Redface in Jackson Forces Residents to Rethink Traditions

By on May 30, 2018

(Melanie Schuerch)

Some of Jackson’s holiday celebrations include a racist component

JACKSON HOLE, WY – There has been little community dialogue about the appropriation of Native American culture in Jackson Hole. That changed during Jackson’s Old West Days parade, when employees of Bar T 5 Covered Wagon Cookout appeared in the parade donned in red face paint, long black wigs and feathers.

The scene is nothing new. Bar T 5’s staff has, for many years, appeared in Jackson’s parades in redface, painting their faces red to depict Native Americans.

It was the third year resident Melanie Schuerch, a Native Alaskan, witnessed such a display. On Saturday, she decided she had seen enough.

During the parade, she and her boyfriend Joe Scorza approached the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce booth and confronted President and CEO Anna Olson.

They wanted to know why the chamber would sanction this.

Schuerch captured the interaction on video and posted it, along with photos of the actors, to Facebook. It has been viewed almost 20,000 times and shared by nearly 1,500 people.

“After witnessing the cultural appropriation of Native Americans in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the third year in a row at the Old West Days Parade, I felt obligated to confront the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce about their racist misrepresentation of the Native American Tribes of this area,” she wrote on Facebook. “As a Native Alaskan, I am in disbelief that this kind of behavior continues in 2018.”

Some comments were critical of Schuerch. Iris Lazzareschi called her interaction with Olson “bullying.” There are “way more appropriate ways to handle this,” she wrote.

Many remarks, though, mirrored Schuerch’s dismay.

Painted ‘red faces’ on white people in costumes, to look like Native Americans—in 2018—is pitiful and racist,” Currie Hall wrote. “Wyoming has real Native Americans who would proudly and properly represent the First People.”

On the chamber’s Facebook page more than 40 people posted comments decrying the photos and video. “After hearing of the tradition of racism where people dress up and pretend to be Native American in the parade, I’ll be sure to skip your town on my upcoming road trip,” Samantha Mullen wrote.

Ariane Iman suggested Jackson “consider inviting actual local indigenous people to participate in your celebration. I also hope you will consider why the costumes are offensive and not just react defensively.”

Those responses are exactly why Schuerch posted the video.

Olson “gave me the impression that no one else was talking about this and I wanted to see what the internet and the Native community would say,” Schuerch said.

In the video, Scorza probed Olson: Clearly you would not allow blackface [the racist practice of white people painting their faces black for comedy or entertaintment] so why would this be allowed?

Olson acknowledged his point, saying she has had conversations about such “elements.” Still, it is “a historical representation whether it is a misrepresentation or not,” she said. 

The exchange was “fairly constructive,” Olson told Planet Jackson Hole. “We ended on a positive note and I gave her my card and promised to follow up. The chamber is “very grateful it has been brought to our attention.”  

Now, Olson said the chamber intends to review parade guidelines to ensure they are “respectful to any cultural representation.”

“We will be proactive,” she said.

For Schuerch, that would be a start. The chamber should establish “specific regulations” to prohibit cultural appropriation or displays of racism, she said. “They have rules for the parade—they regulate the cars, which have to be 1969 or newer. If they can regulate cars, they should be able to say ‘no’ to racism.”

Still, she feels like her views were discounted. She wants an apology from the chamber “for allowing this type of racism for many years to be publicly displayed and encouraged.”

Olson would not comment about issuing an apology. “Our goal is always to have a positive outcome and I will work towards this,” she said. 

On Tuesday, one day after Schuerch posted the photos and video to Facebook, Olson said the chamber received four messages about the issue. She would not discuss the specifics of those messages, just that she planned to respond to them. The chamber received one other similar complaint last summer, she said.

The Power of Portrayal

Town Square is not the only place where residents have seen redface.

Bar T 5 Covered Chuckwagon Cookout’s employees have donned the same getup for decades during their summer performances in Cache Creek. During those shows, they reenact the tale of Elijah Nicholas Wilson (“Uncle Nick Wilson”), the namesake and founder of Wilson, Wyoming, who lived among the Shoshone Tribe.

“We just tell the story of Uncle Nick Wilson and Chief Washakie and their friendship,” Bar T 5 co-owner Chris Warburton said. “We don’t have a political agenda.”

Warburton said he apologizes if he offended anyone. Bar T 5 is “very inclusive in trying to share all of the cultures of this area from the horses, mountain men and cowboys to Native Americans.”  

Over the years, the response to the performances has been largely positive. “We listen to everyone’s opinions,” he said. “Very few have called us to complain and we have had thousands who say they appreciate the story.”

If he had heard otherwise, he said he would rethink the red face paint.

In recent days, people have come out on social media to defend Bar T 5, a Jackson fixture for more than 40 years that was founded by Uncle Nick Wilson’s great-grandson, Bill Thomas.

Others, however, say the company is missing the point, how redface has long portrayed Native Americans—a historically marginalized people—in an inferior or comical light.

“This business, and possibly others in the area, are promoting racist American Indian stereotypes and caricatures on National Forest land,” Sam Petri wrote in a 2015 email.

He observed the performance and costumes while trail running in Cache Creek. “I could hear all the howls of the ‘Indians’ through the woods. This broke my heart. To me, this is the same as blackface minstrel shows.” 

Redface has indeed been likened to the similarly offensive blackface. Its history is rooted in the dehumanization of black people.

“Blackface has frequently been used to perpetuate demeaning stereotypes of people of color and symbolizes how people who are not white have been represented as ‘the other,'” Professor Marion Gray wrote for The Conversation. “It is widely seen as a form racism.”

These caricature portrayals are all about power, Gray wrote. “Specifically, using one’s power to take something important from someone else and use it for ridicule or entertainment.”

Breaking Traditions

After Jackson’s 2015 Fourth of July parade (also put on by the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce), Brooke Christie was distraught when she saw white people dressed in Native American garb, their faces painted red. She called Town Hall but was “sent in circles.”

“I really wish that I would have persisted or tried to contact someone about it the following years too,” Christie said. “How they ride down the streets screaming and yipping and ‘playing Indian’—it’s not OK. I just feel like it didn’t in any way give us a true representation of who these people were in history, it just made them look like the ‘scary Indians’ in bad westerns.”

Schuerch too is bothered by displays like that of the Old West Days parade for their inaccurate historical depictions. For one, Natives did not happily ride alongside the white men, she told Olson.

All of these moments, Schuerch said, feed into a larger narrative where Jackson has remained a place that is unfriendly to Native Americans and other people of color. Wyoming, for example, is home to the Wind River reservation, the third largest reservation in the U.S., yet Schuerch has met maybe two Natives in the four years she has lived in Jackson. “One of them was only visiting,” she said.

Meanwhile, businesses in Jackson “are benefiting from Native culture while there are Natives living on reservations without clean or running water.”

[This story has been updated with the voice of Chris Warburton.]

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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