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  • Dylan Robinson

Put a Bird on that Manifest Destiny Tee: Some Thoughts on Eco-Grief, Hipster Racism, and the Series of Indigenous Tubes

[I was invited to post this to NAISA's site in response to Mark McNairy's "Manifest Destiny" t-shirt designed for the Gap. Comments welcome, and feel free to share. I've also posted it on NAISA's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/121223311228015/?fref=ts
- Coll]

Long before Portlandia, I was putting birds on it. Perhaps when you’re born with a last name that is a songbird, it’s inevitable. More specifically, birds, like nature more generally, were a way for my mother and I to escape a violent home life. Some of my first memories are of bushwhacking trails on which we escorted local leaders to see a great blue heron rookery that was slated for destruction. That was the beginning of a lifelong identification with birds: I’m not a twitcher or life-lister, but for a time my goal was to go to Cornell to work in their renowned ornithology labs. I became a professor of Indigenous history instead of one of ornithology, but birds remain part of my daily life: as spiritual allies and teachers, as opportunities to be present in the world around me, and as markings on my body. Today, I wear a heron on my arm in my mother’s memory. A murder of crows swirls around my right forearm, a pileated woodpecker on my left biceps, a towhee below my navel. A thrush on my spine.

And then, in recent years, birds – or facsimiles thereof, at least – started appearing everywhere. Throw pillows with embroidered owls. Messenger bags with crows on a line. Generic passerines on purses. I’m guilty of this as well: from where I sit at my dining table as I write this, I can see the following: a sparrow, two owls, a gadwall, a knot, a ruff, a turnstone, a godwit, a snipe, a pelican, a loon, a crow, oystercatchers, a pileated woodpecker. And that’s just the living room. So when Etsy and other venues began popping up in the early 2000s, hocking (hawking?) handmade wares covered with images of nature, I was in heaven. Boutique shop in Seattle’s Ballard neighbourhood with custom tees of crows? Yes! Handmade lampshades with silhouettes of winter branches? Of course! The renaissance of hunting-lodge-style antler chandeliers? Bring it! For a pagan, animist, pantheist, décor-aware homosexual nature geek, it was like My People had finally become a Culture.

But there was one problem. It seemed like half the things on Etsy were mis-identified. No, that’s not a raven on that kid’s backpack: that’s a crow; aside from their blackness and their intelligence, the two birds have little in common. That perching bird on the cowboy belt buckle is just clip art isn’t it? You don’t know whether it’s a swallow or a blackbird or a robin. And that snowy owl on that pillar candle is actually a great horned owl in a snowy tree. (Okay, maybe I’ll give you that one: it’s an owl that’s gotten snowy, which you're calling a snowy owl. Then again, one of my minor pet peeves is people who call Steller’s jays “blue jay.” Yes, they’re blue and they’re jays, but they’re not blue jays. You can see how I might have been a really annoying child.) As I spent time informally researching this subject – you know, because I didn’t have a manuscript chapter deadline looming or anything, no not at all – I realized that many, many of the people collectively creating the thing we know mock as Put a Bird on It don’t actually know birds, except in a general sense. So what to make of this?

The cynical approach would be to call them out for just being hipsters. Members Only jackets and Vote for Pedro one half-decade, fixies and found-VHS film festivals the next, now birds and antlers. But I think there’s more going on. My compassionate cultural observer side tells me that the massive efflorescence of pop-culture images of birds, deer, and other animals has everything to do with our cultural moment. We have entered the Anthropocene, the geological era in which our species has changed the way the planet works. We inhabit the Sixth Great Extinction – no, not just inhabit; we are its instigators. And so I think for the generation of youngish people, for whom An Inconvenient Truth is now a historical document and who are often aware, even in some superficial, osmotic way of what’s happening to Greenland and the bees right now, the proliferation of deer-silhouette passport covers and faux-vintage plates with seals dressed as aristocrats is perhaps best understood as a relatively widespread and largely inchoate low-grade collective grief at our ecological predicament. I imagine an archaeologist someday coming across a stash of Etsy gear and thinking, “These are people who loved birds.” That’s what I want to believe.

The tragedy of it, though, is that the folks who Put a Bird on It, in my experience, know almost nothing about the images they employ. I like that chickadee iPhone cover. Do you know what sound chickadees make? (It’s not hard: just say their name, and you’re pretty much there.) Nice iridescent feathers on that retro fascinator you’ve just clipped into your hair for a Steampunk cosplay session. Whose feathers are those? How’d they get there? Those crows on your custom denim jacket? Did you know they hold funerals for their dead? There is a second tragedy at play here. Not only are we on a planet that we’re ruining, but we’ve lost the local knowledge of experience that allows us to engage that planet. My students in environmental history courses know all too well about deforestation and extinction, but they don’t know how to identify salal or cedar or cormorant or nuthatch. These things matter: we are more likely to save things that we know with some level of specificity. And so while it’s easy to be flip and dismissive about the Put a Bird on It thing, I think there’s something deeper going on about a fairly profound, half-conscious cultural and historical zeitgeist, tempered by an impoverishment of knowledge and experience.

What caused me to get out of the shower early, throw the day’s to-do list out, and start writing furiously, though, had nothing do with bird art. It was a Facebook post from a friend at Yale about a new t-shirt at the Gap: black, with white text reading “Manifest Destiny.” Fuck. Seriously? I’m not going to go into length here about what manifest destiny is. Americans should know it. Fewer Canadians do. In short, it’s a phrase coined in the early nineteenth century to articulate the notion that the United States had a God-given right to spread to the Pacific. Native peoples were obstacles to this progress, and manifest destiny undergirded Indian removal, genocidal wars, and the cultural genocide of residential schools. But it does make a good t-shirt, I suppose. Especially when the company of the designer, Mark McNairy, is called “New Amsterdam,” (You know, the folks who brought you genocidal wars against local Algonquian communities in the seventeenth century.) Other hip new additions to the fall line: a “Great Frontier” t-shirt with a covered wagon AND another with a buffalo that reads “Roam Free.” I’m a big fan of complex historical narratives; less so of racist cognitive dissonance.

So how does this relate to Put a Bird on It?

While those of us in Indigenous studies have gotten fairly accustomed to the Pocahottie costumes that come out this time every year, the persistent rash of “Navajo panties” at Urban Outfitters, or the use of Plains regalia-style feather headdresses to sell skinny jeans, the Manifest Destiny t-shirt really does take it to a new level. The others can at least be justified (utterly unconvincingly) as playful ways to “respect” “Native American culture.” You know, like Chief Wahoo and the Redskins. Of course, we all know that’s bullshit. But even these blatantly appropriative and dehumanizing images paled in contrast to the Gap’s new shirt, which might as well read “Trail of Tears 1838 Tour,” or have images of dead, frozen-stiff elders at Wounded Knee in 1890. That’s vintage, right? It’ll go perfectly with that neo-Victorian waxed handlebar moustache you’re working up, now that fall’s here. I like to think that a major retailer would never offer a shirt that reads “white power.” And yet here we are. Why not a “Final Solution” t-shirt, or a burning cross with some hip-hop graffiti-style text? As the internet tells us, YOLO.

So what do Put a Bird on It and Manifest Destiny have to do with each other? They have to do with something I’m not sure how to make sense of just yet (partially because I’m still just so stunned). But here’s how I think they relate. Both are predicated on anxieties about where the world seems to be headed. For a very long time now – going back to the Enlightenment at least, and carrying through the Romantics and Frederick Jackson Turner and Frank Lloyd Wright and the hippies and Radical Faeries – nature and Indigenous peoples have been seen as antidotes to modernity, as sin-eaters, almost, for industrial capitalism. Little girls dressing up as Pocahontas and people who don’t know the first thing about birds knitting what they think is a heron (but turns out be, basically, a long-necked duck), are engaged in similar projects: they are working out their own historical moment through images that, to them, seem free-floating. The challenge, however, is that the free-floatingness is itself an artifact of the historical processes for which dressing up and knitting are supposed cures. How many of those little girls know that Pocahontas died in England in 1617? How many of those knitters would know that gronk gronk a-gronk in the woods is the heron they’re trying to replicate? The cultural context in which people use birds as symbols without actually knowing birds is the same one in which a white person can "honour" Native Americans using a "tomahawk chop." It's about distancing and about the seeming unreality of the real. The world is not a metaphor. (To be clear: I'm not doing the "Indians = animals" thing here. First off, in most Indigenous traditions, non-human beings are beings, and even kin. So there's that. Second, I'm pointing out what capitalism and imperialsm do to the environment and peoples who inhabit it.)

(And to clarify something else: the Manifest Destiny shirt is something else entirely. That’s not eco-apocalyptic anxiety, that’s muscular, “post-racial,” neo-genocidal posturing. Bad posture, too. Hipsters usually have terrible posture. They should be careful, or they’ll end up privileged white folks with scoliosis, bunions, and headaches.)

We need to find ways – as individuals, as families, as educators, as learners, as communities, as nations, settler and Indigenous – to enter back into our shared histories and landscapes. Bad birds on cute hats and Pocahottie costumes come from the same place: impoverishment (of knowledge and context and experience) combined with privilege, be it corporate, racial, urban, or otherwise. I tell my students that we need to be compassionate and specific. We need to acknowledge the mess we are in, to look clearly and without fear at how we got here, and to both feel and think into new ways forward. No one’s getting out alive.

So in historical perspective, there’s nothing new here. It’s just the same old anti-modern, sloppily racist, inaccurately natural-historical crap we’ve all seen before, from Boy Scouts manuals and hugely ugly clip-on Christmas tree birds to those Germans with that village where you can go play Lakota. Nothing new to see here. But there is something new. Over the course of the first few hours of today, the Manifest Destiny thing blew up on Facebook, with comments flying wildly on the Gap site, the site of designer Mark McNairy, and even on GQ, who had profiled the series. This is new. Until the middle of the twentieth century, Indigenous people in Canada couldn’t even legally hire lawyers. Now they’re on the verge of shutting down a multi-billion dollar pipeline. In the past there’d be relatively few white people like me even paying attention to these issues (in the past, white progressives were the ones running the residential schools to "kill the Indian and save the man," or setting up national parks in Native homelands). Indigeneity and modernity were always supposed to be mutually exclusive, and yet here we are. Manifest Destiny, it the end, didn’t exactly work out as intended, since one of its results was the Indian Internet. In other contexts, that’s called blowback.

My guess is that this t-shirt thing will last about a week, and if the Frank Paul sock-monkey powwow gongshow (was that last week?) is any indicator, a good outcome is possible, if unlikely. But just in case, I’ll be heading down to the local Gap on Robson Street in Vancouver to make sure they take down the shirts after telling them about the meaning and history of Manifest Destiny. That’s all I can do, and I shouldn’t have to do it. Afterward, I might go looking for herons.


1. The Gap store on Robson Street had the covered wagon and buffalo tees, but no manifest destiny. Rumour is that they're already being pulled.

2. The shirt's designer, Mark McNairy, took to Twitter to respond to criticism. "MANIFEST DESTINY: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST" was his answer to us all. The tweet has since been deleted.

3. Monday, I am reminded, was "Columbus Day" in the US.

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