If you walked into a Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) this fall, you might have seen a line of skis by the Salt Lake City-based company 4frnt called the KYE 110s. The skis won some serious awards—Powder Magazine’s Skiers Choice 2017, for example. Nonetheless, one day MEC pulled the entire line from the floor and removed them from their website.
The graphics atop the KYE 110s feature Indigenous-looking artwork, and not in a subtle way. The skis’ designer, Kye Petersen, is a 26-year-old professional skier from Whistler, B.C. He is white. If the Indigenous-looking graphics are not his design, there is no findable acknowledgment of that; my extensive Google searches turned up nothing more than one comment mentioning the art on top of the skis. In promotional videos for the skis, there it is, staring right at you but going completely unacknowledged. The visual allusion to Indigeneity is both conspicuous and invisible.
My friend who works at MEC, from whom I found out about this story, didn’t have any details about MEC’s rationale for pulling the skis. The company didn’t offer its staff an explanation. One day the skis were there, the next they were gone. He imagined there had been a complaint about appropriation. Me too.
The KYE 110s do not represent the first instance where Indigenous graphics have been used on sports equipment. Prior Snowboards, a Whistler-based company that produces snowboards with designs by Coast Salish and Haida artists. To Solen Roth, whose dissertation explores Pacific Northcoast art and artware, Prior exemplifies how Northwest Coast designs are sometimes used to ground products geographically. “It’s natural that our graphics are consistently influenced by the local surroundings, the people who live here,” said a representative for Prior in an interview with Roth. This comparison helps demonstrate that, when it comes to whether or not commodification is culturally appropriative, the details make all the difference. For the snowboard line in question, Prior’s artists are First Nations, have consented, are acknowledged, and benefit financially. As far as I can tell, none of this holds for the KYE 110s.
Richard A. Rogers, a professor of communication studies at Northern Arizona University, writes about four different kinds of cultural appropriation: exchange, dominance, exploitation and transculturation. (If you’re interested, check out his paper “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.”) Cultural exploitation, he writes, is “the appropriation of elements of a subordinated culture by a dominant culture without substantive reciprocity, permission, and/or compensation.” This is quite patently what is going on with the KYE 110s.
As a member of a hegemonic culture, Petersen, in conjunction with 4frnt, took (or imitated—it really isn’t clear) a design from a subordinated culture and imprinted it on mass-produced skis. Music scholars Wallis & Malm explain how, quite often in instances of cultural exploitation, a “subordinated culture is treated as a resource to be ‘mined’ and ‘shipped home’ for consumption.” From his position of (colonial) power, Petersen had his choice of any designs, and as such Indigenous art became just another domain that he could mine, with or without permission, to the end of making skis that would sell well and turn a profit—skis with what an enthused online reviewer called “awesome graphics.” Indeed, cultural exploitation includes acts that seem to demonstrate a colonizing culture’s positive acceptance of a colonized culture. It isn’t difficult to imagine that Petersen may have used these graphics ‘not to make any kind of political statement’ but ‘just because they looked cool.’
But this kind of ignorance is a white privilege. Law professor Barbara J. Flag writes about how, as an epistemological stance, whiteness “sometimes is an exercise in denial”; it is “an identity, a culture, and often a colonizing way of life that is largely invisible to Whites, though rarely to people of colour.” It is only because of the invisibility of whiteness as a race, only because of the privilege afforded to some of ‘forgetting’—even if just momentarily—the colonial history of the Americas, that someone like Petersen could neo-colonize accidentally, that a customer could look at the KYE 110s and see nothing more than a ‘rad design.’
We must move beyond white ignorance. We must read the KYE 110s in the historical context of colonial theft in which they are inescapably situated. We must make visible the contemporary manifestations of the imperialist mindset that told colonizers—that now tells Petersen—all is yours for the taking, a mindset of conquest and expansion. We must not shy away from interpreting acts such as these as micro instances of neo-colonization, through which Indigenous subordination is reified again and again. Because of course, it is not just about the skis.