Column: Column: Dior’s recent ad starring Johnny Depp as the white ambassador to indigenous people is harmful in more ways than one

While Dior was busy creating a false narrative around indigenous people, it failed to remember that people aren’t props; they have rich cultures that should be respected.
Johnny Depp stars in Dior’s advertisement for their latest fragrance, Savage. Courtesy of IMDb

River’s Rants

River Pich is a sophomore journalism at MU. They are an opinion columnist who writes about social justice.

Much like Pepsi’s 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner as the white savior of all disenfranchised groups, Dior’s recent ad for its new perfume Sauvage showcases a similarly ignorant and harmful narrative with actor Johnny Depp at the forefront.

This time, however, instead of reducing multiple ethnicities to stereotypes and showing Jenner conquer police violence by handing Pepsi to a cop, Dior chooses to focus on indigenous people. Most glaringly, Dior equates indigenous people to savages — “sauvage” means “savage” in French — and sells them as witchy, infantile beasts who are easily charmed by the rugged looks and prowess of the white colonizer.

All of these deeply racist stereotypes perpetuate colonization and the erasure of indigenous peoples. As a member of the MU indigenous community and as a global citizen, this doesn’t sit right with me, and it shouldn’t sit right with anyone else either.

The myth of “the Native American” is one of half-naked people, of animalistic rituals and of guttural, grunting languages. It’s a single story that reduces thousands of individual cultures to inhuman “savages” who, in their lack of knowledge of white settler ways, are violent heathens and are only good for enslavement or target practice. This white idea of indigenous people once enabled colonizers to justify their horrific genocides and mass enslavements of generations of people. Now, this idea of indigenous people is used to perpetuate the belief that they went “extinct.”

The brand of indigeneity that Dior attempts to sell is highly romanticised and one-dimensional. This was shown in the performances of two individuals of indigenous heritage: one where a man, Canku One Star, performs a war dance; and one where a woman, Tanaya Beatty, is enticed by the white man and follows him intently. However, contrary to popular belief (or at least contrary to Dior’s belief), the involvement of a few indigenous people does not equal actual representation. Further, the two indigenous actors involved do not speak for all, or even most, indigenous people by being complicit in this ad’s creation. And there are sellouts in every community.

Whether or not the two actors thought about the implications of their involvement, there’s no ignoring the biggest racist factor of the whole equation: the name “sauvage” literally translates to “savage,” which is arguably the longest-running racial slur used in reference to indigenous people. There are some who argue that Dior meant to reference another translation — the word “wild” — but after hundreds of years of French Canadian colonization, indigenous Americans and First Nations members don’t buy that.

The same white people who argue “sauvage” means “wild” are the same people who believe Disney’s Pocahontas, the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs are all just fun, accurate portrayals of a monolithic people who don’t exist anymore.

That idea couldn’t be further from the truth. Indigenous people were never a monolith. They were and are diverse peoples hailing from every corner of the earth, each with their own histories, languages, governing systems, trade agreements, social structures, songs and foods. They never needed colonizers to teach them how to live well.

In what is now the U.S., indigenous people are thriving as scholars and artists, as scientists and clergy. I myself am proud to be indigenous and proud to be Chikashsha in a family that keeps our traditions alive and well. I’m proud to be a voice for my people and to help raise up the voices of those in my community who aren’t being heard.

Indigenous people are not savages, nor mascots, nor caricatures of a tired, racist myth. We are your neighbors and your friends who value community and have deep ties to the earth we all call home. Indigenous people are modern but with a rich past; people who should not be forced to choose between racist misrepresentation or invisibility.

We deserve respect, and we will not be erased by perpetual colonization in Western white “culture.” As community members, we and our allies have a responsibility to call out and educate companies like Dior when they show their racism, and remind everyone of the dangers of dehumanization.

Edited by Roshae Hemmings | rhemmings@themaneater.com

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