Remixing Mickey Mouse
One way colonized people encode their own histories into the dominant culture’s symbols.
Before Disneyland was appropriating Native American arts, Indigenous peoples of the Southwest were appropriating Disney. So-called “Mickey Mouse kachinas” became popular in the 1930s, but this kachina isn’t really Mickey Mouse: it’s Tusan Homichi dressed up as Mickey Mouse! Tusan Homichi is the Hopi mouse hero famous for saving his friends and family from a vicious hawk. Now his characteristic black and white war paint helps him transform into the popular symbol for America and its dream. What’s he planning to do dressed up as Mickey Mouse?
In many ways, the story of Tusan Homichi, the “dirty rodent,” echoes the Hopi’s fight against the United States government: A little brown mouse is up against a humongous white hawk. It’s an old story, where the underdog wins not only by collaborating with the natural world but also by using their opponent’s gifts against them. The hawk is so large, so fast, and so confident, that he impales himself onto a spear the mouse hides in the bushes beforehand.
Remixing and repurposing becomes a technology of survivance. Through a visual mashup, a settler-colonial symbol now reminds Hopi people of their own stories and spirituality, of their own strengths, and of home.
But it’s important to note that hybrid and remixed Native American art objects are not so much “collaborations” between two worlds, because lopsided power-relations don’t create an environment suitable for real collaboration. Hybridity here is more of a technology of survival and resistance; a strategy of survivance.
Hybrid, multiculturally encoded objects like Mickey Mouse kachinas are sometimes called “double objects,” like double agents since they come from different cultures and can speak different languages. Our Lady of Guadalupe is another example of a double agent. Arguably the most distributed image of all time, on one level she represents the quickest way to convert or assimilate a people: make the new God look like them so they can relate to it. But on another level, she represents the best way to stay connected to your Indigenous roots in the face of genocide: make the new God look like you, so you are continually reminded of your own people. Is Mother Mary dressed up as a Native American, or is a Native American dressed up as Mother Mary? Or both!? Neither? Is this an entirely new, hybrid being?
Which of the two cultures actually started the story of the Lady of Guadalupe doesn’t really matter, either. It was picked up and spread like new technology, like medicine, maybe even like armor. We should remember that art and armor, arsenal, arms, and artillery are all etymologically related to the Latin root, “ars.”
Through remixing, colonized people can encode their own histories into the dominant symbols, thus ensuring their survival. Dominant symbols, after all, have incredible staying power.