Doll Companies Do Indigenous Dolls Dirty | Thanksgiving Special

26 Nov

Welcome back!

No one is going to like me today because I’m going to ruin everybody’s Thanksgiving talking about your “unproblematic” faves.

If you would like to watch the video version, it’s at the bottom.

As we Americans from the United States of America approach our Thanksgiving holiday, many of us (well, many of us more over-thinking individuals) are reflecting on the tale of the first Thanksgiving.

You know, the tale where the pilgrims and so-called “Indians” joined hands in harmony, ate wild turkeys, and other delicious foods, to give thanks for the fact that the “Indians” helped the European Pilgrims survive in a land they soon conquered from the “Indians”? Yeah…That “tale”.

Well, Thanksgiving has got me on the more interesting side of Youtube, the side where Indigenous people (some of many various ethnic groups, that may refer to themselves as First Nations, First Peoples, among others) speak out regarding their perspective on the holiday.

It also got me peering into the one industry that targets the next generation, the toy industry, where our “unproblematic” favorite toy companies reside, to see how they’ve been doing with representing Indigenous people with their toys…

And just like in cinema, television, music, politics, and the like, it’s sad to say most of these companies haven’t done too well.

Recently, I reviewed the world’s top toy companies, and I reviewed their list of characters labeled or “coded” Indigenous. I’m using the word “coded” to refer to dolls that resemble even the most stereotypical aspects of a culture, whether it was designed right or all wrong.

After combing through everything, I must say the results were overwhelmingly sad, nauseating, and traumatizing, to actually say the least.

It seems toy companies have performed the same three main behavior patterns when approaching Indigenous characters, none of which are brilliant.


I’m sure we’ve all seen the caricatures of Indigenous people all over media. Well, we’ve probably only seen even these tropes in the few media that exists with Indigenous people.

You know, the “Magical Native American” with “Tanto Talk”? Possibly a warrior with spears? Yeah. Those kinds.

Well, in the doll industry, when a company does decide to create an Indigenous character, these dolls often come in the form of random buckskin dresses, adorned with fringe, with some fancy footwork that resembles something like moccasins, and some elaborate trendy beadwork, all designed to look “fresh and modern”, and often designed to better appeal to the more financially powerful demographic (i.e. White people). Then, they are labeled “Indian” or “Native American” doll so that the rest of us get the picture, and so the companies can say, “Well done. We did it.”

Companies need to know that throwing a buckskin dress on a doll and calling them “Native” doesn’t make them an authentic and well-designed Indigenous character. It makes them a caricature, a stereotypical model, of what it is to be Indigenous.

Summing up one traditional look as “Native American” or “Indian” is a problem all on its own. There are many different types of Indigenous people around the world, they all have their own forms of dress with intricate designs that go into their personal cultural attire, and they all have different relationships with their culture. Not all Indigenous people relate to “buckskins”, “fringe”, and “moccasins”. To add, all tribes and ethnic groups do not design those same materials the same way. When making these dresses for the Indigenous doll, I’m often wondering is the dress inspired from the Cherokee? Potawatomi? Seneca?

Disney’s Pocahontas, with her mostly trendy modernized buckskin dress, seemed to have inspired so many companies in the 1990s to jump on the train in creating these generic “American Indian” dolls. Unfortunately, none of them really felt they needed to take the time to fact-check.

Mattel Barbie’s “Native American” dolls have been examples of this.

These are some of the synopsis that have come with some of the 1990s “Indigenous” dolls:

“Native American Barbie doll is part of a proud Indian heritage, rich in culture and tradition. Her tribe-inspired COSTUME (notice they said costume) is a white dress decorated with Indian artwork”.

Damn. She doesn’t even come with a name. She’s just “Native American Barbie doll”.

And there’s no specific tribe or ethnic group tied to this look. Just an overall “Indian” look with some random “Indian artwork”.

This is another good one: “Dressed in a festive outfit for ceremonial events, Native American Barbie doll looks authentic from head to toe.” They had to make sure they stated that she looks authentic. Because this doesn’t mean she is authentic.

While it’s great to see companies attempt to diversify their line in any way, this doesn’t make companies less harmfully stereotypical in their depictions, and it doesn’t absolve them of the responsibility to make sure that the dolls they create are authentic and/or true to the people they are attempting to represent.

That’s like trying to make a doll based off of Queen Elizabeth II, and you depict her in a crop top and some hot pants…Imagine how many panties would be in a bunch.

How you represent a group of people is just as important as representation itself. It leaves a message to people purchasing the doll about the people the doll is trying to represent. And honestly, can you truly say you have representation if the people you’re claiming to represent can’t relate to or even recognize whatever you just threw together and released at them? What is it truly representing then?

For a lot of these companies, they believe they deserve a pat on the back just for attempting to create one Indigenous-looking character, especially because, for them, they’d rather avoid attempting the effort and the risk that making dolls of color could bring to them in the first place. Obviously, companies fear backlash, from people of color, for their crap dolls. So, these companies think we should be grateful we see Indigenous characters at all.

After all, none of them really wants to hire Indigenous people onboard to help with the design of these dolls. They don’t want to have to speak to the people of these various distinct tribes and ethnic groups to make sure the dolls and characters are authentic. No. That would be…putting in too much money and effort. And their goal is to stay rich, above actually making sure little children have toys that represent them…

I would say American Girl, now another part of Mattel, possibly the side of the company that puts forth more effort, has actually been the best at designing an authentic character from an Indigenous tribe and/or ethnic group. Their Historical character, Kaya, was designed with special permission from the Nez Perce tribe. They worked “with the author to make sure the story was told in an accurate and respectful way”. This is why Kaya doesn’t “bare her teeth” like the other dolls, as it was basically rude or a sign of aggression in her culture.

It’s ironic that I’ve had some almost-woke individuals try to explain to me how this is racist…not knowing that it has some cultural significance to the people of the actual culture…

That aside at least American Girl put their best foot forward with creating a Nez Perce doll. Not “Indian doll”, “Nez Perce” doll. It took them five years of extensive research to develop her. That’s some dedication. Of course, this is why the doll is so expensive, yet it is a quality doll worthy of respect.

For most doll companies, they really shouldn’t have to spend that much money or go to that great of lengths to create an authentic Indigenous character. They can just, ya know, hire more Indigenous people to come work for them or bring some on as consultants. I guess that makes too much sense.

They could also opt for more modern depictions as opposed to the more expensive and difficult historical interpretations. Somehow, that seems to go way over these companies’ heads.

That being said, while American Girl did create a very well-crafted historical doll, there’s a lot to be said about American Girl’s failure to include more dolls of color in their contemporary lines, such as Girl of the Year and World By Us (a line they claimed would have more diversity), and that includes dolls from an Indigenous group. Truly Me really doesn’t count because they are largely customizable…

Yet, I still would have liked a contemporary Indigenous doll for their Holiday line-up.

On that note, there’s the fact that companies just love to keep Indigenous people tied to the past, as if they aren’t modern groups of people living, thriving, and surviving in modern times.

Even when they do make them semi-modern, like in Zodiac Girlz’s case, they have to have some stereotypical “Indian” accessory to highlight the fact that they are Indigenous.

We as consumers have to also get out of the mindset that an Indigenous character has to look like a stereotype, and that we’d only buy her if she (or he) were a stereotype, coming with some of our favorite “Indian” items like buckskin dresses and teepees. We kind of have to hold ourselves accountable, too.

That can be difficult when most companies, along with their consumers, forget that Indigenous people still exist outside of history books. Ultimately, all parties end up associating modern Indigenous characters with other people of color as a result…

And that brings me to…

Racebending, Ethnic-bending, and Ethnic-Cleansing

When companies are too afraid to “stereotype” Indigenous characters, their next resort is to bend the ethnicity or “cleanse” it to fit the majority’s tastes.

It’s no secret that dolls of color sell less than White dolls. Studies have shown this.

So, many companies do not often want to invest in creating dolls of color primarily. Some countries don’t want them sold in their nation at all. Basically, there are risks due to worldwide racism against characters that aren’t of the dominant and preferred race.

You’d get all of this if you understand that racism means to believe one race is superior or one whole race is inferior. Ya’ll understand that right? In a nutshell?

Yet, many companies know that they have to have some diversity in order to appeal to the masses. So, what do they do? They draw up a racially ambigous character that can pass for all minority groups.

With that being said, some companies may find that there’s no benefit to really making a specific Indigenous character. For starters, most people around the world don’t even know who Indigenous people are, so companies don’t often know how to market a character like this on a global scale. Second, most people confuse them for being Black, Hispanic, and/or Asian, especially if those people don’t live in a colonized nation.

It doesn’t help that some people of color are guilty of this, even those from a colonized nation. I think that’s kind of how Pocahontas got popular. Many Black people in the 1990s were starved of representation, and saw themselves in Pocahontas, one of the few characters of color to come out of Disney…There were too many girls in my class trying to straighten their hair to look like her. Some of them really thought Pocahontas was really black…

In Japan, there’s even the Pocahontas Joshi (I hope I’m saying this right). It’s basically a slang term meant to criticize Japanese women who want to be westerners, with many people claiming they want to “wear their hair long” and “wear heavy make-up”, making them look like “Pocahontas”.

My cousin is Afro-Latina, and as a gift, one of my relatives bought her an American Girl Nanea doll, a bi-racial, Half Native Hawaiian doll. This was because that relative stated the doll “looked like her.” This idea was flourished even more after my cousin dressed up as Moana for Halloween.

Overall, companies would just rather make a neutral racially ambiguous character that can cover many different ethnic groups, allowing that doll to sell to more people, and increasing profits, rather than taking the time to develop an Indigenous backstory for Indigenous people and their children, just to reach the smaller minority. Largely, this leads to Indigenous people getting left out of the consciousness of consumers and fans of toy brands, and ultimately out of the consciousness of the greater social and political world, too.

Even when a company does create an Indigenous character, they will opt out of making other minority groups, thinking that an Indigenous character would cover all basis, and vice versa. It’s quite common to find companies making one or the other. For example, they’ll design an Indigenous character instead of an Asian character, as they did with Native Hawaiian Nanea (instead of making that Japanese American character everybody wanted for WWII). To some execs, a doll like Nanea looks Asian enough to pass for Asian, so there’s no point in actually creating an “Asian” historical character…

It was the same with Mattel Barbie’s Kira…She was coded as Native Hawaiian, but passes as Asian American, too…Though, granted Hawaii is such a mixed place now, that it’s not uncommon to find many Hawaiians mixed with Asian ancestry. Then, there’s the debate of whether those of Polynesian ancestry are technically Asians… Eh…

The worst of the companies, though, often design Indigenous characters, but later completely bend the race or cleanse the ethnicity from the Indigenous characters entirely, White-washing them, or worse, making them a whole new race or ethnic group, preferably the more profitable one at the moment.

The first sign I saw this happening was with The Magic Attic Club’s Rose Hopkins. Rose was one of the rarest. She was actually a pretty well-developed Indigenous character, one of Cheyenne heritage, and she was actually modern. In fact, her personal collection showed her displaying a variety of interests. Yes, she did have one traditional-ish Cheyenne dress. However, she also had a collection that showed her in a beautiful ball gown playing a saxophone, a soccer collection, and had camping gear, too. Her interests were playing soccer and utilizing the computer (back when computers were a novelty).

Yet, when Marie Osmond and her ex-husband Brian got a hold of The Magic Attic Club dolls, Rose was transformed into a Hispanic character…

Allegedly, they felt that since Rose had a larger Hispanic fanbase, she would sell even better if she related to the larger minority group, the one that would get them more profit. Ultimately, her heritage was erased, and the representation she provided went with it.

This also recently happened with Bratz’s Kiana. Though MGA Entertainment claimed in the past that they didn’t want the characters tied to any particular race, they didn’t hesitate when it came to borrowing significant cultural staples.

Just like Kumi was advertised with a Kimono, reflecting coded Japanese heritage, Kiana was definitely coded Indigenous. Sure, she wore stereotypical buckskin, was largely present in a Wild Western line, and had hints of turquoise in her collection (which I’ve already mentioned in another video how that is significant among Native American tribes). But however stereotypical, she was still a form of representation for Indigenous children and fans of the doll brand.

Instead of developing her into a more nuanced Indigenous character, with a strong Indigenous backstory, those recently running social media decided to just change her to Black, especially because the G. Floyd tragedy brought attention to Black people. They knew this would be more profitable and make the company appear as if they had all these “Black” characters. Honestly, it just feels like they unknowingly confused Kiana for being Black because of her “deep brown skin”, and obviously had no Indigenous people in their conciousness.

And few Black people spoke out about it because, even to some of us, Indigenous people are not in our consciousness, either.

It seems like it’s just so much easier for companies to refer to the minorities that have an influence on the entertainment industry, rather than developing for those lesser known folks.

For many minorities, if it doesn’t effect us, and if it’s some type of representation for someone, we often ignore Racebending or Ethnicbending. But actually, this is not okay, and it robs people of the representation they need and deserve, while also leaning into cultural appropriation.

But this is only getting started when it comes to Bratz…There’s the White-washing of coded Black characters, the mix-up between Russians and Morrocans, and the Chinese name given to Japanese characters…So why be surprised that they erased their only Indigenous representation?

I think the worst offender of this, though, is Hasbro.

This is their Blonde “Indian” doll and White-Washed Pocahontas…

What is this Hasbro? Why? Just why?

I think if most companies could, they would have most of their White dolls play “American Indian” for a day, at least as a costume. Then, they could sell more blonde dolls.

All of this does bring me to my last point…


The final effort these companies make towards including Indigenous characters is by avoiding making one at all. You might think this is the best option for companies. I mean, if you can’t make them right, and if everybody’s going to complain, why make them at all? Right? Right?

This behavior is cowardice. It shows a company’s lack of ability to take risks and challenge themselves. It reveals a company that lacks innovation. Lastly, it reveals what the company really thinks about Indigenous people, their potential consumers. Ultimately, to that company, Indigenous people don’t exist.

As a Teen Vogue article pointed out, “Invisibility is the Modern Form of Racism Against Native Americans“, and this is true of all Indigenous people, and of all people of color, really.

The article points out that Native Americans live in a country that consistently pretends like they don’t exist.

The then 15-year-old Peyton Boyd remembered her teachers showing videos about diversity “where all the races of the world came together and held hands, [but one race was always missing].” You can guess which group of people were missing. Really, Indigenous people are missing from media in general. The article challenged us, the reader, by asking if any of us can name any famous Native people who were born after 1950. Can you?

Why do doll companies participate in this erasure? Well, as mentioned before, it’s just easier to avoid controversy by not stepping their toes in the water at all. If they don’t try, they can’t fail.

Second, since many of the doll companies are owned by White people, there’s this discomfort with addressing Indigenous people because of the ugly history. Some of those with European ancestry living in colonized lands want to see themselves as natives of that land, and having to face Indigenous people is a reminder that they are just like the immigrants many of them so often despise. It’s a reminder that they brought diversity into a land that was once homogenous. To address their lack of Indigenous characters, they would have to face history head-on.

Third, some of these doll companies are run by people who are not from colonized nations, but from other foreign countries. Therefore, they don’t know anything about Indigenous people, and may not refer to their original people as such.

The average consumer, the average doll fan, also doesn’t think too much about Indigenous people. So, the Indigenous group gets left in the dust.

The final problem is that even when a company attempts to create Indigenous characters, once the company folds, the Indigenous representation goes with them, as in the Global Friends’ case. This is why we need the bigger and more prosperous companies to try developing proper Indigenous representation.


While you all digest your turkey, I want ya’ll to marinate on these thoughts about Indigenous representation, and maybe, by next year, we can get these doll companies to come up with better Indigenous representation in time for next year’s Thanksgiving. Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving, ya’ll!

Ciao, Peace!

While you’re at it, learn how to Decolonize your Thanksgiving next year!

8 Ways to Decolonize Your Thanksgiving


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