Tomahawk Tassels, the Twin Cities burlesque performer who uses a stereotypical American Indian persona, says she is suspending her Native act indefinitely amid controversy over what many in the local American Indian community call an offensive portrayal of a Native woman. Known for her long black braids and use of a cartoonish-style canoe, tipi, feathers and other kitschy motifs in her performances, Tassels says she never intended her character to be derogatory, but rather satirical. “Whether or not I agree, out of respect I feel I need to respond,” she said of the recent criticism.
Tassels, who identifies as half-Cherokee, has been performing burlesque since 2006 and her American Indian act since 2007. Since 2011, she’s attended several meetings with the American Indian protest movement Idle No More. Her participation eventually led to an outcry that Tassels says has left her feeling harassed and bullied. For the time being, she won’t perform in her Indian character, though she will continue to perform burlesque, including Friday at Ground Zero with Dr. Farrago's Burlesque Theatre and then on Saturday at Amsterdam Bar & Hall as part of Le Cirque Rouge.
The fact that she’s not performing her Native act isn’t stopping a planned protest at her show on Friday night, called “Retirement Protest for Tomahawk Tassels.” Shannon Edberg, who met Tassels at various planning meetings for Idle No More, is the host of the protest’s Facebook event, and isn't satisfied that Tassels is “suspending” her Native act. “The name needs to be retired,” Edberg said. “She still profits off that name and her pretend Indian style.”
Tassels says the main reason she’s suspending her act is for her own safety. She also wants to give herself time to reflect on everything, particularly in light of the stalled Violence Against Women Act, for which congressional Republicans have recently endeavored to remove protections for American Indian women. Tassels is aware that Native women are disproportionately affected by rape and sexual violence. “I’ve heard the statistics quoted to me constantly. My response is that rape is awful anytime -- I don’t support that… it’s one of the reasons why I’m suspending at the moment. Maybe VWA will get passed, maybe it won’t be as much of an issue.”
Tassels, as a burlesque performer and instructor, has taught hundreds of women how to remove their clothing in a way that is classy and entertaining. “Getting onstage, you are empowered. It’s not saying I’m sexually available to everyone in this room, it’s not an open invitation.” She likens her viewpoint to SlutWalk, the international protest march in which women challenge the "slut" stereotype. “Why blame the woman when the issue at hand is the male dominated culture that is negative and hateful toward women?” Tassels said.
Tassels was raised in Tulsa, Okla., by the maternal side of her family, which was Irish Catholic. She was told that her father was Cherokee, although not an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. In 2004 she moved to St. Louis. It was there that she discovered burlesque, realizing it had everything she ever wanted: theater, dance, performance, costuming and clever concepts all wrapped up into one. She gravitated to burlesque especially because she was “needing a healthy avenue of sexual exploration and healing,” she said.
In 2006, she auditioned to be a part of her first burlesque show, called “Girls From Around the World,” at a St. Louis hipster bar. In the show, all the women portrayed a character from a different nationality. She was cast as the geisha girl, although she was not totally comfortable with the part. “I’m an actress. I went with it,” she said. But the opportunity did allow her to come up with her own act, and tap into her creativity. In 2007, she visited Minnesota and got into a bad bike accident, causing her to stay for three months, during which time she lost her gig as the geisha, and was replaced by a Japanese performer. So instead, she came up with an American Indian character.
She envisioned doing a strip tease with a canoe, and built a set piece for it. She created the name Tomahawk Tassels. “I don’t think I would have chosen to highlight my Native American heritage if it hadn’t been for that situation,” she said.
Tassels has gone on to perform, teaching and tour all over the country and in Europe. “I knew it was sort of controversial,” she said. “But I was okay with that because I’m proud of my heritage. It’s funny and a way to say something.”
About once a year, Tassels travels to New Orleans to perform. There she became involved with the Occupy movement, which she continued here. This past year she became involved with Idle No More, a movement that started among indigenous tribes in Canada over tribal rights and sovereignty as well as environmental issues.
According to Idle No More's Shannon Edberg, Tassels came to several Idle No More meetings, and participated in making signs for an action they held at the Mall of America. Since the community found out about her act, Edberg says they have been demanding that she cut it out, that it is not okay. “This is how she is making her money. Off of stereotyping us, over sexualizing us. It’s not who we are,” she said.
R. Vincent Moniz, another person involved with Idle No More, finds Tassels' act offensive. During the Mall of America action, Moniz saw Tassels on the light rail going to the mall. “She was dressed in costume,” he says. “There was this bubble of, 'Oh my god! I can’t believe that woman is on the light rail with us.' It was like we were riding the light rail with Chief Wahoo.”
“Pretty much she’s the embodiment of the Land O’ Lakes butter maiden,” Moniz said, adding that Tassels needs to go further by getting rid of her stage name. “She doesn't want to get rid of the name because to [her], that's what Native America is, a bunch of people with "weird" names like Eats-With-Hands, or Orders-More-Onion-Rings. We have to constantly fight uphill against these ideas everyday. Look at the hipster racists and the hipster headdress. How many of them see [her] stage name, act and hear her say she's honoring Native America and feel like this is OK?”
Tassels says there were a number on the light-rail ride that were making fun of her and mocking her. One person, Stuart Perkins, took a picture of himself next to her, mockingly. “It was very rude and very obnoxious,” Tassels said. “Never had anyone so blatantly expressed hatred like that.”
At the MOA event, Tassels said many were giving her evil glances. A man said to her “Why are you here, get the fuck out of here, you don’t belong here,” she said. Later at a powwow at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, Tassels wore a buckskin dress, and had a similar experience of what she calls bullying. She approached an elder woman, who she said laughed at her and told her not to show up at a powwow dressing like what she was wearing.
Tassels says she wasn’t wearing a costume, but rather her regular clothes. In Oklahoma, “everybody’s Native,” she said. “Native appropriation is everywhere. It’s not in a negative way, it’s supportive, whether or not we have tribal cards.”
Tassels differentiates between the costumes she chooses for performing on stage, which she calls, “super stereotypical, cheesy and ridiculous,” and her personal wardrobe, which she says is very Native-influenced. Headbands, leather and fur are “a part of who I am,” she said. “That’s part of my personal style.”
Even if she’s not an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, “it’s in my heart,” she said. “It’s in my world perspective. It’s who I am. It’s something I always felt connected to.”