in costumes, that stereotype then as a step away from hookers. Now it's native people in corsets, feathers and fishnets. I am sorry but native people have enough problems with a legacy of injustice done to them by Hollywood. I will just have to take a pass on this one"

    Did you read this at all? It said specifically "do your research."

  9. Thank you for encouraging respect towards the indigenous peoples. This is an issue I hold very dear, even though I am not myself a Native American.

    I expressed my thoughts in "Hunting the Future" in Steampunk Tales #2 and #3 (
    http://steampunktales.com/issue_index.html ). It's a steampunk novella about a Native American scouting party tracking down a deadly machine that could spell the end of their way of life. One of the characters encountered is as steampunk as I would willingly make a Native American. Every aspect was researched meticulously to the aim of respecting their traditions and way of life. There's also a song of the same name on my newest CD.

    - Mark Rossmore

  10. here's the main problem i see with creating a Native American steampunk outfit. i am a historical re-enactor of native descent. i am in the process of studying the traditions of my ancestors as well as the present day variations. i've been studying the history for over 15 years now, and from what i've seen is that Native Americans have taken advantage of and used European clothes and technology extensively as soon as it was available. often, on the frontiers, there would not be a whole lot of visible difference between whites and natives beyond skin color. natives would often dress the same as whites and use much of the same tools and such. there are plenty of stories of white men wanting to get pictures of American Indians in their "natural" setting, running around and moving things like alarm clocks, coffee grinders, etc. before taking the picture. by the late 1700s natives were already wearing entire outfits of European style clothes. so what i'm trying to say is, except for skin color, and even that was and is very similar sometimes, you really wouldn't see much difference between the two cultures unless you decided to portray one of the more conservative natives who disdained white culture, and then you wouldn't have the technology that is steampunk. the only way i could see to get across the native influence would be to add some small touches - native shoes, a couple of necklaces, the presence of beadwork on some parts of the clothing - there really wouldn't be much. definitely be sure not to wear something that could be offensive, such as items that would have special meanings like religious items. face paint could be included in this - the patterns and colors are not random. learn as much as you can before doing something.

    keeping the respect for the culture is important as mentioned as well, and thank you for mentioning this in the article. every nation is different, and some are very jealous of their culture. there are several native nations that will not even allow their language to be spoken in the presence of outsiders. so please be very careful in creating an outfit.

  11. As someone who is native...please don't do this! Conner Cambell at the bottom of the page said it best!

  12. I am a descendant of Native Americans, and I take a huge offense to this. Our culture and ways have been mutilated enough already by the forcing of a culture that was not our own. I realize this is a popular thing. I like Steampunk styles very much, but they have no business mixing with the traditions that we have left, and the meanings of the colors, the beads, and the feathers.It's just another insult to do this. You can't change the past and what was done can not be undone. There is no need to further desecrate what is left of the culture of the many nations and clans that are trying to preserve what is left.

  13. A better way to do this is to go the other way around. Do not make a steampunk-Native American outfit, make a Native American-steampunk outfit. The difference is emphasis. Historically speaking, we actually have quite a bit of this type of thing.
    Here is a picture of Looking Glass (the Nez Pierce chief), wearing his quite famous hat.
    If you look carefully, it is a tophat remade for his culture and style. Beads and feathers added to this very European hat, marrying the cultures.
    Another picture of a Nez Pierce from 1899. Notice the hat and leggings, very Spanish influenced, but still undoubtedly NA.
    A couple of families. Notice, however, that although they wear 'European' clothes, how they wear them, the 'typical' Indian braids, their accessories, their baskets...

    Finally, a couple of pictures that while less show these points, do show this marrying of cultures to some extent. They also are quite amazing. Actually, this whole site is, and if you have time, look through some of these pictures...

  14. I've gone through all of this and thought about a few things the first of course is #raceWIN.

    The second is taking this concept and spinning it out a bit further to give us: AfroPunk - The natives of the Dark Continent will NOT go quietly into the new world.

  15. Native Americans on Cyborg-Steam Powered horses shooting explosive arrows! I can picture that!

  16. As a Native person and an enrolled tribal member, I must object to the idea of a "Native American persona". You are either Native or you're not. However, speaking as a Native person who also enjoys Steampunk, I intend to go to Steamcon this year garbed in 19th. C. working-class clothing (calico skirts and blouses, no corset), and my traditional tribal jewelry, which I wear daily with my contemporary clothing as a matter of pride in my heritage. Since this year's theme is "Weird, Weird West", I feel that the Native influence on the West Coast should be represented (I am from a California tribe), as all too often people tend to equate "Native American" with "Plains Tribe". I will not be wearing regalia, as that is reserved for ceremonial occasions. As previous posters have commented, the usual dress for Native people during the late 1800's was generally the same as the majority population, with tribal style accessories and hairdos.
    I expect to see at least a couple of hideous mashups of Native dress at con, and am steeling myself not to take offense.

  17. Dear Lacrima,

    I'm not telling anyone to have a Native American persona unless they themselves are. In addition, I'm not encouraging the inappropriate wearing of regalia as you're correct: it is for ceremonial and religious occasions only. I understand that people (particularly those of Native descent) are worried. I suppose it's difficult for me to understand the situation fully as being Native American as well, I have a bit of a security net under me wearing the clothing of my ancestors- but I beg my readers, hear me out over the course of the month. You can make your final decisions then as to whether or not I'm a fool, a monster, or just plain crazy.

  18. I am also of Native descent (Canadian, Cree) and don't find it offensive for someone to incorporate the artistry of native designs into an outfit. I am a costumer, and we take elements from every culture in the world to create our pieces. Of course, I hate pictures of drunken hipsters wearing feathers and war paint while downing PBR at a show, because they are being ironic and offensive about a culture that has suffered greatly. But someone who has done their research to discover the meanings of each bead and each design, and who is just as willing to explain the elements they decided to include in a piece as they are to wear them, is not offensive to me. I appreciate respect for my culture but I also shake my head sometimes at the knee-jerk reaction people have about native cultures being something completely untouchable. If we don't share elements of a culture and teach about it, it may not survive.

  19. I'm intrigued by the numbers of those who are offended by the thought of someone creating a Native American Steampunk look, and taking the time to do it correctly and furthermore RESPECTFULLY. One can not just be "Native or Not". I myself would not call myself a Cherokee however my great great grandmother on my mother's side was full blooded. Cherokee's have recognized it by my mother's and my oen teeth alone, but I by no means would go as far to say that I am Native American.
    However it is a great part of who I am and these recent articles (which I've JUST caught up on) inspires me to research and learn more about this aspect of my heritage. What's greater than that?
    I understand their heritage is almost all they have left and they hold onto it dearly which I can completely understand. However if those of us out there that feel a need to explore the roots of an aspect of THEIR OWN heritage and find ways to incorporate the culture into their dress are met with such disgust and resistance how will the native American Culture last outside of the few remaining tribes left on this massive continent.

    I commend Miss Kagashi for having the ovum's to take us there and remind us that there are more aspects to ourselves than the alabaster skin that covers our bodies. We are more than that, and have the right to represent every aspect of whats within us, as long as we treat it with the respect it deserves.

  20. Thank you for posting this, I am steampunk of Cherokee (Tsalagi) heritage, and I am an author. My husband and I live among the modern day Navajo. What is interesting to me is so many take offense at native punk or native american steampunk, do they know that there are natives who are into this themselves? I have some native steampunk friend, and they knowledgeably blend the two together, and they are an inspiration to me. Bless you for encouraging anyone who wishes to do this to do their homework first. That is soooo important.

  21. I'm part cherokee and I thought it would be neat to do a steampunk native. I'll do my research first, its something I've wanted to since the most native thing any one in my family does is my skitzo grandmother washes the front yard with tide while wearing her mocasins.tall fridgy knee high ones.

  22. To add an example from Canada, I wrote what I then called Aboriginal steampunk as a web comic (see http://www.zeros2heroes.com/content/comic/view/id/808303). I am very interested in seeing the emergence of Native steampunk in the states since I recently moved back to Portland.

    I agree that it takes a lot of respect and research to be Native steampunk without being Native. I am Irish, Anishinaabe, and Metis, so I find myself that the mixed blood identity parallels steampunk, but also that Native "steam"punk can go further--to something else before Victorian.

  23. Firstable, congratulations Miss Kagashi for this blog, it is really great.

    Now about all respect Native steampunk, offense and all the "controverse".
    People, we are miss some things right here.
    Steampunk is fiction. It is about mixing. Steampunk Mix the past with future elements, so we can take the good things of both times.
    Steampunk it is about to take a look, and travel to our roots as a modern civilitation today, that´s absoluty globalizated.
    If we are going to tell something based in the past, or if somebody is going to show something about history, MUST do research.
    So forget about if it is offensive or not. Every person is diferent.

    Im a Mexican, just cause I was born in that country, but my blood it is so mixed (spanish, afro, semitic, morish, yaqui, irish...) than Im only can say about me is: Im a citizen of the world, i like steampunk, history, all cultures aspects and this blog.
    Sorry about my bad english.
    Hope we can concide in the future...or in the past, who nows?

  24. I did a Native American 1890's steampunk costume for Dragoncon in 2009. I studied pictures of Natives in Victorian dress for my inspiration. My costume was very Victorian in style but had the Native American touches like what I saw in photographs. I stayed away from anything that had a religious or other important significance. My costume was well received even by a friend who is very concern how Natives are presented especially in steampunk.

    I hope to do more in the future.

  25. Thank you! I may look more European due to my Irish blood and some Welsh, German etc, but I was raised with more Cherokee and Choctaw cultural concepts than anything else easily recognizable today. (The old country Tinker Irish culture still exists, but those outside their culture might mistake it for either Native American which is surprisingly similar or Gypsy culture, which they learned about half of it from). As such I agree that cultural sensibilities are much more raw and sensitive in the Northern Native American communties than say among the South or Central American cultures, due to how recently they were still being hunted down and shot or simply killed quietly for acting too Pagan or "uppity". As recently as the 1950s int he US and the 1970s in Canada the government still approved of taking children at gunpoint ond forcing them into religious boarding schools where their culture was quite literally beaten out of them until they were 18. For that reason, it is now difficult for me, a person raised in the culture, to gain acceptance easily simply because I have blue eyes. Understanding this is necessary in order to move forward with this in a good way. We actually studied and practiced Aztec dance and rituals for years because they were much more accepting of blue eyed Indians than my own relatives. When we do native American Steampunk, we plan to do an Aztec version, partly , because we actually have more colorful clothing of that type and partly because they are a little less defensive, especially since we are formally adopted Azteca Indians who know enough to avoid using specifically religious items, generally, and have a right to use them, and use them correctly, if we do.

    I think that since the Hippie movement, with the best intentions, co-opted an incredible mish mash of Native American style items and mixed them with East Indian styles managed, through the goodness of their hearts, to gain acceptance by many traditional people who saw them as right minded and right hearted, if a little silly, young ones. As such it seems only natural that we try this again, but hopefully with a little more educated and careful approach, now 50 years later.

    I agree as well that time period should be specific and realistic as the base of the ensemble with "aquired steampunk items" that they claim to have confiscated, traded for, or learned to make from a steampunk adventurer that married into their tribe. We also have a comedy routine about some Aztec Dancers being observed by a time traveling professor, who slows them down almost to frozen, by making his own time move too fast for him to be seen, then inspects them, talks into his holographic recorder, then watches some more, until of course, he has a malfunction and gets chased around with funny results. In the end, another Aztec walks on wearing goggles, a raygun, and a similar temporal distortion field device that freezes the adventurer and they joke and laugh about the silly Englishman who still thinks all non-English are uneducated savages. Just a thought. (Kali's Hourglass-Dallas, Texas)

  26. I don't believe it is just because Elizabethans are white that we don't mind butchering the fashion. I think it has more to do with the fact that the traditional clothing is SO very spiritual to Native Americans. If Elizabethans had believed their clothes represented a spiritual aspect, then we'd have more respect for it. Furthermore, some people don't like the idea of Butchering Elizabethan clothes any more than butchering Native clothing. :P

  27. I am Native and I am Steampunk. That said the article said to do your research, and I couldn't agree more. Do not slap on "war paint" which is as offensive as "black face" but do not make us invisible either by ruling out Native American Steampunk looks. At Steamcon II I saw a beautiful Salish outfit with the traditional patterns worked in copper plates on the outfit. It can be done respectfully, it can be done artistically, it can be beautiful and powerful, it can result in new recognition that yes indeed we lived then and we live now

  28. well said well done so tired of wannabs yes our regalia does have meanings and purpose so do not disrespect honor

  29. What about creating a short steampunk story in comic book form about the introduction of steam technology to a native american tribe. Would that be something I should steer clear of?

  30. I think your idea is so boss. Much love from a 'Nishi sista.

  31. Mis Kagashi: What a wonderful article! I'm slowly feeling my way into steampunk, and a friend is having a steampunk wedding in November. My friends and I are also doing a role-playing game set in my hometown of St. Petersburg, FL. The character I play is 1/4 Seminole. I make it a point to do my research ahead of time, and I am doing that very carefully here as well because I *DO* have respect for other ethnicities and want to get it right, not just get the "flavor." Thank you for emphasizing the respect as well as the research.

  32. I am French Canadian and I like Steampunk.
    And have wanted to do a coureur de bois outfit.
    So if it weren’t for the Native American Culture.
    I wouldn’t have My Culture so thank you.

  33. Been doing it for a while now. Stone-punk, Indian Steam punk, whatever you call it... I call my Art Apocalithics as in Paleolithic, neolithic, Apocalithic.
    It is a real thing and I am doing it in my own way.

  34. google apocalithics