Why the 'Cowboys-and-Indians' photo is not OK

Former University of Regina cheerleader and self-described 'white settler' explains why apologies are not enough.

Former University of Regina cheerleader speaks out on controversial photo shoot

When University of Regina cheerleaders were reprimanded for posing as cowboys and Indians and distributing the photo on social media, they were ordered to take a racial sensitivity workshop with Shauneen Pete, the university's executive lead for Indigenization. (Twitter)

Holly Ann McKenzie is a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia and self described 'white settler'. She grew up in Treaty Four territory and attended the University of Regina where she was a cheerleader for three years. 

A hard pit started to form in my stomach as I looked at the ‘Cowboys-and-Indians’ photos posted by the University of Regina cheer team: white women (well, they appear white anyways) dressed in short, tan buckskin-like dresses, one of the women with a feather in her hair, another making a ‘whooping motion.’

Cultural appropriation in and of itself is not a new phenomenon, nor is cultural appropriation by sports teams.

Neither is indigenous resistance.

Indigenous activists, communities and their allies are holding white-settler folks accountable for cultural appropriation, such as the recent (and recurring) misuse of headdresses as a ‘fashion’ statement and the names of many sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins.

The images were quickly removed by the University of Regina cheer team, who offered a short apology offered via twitter, which read: “We apologize for the photos they have been removed from all of our social media.” And in another tweet: “Our last intention was to disrespect anyone.” 

But, as the history and present-day situation in Canada shows us, apologies do not undo the damage that is done, nor is ‘intention’ behind our actions more important than our actions’ effects.

Within white-settler culture, racism is normalized and lived as a ‘natural’ part of politically correct, liberal ideology. 

In these images and the frontier narrative they reproduce, indigenous people are placed in the past, a culture ‘lost’ and a people assimilated.

Indigenous women are hyper sexualized. Both of the stereotypes of the ‘vanishing Indian’ and ‘Indian princess’ that emerge in these images and practice undermine indigenous peoples’ rights to land, to services, to respect. 

Further, they undermine indigenous women’s safety.
This a screen capture of an Instagram photo shared online on the weekend. Many people on social media said the 'Indian' costumes were culturally sensitive. (CBC/Instagram)

These actions by the University of Regina cheer team are not isolated, they are informed by and reinforce stereotypes circulating in white settler communities in Saskatchewan, including Regina.

They are an indication of how entrenched these stereotypes and narratives remain. They also serve as an example of why ‘intention’ is not all that matters.

I believe that the cheer team did not intend to disrespect anyone.

It is possible to both have good intentions and act in racist ways...- Holly McKenzie

As stereotypes of indigenous people and a frontier narrative of white-settler ‘progress’ are part of our liberal ideology, it is possible to both have good intentions and act in racist ways within Canada and Saskatchewan. 

However, ‘good intentions’ do not undo the effects of our actions nor should they excuse them. 

Rather, our responsibility as a (white-settler) community needs to shift from simple blind ‘good intentions’ (which justifies a continued ignorance of the effects of our practices) to critical reflection on our practices before we engage in them and reparations when we cause harm (whether unintentional or intentional).

It needs to shift to relational accountability to and with indigenous communities, on this land that we share. 

This comes through conversations and ongoing, non-crisis-driven relationships with indigenous communities.

This comes through offering reparations for our colonial past, through working with indigenous people to change the colonial present and the racist and sexist nature of our society.

The team’s coaches and members will be meeting with the executive lead on indigenization at the University of Regina and receiving cultural sensitivity training.
Shauneen Pete is the Executive Lead for Indigenization at the University of Regina. She hopes the controversial photo can be used as a learning opportunity. (CBC)
While cultural sensitivity training is problematic for its focus on providing content and information about ‘other’ cultures without adequately addressing power relations and white privilege, it is my hope that this provides an opportunity for members of the cheer team to start to question their practices, their assumptions, and to begin to build new relationships with Indigenous peoples. 

At the same time, as these actions by the cheer team are an indication of how many University of Regina students and white-settler Regina community members (mis)understand Indigenous peoples and the narrative of Canadian history that white-settler society has been sold, more action needs to be taken across the university and community and we (as current students, as alumni, and as Saskatchewan people) need to be part of that action. 

We can question stereotypes, exclusive and denigrating language, and hold ourselves, our colleagues, friends and families accountable for the unintended effects of our/their ‘good intentions.’

We can work to build better relationships between and within communities.

And we can do that whether the university takes further action or not.

Republished with permission and edited for length. Read the full blog post here:


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