Smiley Face, or Not? – Diné Digital Stickers Lead Debate Over Stereotypes

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Published October 1, 2017

WINDOW ROCK  A story on digital images meant to portray Diné turned into a story about appropriation rather than representation when a media activist weighed in.

After an email and an interview with “The Navajo Emojis Sticker App” creator Gary Grass, a teacher who also moonlights as an app developer, it appeared that Diné were getting a tool to let them send a face that looks like them to their friends on text or instant messaging systems.

A Diné woman who advocates on media representation and appropriation disagreed.

Amanda Blackhorse is an activist who deals with Native American representation in media and has experience going up against the National Football League over mascots that depict Native Americans.

A social worker and member of the Navajo Nation, she is known for her work as an activist on the Washington Redskins name controversy. She was the lead plaintiff in Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc.

Grass said he wanted the stickers to depict Diné, but for Blackhorse something stood out – they didn’t.

“He needs to cease and desist, and we need to stop putting out media and material that is stereotypical of Indigenous people,” she said.

Emojis are the symbols that a keyboard on a device like a phone, tablet or computer messaging system recognizes and can input in place of text. Stickers, on the same platforms, are pictures, moving images, and sometimes words that can be added to a message using an app.

Blackhorse said elements of the sticker designs made the characters look not like Navajos but like archetypes of Native Americans. They contain images and elements that Blackhorse called stereotyping.

“The way that the emojis look are very stereotypical, again, of not only Navajo people but Indigenous people,” she said.

Why does it matter if a bilagaána created the stickers?

For Blackhorse it’s pretty straightforward. It’s a matter of perspective, a perspective that Diné have on being Diné that bilagaánas simply don’t.

She also said plenty of Diné creators could make such a product.

“We have a ton of awesome graphic artists that are Indigenous, who create amazing artwork that is representative of Indigenous people as we are today,” Blackhorse said.

She pointed to creators like OXDX that use their own culture to create such work.

In matters of representation in media, even in a medium like messaging or text, the representation has to come from the community.

Grass taught at Ch’ooshgai Community School before moving on to teach at Casa Blanca Community School on the Gila River Indian Reservation. He saw a potential need to create the stickers when he searched in the Apple App Store.

“There wasn’t any other stickers or emojis that were stylized to look like Navajo Native Americans,” he said.

So he started developing the app, which he said he had almost completed by the end of summer. He was also learning to program some of the necessary code to make the images work.
“I was learning to program by myself and learning to get the bugs out,” he said.

He said the original version with 20 static images and eight moving images had been available for three weeks, with eight static images and six moving images added last week and also words.

In the process, Grass said he consulted with Navajo coworkers to make sure the images and words worked to convey the message. He said he had multiple words in the app, but on advice from coworkers, like the Navajo teachers at Casa Blanca Community School, he cut down the number of words to three – ahéhee’, hágoóneé, and yá’at’ééh.
“The phrases were a little too regionalized,” he said.

On the possibility of appropriation, he said he drew from his experience teaching in the Navajo Nation and learning about the culture.

“It’s not uncommon for an artist to draw inspiration from another culture,” he said.

A Navajo woman who teaches alongside Grass said she and other Navajo colleagues gave input into the designs.

“He wanted our ideas and input on how to dress them, so myself and some other Navajo teachers gave him some advice,” Tami Justin of Dilkon, Arizona, said.

“Based on what I’ve seen, he took our input and acted on it,” she said.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the Navajo Times. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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